Interview with Adam Saltsman of Semi Secret Software

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Adam Saltsman and Eric Johnson, are co-founders of Semi Secret Software. If you're a fan of the popular Wurdle word game, then you'll probably recognize the company's name. Saltsman handles the design end, and Johnson does the coding. AppCraver corresponded with Adam recently:

1. First, tell me a bit about your company. How many apps do you have in the App Store? How long have you been in business and why did you decide to develop for the iPhone?

We've been open since August 2008, when Eric brought me a nearly finished, but programmer-art-filled version of a simple but addictive word game that eventually turned into Wurdle. Eric started the project mainly out of personal curiosity. I think we initially expected to sell maybe a couple hundred copies, so that we could pay back the developer fee.

2 .What is it that you think differentiates your company from other App Store developers?

I think just based on response to our first game that we are very different from a bulk of the developers, but not so different from many others. I think there are a lot of devs (many whom we know personally) who are just making solid games for as long as they can afford to, and kind of riding out the whims of the App Store.

3. What do you think of the new 3.0 SDK? Got any ideas how to take advantage of all the new features?

Right now, we are looking more at integrating the 3.0 features into our new games. Our next game will definitely feature ad-hoc Bluetooth competition with local lobbies and all that good stuff. We have a kind of crazy plan for something that can leverage MMS and the new server push notifications as well, but that's definitely more on the esoteric side of things currently.

4. What's your take on the idea of a premium app section in the  App Store for apps selling for $19.99 and up? Think it's a good idea and if so, how do you think buyers benefit?

This is something that a lot of people--myself included--have been guessing at since at least last holiday season, I think November is the first time I brought it up to a fellow indie dev. I don't think it makes sense for Apple or for customers or even for the bulk of the iPhone developers. I think it makes sense for enormous publishers who haven't been able to switch gears or boost their agility to the point where they can compete on the iPhone effectively. But I don't think Apple will do the 10 percent volume they need to keep the pricing competitive, and I don't think the market is there, at least on this platform.

5. It's well established that low prices lead to high sales but not necessarily to high profits. What does it take to succeed in this marketplace?

In digital distribution, low prices and high sales do lead to high profits! Unfortunately, the gateway to high sales is pretty closely guarded, and appears to many devs to be a lottery at this point, due to the massive amount of releases [averaging something like 30 per day] into the marketplace. As a developer, the interesting puzzle to me is how to engineer stability out of a situation that isn't necessarily reliable but at least has some rules that can work in your favor.

6. Increasingly, big companies are entering the app biz with big budgets for development and marketing. Whenever that happens in the software business, it's almost always followed by a shake out of the smaller players. Do you think that's what will happen in the App Store?

I would be surprised.  Not out of customer loyalty to the little guy, or anything like that necessarily. But at least so far the bigger players have had a lot of trouble adapting to a situation that comes pretty naturally to the smaller companies. That is, fast decision making, quick reactions, clever and innovative--if not polished--designs, etc. The strength of the bigger players is usually in duplicating successes but with higher production values and more marketing dollars. None of these things seems to have a measurable impact on app sales performance at this point, but these things can change pretty quickly!

7. Dev cycles will get longer as buyers expect more from apps. What does that mean to your company and other companies? Do you foresee prices climbing over the next year?

I have no idea...as consumer volume increases the need to jack up prices seems to drop accordingly. We were selling more copies after Christmas than we were at in September, and since it’s digital, we were just plain making more money, there was no extra production effort there. So I guess I don't see prices climbing, but I wouldn't be surprised to see overall acceptance of $3 and $5 apps to continue to grow. As far as impact on our own internal development, we're working very hard on creating highly reusable code--both of our very different internal projects use 90 percent of the same code currently--and we've hired an artist to help parallelize our efforts as we head into the summer. Our concern, I think, is not so much spending more time on apps, but simply making better, deeper apps. With experience and careful design, I think we can do this without having to burn too much extra time.

8.Evidently, there's a new clause in the developer contracts that requires developers to offer refunds. What are your thoughts on this?

It's completely ridiculous.

9. Many devs have concerns about the App Store pricing model. Has it been a problem for you and if so, what's your solution?  Would trial apps be an option for you?

I think it's worked wonderfully for us so far, but I would love to see an XBLA-style fully integrated trial or demo system that allowed you to upgrade in-game. This would remove the need for refunds entirely and I think encourage more experimentation and maybe slightly less-safe, impulse-buy-type of behavior in the store. Currently, the process of upgrading from a free app to a paid app is so laborious that we do not even offer a free app.

10. Do you plan to release your apps in Nokia, Blackberry and other app stores?

Our most likely next markets are the [Nintendo} DSi and Android, but there are definite hurdles for each.  It will be an interesting summer!

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