Leanpub Podcast Interview #33: Amir Rajan

by Len Epp

published Jul 07, 2016

Amir Rajan

Amir Rajan is an indie game developer based in Dallas who is best known for having made the bestselling iOS app for the popular text-based game A Dark Room. He’s also the author of the popular and aptly-titled Leanpub book Surviving the App Store. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Amir about his career, the experience of writing a bestselling iOS app, about his book, and about self-publishing on Leanpub.

This interview was recorded on April 27, 2016.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Amir Rajan

Len: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub Podcast, I’ll be interviewing Amir Rajan. Amir is a Dallas, Texas based indie game developer and independent software consultant who’s experienced working with a number of platforms and languages. Amir also works on several open source projects, and speaks at conferences and user groups, and he blogs at amirrajan.net.

He’s best known for developing the iOS app) for the popular text based game, A Dark Room, which was originally created for the browser by Micheal Townsend (Amir also released an Android version recently: A Dark Room - eds.). Amir’s app hit number one in the App Store, and it’s been downloaded over 2.5 million times. You can follow him on Twitter @amirrajan.

Surviving The App Store: How to Make It as an Indie Game Developer by Amir Rajan

Amir is the author of the Leanpub book, Surviving the App Store: How to Succeed as an Indie Developer, which is a very well-titled book. It’s full of lots of great tips, a very practical and valuable approach to helping people get started in game development for the App Store.

In this interview, we’re going to talk about Amir’s professional interests, his books, his experiences using Leanpub, and ways we can improve Leanpub for him and for other authors at the very end. So thanks, Amir, for being on the Leanpub Podcast.

Amir: No problem, it’s a pleasure.

Len: I always start these interviews by asking people for their origin story, so I was wondering if you could tell me how you first got interested in coding and being a developer, and how you ended up being a game developer and working on A Dark Room?

Amir: I guess a lot of people should be able to relate a little bit to the story. I learned how to build software through just building video games. I think my first thing was, I tried to build a chess board with The Knights Tour. I think I was a sophomore in high school at that point in time, and I had Turbo C++ and I was like, I want to try to build chess.

Pro tip: when you’re just starting to get into game development or any kind of development, chess is probably one of the harder problems you can pick up.

I got my first computer when I was 10 years old. It was a 386 with a turbo button. I played games on there like Scorched Earth. That was one of my first games that I remember. And then I had Chessmaster 3000. And that’s what really got me into it - just being around video games.

I had the Sega Saturn, the NES, the Atari. I just grew up with that.

And then I just did my thing in high school. I found that I really liked programming, and got a degree at University of Texas at Dallas doing computer science and software engineering. And during that time period, I just finished my degree, and then went into the corporate world. Beause that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? You have all these dreams and aspirations of, “I’m going to build video games,” and all that stuff, and then reality hits, and it’s like, “Well I actually have to make money”.

I became a software developer at that point. I did that for 8 years, and then I went on a sabbatical, and saved up enough money to take some time off. I downsized from a two-bedroom to a one-bedroom. My wife was okay with it. Our standard of living really didn’t change, because I made sure to have a really solid foundation.

I took some time off, and A Dark Room was like - hey, I want to do iOS development, and learn the platform, and this is a really easy, minimalist text-based RPG that I can port over. It wasn’t, but it starts out really simple, and then it becomes really intricate. I ported it, and I was really happy with it. I put it in the App Store, and then I became obsessed with the marketing aspect of it, and building a user base – watching my baby grow.

It went viral, and I guess that’s all she wrote, right?

After that I was able to get a new physician. On the sheet they make you fill out, it says “Occupation”. I was able to put down “Game Developer”. That was a pinnacle moment for me, that I could stop calling myself like a “Software Engineer” or “Software Consultant” and call myself a game developer.

It’s so fun, because you’ll be part of conversations - before it was like, “So what do you do?” And I would say, “I’m a software developer, software engineer”. And then that’s where it stopped, right? Because they’re like, “What does that mean?” My wife would do the same thing. Like someone asks her, “Oh, what is your husband doing?” She goes, “I don’t know. I think he does something with computers”. You always get, “Hey, I’ve got this computer problem. My internet’s not working” or something. Now when I talk with people, it’s like, “Oh yeah, I’m a game developer”, and it completely breaks the ice, and you can start talking about really cool things from that point.

Len: That’s a fantastic story, and I’ve got to say, I can actually sympathize. My first corporate job was working for a company that’s now called Dealogic, in London. I was doing research on mergers and acquisitions basically. But the company at the time was called “Computasoft”. All I had to do was say that name, and people glazed over, not interested.

Amir: Yeah, they’re like, “We don’t care.”

Len: It was just amazing. You don’t even need the full word “computer” in it.

Amir: And it’s so interesting, you start saying “I do software development or programming” [and they reply] “So you’re in IT, I hear that’s not a great industry to be in.” Suddenly they know everything about IT, and they can just group it into this one, umbrella discipline.

