• The story of 3,249 VIPs (Very Important Pixels)

    I'd like to share a story with you about some of the most important pixels in today's game market - the 57 x 57 pixels that make up the "app icon" on your smartphone. This story is based on our experience over the past 2 months with our mobile app called Trainz Driver (Dec 2012/Jan 2013).

    All good app developers already know that their app icon is important. It's the first thing a user sees when browsing the app store and aims to give customers at least some idea of what to expect. What is not so well known is just how dramatically this little icon can affect your sales!

    First some background about our app. Trainz Driver was originally released in August 2012. We had spent more than a year developing the iPhone version which was based upon our already successful "Trainz Simulator" app for iPad/Android Tablet. This version had in turn had been created as a result of our 10-year development of the Trainz franchise on PC.

    Icon selection

    When it came to icon selection, we knew how important is was and decided outsourcing the art. Hoever we didn't really like any of the icons provided (a selection of these are shown below).

    We believed these icons were too cartoony for the 3D train driving experience in our game. However we were also concerned that we might scare away the more casual market if we went with our usual Trainz approach of "big strong train image". We went back in house and mocked up a few different things trying to get something that said "trains" but also said "part simulator, part game". Here are some of our early designs:

    We eventually decided to go back to our roots and incorporate the orange train from the logo/title (which was present in the first Trainz Logo back in 2001. We felt this highly stylized icon stood out really well among a crowded list of app icons and we were very happy with it.

    The icon chosen for the launch of TrainzDriver.

    Ready for Launch

    So with our icon and app all tested and ready to go, we launched Trainz Driver on iTunes and immediately hit the Top 10-20 Simulation/Family categories. Since then we've remained in the Top 50 in most major countries with peaks and troughs dependent on pricing (and that's a whole different story). On Google Play, although we hit the Top 30 rank for Casual Games soon after release, we have steadily hovered around the Top 75. Lastly, on the Amazon app store, which is where this story really starts, we were almost invisible on any sales chart.

    We weren't happy with our position on Amazon and price drops weren't working either. One day we were analyzing our sales stats and were puzzled why our "My First Trainz Set" app was outselling Trainz Driver on the Amazon store. On the other app stores, Trainz Driver was ahead by 3:1 or more. A search for "Trainz" on the Amazon app store showed a screen with 3 icons; for Trainz Simulator, Trainz Driver, and My First Train Set - our 3 mobile Trainz apps. The screenshot below shows the Trainz Driver icon quite prominent among the 3 products, but why weren't people buying this item?

    What we decided was that the MFTS icon screamed "train game for kids" and the Trainz Simulator icon said "serious 3D train game". On the other hand the Trainz Driver icon said neither of these things but did say "bright colors to catch your eye". It could even have been an icon for a business application. Clicking on the Trainz Driver icon to view more, what we saw next was even more concerning...

    Here, on the product page, the Trainz Driver icon was now an enlarged image of the "stylized" and "brightly polished" icon. Being on Amazon, this larger icon format would suit a book or DVD cover, but did not suit our icon style at all. We decided straight away that our icon needed replacing on Amazon, and the sooner the better.

    We decided to whip up a new icon and this time it had to say "awesome 3D train driving experience" not "huh? is this a game or what??".

    The new "super-icon"

    The difference an icon makes

    We had the new image up on the store that afternoon, and the stats started coming in the very next day. Unit sales had more than doubled overnight. "Hey - that seemed to work pretty well" we thought.

    The next day sales had more than tripled from the Dec 12 starting point. "Great stuff - this is better than unexpected."

    We then watched as sales ran at 5X their previous daily sales for a week. "Wow. Is this really happening? Is this just temporary or is it a permanent change in our sales fortunes? Could an icon alone achieve this increase in sales?"

    What happened next is even more amazing. In the lead up to Christmas, our previously "invisible" product on Amazon had climbed up the charts, and within two weeks, we were selling 20 times as many units every day! Even after the Christmas peak we have steadily maintained 10 times the previous daily sales on the Amazon app store.

    Amazon App Store

    With this sort of performance, even if off a low base, we just had to try out the new icon on Google Play. We updated the icon on Jan 16. On Day 1 we more than doubled sales, and by Day 4 we had more than tripled. (btw, the additional spike the following week was due to a price change rather than the icon). Since the icon change, we've gone from ranking around 60-75 and now sit in the Top 25 Casual Games.

