For this week’s iDevBlogADay post, I’m going to take a detailed look at the history of Trainyard, from its humble beginnings to its current position high up the App Store charts. Yes, there will be sales data. This’ll be a long one, so settle down and enjoy
In the beginning
Trainyard started out as a couple of scribbles on a notepad in May of 2009. You can read a detailed description of that process in my Trains on Paper blog post, but I’ll summarize it here. At the time, I was prototyping ideas for Flash games, because I’d been doing professional Flash development for four years and so it was the only game making technology I knew really well. I had plans to make a game and maybe make some money by putting it on Kongregate or selling it on FlashGameLicense.
One day, while sitting on the train as during my daily commute, the concept for a game involving trains filled with paint came into my head. I did a bunch of paper planning, and eventually coded up a quick Flash prototype nicknamed “PaintTrain”. It was awesome. I set to work making puzzles every day during my commute for the next few months, still thinking I was making a Flash game.
As an avid iPhone user since it first came out, I had wanted to learn to develop for it, but I thought it would be way too complicated. Talk began at my work about doing some iPhone projects instead of doing all Flash work. We were given a solid week to look into iPhone development and see what we could do. I didn’t make anything substantial, but I did learn a lot, and I discovered the excellent Cocos2D for iPhone framework.
After fiddling around with Cocos2D and seeing what it could do and how similar it was to Flash, I realized that I could definitely make iPhone games. I decided that PaintTrain would be my first iPhone game, and I also decided, thankfully, to name it Trainyard.
One of the key things I’ve learned is that the first project you make with any new technology will be awful, or at least full of issues and problems. I didn’t want Trainyard to be awful, so I decided to make a simpler, smaller game first.
I spent a couple weeks creating a game with an interesting tic-tac-toe-ish mechanic called “Quaddy”. It actually wasn’t that bad, but I didn’t feel comfortable releasing it as my first game. Through the process of making it, I learned a whole lot more about Cocos2D, Objective-C, and iPhone development in general. I was ready to make Trainyard.
At this point, it was October 2009. I figured I could finish the game in 3 months, using Christmas break as a final polishing time. Oh how wrong I was. It wasn’t that development was particularly slow, but that I kept adding little features and tweaking other ones. By January 1st, the core game was playable, but the menus were sketchy, the graphics needed work, and the end was still a long way off.
At Indusblue we were building our first major iPhone app, the official Olympics app for the official Canadian broadcaster of the Vancouver Olympics, CTV. It was a huge project for us, so I spent most of my time on that, and really didn’t have time to dedicate towards Trainyard. The CTVOlympics app was a massive success, both for CTV and for our company, but I lost a couple months of Trainyard development time.
Being motivated about a project after a couple months away is usually tough, but with Trainyard, I was excited. I began to work feverishly in every moment of spare time to try to get it completed. I made a huge amount of progress on everything from the graphical style to the solution sharing backend. By the end of April, the game was looking a whole lot better.
Meanwhile, my wife and I were expecting our first baby. His due date was June 11th, so I was working hard to finish Trainyard before he was born. He had other plans. Toren Rix was born May 12th, 2010, almost exactly a month before his due date. I could write many posts about how awesome he is, but I’ll save that for another time.
My work gave me a month off so I could help look after my newborn son. It was great to have some time off, and I know my wife was very glad I was around. Toren slept a decent amount, so I had more time than ever to work on Trainyard. By the end of the month, the game was done.
The marketing machine
I submitted the game to Apple on May 30th and began my marketing preparations. I created an “upcoming games” thread on TouchArcade, made a great trailer, and sent dozens of emails to major iPhone game sites and blogs. The trailer really helped to get a small core of people excited about the game. I posted on Facebook to tell my friends that the game was coming, and told every iPhone owner I knew to get ready for the game.
Trainyard was approved by Apple seven days after submission, but I delayed the release because I’d heard that you should “always release on a Thursday”. Trainyard was released on June 10th for a price of $1.99. I discovered AppFigures and began to monitor my App Store rankings obsessively.
I don’t really remember how well I expected Trainyard to do right away. The reviews from blogs and on the App Store were great. I knew people would like it, but I wasn’t sure how quickly they would tell their friends about it. It turns out that people did like it, but they didn’t have nearly as many friends as I expected. Or something like that.
I tried a variety of mini-marketing escapades, including spending $50 on AdMob, $50 on Project Wonderful (Axe Cop, specifically), and $50 on Google Adwords. None of that worked. $50 is almost too tiny an amount to spend, but it became immediately obvious that any ad campaign within my budget would have no effect on sales whatsoever.
