Amir Rajan quit his job last year to pursue his passion for coding.
He built an app called “A Dark Room” that became the No. 1-selling app in Apple’s U.S. App Store last month.
But this is not a story of overnight success.
This is a story of how the first-time game developer painstakingly attracted customers — almost one by one — to get there.
“A Dark Room” is an iOS version of a Web-based game without fancy graphics, angry birds or candy. It’s a text-based role-playing game that takes players on an adventure in a post-apocalyptic world. The game has no instructions, so players have to figure it out along the way.
Since the game’s debut in November, Rajan has used social media, solicited reviews and tweets from influential game reviewers and communicated with fans to build a following.
There were mistakes along the way. But Rajan’s hard work paid off.
“For one thing, ‘if you build it, they will come,’ it’s completely false,” he said. “You have to build it, market it and you have to do everything.”
Let’s start at the beginning.
The 30-year-old Las Colinas, Texas, resident had been preparing to take a sabbatical for many years, saving and living under his means.
After consulting with his wife — whose main request was that Rajan continue to pay rent — Rajan left his software consulting job to pursue a mixture of self-improvement and professional goals.
To fund his risky endeavor for two years, Rajan also sold many of his belongings, and he and his wife moved from a two-bedroom into a one-bedroom apartment.
Three months into his sabbatical, Rajan saw a tweet about a Web-based game called “A Dark Room,” created by Michael Townsend, a software developer in Canada.
Rajan played it and was instantly hooked by the game’s unorthodox and minimalist approach. Almost on a whim, he emailed Townsend about creating an iOS version.
The two struck an agreement: Townsend would have veto power over creative decisions, and they would split revenue 50-50.
“Amir was super earnest and was just as interested in using the project as a learning experience as he was about creating a profitable product,” Townsend said. “I’m pretty big on learning experiences and also making lots of money, so it just felt right.”
Working from his apartment and co-working space Dallas Fort Work, Rajan created the game.
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Rajan’s iOS version isn’t a direct translation of Townsend’s “A Dark Room,” though. Rajan added his own flavor and creative touches as well as additional story lines to the mobile version.
Townsend said he was happy to see Rajan take the game in a different direction.
“It makes the two experiences complementary rather than redundant,” he said. “His additions have been received quite well by the iOS community.”
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The game app debuted in the Apple Store in November for $1.99.
Instead of waiting for users to come to him, Rajan created a Twitter account, (at)ADarkRoomiOS, and began tweeting in the game’s persona.
He searched for and communicated with anyone who tweeted about the game’s Web version.
Rajan also spent a lot of time on Reddit, where fans of “A Dark Room”‘s Web version conversed. Such interactions with players on the site helped spread awareness of his mobile game.
In addition, he targeted influential gaming bloggers and reviewers, which garnered positive reviews.
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Two days after Christmas, Rajan thought he hit the jackpot when three gaming websites put the Web and mobile versions of “A Dark Room” on their 2013 Games of the Year lists.
But that was not the case. The next day, the game got only 80 downloads, Rajan said.
Still, Rajan kept at it, continuing interactions on Twitter.
He also updated the game to make it accessible to blind users after discovering a blind user was stuck. That update generated buzz in the blind community, and Rajan worked with a major website for blind and low-vision users of Apple products to run a promo code giveaway.
Along the way, Rajan discovered the game elicited a hate-it-or-love-it sentiment among users. The game has on average a five-star review.
He also had to learn not to let negative reviews discourage him, though he fought back against claims that positive ones were paid for or fake.
“How do I not take it personally?” Rajan said.
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By early February, “A Dark Room” was nearing a top-10 ranking under the U.S. app store’s Role Playing Game category, so Rajan decided to take a new approach.
He slashed the game’s price by half to 99 cents, which generated tweets and short blog posts. The next day, downloads spiked to 351 in one day. The average had been around 40 a day.
To continue the momentum, Rajan decided to make the app free for two days. While the move generated more than 10,000 downloads, it also had an unintended consequence: “A Dark Room” lost its ranking in the App Store.
The game went back to 99 cents and began climbing in the rankings again.
Rajan also released an iPad version in March.
On March 30, Rajan got a pleasant surprise when he discovered that “A Dark Room” became the No. 1 app overall in the United Kingdom. The game stayed in the top spot for five days.
Two weeks later, on April 12, the game hit the No. 1 paid spot in the U.S. app store. At that point, daily downloads averaged 20,000.
“A Dark Room” stayed in the No. 1 spot for 17 days and lingered in the top five in subsequent weeks.
Since November, Rajan’s game has been downloaded more than 325,000 times worldwide.
Along with hard work, Rajan discovered an unknown: word of mouth that he has no control over.
“Out of nowhere, it goes from 1,500 (rank) to No. 1 in the U.K. in two days. It wasn’t because of media. It was people telling other people,” he said.
Still on his sabbatical, Rajan is now working on an Android version as well as an Amazon Kindle app.
Initially, he thought his experiment in developing a game would be short-lived, but now, he said, “it may be able to go on.”
AMIR RAJAN’S TIPS FOR ATTRACTING USERS:
—Focus on reaching a core audience: Word-of-mouth recommendations and community involvement are great ways to foster growth.
—Do not set your introductory price at 99 cents: Setting your app at a higher price initially will give you the option of dropping it later.
—Put a lot of thought into the placement of a review button within the app: A well-placed review button can lead to a very high review conversion rate.
—If you see the rank of your app dropping, make it free for two to three days to infuse your user base with new people.
—Make it easy for customers to reach you if they have any questions or comments. Respond quickly if they do contact you.
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