Len: I don’t know if this is a tangent, but it’s actually a very interesting topic, and very important, I think. For example, there was a recent exchange I saw on Twitter where a relatively prominent journalist based in New York tweeted about - I think the guy’s the co-founder of Vox, and he had written a Medium post about digital publishing, basically. And then someone sent out a tweet saying like, “How can this guy, a tech administrator, talk about digital media?” To which of course he sort had a really snarky reply. Marc Andreessen retweeted it, saying, “What’s a tech administrator?” ironically. I replied to that with an image from Peter Thiel’s book of the Solyndra guy next to Elon Musk.

Amir: I’ve got to see this post.

Len: There’s a weird preoccupation that people who are unfamiliar with software have, where it’s kind of scary to them, because the person who knows how the computers go, actually runs everything, and knows how everything works. It’s very unsettling to people aren’t familiar with software, but have a prominent position from a kind of legacy, institutional structure.

So they take the opportunity to sort of goad the new media guy, for actually knowing how the computers go, as though that’s somehow evidence that he doesn’t understand the real work of publishing.

Amir: I can empathize with that too. It’s like, when my car breaks down, I take it to the mechanic, and he’s like, “Oh you’ve got this and this wrong.” And you feel so disenfranchised, right? You know that this person has the upper hand. You’ve got to trust them and have that kind of rapport. So it’s frustrating.

I hope in the future more people are more literate at manipulating a general computing machine, and doing something with that. I guess there will come a time.

By extension, I think game development does a really good job of that. Beause when I released ADR to iOS, I had teenagers email me saying, “I want to get into game development, this is one of the first games where I really enjoyed it, and I saw that you don’t have to have crazy graphics, or 3D models or anything to actually build something that people will enjoy playing.” And they could visualize; it was like, “I can create a button. I can put some text on a screen.” These aren’t difficult things, I mean they’re familiar to some extent. And that’s what kind of got them into development.

I had people actually email me, “Here’s this like Python console-based game that I built.” And it’s so awesome. I play, and it’s like, “Oh this is the coolest thing in the world.” To be able to inspire people from that perspective has been pretty fun.

Len: It’s got to be really rewarding to have a community built around it, and to have people emailing you with their creations. And to be able to be a game developer yourself and create things.

You brought up your sabbatical, and I found that really interesting. I was wondering – have your employers since then cared about you taking a sabbatical? Was it something that they asked questions about? Or is it like – they’re just not relevant. You’re a good developer, and that’s it?

Amir: For me, the sabbatical was actually a learning sabbatical. I was primarily a .NET C# developer. And during the, I would say 14, 15 months off, I ramped up on a whole lot of tech, so became really proficient with iOS. I did a lot of Ruby development, primarily for build automation. So I got into Ruby.

I say I’m a Ruby-ist, because I got into Ruby using Rake to build .NET projects. Usually you hear Ruby developers say, “I did Rails.” But I have very little Rails experience. All my Ruby experience is through building iOS games, and doing build automation for .NET.

But during that sabbatical, I ramped up on so much stuff – Node, Angular. I did a lot of Knockout back in the day too. JavaScript, a lot of runtime things.

I finally went into my OSX partition. I had a Mac, but I always used Bootcamp, and I loved the device, and the system itself, I didn’t ever use the Mac partition. So this was an opportunity for me to do that.

When I talk with employers, I say, “Well I took a two year sabbatical to really ramp up on other technologies,” and sell myself as an integration specialist. So not only do I know .NET, I know Rails, I know Node. I can do QA stuff, I can do mobile development. I can speak a lot of different languages with regards to - real languages - interacting with humans.

The fact that I created a product, it makes me a little bit more able to communicate with the business end, saying, “I understand that you’ve got these limitations, or you’ve got these things that you’re trying to accomplish. Let’s see if I can figure something out for you.” So it’s worked out pretty well for me.

The other side is that I’ve kind of become unemployable from that perspective too. Because you start valuing your time so much more. You realize that 9 to 5 on a salary leaves very little for the person, from some perspective. Especially with the market as it is today. I think taking the plunge, and taking the risk, maybe doing independent work, having some kind of side hustle is so valuable.

Some employers are like, “What do you mean you don’t want to go salary?” Or, “What do you mean you don’t want to work 40 hours a week?” It’s just kind of weird for them hearing that from a potential employee.

I do contract work part time. I’ll do six months of contract work, and then when I get the itch to actually do game development, I’ll go back to game development. And go back to contract work and flip-flop. If I find a really interesting project, I might do a year contract. Or if I want to do game development - right now I’m in the game development phase, I’ve laid out my next eight months, and that’s what I’m going to do. And then hopefully, go back to “contracting” afterwards.

Len: That’s a really great story, and it sounds like a pretty cool position to have built for yourself.

I was wondering - I’ve been interviewing Leanpub authors for a while now, and they’re mostly developers or involved with software one way or another. One thing I’ve noticed is that about half studied computer science. I think you graduated about 10 years ago?

Amir: Yeah, December of 2006.

Len: Knowing what you know now, if you were talking to you about to graduate from high school, would you recommend studying computer science?

Amir: I think personally I needed that structure. I loved programming from the get-go. Around 2001, the emphasis on having a computer science degree was much, much heavier. Especially if you didn’t have a public portfolio. GitHub didn’t exist. You couldn’t publish something to an App Store.

