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Anarchy and the App Store

Pocket Gamer | 20 Jun 2009 18:24
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From chaos springs order. As instances like Conway's Game of Life, the complex geopolitics of EVE Online, and indeed every living organism and social institution on Earth demonstrate, if you leave a system and its inhabitants to get on with things, they'll eventually find the balance that represents the best chance of survival and fall into largely predictable patterns of interaction.

We get precious few opportunities in life to see what happens in a new system before order sets in, unless you count The Lord of the Flies or the first few days of each season of Big Brother, when the wide-eyed contestants are still trying to orient themselves and maneuver for survival, suddenly aware that very little of what they used to their advantage in the outside world is still available to them.

In commercial terms, however, the App Store is just such an unordered system. Its first year has been like the opening moves of a game in which the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor, the experienced and the naïve have been divested of their baggage and pitched together.

The reliable and imposing influence of publishers has been curtailed. While companies like Chillingo, EA and ngmoco are helping to bring games to a wider audience with their marketing expertise, many of the more notable success stories have been written by developers working alone.

Ethan Nicholas's iShoot is the poster game for this trend, and Flight Control to some extent shares its grassroots background. Car Jack Streets - already a mobile franchise but not famous by any means before the App Store - is now on its way to DSiWare thanks to the boost the franchise received through Apple.

So why is it that every developer is now in the same arena instead of sticking to their former strata? Largely, it's because the cost of getting a game to market on the App Store is nothing compared with how much it costs to buy development kits from Nintendo or Sony, make a DS or PSP game, and then produce the carts, UMDs, and boxes to sell.

But now that everybody's in the App Store together, the old order is gone. While the influence of the press in steering sales is gradually catching up, making a successful game is all about having your consumer discover it while he browses, and Apple's storefront is notoriously ill-suited to that purpose. The App Store is like an iceberg, with the vast majority of its content submerged: to get into the exposed surfaces of the Top 100 or the coveted Featured pages, developers need to use cunning and, in some case, underhand tactics.

During the first few weeks of the App Store, some suspect practices emerged from the scrimmage. Developers quickly learned that they could game the system by releasing frequent and trivial updates to shunt their games back to prominence at the top of the list of incoming titles. Thankfully, Apple was quick to close this loophole, but strategies are still in play.

This week PopCap attracted the attention of the blogosphere by abruptly reducing the price of Peggle from $5 to 99 cents. As a result, the game shot from 60th to 1st place in the chart, and it's now sitting at 5th, several days after the end of the offer. This weekend Luc Bernard has chosen to follow suit with his recently released Mecho Wars. For the rest of the weekend it's going to be 99 cents, before returning to $5 on Monday.

Despite the striking success of the move and the controversy it generated, PopCap's Andrew Stein denies hacking the system. "We simply offered an absolutely incredible value to customers for a very limited time and they responded to that offer," he says, innocently.

The freedom of the developer to determine his App's price is perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the App Store. It enables him to experiment with a series of price points, easily introducing and then withdrawing special offers to increase sales and elevate his games into the highly prominent real estate of the Top 100.

App Store pricing is a controversial issue, and the bigger publishers are clamoring for the long rumored Premium App Store to come into being so that they can return to what they know: charging a high price for highly polished games and letting the hoi polloi squabble for pennies in the lower strata.

Until that time comes, though, the App Store is going to remain a turbulent environment for developers and publishers. Enormous fortunes will be accumulated almost overnight on the back of a single canny price drop and to the vast concealed bulk of the iceberg games will cling like lottery tickets.

And, best of all, until order is restored the little fish can eat the big fish.

Pocket Gamer is Europe's leading source of news, opinion and reviews on mobile and handheld gaming.

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