Making a mobile app immortal

Mobile App Success Analysis

As major app vendors from Rovio to Zynga (ZNGA) bulked up, hired hundreds of people and started hunting for new game franchises, Lima Sky took a path less traveled. Its first hit game is the oldest in the business, and the company has no plans to publish another one. But if things go as planned, Doodle Jump will never die.

Before Fruit Ninja, Angry Birds and other evergreen blockbuster apps, there was Doodle Jump. Hitting the U.S. top-10 way back in July 2009, the game has a claim to being the oldest mobile game that is still a significant hit (i.e. still in top-40). While many aging peers like Pocket God have faded away, Doodle Jump chugged along, spending most of 2010 and 2011 on the U.S. top-20 iPhone chart and most of 2012 in the top-30.

This week, the game got a major upgrade and we talked to the semi-legendary Igor Pusenjak, one of the brothers behind the game.

Croatian brothers Igor and Marko essentially are Lima Sky, the company behind Doodle Jump. Igor may not be featured in Businessweek as often as Peter Vesterbacka, but in the mobile app business he is a bit of a demigod. The mobile game market remains split between quirky indie shops and major corporations. Slowly, huge corporations like Disney (DIS) are also gaining ground. At one extreme are quixotic one-man shops like the mysterious German allegedly developing the cult smash Tiny Wings single-handedly. The Pusenjak brothers aren’t quite as eccentric, but they do have an eclectic app development philosophy.

Most companies fret over creating the next mobile game franchise after hitting it big – and they usually fail dismally. Lima Sky instead decided to stick to upgrading and improving Doodle Jump relentlessly, keeping the focus on its one mega-seller. The goal is to make Doodle Jump immortal by refreshing the game so often and so successfully that there is no need to craft new games. By not getting distracted by new projects, the Pusenjaks can keep creative focus on one title.

It’s a fascinating concept and obviously one that seems a lot less far-fetched than it did in 2010. Two years ago, most people assumed that mobile games would be much like video games, maybe with a somewhat longer lifespan.  It is now becoming evident the most popular apps can still flourish three years after their launches, essentially morphing into software services. It just might be possible to create a hit that lives for decades, essentially becoming the family business on its own.

Doodle Jump has generated more than 15 million paid downloads, though it is only now getting a major in-app purchase overhaul. New functional outfits rolled out this week bring a distinctly Mario-like vibe to the game world.

The game started slipping out of the top-25, where its creators hope to keep it over the long-term, so a transfusion of new blood was definitely needed. In a couple of weeks we will find out how well consumers respond to a revamp of a franchise that has stayed in the top-40 for more than three years. Nothing quite like this has ever been done — other mega-apps like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja have received entirely separate spin-offs to rejuvenate the brands.

For 2013, Lima Sky plans to roll out an ambitious, sprawling merchandising project spanning Europe and North America. The melancholic alien featured in the game is a memorable character and might be a good fit for the merchandising business. There is also work on an iPad version that is better suited for that platform — the Pusenjaks are highly aware of how the iPhone and iPad app markets are diverging right now. A major cross-over campaign with another big franchise is also under preparation.

Years pass by and the philosophical creature featured in Doodle Jump patiently clings to No.20 on top of mobile app charts across the globe, sometimes slipping, but always scrambling back — morphing a bit every few months, but with no sequels or new levels in sight. There is only one level in the game and it never ends; how long the journey might last is a topic  followed closely by mobile app industry mavens.

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