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Can an iOS Developer Flourish in the Android World?

Mika Mobile, the developer of Battleheart is calling it quits on Android. What went wrong?

One of the things we like to do here at Tested is keep you up to date on the best apps. Whether you’re platform of choice is Android or iOS, there are a lot of good choices out there. However, today there is effectively one less choice on Android with the news that Mika Mobile is pulling out of Google’s Play Store, citing an inability to turn a profit. We’ve recommended Mika Mobile’s action-RPG Battleheart on several occasions, so we were sad to hear the news.

In a blog post, one half of the indie developer explained that due to the time spent building updates for different GPUs, the Android version of this iOS game ate up too much time to be profitable. Is this a sign of things to come for Android, or an isolated incident? Let’s take a look at the viability of Android apps.

The Mika Mobile Problem

According to the good people (or person) at Mika Mobile, developing Battleheart, and to a lesser extent Zombieville, for Android was more trouble than it was worth. The principal issue was the varying nature of Android hardware. Mika Mobile apparently had to spend time and money getting development devices and creating updates to get the game’s shaders to render correctly on multiple Android phones.

The other problem was with the package size. Battleheart is nearly 50MB, which was the limit until just recently. Even with the recent deployment of multi-APK apps in the Play Store, Mika Mobile argues that taking advantage of the new 4GB size limit would mean re-architecting the game completely.

The blog post goes to great pains to point out that revenue is different from profits, but doesn’t say just how much the developer has taken in. From the general stats in the Play Store, we can estimate that the developer took in about $200,000 (after Google's cut) from the two games since they were launched in June-July of 2011. That seems like a lot of cash, but perhaps development costs can eat that up over nearly a year.

Some users and fellow developers have pointed out, though, that Mika Mobile seems to have technically abandoned its apps a long time ago. After releasing Battleheart in June 2011, the game received its last update in July of 2011. Zombieville launched in July, and was also last updated in that same month. This has left many purchasers wondering how much time was really spent on the Android apps these last eight months.

Whether or not Mika Mobile was getting taken to the cleaners by Android is beside the point. The developer was not seeing the kind of numbers that warranted continued development. The question we have to ask is, "why?"

The Porting Problem

Mika Mobile’s games have been real hits on iOS. Zombieville was one of the early success stories in Apple’s App Store. Battleheart too has sold very, very well. Moving to a new platform is not a simple matter of flipping some bits, and recompiling the code. It is a long, and labor intensive process. There are many ways to go wrong, and some apps just might not be suited to porting.

The banter among developers seems to be that Mika Mobile’s shader problems are understandable, and not terribly uncommon. The app was designed to work with iOS and the devs made use of non-standard OpenGL shaders. That’s fine for a closed platform like Apple’s, but moving to Android, where GPUs vary, means more time spent adding support for new SoCs.

The other issue is that Battlerheart was butting right up against the size limit from the start, which makes updates tricky. Because Mika Mobile’s games were not designed with cross-platform development in mind, the additional data download trick was not viable. Many developers like to saddle you these secondary installation screens for complex apps. Google’s multi-APK system will internalize that in the Play Store, but it’s still the same basic premise.

So Mika Mobile can’t really be faulted for building for a specific platform, but other developers have had more luck porting their apps from a technical perspective. Take Osmos HD for example. This was a top game on iOS before it was on Android. Perhaps what Hemisphere Games learned from taking that title from the PC to iOS helped them make the Android version work, because it really does. The Android game has had hundreds of thousands of paid downloads, and has worked very well on almost all devices from the start.

None of this is to say Android development doesn't come with its own annoyances that stand in the way of developer success. There just happen to be plenty of apps that are successful in spite of that.

Monetizing Android

Assuming you can make an app work well, developers coming to Android should take note of the reality of the platform. Let’s not beat around the bush here; Android users don’t throw money around as readily as iOS users do. There are a few reasons for that including the large contingent of low-end devices that attract budget-friendly users, and the fact that games sometimes fail to work correctly on one phone or another.

There are some commonalities among the top apps on Android that Mika Mobile and other developers would do well to take note of. The most obvious angle is the trial version. Mika Mobile didn’t have trial versions of Zombieville or Battleheart on Android. Because users sometimes download apps only to find they do not work well, it is understandable they would be wary. Kairosoft (Story Games), Hemisphere Games (Osmos), and 2D Boy (World of Goo) all have very successful paid apps with demo versions so users can test them out.

On Android, you can be sure to attract a ton of downloads if your app is free. The problem presents itself when you try to figure out how to make money off of that. Rovio certainly has that figured out because it announced shortly after releasing Angry Birds free on Android that it was pulling in more money from the in-game ads on Android than it was from sales on iOS. Users are willing to put up with non-intrusive advertising to save a few bucks, and devs should remember that.

Some apps take the idea of "free" a little farther, and this may be the best business model on Android right now. Of course we speak of in-app purchases. Don’t recoil in horror just yet; there are a lot of genuinely good experiences to be had out there with in-app purchases. Some games come with ads, and you can pay a dollar or two to get rid of them. That’s a great way to get users invested, while monetizing in two ways.

For another example of success on Android, look no further than the action-platformer Wind-up Knight. This app is considerably more popular on Android than it is on iOS, and it uses in-app purchases smartly. The developer, Robot Invader, knows that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. The app is free, and you can unlock everything simply by playing really well. If you like, you can pay to unlock the entire game, or just parts of it you can’t reach on your own. You may also buy in-game equipment, but you can also get the same stuff with a little extra work. This works for Robot Invader, and it works for other games too.

We can’t deny it; the fact that many Android users refuse to pay for apps is a problem. It drives developers like Mika Mobile off the platform when the iOS way of doing things doesn’t pan out. We could be nationalistic and say, “good riddance,” but that’s a terrible policy. What we should do is reward good content. If you like what a developer is doing, buy apps straight up or make an in-app purchase. It can be tough when there’s no demo, and no free-to-play model, but we can hope that game-makers take this teaching moment with Mika Mobile to heart.