5 Things To Know Before Creating Your First iPhone Game. Or, Lessons Learned From Gamesville’s Ninja Rally

Yesterday, we shamelessly self-promoted my company’s first-ever iPhone game: Ninja Rally.

Today, we’re pulling the curtain back a bit to look at lessons learned from the development and release of the game.


Ninja daggers can’t solve every business problem. Many, yes. But not all.

Ninja Rally is a first for Gamesville in many ways: it’s our first mobile application… our first premium product… our first project by our brand new development team. Focused on a new platform that, in many ways, is still coming into focus.

Lots of opportunities for things to go wrong. And to go right. Here’s what we learned.

Analyzing New Markets Is Difficult, But Doable

When we first embarked on this journey, back in December 2008, the App Store was five months old. Scarce data available. But what was available, we pounced on!

In fairly short order, a picture started to develop of both the target user (young early adopters, comfortable making financial transactions on their mobile devices, looking for cheap entertainment on the go) and market potential (10 million iPhones sold in 2008, games are the most popular apps but prices are racing to the bottom).

Information was gleaned from a number of disparate sources: fellow developers, Twitter, blogs, Google News Alerts, anywhere and everywhere. Including the numerous app and review sites. And Apple’s own top app lists.

Of course there were–and are–many questions that need answers: How does the typical iPhone gamer select their games? Based on review sites? Recommendations from friends? Influenced by Twitter/tumblr? Top 25 lists? Pricing? Screenshots? Ratings? At present, the answer looks like: Yes.

Time, Resources & Scope Can Constrain Anything; Even Ninja

Project management 101 tells you all about constraints. For us, the constraints looked like this:

Resources were fixed–we had three people, plus a little bit of my time.

Speaking of which–time was fixed. For business reasons, we needed this app completed and on sale in Q2 2009.

That left scope. In other words, with 12 weeks of fixed development time and fixed resources of 3.5 people, what sort of game could be made that would meet market desires and, hopefully, open up a new revenue stream for us?

(That is a Big Topic. Too big to cover right now. But one day, soon.)

A Working Prototype Is Worth Its Weight In Shuriken

Once the team narrowed down on game play, we started iterating on prototypes. These helped us obtain feedback, early and often, which then was collected, analyzed, and often iterated upon.

Prototypes were very useful–but also a little misleading.

There’s a huge difference between playing a prototype of a game on your computer with a mouse, and playing that same game on a touch-screen device with your finger. A colossal difference. A completely different play experience. So that’s something to keep in mind. In other words…

Get Onto The Device ASAP

Or, allow plenty of extra time for optimization. That was a hard lesson.

The binary that ran so well on our laptops and PCs took about two weeks to debug and optimize for the iPhone. Not just for the gaming experience, but for memory leaks and getting it to run as smoothly as possible across devices.

In hindsight, this is obvious. Of course, this is something you’d need to do.

But, in our initial project plan, we hadn’t allotted for it properly. We knew we had to playtest iterate. We knew we had to QA the finished product on the device. We knew there would be back and forth with Apple for approvals.

That optimization period was critical, to ensure a solid and smooth experience for the iPhone and iPod Touch. And, unfortunately, we glossed over it in the planning.

Don’t make that mistake: Get a working version of the game on the iPhone as soon as possible.

Grab The Apple From My Hand

Many developers have written about nightmares getting their apps reviewed and approved by Apple. Getting Ninja Rally into the App Store wasn’t really a nightmare. In fact, Apple was pretty good with us. Especially given that Gamesville is basically an indie studio.

The biggest delays came in the initial developer application. The process of submitting the application, of responding to Apple’s requests for documentation about our business (articles of incorporation, anyone?), of finally being approved–that took about six weeks.

Before you do anything game related, submit your developer application.

Seriously. I’ve heard from several people working on iPhone games who have not yet completed the paperwork. That’s crazy.

Because, really–after slaving away at your game for weeks or months, do you really want to delay it an additional 6+ weeks because of paperwork?

There’s So Much To Talk About…

In this high level walk through we barely scratched the surface of creating your first iPhone game–let alone marketing and promotion! We’ll look at those issues in greater detail in the future.

Until then, check out these articles for more advice:

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Bonus Content!

We’ve revealed high-level tips on making a game for the iPhone. Now–learn more about the dark arts of the ninja…


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