I should add that I definitely wasn’t disheartened. I knew it would take time, and that I had a great game that would eventually be successful. I just really wasn’t sure how to get there, but that was part of the adventure.
In my mind, there were two things that could happen to help Trainyard be successful. One was to be featured on the App Store, and the other was to be mentioned on TouchArcade. Sadly, Trainyard was never mentioned on TouchArcade. I figured they didn’t think it would appeal to their target demographic, so I forced myself to move on. I also believed (and still believe) that Apple monitors TouchArcade much more than any other site when deciding which games to feature, so that made not being mentioned an even harder pill to swallow.
Meanwhile, I’d see other similar games get both on TouchArcade and featured in the App Store. Games like Kieffer Bros’ brilliant Aqueduct seemed like they’d appeal to the same types of people as Trainyard, and yet they’d be reviewed and featured while Trainyard went neglected. Rather than let this discourage me, I turned it into motivation to try harder to get the game noticed in spite of (what I perceived as) impossible odds.
Keep calm and carry on
It’s not like the game wasn’t selling any copies. In the 4 months between launch and the end of September, I sold 2338 copies and made $3200. Not enough to live off, but decent part-time residual income. I kept working on the game, releasing two major updates, one with over 40 new puzzles and the other with full retina-display support. I also raised the price to $2.99, as I figured that the “risk difference” for a potential buyer between $1.99 and $2.99 really wasn’t that high.
The Right Lite
I’d always planned to make a lite version, but I wanted to make sure that the game was as good as possible before I did it. I went through a careful decision making process and ended up making Trainyard Express, which had 60 puzzles, all of which were completely new and different from the puzzles in Trainyard. I knew I was including too much content, but I figured that any buzz was good buzz, even if everyone was only downloading the free game and ignoring the paid one. At that point, less than 3,000 people worldwide even knew what Trainyard was, so more people knowing about Trainyard couldn’t really be a bad thing. That being said, it was still weird to pour dozens of hours into something that I knew wouldn’t make me any money directly.
Building up steam
I released Trainyard Express on September 30th, the day I’d nicknamed “Trainyard Thursday”. A day later, an editor at a prominent Italian blog discovered the game and wrote a fantastic article about it. The game shot up the Italian charts and quickly became the #1 free app in Italy, netting 22,795 downloads in its first day at #1.
Along with the Express downloads, the paid sales in Italy also started getting higher, and within a day of reaching #1, I had beaten my single-day launch profit record of $140 with $240 in a single day. It was awesome to know that the up-sell was working.
Word of the game gradually spread to the UK, and by October 5th, it was climbing on its way to becoming #1 in the UK free charts as well. I mention October 5th because it’s also the day Apple wrote me an email saying they might want to feature Trainyard, the paid app. I knew what that meant; the Trainyard Express experiment had officially paid off.
Trainyard was added to the featured list on Thursday October 7th at 4pm EST, and it quickly climbed the charts. Being featured is one of those things where it’s hard to really understand what it’s like until it happens to you. It’s like winning a lottery, but a lottery where you work really really hard to buy your ticket. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours working on the game, but all that time paid off when I saw Trainyard’s silly little icon in that featured apps list. I made it.
You’ll notice that the image above doesn’t have a legend. I’ve been advised against posting specific numbers for various reasons, but I think if you compare this graph to the earlier ones, you can figure out approximately just how much a feature from Apple can affect your bottom line. It’s pretty epic, isn’t it?
Trainyard Express just dropped to #2 in the UK, but it’s already been downloaded over 450,000 times (#1 UK = 80k/day, #1 Italy = 20k/day). I have a feeling that it may slowly climb to #1 in Canada and maybe even #1 in the US eventually. Trainyard is #14 in paid apps in the UK, and just hit #50 in the US. That’s huge.
I’m about to try a new crazy experiment with Trainyard. I figure this may be my only chance to do this, so as of the publishing of this blog post, Trainyard is going on sale for $0.99. This is a HUGE gamble for me that could cost me thousands in lost sales, but I’d regret it way too much if I didn’t try it. I’m going to try to drum up some support from Reddit, where awesome things have been done in the past, so please participate there if you have a Reddit account. I’ll let you know how it goes!
UPDATE: Two days after this post was written, Trainyard climbed the charts and reached #2 in the App Store (beating Angry Birds). Mission accomplished.
You can read the follow up post here: http://struct.ca/2010/the-week-that-was