I think in this day and age, if someone was like, “Oh I want to get into computer science and programming,” The first thing I would ask them is, “Well do you have an app?” Or, “Show me your website,” or– ‘Cause it’s so much more accessible these days. So I think if I was to graduate high school now, my answer would have been, “Build something, get something out there and show me what you made.”

It’s weird, because you have some more formal professions, like nursing or accounting or business, that I think you really need to have really strong fundamentals that are taught in college. At least for the kind of software that I build, you can hack a lot of things together and get away with it. If I was really interested maybe in like compiler design or distributed systems, or network protocols, I don’t think I could get away without having a formalized education. But at least for the business apps that I build, the crowd apps, product pages, games - you could probably get away with just building something, and then just being hungry from that perspective.

Len: One person that I interviewed recently who’s in software testing said that he would still take four years to study and build things, but he wouldn’t do it at university. It’s this concept of taking a chunk of time at the beginning of your career that you devote specifically to becoming something that you’re not yet.

Amir: Yeah, and recording that.

Len: It’s still an important phase to go through.

Amir: I think another important thing is to just document that in some way, to show to people. So when they say, “Oh you don’t have a degree,” it’s like, “Well, I have 10 apps in the App Store.” Or, “I built these websites.” Or, “I bootstrapped this company,” or, “I helped this mom and pop shop set up a checkout center.” And all those things perk up ears, especially from a junior dev, when you hear that kind of stuff.

Len: Turning to A Dark Room, or ADR as you call it. There’s so much to talk about. It’s been written about on the Huffington Post and the New Yorker and places like that. And you’ve got this great post on Reddit as well, where you talk about what you did, in addition to your book of course, which we’ll get to in a bit.

But I wanted to ask you, there’s a really interesting feature of your success with the game, which is that there’s no reason you can attribute to its taking off. As you said at the beginning, it just went viral. It’s interesting, because playing A Dark Room, unexplained things just suddenly happen, and change the game for you, right?

I was just wondering if you wouldn’t mind talking a little bit about what’s that experience like? When you work on something, it’s been out there for a while, and then inexplicably, it’s suddenly a hit. I mean, what’s that like?

Amir: So the short version is, you’re not prepared for it. I don’t think anything I’ve done in my life could’ve prepared me for getting 20,000 downloads a day for effectively a little bit over two weeks. You wake up in the morning, and you see, because you can go to iTunes Connect and see how many downloads - and you’re at the number one spot, you’re like, “Oh, 20 000 downloads.” It’s like - I’m going to get a 6 figure check from Apple this month. And it’s just surreal.

I lost sleep when it went viral at the end of March in the UK. I have some ideas about how some of the virility occurred. It went viral in the UK at the end of March, and then it took 12 days for it to go viral in the US, and then it stayed there for 18 days. Then it finally fell from the number 1 spot. I did a release, and then it went to the number one spot again for two more days. During that time period, I didn’t sleep. It’s really difficult to put into words.

Len: Can you maybe explain a little bit about, like, how did your day change? Were you getting inundated with messages from people and requests from the media?

Amir: The requests from the media came when I hit the number one spot. That’s when Huffington Post and New Yorker and those people started contacting me. And of course, you say yes to everything, because you’re like yes I’m going to try to push this strain as long as I can. And then you wait.

For me - I actually wrote it in the book as an analogy - it’s like you buy a lottery ticket, and you’re watching the TV, and they give you five of the six numbers. And all five of the numbers are correct. So you might make some money, right? You’re like, “Alright, I’ve got this much in the bank.”

But that sixth number is where your life changes. It’s where you don’t have to worry about that kind of stuff anymore. And the TV cuts off on the sixth number, and you have to wait for some other media outlet to tell you what that sixth number was.

For me, during that time period - I’d do the math, and I’d say, “Okay, this app needs to stay at the number one spot for 62 days, and I never have to worry about money again.” Obviously that didn’t happen, but for that 18 day period, that’s what I was mentally going through. To stay grounded and realistic and say, “This is going to end,” or “This may not happen,” it takes mental effort to not get away with yourself.

Every moment, like every 3 minutes I was checking the app store, “Am I still number one? Am I still number one? Am I still number one?” That didn’t go away during that time period.

At the number one spot, I got about 300 reviews a day. Just reading the reviews, it was nice. It gave me something to do, while I’m toiling away going, “Oh gosh, what’s going to happen?” You can’t release a new version of your game, because you don’t want to lose your reviews, and you don’t want to rock the boat. So I’m in this limbo going, “Okay, I can’t release a new version. I can’t make any changes. There’s bugs that have been found, and I can’t do anything about that. So I’m going to just read reviews and refresh the App Store page, because I have nothing better to do with my time right now.” It’s like that kind of feeling.

Len: You refer to negative reviews in your Reddit post. I was wondering, just thinking about it generally that nowadays with social media and stuff, when you become well known for any reason, it seems to me everyone just suddenly encounters negativity. It’s just a feature of the experience. I was wondering if that happened to you. Did you encounter people saying, “This is a fraud,” or, “This is BS,” or anything obviously, totally, false?

Amir: Yes.

Len: What was your experience like with that, and did you do anything specific to deal with it?

