iOS Developers’ Guide to Surviving the Holiday App Rush


For iOS (s aapl) developers, two very important things happen during the holiday season. The first is the App Store freeze, a period of time (between Dec. 22 and Dec. 29) when the rankings and app listings are frozen. During this period, developers are unable to log-in to iTunes to submit or modify any of their apps, and are unable to get sales data until the end of the freeze. If a game or app is lucky enough to be in the top ranks of the charts, it basically gets stuck there until the freeze is over. While this is great news for apps at the top ranks, it also means apps on the rise lose the ability to move up the chart for over a week.

The second  holiday occurrence is that App Store sales go through the roof during the holidays. For example, our studio’s first game, Arcade Solitaire: TriTowers, was selling an average of 30 copies a day. Through a combination of being featured by Apple and the holiday sales boom, we hit a high of over 1,000 sales during one day. That was a 3,300-percent increase in sales for a game that wasn’t even in the overall Top 100. This is consistent with this 2009 report from Flurry showing an overall 50-percent increase in app sales from November to December, and iPod touch app downloads spiking to a staggering 1,000-percent increase on Christmas day.

I caught up with some fellow iOS developers to get their take on their App Store strategy for the holidays.

TheAppleBlog: Thanks for joining me today for this virtual panel. To start, why don’t you all introduce yourselves?

Matt Rix: Hi, I’m Matt. I made the games Trainyard and Trainyard Express. You can reach me on my blog or on Twitter as @MattRix.

Gavin Bowman: I’m Gavin from RetroDreamer, and our most recent games are Sneezies and Linkoidz. My Twitter is @gavinbowman.

Owen Goss: Hi, I’m Owen Goss, and I’m the founder of Streaming Colour Studios. We made LandFormer and Monkeys in Space. My Twitter handle is @owengoss.

TAB: How do the holidays affect your development plans, if at all?

Matt: The holidays are a really important time on the App Store, so I’m working hard to get an update for Trainyard out before Christmas. I haven’t released an update in a while, and it helps that Christmas is a nice, solid deadline to try to hit!

Owen: Historically, Christmas Day has been my biggest sales day of the year on the App Store. If I’ve got a game that will be nearing completion any time close to Christmas, it’s definitely a deadline I would push myself to meet. This also applies to major updates planned for my apps. Because the App Store ranks are frozen over the holidays, it would be nice to be ranked as high as possible when the freeze happens.

Gavin: [They don’t affect our plans] with any real intensity. We’ve tried in the past [to get something ready for the holidays], and if there’s a relatable app where the timing is right and the price could drop a little, we would probably do it again. It’s hard to stand out at the holidays though; everything is on sale.

TAB: Do you use holiday sales to attract attention or create buzz? Why or why not?

Matt: I’m having a holiday sale for Trainyard, but I think it’ll be tough this year, because every single app seems to be going on sale. At the end of the day, having a sale gives you something to talk about, so it’s still a great thing to do as long as you have a way to get the message out.

Gavin: If you have a visible app, putting out a holiday-specific update or version seems to work out well in some cases. Maybe run a contest or something, but it’s tough to get any attention for anything at this time of the year.

Owen: I haven’t, no. The Black Friday sales in the U.S. and the Christmas sales see hundreds of developers discounting their apps. It seems to me you’d be fighting for a small part of a large pie. However, the flip side of that is that lots of users will be looking for sales those days, so if you can get the press, the potential is there to have a good day or weekend. One of the great things about the App Store is that you’re free to change your price at will, so anyone can test assumptions about these kinds of sales themselves.

TAB: If not sales, are there other types of promotions you’d use?

Matt: I plan to send a message out to all the Trainyard players right around Christmas time to drum up some support.

Owen: I’ve attempted contests in the past without a lot of success, but a holiday contest might have some potential. I also have a game, LandFormer, that has in-game themes available for purchase. I’ve considered releasing holiday themes, but haven’t tried that yet. Cross-promotion with other apps is something that tends to work quite well at any time of the year. And of course, there are advertising buys, but I’ve found you don’t have a lot of success with small ad buys.

Gavin: We just try to keep in mind what holidays might be happening when our next game launches.

TAB: Have you, or would you ever develop a holiday-specific app?  Why or why not?

Gavin: We’ve done it twice on purpose and once by accident. It didn’t really pay off any of those times, but the holiday-themed version of our existing game was the best outcome of the three. Last year, we tried making a free holiday game. I wouldn’t do that again; the window of interest was too short to build up a customer base. You need to sell so many copies — or get so many active free downloads — to break even on any game, and it’s even harder to do in the small window you have around a holiday. It really depends on your existing setup, how fast you can turn around the game, how much it’s going to cost you, how easily you can communicate the new product to your existing customers, and what your quality standards are. I’ve no doubt holiday apps will work out very well for some developers.

Matt: I wouldn’t ever make a brand new app just for Christmas. The time frame is too short, and the Christmas app market seems highly over-saturated. That being said, I would definitely consider making “Trainyard: Christmas Edition” next year, as long as I can figure out a way to do it in only a couple of weeks of work.

Owen: I haven’t in the past, and I don’t think I would in the future. The problem with a holiday-specific app is that it has a narrow window of desirability. The only way I would consider it would be releasing a holiday-themed version of one of my other games. In that case, the cost vs. benefit might work out.

TAB: Do you find it harder to compete with bigger corporations’ app releases during the holiday rush?  If so, would you wait it out and release after the holidays are over?

Matt: If I had a potential top-100 game ready to come out, I think I’d consider delaying the release until after Christmas, just because so many things are going to be released at the same time. I think sites like TouchArcade are going to be drowning in new releases, sales, and “Christmas versions.” There’s going to be a lot of noise, and it’ll be very hard for a completely new product to get noticed.

Gavin: Absolutely. If it’s not the releases, it’s the sales. And if it’s not the competition, there’s all the freezing and quirkiness of the App Store around that time of year. You can win big if your timing is right, but I think I remember seeing some friends lose out big time on some major releases around the holidays last year. If I had a game scheduled to launch in December, I would be very tempted to hold it until next year.

Owen: As an indie developer, it’s hard to think about large corporations’ games as competition. I’m making different kinds of games from them. In terms of players’ limited spending amount and the number of games released this time of year, yes, it can be intimidating. I think it also depends on the kind of app you’re releasing. If you’re relying on a large number of review sites to write about your app or game, it’s going to be tough to get write-ups this time of year. However, if you’ve got other marketing channels you’re relying on, the potential upside of releasing before Christmas could be great.

TAB: Thanks again gentlemen for taking the time to join me for this virtual panel. Good luck with your holiday app sales!

Ken Seto is the founder of Endloop Studios, which develops iPhone and iPad apps. He can be reached on Twitter as @kenseto and on his blog. Disclosure: Ken owns stock in Apple Inc.

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