Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a video game design consultant and the creator of leading blog What Games Are. He is currently writing a book called Core Game Design. You can follow him on Twitter here.
When Steve Jobs first announced that the App Store would feature curation I remember being optimistic about its chances. Some of my friends disagreed. Some saw it as another version of the heavy-handed editorial that console services like Xbox Live used. Other friends were more philosophically free-market and thought the App Store should be the same. To them it would be better if the entire ecosystem were left to work itself out organically as this would naturally cause the best to rise to the top.
The problem was that both of these approaches had been tried before and always went to seed. The console-style editorial system suffered in the long term because a developer had to submit a game concept, have it approved and only then be allowed to develop for the system. It had a strict queue in place to ensure that each new game got its place in the sun. It also left the platform holding all the leverage in terms of revenue share, which often turned negative for developers. The effect of this was that it was very successful for a few key games like Braid, but over time it shut many other games out.
The organic approach, on the other hand, led to Facebook gaming’s fall. Mark Zuckerberg and co believed that algorithms would surface the best games. What actually happened? It surfaced the games best suited to drive attention which – then bolstered by massive advertising budgets – created a winner take all market. Only a few dominant studios like Zynga could survive and grow as a result of the arms race that followed while most competitors stayed small and eventually fell out.
What’s common in both cases is stagnation. All gaming markets tend toward stagnation over time because there always comes a point where the best tactic is to corner the market rather than make a great game. In the case of editorial platforms that means establishing relationships with those who control the platform and obtaining preferential access. In organic platforms it means figuring out where the user attention points are and then dominating them. The net effect, however, is that cornering invariably degrades product innovation and quality and eventually platforms themselves. From crappy Atari carts leading to the North American crash of 1983 through to the glut of license games cranked out by early 2000s EA, developers cornering markets is generally bad news for all concerned, including themselves.
Apple’s Balancing Act
Apple’s approach with the App Store was different. It opted to sail between the two poles of editorial and organic. It exercised some degree of approval that focused on the integrity of software, but not its concept. It would avoid release queues common to console platforms (only releasing X number of games per week so that they all had a chance to shine) but would take a direct hand in featuring certain releases that showed off the best of the platform. The result was tremendously successful. By maintaining a balance to try and prevent cornering Apple has managed to keep its app platform considerably more vital than most and is at the heart of the biggest consumer software sector.
But that doesn’t mean that it was perfect. Over the years Apple has adjusted its approach many times, allowing some practices and banning others. Many of these adjustments have been about retaining the editorial/organic balance by removing apps such as AppGratis. Nonetheless there have been numerous legitimate attempts by developers to corner, some of which have been more successful than others. One example is cloning.
Developers have long used each others games as starting points for their own (a successful game is often a design document for someone else’s). Noble developers often take source games as an inspiration to roll their own, and this is called a evolving a genre. Ignoble ones literally copy and re-skin what they see. This is called a making a clone. Both are legally entitled to do this because as long as the outward expression of a game (its art, music, writing etc) is distinct then a game is considered distinct under copyright law. Game mechanics cannot be copyrighted. This means that many studios predatorily wait for others to do the hard work of innovating and then “fast follow” (or “clone” in regular person speak) it, plug it into their already-established network and essentially outspend the original to success. This was the case with 2048 over Threes, for example.
Cloning is rampant in the App Store, but impossible to ban. And it often works. Why? Largely because of the relationship between advertising and algorithmically generated App Store lists. A studio purchases a large block of advertising through various services at a cost-per-install (CPI) to run at launch. This leads to a lot of installs, which pushes the studio’s game up the organic charts. That means the game then becomes more visible to non-advertised users, those who never navigate too deeply into the App Store (which is most). Thus are large amounts of free downloads also generated. Do that with an appropriately structured game such as Clash of Clans and this becomes a permanent – and highly lucrative – business model.
That’s why huge titles like Game of War and Candy Crush Saga dominate the advertising landscape. Mass advertising drives their installs but also their chart positions, and thus millions of free installs and reinstalls. Since they’re all free-to-play games they have to act like trawlers in the ocean searching for prize cod and thus they need a big net. The advert/organic combination provides that net. They can then also cross-promote to their other games and perpetuate the same trick. So other titles like Boom Beach and Soda Saga gain a lot of halo attention, more chart positions and free downloads, and around it goes.