Amir: That was interesting. Negativity is like death and taxes, you’re going to get it. Especially when you’re in the limelight, and you’ve got that big target on your back.

So what happened in the UK – The UK market is, I would say a fifth of the US market. Hitting the number one spot in the US took 20,000 downloads. Hitting the number one spot in the UK took about 5,000. Coincidentally, getting above the fold, like the top 10 games, is significantly less also, right? In the US, it probably takes about 4,000 to 5,000 downloads to get to the number 10 spot in games. In the UK, it was only like 800 to 900 downloads to get there.

What happened was, I got to the 800 to 900 downloads, and I was above the fold. That’s what slingshotted me up to the number one spot in the UK. Up until that time period, my target category was RPG. So the reviews were generally good, because people wanted an RPG, and they downloaded an RPG and that’s what they expected.

But suddenly, I’m in the top 10 games with real games. You’ve got Minecraft just above me, and I’m like, “What’s going on here?” And people - it changes. Suddenly someone downloads the game that’s looking for, I don’t know, like just a regular arcade game. And they’re like, “What is this crap, how did this get here?” So they left one star reviews.

The interesting thing with the review system is the way the reviews are sorted, it’s by the number of stars and then by length. But you hit some threshold where the length becomes more of a factor in the review. I got a few people leave like these really long, one star rants, and they became the top reviews on ADR’s page. It created this herd mentality. Suddenly people that would download this game that had this negative connotation to the game already going into it. They’d play it for a minute and go, “This is stupid. Everyone’s right.” And then they would leave their one star rants.

It snowballed. It got to the point where about 33% of my reviews were 1 star reviews. Initially that was really rough. I would go on Twitter and search for people talking about A Dark Room and try to directly address their issue, saying, “Look, this is a real game I promise. Look at all the things I’ve done, look at my blog. This is not a fake scam game.”

But I think, in retrospect, you can get used to it. Even on the Reddit posts posts that I did, there were comments like, “Oh this guy’s just doing marketing for his own game,” even though there was like a lot of good content. Then there was another one, where it’s like, “Why are you shilling your game out? You’ve already made $800,000 or $700,000. Why do you have to shill your game?” You’re lose either way, right? Because if I made my stuff anonymous and said, “I’m not going to tell you the name of my game,” then I would have gotten negative comments saying that, “I don’t believe you, you’re just blowing smoke up our skirts with regards to what you’ve done.”

So you lose either way. I think with regards to coping, you just get kind of used to it. After the first drove of negative reviews, I found that I was still getting positive reviews. Tou just get used to it, and it rolls off your back after a while.

Len: That’s a really interesting story. You say that you even got negativity about posting these long, really helpful, detailed pieces of advice for people to succeed in the App Store. Even then you get negativity. But what also happened is, I saw someone had tweeted about it. And then, well I mentioned him already, but Marc Andreessen retweeted it. I haven’t had experience with success in the app store or anything like that, but one thing I’ve remarked is that, if you succeed genuinely, smart people, all the smart people, see that.

Amir: Yeah.

Len: And so the negativity is coming from - no reason to say the negative term, right? But it’s coming from not those people.

Amir: Right.

Len: That’s one way at least I’ve found of dealing with it. It’s like there are some people who are just not reachable. That’s just what that person is. If they’ve got a problem, the reason they’re negative, and in the way they’re negative in the first place, is because they’ve got some kind of underlying problem. Thinking about it that way, it’s like, “I can’t solve their problems for them, right? This isn’t my problem. This is their problem.” Anyway, I find that that sort of helps.

Amir: Another thing that I think helped quite a bit for me was, I try to practice empathy. It’s funny, because I was like 28 when I started the sabbatical. And I turned 30, and I don’t know, something clicks in your head. You suddenly stay young, but become more mature from that perspective. So I think back to [when I was] 27, 28. I was like, “Man, I was an idiot and asshole back then.” And then you grow older, and you’re like, “I can do better at it just being more empathetic.” So you see some of the negative reviews, and you’ve got to just think to yourself, “Man, they might be having a bad day, or they might have tried doing the same thing I did and really, really struggled with it.” They just have some resentment that came from their own struggles. So there’s no telling what they could be going through in their life. And I think that really helped also, to ease that.

Len: That’s interesting; that’s another sort of conclusion I’ve come to about dealing with people through a product. It’s that you don’t know what their day’s been like. You don’t know if they’re at a bad point in their life. You really don’t know anything about them. And so someone who’s relating to you negatively might - yeah, you become a lot more empathetic.

One thing I’ve also found too is that treating everybody uniformly in a friendly manner - if there’s a negative interaction, and you come back with that empathy, almost every time you actually get an apology. I think that might be a little bit different on Twitter, because Twitter’s so short form.

Amir: Yeah, the brevity, it just leads to–

Len: But definitely dealing with people over email - in my experience in a number of projects - maybe they just skipped lunch?

And then sort of again, there’s sort of another way of coping with it, where their issue is their issue, not mine.

On the other side of things, what about the positivity? You must have been elated, and it must have been different having people contact you with like, “Hey, here’s my game.” What was that like? Did you have any kind of impostor syndrome thing happening?

