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The Curation Question

Can developers earn a crust on the App Store without Apple's aid?

A marketplace awash with opportunity and fortune, or a store where all but the lucky few go to die? For as long as the App Store has been on the radar, it's been branded as both such things in equal measure. However, there's one party who we can say in all certainty has enjoyed unquestionable success thanks to this mobile monolith: Apple.

The firm has just enjoyed the most profitable quarter by any public company in history and, as this article stretches across the screen of my laptop, has also just seen its market value surpass $700 billion - another world first. Have-a-go historians will pin the company's recent earth-shattering success on the launch of the iPhone in 2007, but there's weight to the suggestion that it was the roll out of the App Store a year later that really fired Apple's engines.

For the leagues of developers who populate that App Store, its continued success is as much of a curse as it is a blessing. It remains the default marketplace for almost all mobile developers, having pioneered the model that Google, Microsoft and BlackBerry were only too happy to cherry-pick from when launching their own respective marketplaces. The success of the App Store - and 'success' seems like an especially tame way of describing it - draws in developers like moths toward flame, but it's no exaggeration to note that it burns more studios than it lights up.

That's because, with more than a million apps on the store (almost a third of which are games) the majority struggle to find an audience, lost in the noise as the marketplace's big boys capture all the downloads. The argument is that those who do find life on the App Store lucrative have one thing in common: they've been featured by Apple.

"The only effective way to get traction in any of the stores is through an Apple or Google feature, but this is obviously very hard to obtain"

Thomas Sommer - AppLift

Though once there were third-party options designed to push your game up the charts, most have seen their operations quashed by the Cupertino giant in recent years with Apple clamping down on services it perceives as 'gaming' its charts. The result of that - whether intended or not - is that Apple is the Kingmaker, able to determine who makes it and who doesn't (with a few exceptions) on its store.

"It is extremely hard to get discovered on the App Store today, and not just for indie developers," Thomas Sommer, who heads up the Content Marketing department at mobile marketing specialist AppLift, tells me. "The only effective way to get traction in any of the stores is through an Apple or Google feature, but this is obviously very hard to obtain." Indie developers should get in the habit of "optimising their app store presence" and tailoring their game for the platform in question's unique selling point in hope of capturing the attention of the platform holder for a feature spot, argues Sommer, but at the same time, they should "in no case make their success depend on it".

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He continues, "I would in any case recommend putting a lot of effort into understanding what the platforms expect from developers. This has to do with the games themselves obviously, but also how they market them, both on their app page and off of it, such as on their website or through PR, etc. The App Store and Google Play guidelines should definitely be in amongst their bedside reading."

Sommer pitches Apple as the "toughest guardian of the gate", making the case that the company doesn't intentionally limit success to a relatively small batch of apps and games, but rather puts the experience of the consumer first: If a gamer has a bad experience with a game from the App Store, logic dictates that a portion of the blame will be thrown in Apple's direction.

"If a gamer has a bad experience with a game from the App Store, logic dictates that a portion of the blame will be thrown in Apple's direction"

"Apple places a lot of importance on the content published on the App Store," Sommer continues. "This sometimes results in creating a living hell for developers, but at the same time, at least from a technical point of view, the apps published on the platform are, usually, flawless. There is otherwise not much you can do about Apple's strict and sometimes questionable interpretation of their rules, but deal with it. Apple has managed to create a Gattaca-like, closed-circuit ecosystem and so far it hasn't worked out too badly for them."

The firms it has worked out badly for are those who attempted to offer an alternative. Between 2012 and 2014 a slew of firms offering curation platforms designed both to help consumers find apps they might otherwise miss and, in turn, help developers get discovered, were pushed off the App Store, with Apple giving very little guidance - out in the open, at least - as to just what rules had been broken. Most attention centred around a certain clause 2.25, which was designed to prevent apps operating as their own mini app stores within the App Store itself.

