If you've peeked at the App Store on iOS in the last week you may have noticed Apple spotlighting "Newly discovered indies" and promoting "Indie greats" for 99 cents. This support has culminated today in a new dedicated page for games from the independent developer community.
While it's gotten increasingly hard to stand out on mobile - and indeed, on many platforms as more digital ecosystems get too crowded - Apple, Google and Nintendo have all been pushing for more curation of innovative games lately. Giving indies a permanent home on the App Store is not a magic bullet, but when a two-man garage development team can reach over a billion active iOS devices with the click of a button in the same way that giants like Supercell, King and EA can, we're another step closer at least to democratizing mobile games publishing. Indies I spoke to are rightfully very happy about this latest App Store news.
"I think Apple have done a great job promoting indie style games in the past and it's great to see them move further in this direction. One look through the featuring week by week shows that a disproportionate amount of exposure is given to smaller teams and now with the new indie section that looks to be continuing," said Dan Gray, head of studio at ustwo (Monument Valley, Land's End).
"It's going to be a huge benefit for indies to have a specific place to launch their apps, and not be diluted with publisher and general app releases"
Peter Molyneux, 22Cans
Peter Molyneux, 22Cans (Godus, The Trail), chimed in: "It's absolutely fantastic news for both developers and consumers that there will be a special place for indie developers. Consumers desperately need unique content and indie developers have proved time and time again that they are willing to throw caution to the wind and develop content that is unique and brave. It's going to be a huge benefit for indies to have a specific place to launch their apps, and not be diluted with publisher and general app releases."
Ken Wong, the lead designer of Monument Valley who went on to found Mountains, commented: "The label 'indie' has become increasingly vague over the past few years. But if the general idea is for one of largest entertainment platforms to highlight smaller teams, teams without a lot of marketing spend, and more experimental works, then that's certainly welcome."
Itay Keren, president and founder of Untame (Mushroom 11), added, "This window to independent work provides exposure to new artists, as well as to the art itself. Mobile gaming has not really been synonymous with art, but the true innovation and creativity has come from the indies. So by providing this ongoing exposure of these games to such a large audience, you're going to broaden the taste of gamers and possibly even transform the very definition of what mobile games are... Championing indie works is clearly not just a marketing campaign, but an actual view of what's best for this industry."
Apple, like more and more platform holders, seems to recognize the value that indie developers can bring to an ecosystem. In fact, while the company is punctuating its support for indies today with a dedicated home on the App Store, developers told me that the company has done a lot to support indies in the nine years since the App Store first launched.
David Edery, CEO of Spry Fox (Road Not Taken, Bushido Bear) remarked, "My experience working with Apple has been great; we have several contacts who help us keep abreast of important iOS-related developments, listen to our feedback and/or help make sure that our games get seen by the editorial group. We've always felt reasonably well supported. Our games are probably never going to make the kind of money that Clash of Clans makes (or get even close) and Apple seems to understand that there is nevertheless value in making sure that high quality, original games like ours get their day in the sun... because it makes the ecosystem healthier overall."
Zach Gage (Typeshift, Ridiculous Fishing) noted, "I really like the iOS ecosystem and user base. It has its ups and downs like every other storefront, but I think if you consider just how large it is and how much it has grown since its inception it's pretty amazing that they have maintained their democratized stance for what to feature. A large amount of the editor's picks are indie games and it seems like every few months there's another huge indie hit getting attention.
"There has been a renewed focus on editorial and curation on the App Store.. it shows that Apple cares about the diversity of games and game developers that make their home on the App Store"
David Marsh, NimbleBit
"Apple has shown a really strong commitment to indie games over the years, and you can see that through things like the current indie promotion and their proclivity to feature odd indie titles, and even give them Game of the Year and Apple Design Awards. Apple seems to know and respect that a lot of true innovation comes out of the people in their bedrooms, and has set themselves up, and continues to set themselves up structurally to highlight that."