Amir: I’ve struggled with impostor syndrome. Even with the new games that I build, I’m like - I can’t top A Dark Room. I’ve got the prequel out there. For those that have read - Flatland by Edwin Abbott (it’s on the Gutenberg Project) - if you haven’t read it, it’s about an 80 page book, and it’s about a two dimensional shape that lives in a two dimensional world. It’s actually a satire around the Age of Versailles, the Versailles time period. It’s told from the perspective of a mathematician, about how this civilization interacts with each other, and how women are treated, and how different caste systems are created, within this two dimensional world.

I built a game around that, that’s my third game I’m building. And I’ve tried desperately to say, I need to get out of the shadow of A Dark Room because I need to prove myself that this wasn’t just a one-shot wonder, or one-hit wonder. So I struggle with that impostor syndrome all the time.

But man, the emails - a lot of that stuff - it is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve done a lot of open source, especially during my corporate time. You get occasional thank you’s and, “We really appreciate what you’re doing,” and stuff. But I’ve gotten emails with people saying, “I loved your game, I want to get into game development.” I actually got reviews in the App Store, there was one review on - and the reason I mention A Noble Circle was because it was on that review - the review said, “Today was my 17th birthday, and I don’t think I would have made it past today if it wasn’t for this game.”

How do you internalize that? He was on the verge of saying, “I was going to end my life, and this game kept me from doing that.” When you see reviews like that, it just really puts things into perspective, that you could potentially be changing someone’s life.

Another thing with A Dark Room is that it’s actually playable via voiceover. So people that are blind can actually play the game. It hit the number one spot, and I got an email from a brother who was saying like, “Hey man, I really appreciate it, that you made the game accessible to the blind. Because my sister now, at school, can actually talk about the game with her friends. And she doesn’t feel left out around that kind of stuff.”

So those kind of things - I hate talking about it, I feel like I’m bragging about it, but those kind of things are just immensely rewarding. You can’t put a price tag on that kind of stuff. It’s been humbling, really humbling from that perspective. From what you were saying, with being genuine - I try my best, absolute best to be genuine with all my interactions and whatnot. Hopefully that shows through whenever I write or talk; even in my games, I hope that shows through.

Len: I certainly think it does.

I’ve got a particular little hobbyhorse about how, often when someone has had a success, and they’re asked about it, the story ends up being, “Well I was working in the movie store, and then I was directing Reservoir Dogs.” It’s not the best example, because Tarantino actually has explained how that happened in detail. But often people will tell their story about how they became a success, and you’ll think back on it and be like, “Hey wait a minute, there’s this huge gap.”

But what you’ve done is you’ve filled in that gap. There’s a really humorous moment at the beginning of your Leanpub book, where you talk about how there’s so many questions to ask. Like, “What should my stack be? What should blah, blah, blah, when I’m getting into developing an iOS app?” And then you go, “Well there are lots of things to choose from, but here’s one answer.” And you just list a place to start. The joke is that it ought to be so obvious that people should do this, but most people don’t.

When you’re desperate and you’re starting out, you’re like, just tell me what step one and two are. Then we can move on.

But if I have to know what I’m doing before I start, then I’ll never start. Anyway, I noticed, between your book and Reddit posts and stuff like that, you’re obviously trying to give people that. You’re giving people that equipment right away, which is very generous and certainly something no one has to do.

Len: You’ve mentioned A Noble Circle a couple of times, one of your games. I noticed that you’ve written about that too. You were publishing it while it was in progress, right? So the first version was kind of, as you say, barely playable.

Amir: Right.

Len: I know that there are in-progress games on Steam, and it’s interesting, because at Leanpub we’re into in-progress book publishing. Even Kanye West is getting in the game. He was in-progress publishing a song.

I’ve never asked someone who’s done this with a game before what that process is like. Do you get a lot of feedback from people? Do you have a plan for your releases? Where like it’s like you set up a surprise release in advance? What’s it like in-progress publishing a game?

Amir: I guess I just realized this idea of incremental development - and this kinda goes back to my corporate experience, because I don’t want to say that my corporate experience wasn’t helpful to me - during my corporate work, I got all the like Agile, Big A Agile stuff and everything, and it helped, because I understood what it meant to actually incrementally build something.

There’s so much pressure for game developers to have this phenomenally perfect release. But we have these facilities to allow us to release incrementally, so why aren’t we using them? That was kind of the idea that I had with A Noble Circle.

So my first version was barely playable, and I made it free. I was like, “Here, this game’s barely playable. I’m going to put it out there.” Then I put a bit of developer commentary at the end, saying that, “Look, the App Store’s broken, or I think it’s broken. We have a lot of ads, we have a lot of in-app purchases, and everyone’s gone for this cash grab without really taking into consideration that you may not need to do that. So what I’m going to do is, I’m going to release a game, and I promise to update it at least monthly. You’ll see these updates come through, and if you get it now, you get it for free. Eventually it’s going to cost money, but right now I don’t feel it’s worth money. So just take this journey with me. Not only are you going to get a completed product, but you’re going to see the story of how I got there.”