It was a rule that, in theory, could have been applied to any number of apps on the marketplace, but the most notorious casualty was French outfit AppGratis, which - having just been boosted by a $13.5 million strong funding round - was kicked off the App Store in spring 2013. The platform lived on via Android and it was neither the first nor last service to fall foul of clause 2.25 - popular platform AppShopper had run into similar trouble just a few months previous to AppGratis, but managed to relaunch itself on the marketplace in early 2013 by adding social sharing to its arsenal, with its makers claiming its redesign now complimented Apple's own discovery tools rather than took them on.

"To be honest, Apple are cold to work with if they don't like you"

George Osborn ex-Magic Solver

Rival MagicSolver, which was based out of Cambridge in the UK, wasn't so lucky. The company had a number of successful apps on the store designed to push games in various territories, it had pulled off successful partnerships with big names like Supercell, King, Wooga and EA, but its business had to be wound down at the start of 2014 after Apple had begun to block updates to its titles a year and a half earlier.

"To be honest, Apple are cold to work with if they don't like you," says George Osborn, who worked at MagicSolver during the company's successful, and latterly unsuccessful, run on the App Store. He claims initially the business had set out to "help people find great apps that were paid and had gone free," but quickly moved into simply helping developers jump up the charts once free releases became the norm.

"For the most part, developers were struggling to find enough users," he continues. "In the early days of MagicSolver, that meant enough users to generate a chart position that would get browsing consumers to download, and towards the end it was more about finding enough users who generated a return to support a free to play business. Ultimately, most free to play games live or die on whether they have enough scale to build upon the metrics. So I ended up finding that there were plenty of small developers who had a decent game who couldn't afford a campaign with us, who simply got blown away when DeNA, King or Supercell would happily slide $100,000 our way without much thought of return."

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When Apple began blocking updates to MagicSolver's line up, Osborn says, his initial reaction was that it was "downright unfair", though interestingly his attitude has changed in the months since he left the company. "Now with a bit of hindsight and distance, I think Apple's broadly right to take the approach it does. Of course it is annoying when it bans something at the drop of a hat, and it is a bit disheartening to hear about Apple talking about a fair platform for all developers before agreeing exclusive early access to Plants Vs Zombies 2 with EA in return for mass featuring, but those niggles are nothing in comparison to the benefits that a controlled App Store brings. Safer for consumers, editorially smart and ultimately generating more revenue in the long run, I think it remains streets ahead of its rivals."

"Now with a bit of hindsight and distance, I think Apple's broadly right to take the approach it does"

George Osborn ex-MagicSolver

It's almost as if the third-party tools designed to give developers an alternative to shamelessly courting Apple became mini Apple's in their own right: Their success meant that, more and more, small developers were no longer able to afford to pay out for promo spots with them, with the big boys snapping up all the top spots as a result. So, if the proven third-party platforms have either been banned or are out of reach, is chasing after some sort of featuring by Apple now the only way to earn a crust? There are two schools of thought on this.

Frogmind, the studio behind the award-winning Badland, is one developer that Apple has been keen to push, though the company didn't have to chase those at Cupertino down - Apple actually made the first move, as CEO and co-founder Johannes Vuorinen explains: "We got that first connection [with Apple] when we posted the initial gameplay video to Youtube and TouchArcade - and other sites - wrote about it. We used several days to create the video to make sure we demonstrate all the coolness we had in the game back then. It was very important for us to show in the video that it's actually running on an iPad - hence it was recorded with a video camera."

Someone at Apple saw that initial press coverage, itself based on Frogmind taking the time out to showcase the full line-up of game features in its trailer rather than simply pumping out something generic, and got in touch, the end result being Badland became a title Apple was more than happy to have associated with its iOS line up. Vuorinen believes that making a game that shows Apple's hardware off "definitely seems to help and makes sense since it certainly want to show new features that differentiate iOS from other platforms."

