10 Million iPhone App Downloads and Counting – The Traction Games Interview


Traction Games is an Australian-based game development studio which has found huge success on the iOS App Store, with over 10 million downloads and multiple successful titles. The most popular of these releases include Stickman Skater and Stickman BMX, amazingly addictive games with extremely high four star ratings on the App Store.  We are lucky enough to have Ben Hazzard, the founder of Traction Games on The Startup Project!

Tell us the background story on Stickman Skater and Stickman BMX – where did the ideas come from? How did you develop and launch the games?

Stickman Skater was our first game of the Stickman series. It was primarily developed by myself and a high school friend (Liam Stephens) who I had worked on the previous title ‘Pro Surfing’ with. The idea came from a long time interest in skateboarding and skate related games that stemmed back to as far as ‘Skate or Die’ and ‘720 degrees’ in the 80’s. After the release of our debut iOS 3D game ‘Pro Surfing’ and the relatively uninspired reaction from the gaming community we sat down and re-assessed the kinds of games people were playing by studying the app store. As soon as the idea of a stickman skateboarding came into conversation it was instantly something we both wanted to do. We both had visions of sitting in Maths class as kids making little flick book stickman skater animations in the corners of our text books instead of paying attention to the teacher.

What experience did you have in iPhone programming? What do you think is the best way for a beginner to learn to code iOS applications?

Prior to iOS development, Traction Games was producing games for traditional mobile phones. One in particular (Bombtek!) received a lot of worldwide attention and was distributed in over 30 countries including the notoriously difficult to crack Chinese carriers. This was a very difficult time for mobile development where a game would take approx. 20% of the overall time to develop and 80% of the time to port it to the hundreds of different mobile devices that were a requirement for carrier acceptance. I still have a box with over 200 mobile phones and a pile of tangled chargers the size of a basketball to remind myself of this ‘dark age’ of mobile development. iOS was a mobile developers dream platform. The only real challenge was getting on top of the new languages / technologies that iOS development requires. My advice would be to start with a simple idea and consider the use of the various game engines available if they would suit your particular idea as they can save a lot of development time when used accordingly.

What do you believe made each of these games so successful? Both reached the top of the App Store Paid Applications Charts – how significant was that to your success? Did you employ any specific tactics to get there?

To achieve the top rankings you really have to appeal to a vast section of the mobile phone community. Niche games no matter how well they are executed will struggle to compete against the top charting games as they will struggle to get the large volume of downloads necessary. One of my first questions when a new idea for an app / game is presented to me is ‘If I took 200 randomly selected people from the community, how many of those people would want to use your app / game?’. Sometimes it is hard for a developer to separate their personal interest in a subject with the correct commercial decisions. The 3 most important factors are the application icon needs to pop-out and convey the idea of the game in a clear manner, the game’s name needs to be memorable so as to enable a fluid word of mouth exchange; and the game itself needs to be easy to play from the outset with very easy initial learning curve. It is our experience that iOS gamers have very short attention spans and the first 30 seconds of interaction will be used to form their opinion of the game. Get them up and playing quickly with minimal fuss and make the difficulty curve start easy and then ramp up gently.

In the crowded iPhone games market, what are the best ways for app developers differentiate themselves?

It comes down to either coming up with an ingenious new play mechanic or doing an existing one better than it has been done before. Angry Birds is a prime example of the latter. The trajectory / rigid physics projectile handle has been done several times before but Rovio made the smart commercial decision to put it in a childlike setting with cute birds and cartoon gfx as opposed to the usual castle siege / fantasy versions that have come before it. This opened it up to a far greater casual audience and has helped it become one of the biggest selling game franchises in history.

Finally, what advice can you offer to aspiring iPhone application developers?

Study the App Store. Application development is like stock trading in many ways. You gamble your time and money on an idea so you really need to have an intimate understanding of the market they trade in. Look at newly released games (in the category specific all-games lists on itunes) and try to predict which games will succeed and which ones will fail. People think that success on the app store is all about getting featured by Apple but a good game will be seen by the small number of people who view these ‘just released’ lists and in the 3-4 days you will be visible, you will know if the game has upward ranking momentum. That exposure should be enough to get the right game into the in-category top 200 charts and that increased exposure could propel the game up to the top 200 games charts and finally the top 200 apps charts. The other piece of advice I would say is, even if you are just doing a ‘learning exercise’ project, dont just make a space invaders clone as there are likely many simple and good ideas out there that could receive a lot more attention and give you experience not only in app development but in the patterns of the app store as well. Why not make your first experience a good one. A game as simple as throwing a stapler at the dorky guy in the office (i.e. Office Jerk) while very basic to implement can do better than multi million dollar movie license titles.