And that’s been really great. You get negative feedback, something like, “The jump mechanic’s stupid,” or things like that. I listen to that and I incorporate it. But then you have people that say, “Yes! There’s another update, I can’t wait to try it out, and see what he did differently, or what changes did he make.” They love that aspect of it. because they replay the game and go, “Oh yeah, he added this new thing.” Or, “I like the changes that he made. They’re already adding a new chapter.”

It’s wonderful. It’s still not done. But I’m charging a dollar for it now. I released a free version, A Noble Circle - Prologue, that had that a much more polished version of the initial experience. There’s an interstitial to say, “Here’s what I think is wrong. Here’s what I’m trying differently. Go buy my other game.” Or, “Go buy the full version if you want to continue the story.”

I hear game developers say, “I’m going to start a Kickstarter.” But I quasi did that myself. I just did my Kickstarter in the App Store, and said, “If you like what I did here, buy the full version, buy A Dark Room buy The Ensign, you have different options. And if you didn’t, no problem. I mean, you didn’t lose anything, hopefully you played a little bit of it, and maybe you can give me some feedback on that.” But generally speaking, all the reviews have been very positive. This approach has been really exciting for the end user, and for me too, because I just enjoy doing it.

Len: Can you get refunds in the App Store?

Amir: You can, but it’s tricky. They don’t advertise it, but on the receipt that you get, it’ll say, “You’ve purchased this game”, and there’s two links. You can gift the game to someone, and you can report a problem with the app. If you click the “report a problem” button, you can actually get a refund, and there’s a dropdown list of why you wanted to get a refund. Things like, “I accidentally bought it,” or, “It wasn’t what I expected it to be.” Generally speaking they do give the refund. But they don’t advertise it. They say, “All sales are final. No refunds.” But you can get a refund if you go through that process.

Len: That’s really interesting, because as you pointed out, there’s all these tools to publish incrementally. And that can be various types of products. But it’s especially, obviously, suited to digital products. I have this view that we’re working out what commerce is like around things that aren’t finished.

Amir: Yeah, and that’s why I like Leanpub too, from that perspective. I can put something out there that I’ve written. How it started, was I had the blog entry. And I had all this blog information in there. The first step was, take that blog, put it in the book, and then write a postmortem on all the postmortems that I wrote. That worked out really well, because I could reflect back saying, “During this time period, I thought that this was the problem. But this was really what was happening during that time period.”

Len: I actually have a couple of questions about that that I’ll ask in a couple of minutes. The theory that I have is that, especially if a digital good is published in-progress, but also self-published, where there isn’t what you could call a triple-A company behind it, then putting forward the fact that it’s easy to get a refund is a very important step in establishing a positive relationship with a person who’s buying the thing, and the person who’s making the thing.

Because then, there’s this positivity and this openness to it right from the start. It’s like, “We trust you.” Your first encounter with us, is us trusting you and asking you to place some trust in us. It’s like, “you’ve released something early and unfinished, but I’m trusting you that you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do. My theory is that surfacing the ability to easily get a refund for a product you can download actually drives sales, especially in the long run.

Amir: You can see the other side of that coin. I try not to worry about it, but there was an indie game development company that built a game called, “Firewatcher.” It’s on Steam right now. If you haven’t played Firewatcher, you can get it on PS4, you can get it on Steam. I don’t know if it’s on XBOX One. They call it a walking simulator. You’re basically this guy that’s at Yellowstone National Park, and you’re making sure that there’s no forest fires. But there’s this whole story and this relationship that you build with another person that’s also watching a fire in a different quadrant of Yellowstone, and uncovering your own past, what happened to you and why you’re there, what happened. There’s no way to die. There are no objectives you can fail at. It’s basically a walking simulator, where you pick up things and talk on a walkie-talkie with this other person.

What happened on Steam was that it was selling for like 15 bucks. And this person was like, “Yeah, I got this game. I beat it in about three hours, and I want a refund, because I could do something else with those 15 bucks. I mean, I loved the game but what should I do?” The developer actually responded to that entry. At the end, the person said, I’m not going to get the refund. But it’s really weird that even in this digital age, we still haven’t found a way to assign value to something that you can’t touch and feel.

That’s something that that everyone in the App Store struggles with. Especially premium game makers. It’s so difficult. I can buy a $700 device, but I can’t sell a game for 99 cents, without people feeling like they’ve been cheated if they don’t like it. I’m hoping as time goes on and we get more digital things, people just are okay with it. But that’s been a struggle that I’ve seen personally myself.

Len: It’s in that broader class of the way we’re in engaging new forms of commerce now, that have been enabled by certain types of technology. There’s no common sense yet. It’s so new we haven’t had time to develop. Remember how people used to leave their ringers on their mobile phones on, when they were walking around? You basically never hear a phone go off anymore.

Amir: You don’t hear the custom ringtones that they had?

Len: When they first came out, people would do that. It takes a while for codes and conventions to be built.

One thing we’ve definitely experienced at Leanpub is, we surface to people that refunds are two clicks away. That means that yes, if you want to, you can buy a book, and download it, and then you can get your refund. I mean obviously we don’t encourage that. But it’s rare.

Amir: Yeah, and you try not to sweat that either.