David Marsh of NimbleBit (Tiny Towers, Bit City) added: "The App Store pretty much launched our little company; we started in 2008 making games for the then newly opened App Store. It was amazing back then and it's still pretty amazing today that there is a platform where you can upload a game one day and a few days later have a potential audience of a billion people just one tap away from playing.
"There has been a renewed focus on editorial and curation on the App Store. Highlighting different genres and niches that Apple knows many players love - but that the broader App Store audience might not be aware of, as well showcasing lots of cool and interesting games on social media. Those kinds of efforts won't be a panacea to expose every developer and every game, but it shows that Apple cares about the diversity of games and game developers that make their home on the App Store."
Being featured on the new indies section of the App Store could certainly give a developer a boost, but it isn't going to radically alter market dynamics. The big companies that often dominate the mobile charts have huge resources and marketing budget. They focus on user acquisition and retention and even advertise on TV during the Super Bowl. Indies can't do that, but then again, they don't necessarily need to.
"In my opinion we aren't competing in the same industry at all," said Dan Gray. "Our primary focus is having an impact on players and leaving them with a feeling or emotion, and we believe that if we're successful in moving people in this way then financial success will follow. One thing we'll never do is make a creative decision based upon revenue generated per user.
"What I feel is essential for a developer to look at if they're set on creating premium games is picking an idea that simply isn't possible using a free-to-play model. You need to give the player no viable free alternative to your experience. It's incredibly difficult for a developer to create a two-hour game with a different architectural style in each chapter effective from a F2P monetisation perspective - therefore, we're left in our own niche."
Molyneux commented, "It's extremely difficult to compete with the giants, when they have such a massive market share. In my opinion, if you try to compete by making a 'better' version of their game you are destined to fail. If, however, you try and make something which is innovative and delightful, you at least have the chance of picking up the consumers which are growing tired of the same game mechanics."
"As insanely competitive as the mobile landscape is, I think we as indies are relatively lucky that the two major platforms are both so willing to embrace indies"
David Edery, Spry Fox
Marsh was in complete agreement, adding, "Going up against giants like Supercell, King and EA is tough, but I don't see them as direct competitors. We don't have the same mission to fulfill with our games that they need to with their games. We have a studio of three people... so we don't need the huge hits they do in order to keep the lights on. We see that as an advantage, and it frees us to make the games that we think are interesting even if they don't bring in a million dollars a day."
Daniel McNeeley, owner of Armor Games (Sonny, Gem Hunters), is heartened by Apple's growing support of indies, but he still worries about the huge challenge that small studios face on mobile. "Someone can make a game that's genuinely great, and it may ultimately never end up catching on because they can't compete with the sheer marketing power of these larger companies, or just the enormous volume in general," he said. "I don't think anyone would ever accuse indies of being anything less than incredibly hard working, but it can often feel like it depends on whether the right person in the press or the right viral personality happens to spot you in the sea of content. Which is not to say that it's all up to chance, or that it's some impossible Sisyphean task! Just that indies often have to do more to succeed or break even than a big company does."
Based on the feedback I got from indies, in the past it may have been wise to carefully choose between the App Store or Google Play, but now with each of the platforms showing plenty of interest in what the indie community produces, it's a good idea to target both iOS and Android if you can.
"As insanely competitive as the mobile landscape is, I think we as indies are relatively lucky that the two major platforms are both so willing to embrace indies. It definitely doesn't have to be that way; it takes a certain commitment," noted David Edery.
Dan Gray remarked, "Maybe in the past Google could be criticised for their support of indie and especially premium games but from my perspective there's been a very clear and welcome shift in their approach. They ran a well curated event in London only last month to celebrate indie games with great rewards for developers, so it's looking to be a more viable option again for paid games."
David Marsh added, "I think both Google Play and the App Store are a great place to put your creations if you want people to play them. I don't know a single person without an iOS or Android device. Even my grandmother can install and play our new games, which I probably wouldn't have believed 10 years ago. It seems like both platforms are taking approaches to manage and organize the staggering amount of games available on their platforms. Recognizing indie developers is a great way to highlight the diversity in that giant pool of games, and we hope it continues!"