    Google Play App Store

    We now had even stronger evidence that our app icon was the right move. So the next step in the trilogy was to get the new icon into iTunes. Of course it takes two weeks to update an app and have it approved by Apple, but on Jan 31 we released our app with a couple of minor "back-end" changes and a shiny new "train" icon. As you can see below, on Feb 1 we had doubled Jan 30 sales. The next day, a Saturday, was nearly double that again. By Sunday Feb 3, we sold more than 3 times as many units as we had the previous Sunday - without a change in price, and without any advertising.

    iTunes App Store

    So there you have it. Who would have thought that something as easy as changing your app icon would have such a dramatic effect on sales? Due solely to a change of icon, we have witnessed increases of 10X sales on Amazon, 3X on Google Play and after only a few days, 3X on iTunes as well. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and given the increase in sales and excellent reviews coming in, it would appear that our audience simply hadn't been discovering our app due to the original choice of icon.

    To maintain momentum and help introduce even more players into the 1Million-strong Trainz Community, we have dropped the price of Trainz Driver to 99 cents (usually $2.99) for the weekend. Hopefully by next week there will be many thousands more happy Trainz users.
    Comments 19 Comments
    1. captainkman's Avatar
      captainkman -
      Thanks for posting this. Another real-life example I can use for my two logo designing assignments. One for Graphics and one for Computer Studies. Fun...
    1. ish6's Avatar
      ish6 -
      Cool Read!!!
    1. scratchy's Avatar
      scratchy -
      Good stuff and congrats guys! I was obviously wrong when I thought there was no money in apps as it seems to be a major focus of auran recently. keep it up!
    1. Infraredbob's Avatar
      Infraredbob -
      As one who has created lots of routes on trainz iPad, I'd like to say that the new icon for driver really is better. Nice job, guys. Now to just bring an update to the iPad version
    1. amtrak2041864's Avatar
      amtrak2041864 -
      I want the new icon but I have no more memory on my iphone
    1. JCitron's Avatar
      JCitron -
      It's all about presentation, Tony.

      I worked in the graphics industry for many years. I should say I grew up in it since I spilled my dad's bottle of India ink on the carpet when I was 3 years old! As you've found out you need something that's both attractive, yet simple at the same time. What you have now says it means business and it's not a cartoony game.

      Well congratulations are in order. I love reading about success stories like this.

    1. dontee's Avatar
      dontee -
      As a long-time model railway modeller I decided to break up and sell my latest, large layout soon after I discovered Trainz, some 8 years ago, when a friend gave me Trainz 2004 they had bought from the remaindered shelf in a book shop. I couldn't believe all the amazing things you could do in Trainz. No space outside your computer required, no having to stay with the same layout you'd taken ages to construct, and all at less than the price of one loco. And the opportunity to exchange info with like minded railway buffs the world over.

      Wonderful stuff. My sentiments exactly, John.

    1. avondetenmetspekjes's Avatar
      avondetenmetspekjes -
      What it also says is that people haven't decided to buy this because of it being a high quality product but simply because they like the cover.
    1. ccordes's Avatar
      ccordes -
      Tony - Congratulations, man! That is no less than astounding. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if this story gets reprinted in text books.

      Chris Cordes
    1. Tony_Hilliam's Avatar
      Tony_Hilliam -
      Thanks for the support guys. Just a quick update... on top of the icon change, we decided to do a 99c special for this weekend (after all, $3 is a huge outlay for hours of entertainment . After around 36 hours, we have seen even stronger growth in all markets, reaching #3 App Overall in Germany and Top 10 Sim/Family in many countries. It is an exciting time for us and makes the company stronger for all future developments.
    1. juhis's Avatar
      juhis -
      I'm quite impressed that changing the icon would eventually lead to better sales! Keep up the good work, and I'm very much looking towards the future to see new versions being released!
    1. Haccp4me's Avatar
      Haccp4me -
      Same product, "Different packaging", A Great marketing success story .
    1. Roy3b3's Avatar
      Roy3b3 -
      I spent years in marketing before I retired and I am extremely impressed with the marketing strategies that have been implemented. I now enjoy hours of fun building and creating little worlds of my own and it's great to know there is plenty of support when you need it. Congratulations.
    1. goochy's Avatar
      goochy -
      But are the bugs fixed? It is one thing to increase sales with 'funk' but without 'functionality' then end up with a product that will see a drop in sales and worst of all, customers who will never trust the product, the company, the associations again.
    1. Euphod's Avatar
      Euphod -
      Not surprising. I've had some experience in the "creating logos for business" arena, and it's quite unpredictable in it's execution.
    1. qassaquyangli's Avatar
      qassaquyangli -
      Really cool story Tony!
    1. Turret1234's Avatar
      Turret1234 -
      Ya cool story
    1. CFL-Fan's Avatar
      CFL-Fan -
      If this teaches you anything, it's that maybe you should trust the professional designers after all
    1. jimabbey's Avatar
      jimabbey -
      Installed Sp1 then the Hot Fix ran a EDR ,Trains an ALL content Working GREAT and I cam even merge routes Now! Hurray!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!