Len: Well you can’t, I mean with BitTorrent and whatever. This is my personal opinion. People in this industry obviously have many different opinions about it. As we’re talking about it, people are still working it out.

My view is that, especially if you’re a creator, if you’re creating things, you should spend your time creating things. Even if it were possible to kind of diminish the pirating of your work, you’re not the right person to be doing that. You should be writing your book. You should be thinking about your novel. You should be thinking about your game. You should be working on your song or whatever it is, and just really genuinely leave that out of your head space, and concentrate on being better at what you’re doing.

Amir: For me it goes back to the empathy aspect, too. If someone downloads my book or pirates it, it’s like, “Maybe they can’t afford it.” Even with my game, I had people on Reddit, when I would give away promo codes, say “Hey, this promo code doesn’t work in South Africa. I can’t use it here. And I really can’t buy your game either. Because there’s no really good means for me to buy something. Because I don’t have a bank account or credit card.” Or it’d be a kid: “I’m 13 years old. I get an allowance, I can’t do this.” So sometimes I just give them the benefit of the doubt: there’s a reason why they can’t shell over the cash.

Len: I couldn’t agree more. It’s interesting - the best-selling Leanpub book in 2015, in terms of copies and revenue - which are two separate calculations - had a minimum price of zero. The book that made the most money, you could get for free.

I like to say, this isn’t us being precious. It’s a serious business model: giving that flexibility to people is actually beneficial. Definitely, my personal belief is that spending time and energy in attacking people is really bad. That is counterproductive activity.

Amir: It’s just not worth it.

Len: It’s interesting you’re saying about how they kind of hide refunds at the App Store. It used to be, when I was a kid, if you like got your remote controlled car for Christmas or your birthday, and it didn’t work, and you took it back, you had to engage in a negotiation, and prove that you didn’t do it. You stand in line, and they treat you in a sinister fashion, like maybe you were trying to hoodwink them or something. The last time I returned something was at a Best Buy or something, and they’re just like, “Okay, got the receipt?” And then I handed it over, and they gave me my money back. They saved themselves so much money, and made a happy customer, by not being jerks about the exchange of money and goods.

Hopefully we’ll get to the point where it’s just common sense that being negative to everybody - like DRM on an ebook for example - that treating all of your potential customers like you think they might be bad actors is just a terrible approach. The people who are kind are going to win the hard ass war.

Just moving on actually, I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about your book.

Surviving the App Store is a great title by the way. You did a really interesting thing where you had this very early release, where you had a promotion, where you can get it for a big discount if you buy it now, but there isn’t any content in it yet. I was wondering how that worked out?

Amir: It worked. It was the craziest thing. I did the free thing. I had just one page, and it was like, “This is kinda what my table of contents would be.” I had a whole “Hello World”. I set the price to free, and $4.99. I tweeted about it, I had the cover. I did my cover in Photoshop, and I’m terrible at it. You can actually see the progression, I’ve got some tweets with the old cover on there. I’ve got some feedback on that too, which was cool.

But I put it out there, and I was like, “Somebody talk me out of this please.” Somebody talk me out of writing a book. And then right off the bat, I got like insta buys. I got like five or six people paying me the five bucks for the book. I’m like, “You guys are crazy. I don’t have any pages, and you’re buying my book. What’s wrong with you?” And then from there, I was like, “Okay well, let me take my blog. My blog is still up, so you can read at least the initial response that I had. It’s like a 14 month diary of everything that I went through. So you can still read that.” And I was like, “Okay, let me copy and paste that in there, in the book. And then read through it and then have a postmortem on my postmortems.” That was the first exclusive content that I added to the book.

I kept it free during that time period, and just said, “Here’s the update to the book.” I kept on getting good feedback and good sales from it. It’s surreal that I can sell a promise - that I built up at least some credibility that says, “I promise to do this. I have no pages. Give me $5.” And people did it, and it was just awesome. It’s a really great feeling.

Len: I was wondering actually, I mean the answer might be in there, but why did you choose to use Leanpub rather than any of the other platforms you could’ve used?

Amir: I think that was the one that I heard the most about. The GitHub integration was my primary point - that I could just have Markdown files and have the GitHub stuff. It just worked for me, so that’s the model that I went with.

Len: Okay so the Markdown was a selling point?

Amir: Yeah, Markdown and the GitHub integration was the big selling point for me. And a part of me was like, “Oh I can make the repo public”, but I decided to keep it private, during my editing phase and whatnot, and they can get the book. If you really tried hard, you could probably go through all my Reddit entries and glean some aspects of it, but at that point it’s like, email me and I’ll give you a free copy of the book, just do that.

Another interesting angle that I had with the book was - and I’m still playing around with it, especially if I get some more traction - is to keep it free. Right now it’s $4.99, the minimum price. But I might make it free again. Because it’s free publicity for my games, and that’s where my income really comes from, is the games themselves.

Is there a service that I can set up, where if you email me your iTunes receipt, and I see that you’ve bought my game, that I could give you the book for free? Or some variation of that? There’s no public API to get sales information from Apple. Those are the weird things that I’m thinking about right now. How can I drive more sales to my game? And then you get a lot of the - the 90%. The other 90% for free. So just letting my wheels spin on that. I think it’s doable. I think it is actually really doable. But I just have to see if I can figure it out.

