What this Indie Game Developer Learned from NimbleBit, Makers of Tiny Tower

If you own an iPhone or iPad, you’ve probably heard of NimbleBit. They’ve made more than one game that has been downloaded millions of times, their latest game (Tiny Tower) is played by 1 million people a day and to top it all off, Tiny Tower was awarded Game of the Year honors by Apple itself.┬áIn terms of indie developer success stories, it doesn’t get much bigger than this.

So over the weekend, I decided to download ALL of their games to see their progression (the only one I played before this weekend was Tiny Tower). Since it appears they’ve been building iOS games since the early days of the iPhone, there were quite a number of titles to download. Oh, and did I mention they’re all free?

DISCLAIMER: I don’t personally know the guys at NimbleBit (aside from a little bit of stalking on Twitter), and these are entirely my opinions based on my experience with their games and some of what I’ve read in press clippings.

Before I share my opinions on why I think they’ve been successful, I have to say that Sky Burger was probably my favorite title, and my 3 kids really enjoyed that one too. So simple, yet so addictive.

So here’s the meat of what I learned (and I think every indie dev should learn):

Making mobile games as an indie dev company can be a sustainable business model

NimbleBit has been making iOS games for at least 3 years and has no less than 16 titles in the app store. As an indie, can you see yourself staying the course for 3 years minimum? Prior to that, they’ve been building games for desktop.

The jury is still out on whether making games to sell on mobile devices can be profitable for more than a 1 person dev team. With more and more apps moving to free, and with the amount of competition for eyeballs, it’s a dog-eat-dog world in the app store. Obviously NimbleBit has been able to excel in spite of these obstacles. Did they get lucky? Perhaps. But I think that’s only part of it. They made good decisions, particularly in the areas I touch on below.

Building awareness of your brand/company is as important as building the game itself

Most of the indie developers out there are in it to build the next Angry Birds or Tiny Wings. Unfortunately, when you’re competing with half a million other apps, you might as well buy a lottery ticket because those are about the same odds. There are a lot of really good games out there that no one has heard of because they get lost in the sea of apps that is the app store. Everyone says that if your game is great, it will get noticed and it will rise to the top. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. So most developers build a game, experience dismal sales, then call it quits. In fact, according to one study, a whopping 71% of developers only have 1 app in the app store.

NimbleBit has said they don’t just want to sell games to people, but that they want to build a community of “Bitizens.” These are people who buy more than one of their games, and have come to trust their brand as one that builds quality. If you open any of their games, you’ll see that they openly cross promote their titles with (unobtrusive) links inside their games. So with every game that someone downloads, they are invited to try others.

In order to build a brand, you have to build more than 1 good game. Yes, someone like Andreas Illiger (creator of Tiny Wings) is a HUGE EXCEPTION, as pretty much everyone would buy his next game no questions asked if/when he releases one, but he’s probably too busy counting his millions to do that :)

Want proof of how big this is?

On the day after Tiny Tower was named game of the year by Apple, Pocket frogs went from #756 overall to #35.

Keep it simple

With the exception of possibly Tiny Tower and Pocket Frogs, all of their games are dead simple, and most focus on a SINGLE interaction. Whether it’s a simple tilt interaction or a one button press, the games are easy to pick up and learn, and the interactions are simple enough that no demographic is immediately excluded. It’s outlandish how addicting stacking condiments onto a burger can be.

Tiny Tower and Pocket Frogs are more complex games, but even those are based on a set of simple interactions, there are just more of them going on at the same time.

I had read previously that they chose to build games that could be built within a short period of time to mitigate risk. This is contrary to the mindset nowadays which is that your game has to be perfect in every way, and you need to spend months polishing it in order to succeed. Obviously they’ve been able to have success with their model of keeping it simple.

Build on what you’ve done in the past

Not sure if you’ve noticed by Scoops and Sky Burger look pretty similar to me. Same with some of the things in DizzyPad and Pocket Frogs. Coincidence?

I think most indies strive to build something different with every game they build. Perhaps something can be said about learning from what you’ve built before and then using it in what you build next. Whether you use it again because it was successful, or you drop it because it wasn’t, either way, use every game as a learning experience.

Plus, using recurring themes can work to strengthen your brand.

Freemium can work for some things, but doesn’t work for all things

The freemium model has come under a lot of scrutiny as of late, and has been labeled everything from a savior for app developers to the devil incarnate. Yet NimbleBit is quietly piling up the in-app purchases without doing it in a haphazard way.

Types of in-app purchases they use:

  • Virtual currency/items (Tiny Tower/Pocket Frogs) – they allow the purchase of in-game currency with real dollars, but at the same time, you can also earn in-game currency over time by playing the game. So you could have the same experience without spending any additional money if you stay the course.
  • Themes (Scoops)
  • Game modes (DizzyPad)

What they don’t use:

  • Pay to unlock full game features – perhaps the third item above could fall into this category, but in general, they allow you to enjoy the full game experience without paying anything.
  • Ads or paying to remove ads

Though it’s hard to say for certain which methods work and which don’t, it’s clear from the numbers that overall, for NimbleBit, it’s a smashing success.

Give back to the community

NimbleBit is sort of like the Robin Hood of the mobile game industry. They take earnings from the likes of EA and Zynga and give to the needy. Ok, maybe this is a stretch, but it was a great story regardless.

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So that’s what I’ve learned. All that from a bunch of free games over a weekend. Yeah, I need to get a life.

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