He continues, "As we have all seen, there have been plenty of Apple feature slots related to new iOS and hardware features. Use of those features of course depends on the game itself. For example, usage of Metal API doesn't help Badland's performance much, and that's why we haven't used it." Vuorinen says the level of impact getting featured by Apple can have "depends on the kind of slot it is", but in the case of Badland, the studio has seen anything up to a twenty-fold jump in downloads during the promo run.

"As we have all seen, there have been plenty of Apple feature slots related to new iOS and hardware features"

Johannes Vuorinen - Frogmind

Creating a game that gleams on Apple hardware to the degree of titles like ustwo's Monument Valley, NaturalMotion's Clumsy Ninja (demoed on stage during Apple's iPhone 5 unveiling) or the aforementioned Badland is, of course, easier said than done, but there's undoubtedly a logic there that many developers are overlooking: Apple's prime concern is not developers, but rather its customers, and it's unlikely that a run-of-the-mill platformer or shooter, however good, will capture its attention. Make something that sells the latest iPhone or iPad to the increasingly disloyal mobile consumer, however, and you've got every chance.

The other school of thought is that we need to move away from this 'all or nothing' mentality. As GamesIndustry.biz recently covered, the average App Store game might only make $6,000 in its lifetime as things stand - a paltry figure compared to the millions being amassed by King and co. - but it remains possible to start small and build your business from the ground up if you play the game right. Supposed overnight successes like Flappy Bird and Crossy Road may steal the headlines, but as Osborn concludes, there is a fruitful, if somewhat less glamorous, middle ground to fight for.

crossy

"If you can acquire decent users at the right price and show that they make a return, then you can be like any other business in the world and slowly grow and expand off the back of it," concludes Osborn, "and with platforms like Facebook, new mobile first ad formats and clampdowns on the cowboys it isn't a hopeless situation.

"The challenge for most developers is simply making sure marketing is part of a long-term business strategy and not a way to turn around a quick buck. Aside from the odd fluke, the companies with staying power are the whopping free to play behemoths and the small indies developing games on a tight schedule and generating enough revenues to power other titles. So if you're approaching your marketing with the attitude of 'I want to make money on my investment' and 'I'm happy to take time to build success', then you can still make it on the App Store."

"The challenge for most developers is simply making sure marketing is part of a long-term business strategy and not a way to turn around a quick buck"

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from any investigation into app discovery and curation on the App Store, however, is how few people are willing to talk openly about it. Several developers and companies invested in iOS approached to discuss their experience with the App Store pulled out mid-way through discussions, namely because it's perceived to be in no-one's interest to talk up any issues with the iOS ecosystem - when Apple controls all the levels of promotional power, it's unwise to risk attracting its wrath.

This is the totalitarian nature of life on the App Store. Apple's desire to deliver the best experience to its customer base means it leaves very little to chance: The 'best' apps and games are sifted through and then pumped out to the masses, but the growing number of apps available means it's an ever smaller portion of developers that benefit from Apple's power. Coupled with this, however, those in the know argue that the perception that the streets of the App Store are laid with gold - that it's a Flappy Bird factory, making millions for everyone with a novel idea - needs to change. For the vast majority, making money from games on the App Store remains a definite possibility, but it may have to be just one of the many things a successful studio does, rather than the whole.

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Latest comments (13)

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development6 years ago
We were treated pretty well by Apple and have benefited from a decent hit rate for launch features. And a couple of years ago this was worth a ton of money. In fact the excess cash we banked from those kept us alive through some rough times recently, so it's fair to say that Apple features saved our company.

Now though it's a different story altogether. The last feature we had from them didn't do much business at all (and ratings for the game were great) and that matches the attendant dearth of earnings we get generally. So many punters have switched to either freemium or free with ads that there's not much money to be had whether you get featured or not.

