Retro Defense developer explains how their game became one of Android’s biggest hits

by Marty Gabel

Retro Defense is one of the best-selling games on Android devices ever. It’s a tower defense title with a distinctively retro theme. Having been in the Android Market since day one (literally -- it was a launch title), its early exposure ensured it gained plenty of fans.

Appolicious Advisor Ian Black, who reviewed the game back in October 2010 concluded that “for flashback strategy fun, you can't beat Retro Defense.”

We talked to John Watkinson, Partner at Larva Labs, LLC, creator of Retro Defense and other titles like Androidify and Battle for Mars about overcoming the challenge of designing for multiple devices, marketing to both the iOS and Android communities, and what it’s like to work with an occasional stand-up comedian.

Appolicious: Our readers would love to know what it takes to create a top-selling game for Android devices. What is your secret?

John Watkinson: I'm not sure we can claim to know a "secret" when it comes to Android games. We had the advantage of diving in very early to Android, so we were able to soak up some of the early interest. Also, our games are generally more niche and strategy-focused, which seemed to target the early Android adopters fairly well. That got us started on the right path, and then the good rankings of our two main games (Retro Defense and Battle for Mars) carried us from there.

APPO: How are you overcoming the challenge of maintaining quality control for your games on multiple Android devices carried by a number of networks?

JW: That's a really tough problem for all apps, but especially games. Our games don't require cutting-edge CPU or graphics performance, so we are able to aim for a lowest common denominator there. We are also willing to cut out certain classes of devices, as the work required to support them isn't justified by the extra development and testing costs. Specifically, the small-screened, low-DPI devices are often excluded. The ergonomics of game play are totally different on those devices, it's typically not possible to simply scale the game's UI down to those screens. Also, we have not yet targeted Android tablets, as the market share of those devices is currently so small.

We would recommend to small dev shops to focus on the bulk of popular phones with fairly standard hardware first. Then if the game is doing well, attempt to expand in to the more unusual devices and form factors. That strategy only recently became available, as the Android Market now supports device-specific filtering. Previously, we had to accept that our game was going to deliver a bad experience on certain niche devices. It was only a tiny number of users who had a problem, so it wasn't enough to justify the effort of finding workarounds. It was still frustrating nonetheless, so we are glad that era is over.

APPO: You obviously cracked the code in terms of generating awareness for Retro Defense on Android. Compare what it's like to market at app on Android as opposed to the iTunes App Store.

JW: We released Retro Defense on the first day the paid Android Market was available, so a big part of its success was due to that early exposure. It was a port of an iPhone version of the game, which had gone nowhere. So it was great to see it flourish on Android. I think its success was due to timing as well as the game targeting that early adopter demographic well. Note that we speak of its success only in relative terms. It was the #1 paid game for a while in the early days, but that did not translate in to big earnings as the user base was still fairly modest.

Of course, there was (and continues to be) far less competition for games on Android than the iPhone. Overall paid app sales on Android are far lower than the business being done on iOS. For a variety of reasons, users are less willing to buy on Android Market than they are on iTunes. So, paid Android games still have the feeling of being a smaller, more niche-focused business, while the iOS scene feels like a hits business, increasingly dominated by some big players with big marketing budgets. I would put it this way: if you make a great paid Android game, then expect to make some money, but not a lot. If you make a great paid iPhone game, expect to make either no money or an enormous amount! The situation for free games on Android is very different, with some large download counts and big market players. The free and "freemium" scene on Android is much closer to its equivalent on iOS, it seems. We don't have a lot of experience in those areas, though.

As for marketing, we've never done anything too organized or expensive, just got the word out to blogs and let word of mouth take over. That can work for niche games, but we acknowledge that real marketing efforts are required to get mainstream games in front of users these days. This makes it more challenging for small shops like us.

APPO: What other development and marketing differences exist on both platforms?

JW: For development: Android feels overall tougher, as the multitudes of devices, manufactures and carriers complicates things enormously. The SDK is also more complicated. Devs should expect to acquire and test on many devices to ensure compatibility. We have two large drawers full of Android devices here at our office.

For marketing: On both platforms, it is simply not enough anymore to write a great paid app. It will go entirely unnoticed without some kind of marketing advantage. As I mentioned above, it is possible to deliver an indy game on Android and still get some attention as the competition is a bit less, but be prepared to have some kind of strategy to let customers know about it. A limited free version with an in-app ad pointing to the paid version is an absolute must on Android.

APPO: How is Larva Labs organized? Do you have specific engineers and staffers for each platform?

JW: We are a very small company, so often everybody gets their hands on every project. There are one or two Android-specific and iPhone-specific devs that we use on a contract basis, but other than that we don't have platform-specific staffers.

APPO: What is it like working with an "occasionally current" stand-up comedian in your co-founder Matt Hall?

JW: Lots of laughs! It's great fun, we really enjoy working together.

APPO: How vibrant in the New York City mobile community relative to other markets?

JW: We started our company developing for the T-Mobile Sidekick back in 2005. At that time, there was very little mobile development activity in New York. There also wasn't much of a feeling of community amongst small tech companies in general. Even after iOS and Android SDKs came along, it seemed a bit quiet in NYC. But in the last couple of years it has really picked up, with plenty of great apps coming out of the city, and lots of great meet-ups and other events. I wouldn't claim that it is rivaling Silicon Valley yet, but it is a great place for mobile developers. There is also very strong demand here for good mobile developer talent, so I encourage young mobile devs to consider a career in New York.

APPO: What are the three biggest challenges and opportunities in the mobile media space these days currently keeping you up at night?

JW: We love being a small company that aims to punch above its weight. But we aren't sure if selling mobile apps and games is going to be viable for small companies much longer. Big companies with marketing budgets are changing things very rapidly. Lately our strategy has been to spend more time focusing on fewer projects, to increase the impact of each and make sure that they get noticed. We'll see what other adjustments we have to make as we go along. In any case, it's an exciting business to be in!