At first glance, the question in the headline seems unanswerable.
To use a coding analogy, how long it takes to create an app is a bit like asking how long a string should be. It depends.
Some people will say you can’t hurry creativity, and you shouldn’t rush your craft. They’ll wait patiently for their muse to descend to them.
And yet, at this very moment, there are bands in studios who are recording albums that are already available for pre-order. There are novelists writing stories that publishers have already scheduled the print run for. Games studios are working on AAA games now, with absolute deadlines to meet if the game is to hit the market in time for Christmas.
These aren’t the exceptions: these are the rules. Deadlines are a fact of business life, even in creative businesses.
The app store model enables anyone to compete with major games studios, using the same channels and distributing to the same devices.
If you’ve created a visionary new puzzle game for netbooks, you can distribute it through the Intel AppUp Center, alongside Rovio’s Angry Birds and Namco’s Pac-Man.
The rich variety of apps we all enjoy today is partly a result of the app store’s egalitarianism: anyone can contribute their app to the app ecosystem, without the consent or cooperation of anyone else.
But, as a one-man studio, how do you know when it’s time to publish your app? What happens if you don’t set your own deadline and don’t have someone else breathing down your neck for the finished product?
You could end up tinkering forever. After a while, development will probably hit a plateau where each change makes the app different, rather than noticeably better.
Seth Godin has written extensively about the importance of “shipping”, actually finishing a product and getting it out the door.
Anyone who ever created a great app was prepared to stop tinkering with it and let it go. Setting your own deadline is a powerful way to ensure you actually finish your app, and give it the meaning it deserves by getting it into the hands of users.
Here are some questions that might help you to work out whether your game is ready to publish now:
Would you pay money for it?
Even if it’s a free app, people don’t want to waste time downloading rubbish. If you can’t be objective, show people the app and ask them. If you could sell it now, it might be time to publish.
Could you relegate some of your wish-list features to upgrades available later?
If so, get your app out there now so that you can start getting feedback from real users.
Are you hungry to start your next project?
If so, you’ve probably passed the creative phase on the project. A certain amount of tidying up and grunt work is necessary to finish the project, but it’s probably time to start working through that so you can publish as soon as possible.
Are you hitting diminishing returns on your development time?
If it’s taking a week to tweak a minor character, perhaps it’s time to learn to live with that character as-is.
And, finally, will the hardware be obsolete by the time you finish at this rate?
If you can say “yes”, even if only half-seriously, it’s time to ship. There’s a limit to how much people will pay for an app, so don’t go overboard on features and detail.
How long should it take to develop an app? As long as you enjoy working on it, perhaps? Or a few months, because nobody’s going to pay enough to justify a longer investment of your time?
There isn’t an answer that fits everyone and every project but, deep down, you know the answer that feels right for you. You just have to make sure you ask yourself the question and respect the answer you get back.