This article feels a couple of years old to me. The present situation is that if you get a feature you'll make "some" money otherwise you'll make practically none. This is based on talking with others as well as my own experiences.
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Rolf Klischewski Founder & CEO, gameslocalization.com6 years ago
When I got my first iPod touch ages ago, I browsed for new apps each and every day.

Today we have such a deluge of shovelware and F2P games that I stopped caring.

And whenever I see Apple or Google plugging a certain game my first thought is: "That must've cost them a lot, so the app must be pants."
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Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop6 years ago
And whenever I see Apple or Google plugging a certain game my first thought is: "That must've cost them a lot
In my experience it has often cost nothing, other than meeting with the platform holders ahead of time to show them your game and preparing the various pieces of promo artwork they ask for.

If the people who decide what gets featured don't know about your game, it won't get featured. So your options are either to tell them about it, or to hope that they stumble across it themselves.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Anthony Gowland on 23rd February 2015 10:22am

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Keith Andrew Freelance Journalist, Keith Andrew Media6 years ago
Re: Anthony - Indeed, I think it's a misnomer to think that the majority of the feature spots on the App Store or Google Play have been in any way 'paid' for. The problem is, every developer who loves their job is passionate about their game and is angered when it gets overlooked, but any platform holder's prime concern is the consumer, not the developer - especially when there are hundreds of thousands of developers on the marketplace. As such, it's only natural that Apple and co. are going to try and push the games that make their products look the best that they can. The press works in much the same way, in truth: I have previously been berated by a friend who was angered that a site I used to write for would review games from the likes of King, Supercell and Rovio, but not his (self-proclaimed) Candy Crush clone. If you're not doing something that Apple, Google or Microsoft thinks adds to their platform from a consumer perspective, don't be surprised if you're not snapping up promo spots.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd6 years ago
Featuring is not really any less effective than it used to be. The quality bar has raised over the past two years, as more developers have learned the quirks of the format and what appeals to the general audience. Two years is a lifetime in mobile, and the wave of users brought in with each hardware release have different baseline expectations.

Featuring also isn't the only way to reach an audience. Many of the charting games in any given week (paid, free and grossing) are there through user acquisition, app store search optimisation or leveraging audiences from other platforms.
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Brendan Tinnelly Client Solutions Manager (Console/MMO), Facebook6 years ago
Developers need to move away from thinking of digital stores as marketing channels. Record labels and movie studios don't rely solely on in-store displays to drive sales, so why should gaming be any different?

Sure, a large percentage of the top sellers were featured -- but they also likely ran a strong press campaign and had a strong online advertising presence. With even Pinterest now offering low-friction app-install ads, a developer can drive substantial sales with very little spend. It's a healthier approach than sitting and hoping to be blessed by Apple or Google.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd6 years ago
@Brendan - It's still the case that the majority of users get their information about what's available from the store itself. Nobody should be treating featuring like a lottery, there's plenty that developers can do to get the platform holders' attention and persuade them that their games satisfy a specific demand among their users.
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Fazi Zsolt Game & Level Designer @Atypical Games 6 years ago
If you are simply featured in one of the lower categories like: best new games, best new updates etc... It won't give that big of a boost to your download numbers, sales figures.

The only real boost, and real feature that matters is the headliner, yeah, the giant banner that you get when your game comes out.
Now a giant banner will give a significant boost in download numbers and revenue. After the banner is gone, you will see a decline in numbers (be it sharp or steady, it will happen, unless you counter it in other ways).

Also for getting a huge banner either they really have to like your game (very low chance if you have no connections) or you got contacts at Apple that will broker this for you.

The reality is that if you are a small guy with no connection you can forget about getting a banner, because all the heavy weight are already fighting for a place there.
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@Keith Good stuff. While the market is a nightmare to navigate, the conspiracy theories dreamt up about platform holder motivation isn't helping. Take Apple - valued at $700bn, do we really think the app stores are a stitch up for some devs in return for backslaps and an envelope of tenners? You cannot buy the the kind of rep & lead that Apple has in the industry, but you can certainly trade petty money/influence to royally ruin it. As Apple is not staffed by idiots I'd say bank on that not happening.

