App Store discovery is dead – so what do indies do now?


You’re a respected indie developer with an innovative party game. How do you get people to notice it in today’s climate?

With greater difficulty than ever, it seems.

Secret Shuffle is the latest game from Adriaan de Jongh, the indie developer best known as the co-creator of Hidden Folks.

Developed alongside designer Sim Kaart, Secret Shuffle is effectively Silent Disco: The Game – you and three or more other players all listen to the same track at the same time, and play mini-games based on deducing which players are listening to the same song, or the one player pretending to listen to the same song.

Once upon a time, Apple’s editorial teams would spotlight interesting stuff like this and give it a nice prominent featuring spot. But those days are gone.

“I think the app stores – both of them – have really lost a lot of their marketing power,” de Jongh tells us. “It’s very different from how it was years ago…now we have to take user acquisition seriously. And it’s been pretty hard. Really hard.”

De Jongh is well-known to Apple in particular. He has a couple of games on Apple Arcade, and Hidden Folks won iPad game of the year in 2017. And yet even he has found little success getting visibility for Secret Shuffle on the App Store.

And that hurts. “That’s why I think there are very few mobile indie game developers these days,” he says. “They look at the App Store and they see all this crap, or they see all these huge companies advertising for a wild amounts of money so that they get to the top…the people who actually have something new and something unique, they are essentially just left to drift.”

“They’re probably looking at KPIs like conversion rates and engagement and retention, all that kind of stuff to determine whether to feature my game.”

De Jongh says without effective app store featuring, indie creators like him are being pushed out of mobile.

Do indies have a place in the modern mobile landscape any more, then? Kind of. Apple Arcade and increasingly Netflix are really the only option for developers making premium games, but those platforms are really home to games from studios with a hit or two already – like de Jongh. Increasingly, there’s no room for brand new studios at all.

“Now the platforms are losing their ability to give visibility to the smaller developers that are making cool things, smaller developers will have to look for other ways to get discovered,” says de Jongh. “But the place they end up in is this user acquisition landscape, which is even harder.”

An indie studio doing user acquisition? Really? De Jongh has tried it, he says – and he roleplays a quick meeting with a UA company for us: “We come in and we say our total UA budget is, like, less than €50,000, they look at you like you’re nobody and tell you to go away.”

Three minigames and one song pack are playable straight away for free, but the rest of Secret Shuffle is behind a paywall.

Right. With paid UA not particularly viable, one thing that has worked for Secret Shuffle is organic TikTok posts, though de Jongh describes this as something of a lottery.

“We had one organic Secret Shuffle post that got almost six million views, that converted extremely well,” he says. “Just from that specific thing we made around €10,000, which is wild. But you know, if you ask us to reproduce it…that’s very hard.”

They tried, of course, but haven’t managed to score another hit TikTok. But they keep plugging away. “It still doesn’t feel like you have any control over it – that is very frustrating,” says de Jongh. Yes hello #silentdisco #game #party #dance #secretshuffle #app #partygame ♬ Monkeys Spinning Monkeys – Kevin MacLeod & Kevin The Monkey

With Hidden Folks’ success funding his efforts, de Jongh is fortunate that it’s not all-or-nothing for Secret Shuffle; that previous hit game is paying the bills.

And of course, no-one has the god-given right to be featured or promoted by either of the platforms. Nonetheless, it’s troubling that innovative, genuinely new ideas like Secret Shuffle no longer have any sort of platform through app store featuring.

“We want to figure it out, and we’re going to keep doing it for the next five years,” adds de Jongh. “We did have a hit, and that is enabling us to do that…we do think we have something unique, and also something worth fighting for.”

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