Schlock: from Web to iPhone

I have recently read some posts about iPhone applications, and their performance in the app store. I've always found this information interesting as a developer of iPhone applications, and so I decided to share my experiences as well.

Additionally, I thought I would write about how the Schlock Mercenary applications came to light - from the beginning, to more than 6 months after release in the iTunes app store.

Back in July 2009, Howard Tayler got an iPhone. While he was playing with it, his wife Sandra posted the following on his blog:

Howard got his iphone yesterday and is now cheerfully contemplating what Schlockish apps can be devised for it.

I thought this sounded like a great idea, and so I sent a tweet to Howard, letting him know that I was an iPhone developer, and that I would happily discuss what could and could not be done on the iPhone. I assumed there would be quite a few others volunteering as well, so I was quite surprised when Howard replied, asking me to email him so we could discuss his ideas.

Thus began the development of the Schlock Mercenary iPhone application.

Concept Phase

Initially, Howard and I spent about 3 weeks discussing the application - what should be included, various business models for providing the content, things Apple doesn't like on the iPhone and so on.

We decided to use a monthly subscription for the app, since there would be quite a lot of work for both of us to get the app up and running, and we decided a subscription would better allow the costs of the project to be met, including ongoing support. Rather than being paid upfront for the development work, it was agreed that Howard and I would share the revenue from the application.

One concern we had was that people would feel that the app should be free, since the comic was already available on the web for free, so the decision was made to keep the monthly cost low, and to add some "iPhone only" features to make the subscription more attractive.

  • Higher resolution strips - a normal strip on the Schlock Mercenary website is 780x226 pixels. The iPhone app uses 1000x290 pixel images.
  • iPhone only artwork - the home page of the app includes custom artwork directly from Howard - which is updated reasonably regularly.
  • Strips available 3 days ahead of the website - with the iPhone app you can read the strips before they're on the website.
  • Panel-based navigation - Using the controls in app, you can read the strip exactly how Howard intended.
  • Links to Schlock Mercenary community sites.



Cell size compared between the website and the iPhone app. These images are at full size.

Development Phase

There are two main components to the Schlock Mercenary apps. The app itself, which everybody sees and uses, and the server software. The server component is used by Howard to upload strips, footnotes and other artwork, and to draw panels on the strips for the in-app reader.

I spent 3 months working on the application in evenings and weekends, starting with the server, so Howard could begin resizing and uploading strips, and we could start drawing the panels on over 3,700 strips. (!)

Initially we were only going to have the panels defined for the latest book, a few hundred strips at most, but after reading strips in the app both with and without panels defined, Howard decided we needed to have them all set up properly. Sandra and Howard spent quite a few long nights drawing those panels onto the strips. I helped out, doing maybe 18 months worth, but Sandra was the star here, drawing over 7 years worth of panels on strips.

The application went through a few design increments, and the first few versions that were sent to Howard were quite different from the version available today. Once Howard provided the Schlock Mercenary style graphics, it all fell into place.

Home Screen Iterations

In November 2009 we released the app to 40 beta testers, who used the app for about two weeks, and provided some great feedback in bugs, feature suggestions and general usability. We implemented a lot of the features, and submitted the app to Apple in late November.

iPad and iPhone 4

Once the iPad was announced, I immediately decided to rework the application for the new device.

As the screen size of the iPad is 1024x768 pixels, the 1000 pixel wide strips used in the iPhone application fit the iPad perfectly. The increased screen size allows for easier reading over the iPhone version, and also allows the whole strip to be viewed at once, except the larger Sunday strips where one or two rows of panels require the reader to scroll.

Personally, I feel the iPad application is the best way to read Schlock Mercenary, especially if you're reading back through the archives.

Again, when the iPhone 4 was announced I felt it was worthwhile adding graphics optimised to the Retina display. Despite the iPhone not yet being available in NZ, I have seen the application running on an iPhone 4, and I'm glad I did the changes. The new screen really is incredible, and with the recent 2.0.1 update, the new graphics are available for all to enjoy.

Revenue

Here is a summary of the weekly income for the 7 months the Schlock Mercenary app has been in the app store.

Sales data - normalised to assume USD$0.99 for all app sales worldwide.

As you can see, the majority of income has been from renewed subscriptions. The two spikes are caused by a large number of 6 month renewals one month after the initial release, when the first month included with the app expired, and again when those 6 month subscriptions started expiring. Here are the raw numbers, after Apple has taken it's 30% share:

iPhone Application   $414.40
iPad Application   $84.00
Subscriptions   $1,278.20
Total $1,776.60


As a joint venture between The Tayler Corporation and Plus 14 Ltd, this amount is then split 50/50 between the two companies. So we have each received about US$875 from the application so far. Note this has been with very little advertising, and each time Howard has mentioned the app on his blog there have been spikes in sales.

In the same period of time, about 120GB worth of data has been downloaded from the server by the application. This equates to the entire 10 year archive being downloaded over 170 times.

At the risk of extrapolating a trend from a single data point, it appears that subscription iPhone apps for webcomics are not large moneymaking ventures. The Schlock Mercenary app exists because both Howard and I want this app to exist, and feel it provides an improved experience over using the website directly on iOS devices.

With that in mind, we will keep developing the app, adding new features and refining the current features with the intent of making the app even better. We hope you enjoy using the app, and we hope you will enjoy it even more in the future.

Watch this space.