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SmartOthello Postmortem

by Anders Kierulf

2017-06-29

SmartOthello is not dead yet, but the app has not lived up to expectations. It’s time for an assessment of this project: why I started it, obstacles along the way, and where to go from here.

Motivation

I needed a project to learn Swift and to experiment with different business models. I settled on Othello for several reasons:

  • Expertise: Expert knowledge of the game, and contacts in the Othello community. (I was the 1992 US Othello champion and have played at six Othello world championships.)
  • Similar domain: A two-player board game close enough to Go that much of the foundation code could carry over.
  • Potential customers: A more popular game than Go (think of all the people playing it as Reversi on Windows).

In addition, a trademark dispute had recently been resolved, with Megahouse of Japan making more efforts to license use of the name “Othello” and the trademarked board design.

Expectations

My three Go apps (SmartGo Kifu – $20, SmartGo Player – $3, and Go Books – free with IAP) were all doing reasonably well, with roughly similar profits. I had hoped SmartOthello might add a fourth leg to that stool, and thought I had several things going for me:

  • Experience: I had years of experience with Go apps in the App Store.
  • Marketing: I had a good marketing angle (former US Othello champion).
  • Design: All the existing Othello/Reversi apps in the App Store sucked. I knew I could create an app that gave players a better experience. (And some of those apps were ranked similar to my Go apps on the top grossing charts.)
  • Social: Game Center online play and leaderboards should help spread the app socially, something I didn’t have in my Go apps.

Obstacles

I made good progress on the app in the fall of 2015, learning Swift along the way. Not everthing went smoothly:

  • Licensing: I wanted to use the official name Othello, so I had to negotiate with Megahouse. We reached a deal on a reasonable licensing fee (10% after Apple’s cut), but I was not able to get them to agree to any business model other than a fixed paid-up-front price for the app.
  • iAd: Apple announcing the end of iAd didn’t help. So I was stuck with a paid up-front app for the first year; I figured I could re-negotiate after that (which I did, more below). However, not being free means the installed base becomes much smaller, thus Game Center play would not work as well (there may not always be a player available when you’re looking for a match).
  • Game Center: Implementing Game Center support was a mixed bag. Achievements and leaderboards were easy, but turn-based game play took a lot longer than expected, due to poor documentation, bugs, and APIs that are not fully baked. I could have implemented my own server in the time I spent getting Game Center play to work.

Release

Those obstacles slowed me down, but didn’t stop me. (Maybe they should have.) I finally got SmartOthello released on August 15, 2016, localized into Japanese, German, and French. In my unbiased opinion, I think design, game play, and usability are the best of any Othello app on the App Store.

Sales were underwhelming. Some possible contributing factors:

  • Press: I had created a press kit and reached out to press, but didn’t manage to get much coverage. August may not have been the best time to launch.
  • Go Players: I expected to be able to get some of my Go customers interested in Othello, but turns out there’s little crossover interest between the two games.
  • Othello players: My contacts in the Othello community were not as relevant as I thought, for several reasons:
    (1) The community of serious Othello players is very small.
    (2) There are some strong Othello analysis apps on Android, and thus most strong players are using Android, not iOS.
    (3) The core Othello community doesn’t really connect much with the general game-playing public, which is my audience.
  • Megahouse: I had expected Megahouse to help promote the app in Japan, a major Othello-playing country. Nothing.
  • Unlicensed apps: Lots of apps in the App Store continue to use the name Othello without being properly licensed. Megahouse has had little success getting those apps removed.

So the launch was not perfect. But it got worse.

iOS 10

  • At WWDC 2016, Apple announced that the Game Center app was going away, and that Game Center match-making was going through iMessage. This was ominous, but at least during the beta period, things worked reasonably well.
  • When iOS 10 was released in September, the avatar pictures disappeared. As the design of SmartOthello was heavily based around the avatars, I had to create my own bandaid for that.
  • Together with the cumbersome match-making using iMessage, I think the loss of the avatars was the death-knell for Game Center. (It‘s still technically alive, but without any improvements in iOS 11, it‘s not the technology to bet on.)
  • I had heard people complain about App Store search for years, but my Go apps always ranked reasonably well in search. With SmartOthello, search was a clear problem. Adding a space to change the app name to Smart Othello actually helped a bit, which is ridiculous. (The licensing restriction of not being able to include Reversi in the name also hurt.)
  • Since SmartOthello was a $2.99 app, I could at least benefit from Search Ads, but not enough for the app to get real traction.

Advertising and sale

  • In November 2016, I got the chance to advertise at the Othello World Championship in Japan. The resulting bump in sales? Minuscule. Again, it shows a disconnect between the serious player community and the general public I’m trying to reach.
  • I got permission from Megahouse to run a $0.99 sale over the holidays. More sales, slightly less profit. Back to $2.99.

Free with IAP and ads

  • By April 2017, I got the agreement with Megahouse renegotiated, allowing me to experiment with different business models and prices. So I tried free with ads and in-app purchase.
  • That experiment failed miserably. Sales went from low to near zero. While usage of the app went way up, I was not able to get the number of downloads that would be needed for the ads to generate significant revenue, and too few users upgraded to the Pro version. (My ads may have been too nice, and I may have included too much in the free version, but without more downloads, experimenting with those parameters would be futile.)
  • It’s possible this business model might have worked better when I first released the app and it got its initial attention; it’s much harder to generate interest with a new business model than with a new app.

Conclusions

  • Swift worked out really well. I’m very happy with the Swift foundation I got from the Othello project, and the conversion of my Go apps to Swift is continuing.
  • I’m glad I figured out issues with Game Center before trying to integrate that into my Go apps. At least that disaster was averted.
  • From an App Store perspective, Othello is more different from Go than I expected. The audience seems to consist more of casual players rather than people interested in a specific game, and as such they are probably less willing to spend money on the game. Thus my experience with Go was not as valuable; also, any conclusions based on this Othello experience might not transfer back to Go.

Future

I still love how the SmartOthello app turned out, and I will leave it in the App Store, giving it a chance to get noticed and grow over time. There’s much more I could do with it, but I can’t afford to invest more development effort into it at this point. Major changes (such as replacing Game Center, for instance) will have to wait until I get the Go apps converted to Swift and updated for iOS 11, get Go Books available on other platforms, and more: it will be a while.

SmartOthello will go back to paid shortly. Grab it for free while you can.