@Fazi "contacts at Apple will broker (a feature banner) for you" I'm suspicious of this idea. What's the criteria for the brokerage? What leverage does any developer, of any size, have over Google or Apple?

App stores are a top-down reflection of their corporate HQ's wider needs, and editorially they march in lockstep with that vision. What would make the managers of those stores go against their company vision - for influence with whom?

Fr'instance, one of the more odd things I hear publishers brag about to developers is their "contacts within Apple/Google" ( implicitly suggesting "we can help get you featured/without us you won't"). Now sure, it helps to know people, always. But from what I know of both platform holders, the idea of either reworking their own plans just to help X game or publisher is a fantasy. I'm quite sure Mr. EA or Mrs. Kabaam sweat like any other dev when waiting to hear if they've earned a place on the store front.

Maybe it's years of spewing million$ on data collection & analysis but as an industry we do now seems obsessed with numbers theory, with gaming everything - the charts, the stores, the marketing, the freaking search algorithms - all are now portrayed as more true, more responsible, more bankable paths to videogame success than actually making your videogame better than your competition.

This is surely one reason why the stores are clogged: because nobody is willing to tell new devs how hard it is to make a game that a million people will pay money for. Instead we'd rather extract money from the poor schmucks with elaborate PR & marketing campaigns and string them along with tales of how its all a lottery or a stitch up anyway. I'm not saying the biz is all rational, far from it, but it certainly isn't the crack-smoking zoo of chaos I keep reading about.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd6 years ago
One of the best things about the app stores is that preferential placement isn't for sale. It is frustrating though that the platform holders are a bit too happy to keep going back to the same publishers (King, Rovio, KetchApp, Zynga, EA etc.) who have the most resources to lobby for their attention.

There have been more than a few completely rotten games that have been awarded Editor's Choice and then bombed out of the charts, that have been waved through purely on the basis of past games' performance rather than their own merits.
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Fazi Zsolt Game & Level Designer @Atypical Games 6 years ago
I can't tell you how this works, because of certain aspects of this so called "game" of cat and mouse.
But there are rules and ways into getting banner feature and as for going against company vision ? Well who said going against company vision when they can tell you what they want.
Either way without a strong financial backing, you will have a hard time making a living especially from f2p. That's the reality, the bubble pops once the game is out and making nothing or barely covering the costs.

So it's all about connections, connections and more connections, like 70% connections and 30% the rest.

But I am not here to say you can't make it without connections. You can, but it is almost like winning some prize.
There are two sides to it, and I am saying that connections is one side of things.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Fazi Zsolt on 24th February 2015 4:15pm

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@Fazi I think you skipped over explaining why you believe that and instead just restated your beliefs and moved on. Regardless, I've no doubt that knowing people "on the inside" of anywhere is a benefit when it comes to introductions to individuals. But I also have little doubt that the games Apple or Google ultimately promotes are the amongst the best games available as far as they can see it. They are supremely user-focused entities and would happily flatten ten major publishers if it pleased their own base.

And to 'fess up to Fireproofs experience of this gravy-train exclusivity club you've exposed, when we had a six-week demo of our game at GDC 2012 we didn't know anybody. I got talking to a dev in a bar, showed him our demo and he said had an email address for someone in Apple and I should mail them. And that was that.

Now, getting to San Fran will cost you the travel fare but I think you'll agree it hardly requires Moriarty's brain or the workings of the Illuminati to walk into a bar and start talking. 23000 other devs did it last year.
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Keith Andrew Freelance Journalist, Keith Andrew Media6 years ago
Even as a journo, some of the best stuff I've ever done career wise has been kicked off by talking to someone in a bar or at a party at GDC or some other event. Chatting costs nothing.
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