Were I the product manager of Clash of Clans, for example, I would likely do exactly the same thing. Nothing is wrong with successful studios like Supercell and King maximizing their success, nor with leveraging those successes, commercializing them or buying up a lot of advertising space to promote them. The individual business problems of a developer are often at odds with a platform in just this way, and so to do its job well a developer often has to look for advantage. The wider problem, however, is that what Clash does is a form of cornering that threatens the overall vitality of the App Store.
Clash of Clans occupying a “What’s Hot” top spot for two years means others can’t. Seeing it and Candy Crush trade that position endlessly blocks out attention for others. From a customer perspective that means seeing the same games featured over and over, and that’s jading. Facebook games stalled because the user experience devolved into seeing a handful of Zynga games on endless loop, and the same thing has been happening on the App Store for a while. It’s like watching the Billboard charts keep surfacing Beyonce’s Put A Ring On It forever. The audience wants to see something else regardless of how good the previous hit was.
Similarly an industry problem is that the dominance of these kinds of games has led to a fatalist logic about what works on mobile. Mobile game developers commonly believe that only free-to-play works, that only the race-to-zero works, and as a result only certain kinds of games work. They believe this so much that it frames their thinking, preventing the spirit of experimentation necessary for a platform to thrive. In particular developers tend to look at the Top Grossing chart and see Clash, Candy and a handful of casino games and then draw their own conclusions. The result is that games like Monument Valley are considered as happy accidents only that nobody could possibly replicate. Successes like Minecraft are chalked up to magic-fairy-dust answers like “oh but that’s because it’s Minecraft” as though that means something.
As a result many indies and others have concluded that mobile is not for them. That’s why mobile has felt as though it were creatively slowing down, that while it’s becoming the biggest platform the supply of great content has been oddly strangled. Apple, it seems, had come to the same conclusion and so it has made a big change to its editorial/organic balance.
What Apple has done is ditch some of its App Store lists like “New” and “What’s Hot”, and instead replaced them with lists such as “Best New Games” and “All Time Greats”. To the casual observer this doesn’t look like a very big change, if they even notice it at all. Under the hood however it is very significant. The former lists were organically generated and commonly gamed (see above). The latter day lists are editorially curated. No amount of adverts for Clash of Clans can push it up the new lists because it’s in the hand of some folks who can just decide “I think we’ve all seen enough of Clash now” and hero another game instead.
It means that many of the biggest games have just lost an important lever in their business models, one which will likely drive up their CPIs and in some cases turn them from profitable to loss-making enterprises. Not unlike what happened to Zynga after Facebook shut down all those juicy free viral channels, the margins at which the free-to-play business runs is often quite small despite its scale, and so shifts like these can have outsized consequences.
It also means that there’s a new means of exposure for studios who have a great game but lack the resources to push it. In theory it evens the scales between editorial and organic once more, and hopefully restores optimism to a raft of developers and a sense of invigorated choice for customers. It might also even help push the economics of the App Store in a more positive direction for studios who just want to make games and charge more than $0.99 for them rather than operate a free-to-play service.
And yet I find I’m only cautiously in support of the change because I worry how much it’s going to turn success on iOS into a game of who knows who at Apple. This is something that’s already been happening for a while, y’see, and it’s murky. Apple is the king and developers are the earls and barons seeking to gain the attention of the monarch. Thus has it become all the more important to have a presence at court.
I know CEOs who visit Cupertino as often as possible on any pretext just to be on the radar of the App Store, as it helps when the time comes to get featured. The ability to visit Apple, to take a meeting and show them your new app, to get on the right side of an insider who’ll vouch for you, is seen as crucial. This means the App Store tends to reward regional proximity, to heavily favor Bay Area companies (or those with a presence in the Bay Area) across a wide variety of categories because a trip to Cupertino is a 10-mile drive rather than a 5000-mile flight. And that’s not a healthy dynamic.
Relationship advantages subtly compromise the App Store’s integrity just as they did with console services, and with this new curation in place I fear that it will be all the more so. “Not having a best mate at Apple” is a barrier that could in time stagnate the App Store every bit as much as gaming the organic/advertising link did. It shuts out those developers who don’t have that contact, don’t have access, don’t have great English or are numerous time zones away. It’s not a problem for incumbents (Supercell and Rovio are both Finnish, for example) but it is a problem for many who would start now.
Apple therefore needs to do more to ensure that access is equitable and relationship advantages are kept fair. It needs to ensure that poor apps aren’t getting the lion’s share of editorial visibility just because their CEOs happen to live across town and can pop by. It needs to be better at outreach,to have a better presence in many regions and be more encouraging globally rather than from California. All in all this recent change to the App Store is a good thing, but there’s more rebalancing to do.