Len: That you could do it the other way around, where if someone bought your book, you could give them the game for free?

Amir: I get 100 promotion codes per release. So I could do that 100 times, but that’s where it stops, right? I was thinking, I could just start up a daemon process and send AWS instance where you email this daemon process, and then it passes the receipt. And then that gets you a coupon code, gives you the coupon reference, so that you can download the book for free.

And then you start thinking about, well they might be able to forge the receipt. And it’s like you can’t start thinking about that kind of stuff, you just have to concentrate on those things.

I think I emailed you before about this - a means to say, have you subscribed to my newsletter, and get a discount on the book, and just facilitate that through Leanpub - that’d be great. There are different ideas there too. I use MailChimp right now, and trying to figure out ways to integrate potentially - if you subscribe, then send off this subsequent thing to give you the coupon code for the book. Yeah, different ideas there too.

Len: My last question related to that is - the theme of your book and your posts is dealing with Apple, as an iOS product maker. I was wondering if you could just, for a couple of minutes, talk about what’s that experience like?

Amir: It’s definitely, don’t call us, we’ll call you. There’s two sides of it. The editorial team is this untouchable group. Developers don’t have direct access to them. So I have a liaison to the editorial team that will advocate for me. The good thing about these liaisons, they’re human beings. You can talk to them and send out a quick email saying, “Hey man, I’m doing this.” You don’t have to worry about being really formal with them and everything.

But it is basically a black hole. You send things over, and you get very little feedback coming back on the other end, outside of the Thursday during lunchtime in Cupertion where you get to see if anything really happened. But I guess, they’re in a position where they can do that.

Len: When you say editorial, is that both approving the app or a new release, and positioning in the App Store?

Amir: This is strictly for featuring. Curation of featured content. As far as the ranking system, it’s pretty much completely calculated off of the number of downloads you have. So from what I’ve seen, it’s about a four to five [day] moving average of your downloads. So getting 600 to 700 downloads a day on the premium App Store, will put you in the top 150 games. Getting 6,000 to 7,000 downloads a day in the free App Store, will put you in the top 150. You could calculate it very easily, if you have the entire range – which I do!

But yeah, the entire feature process is 100% curated. There’s no automatic engine. There are people that look at apps, interact with developers. Of course interact with Triple A companies. And they figure out what they want to feature, and what they want to push. They try to curate that content. I think that’s where the value is in the App Store. I haven’t done much Google Play yet, I’m going to - I’m porting the game over right now.

But as far as Apple goes, yeah, there’s a lot of work that goes into getting good content out there. And frankly, it’s good content. So when you see something featured, it’s worth buying. I can say that pretty strongly. At least if it’s not a Triple A company, right? If it’s some unknown company, if it’s not SquareSoft, Kim Kardashian, King, Warner Brothers - buy it. You’ll enjoy whatever it is.

Len: That’s really great to know that detail, and that they’re doing a good job over there. Sometimes, as a non-expert consumer, it’s hard to know.

My last question is, if you could ask us to build one feature or solve one problem that you encountered at Leanpub, what would you choose?

Amir: I think it’d be the newsletter thing. If I can collect an email for a discount - huge. I think that’d be pretty big for me.

Len: So what do you mean? Can you say maybe a little bit more about that? Because currently we have a feature where, when someone’s buying a book, they can choose to share their email address with you. And you’re saying you want something more than that.

Amir: Right. If they share their email address, I give them a discount.

Len: Oh I see, yeah got it, understood. Yeah, that’s something we’ve thought about before.

Amir: That’d be really cool from my perspective. Because I’ve got the blog, and the more people that I have on the blog, I can subsequently have different entries around game development. I can talk about my Twitch channel if I want to start that up, screencasts, and of course, cross-promote my games. So that’d be pretty valuable and I do believe I give good content outside of the book.

Len: That’s really interesting actually, on the theme of things that have changed because of technology and the types of products that we can create and sell to people, and that people can buy. There’s a certain category of author who comes to us thinking that by default you get a customer’s email address, which to me is just like, that would never occur to me that, if I’m buying a book that the creator of it is going to get my email address.

Amir: Yeah, that’s personal.

Len: Yeah, exactly. Like I said, we’re working out the codes, right? There are some people like - especially people who live in the newsletter marketing world -who often are like, “That’s what I’m building, my email list.” We’re hearing things about Bernie Sanders’ email list basically is this hugely valuable thing that the Clinton team is trying to get him to hand over and stuff. There are people who think from the email out, right? It’s something we encounter. But definitely giving people the option to share their email address with an author is something we really like. Because we want to encourage people to establish a relationship with each other.

Amir: And out of all the subscriptions, only one person has opted out, right? So everyone’s been really good about giving their email.

Len: On that though, you actually have to opt in.

Amir: Yeah, yeah. Sorry.

Len: That means everybody but one person has actively opted in. So that says a lot!

Thanks a lot for taking your time to talk about this. It was really interesting chat. And thanks for being a Leanpub author too!

Amir: Oh I love it.

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