Hey Whiners, the iPhone Market Owes You Nothing

The success of the iPhone App Store is bringing out a lot of pontification about what is wrong with the market and how to fix it, but I think many of the ideas are dead wrong. Develop Magazine’s interview with developer Nnooo finally pushed me to write this article to debunk some of these ideas before they become dogma.

If you think there are too many games in the iPhone App store now, just wait. There will be many more.

If you think there are too many games in the iPhone App store now, just wait. There will be many more.


On 3/3/2009, 148Apps announced that the App Store had over 25,000 apps and games in the marketplace, prompting Develop Magazine to interview Nnooo, WiiWare developer of the product Pop. Pop is a nice looking game, and there is some great information in the interview about the juxtaposition of development on the Wii vs. the iPhone, so it is definitely worth reading the article. However, a good portion of the interview was spent with the founder of Nnooo explaining that the ease of development on the iPhone is causing crowding in the market, and that a lot of bad product is making it onto the system thus lowering the sales of the good games. Wow! Yesterday I had a fairly polite response written, but thinking about it last night really pissed me off, so I changed it.

All of this elitist non-informed bullshit needs to be debunked. Crap like this, along with developers complaining that they cannot make $80,000 per year just by making iPhone games is so far from the truth that it is laughable. The bottom line is that markets owe you nothing. If you can’t survive in the market, there will be a hundred other guys that want it more and will take your place.

First of all, get used to the crowding. If there are over 25,000 apps today, there will someday be 100,000, then 200,000, etc. It won’t end. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. This is a marketplace, and you either break through or you don’t, but don’t blame other people that want to make games on your problems. Another marketplace, the Internet, has millions of products and games available. It is an open marketplace, and you should be glad for this.

I can tell you with conviction that you don’t want a closed market. If Apple were to close off the market by putting up slotting fees, a big sign off process, etc., only the largest of companies would be able to afford to put games in, effectively cutting off the small guy, probably even the company that gave the interview. This kind of closed distribution system is very similar to the box market, and was what caused the big publishers to evolve to what they are today, i.e. he with the most money wins.

Huge publishers used to kiss Nintendo’s ass to be allowed the honor of paying for development, marketing, cost of goods, plus a big royalty to the NIntendo just to bring their products to market. Today, if you want your game to go on XBLA, you first need to spend the money to make most of the game, then beg Microsoft for a slot, which is worth a lot less than last year due to MS arbitrarily dropping the royalties. Do you want to take your game to the box channel? Then get ready to play the extortion game of paying slotting fees, co-op marketing and selling fees (essentially kick backs), etc. if you can even get an audience with the channel. Again, he with the most money wins.

Making a great game is only part of the process. Marketing is the other part, and developers never really want to acknowledge this fact. We are in a unique period of time right now where new markets are opening up, and some lucky developers have hit the jackpot without giving any thought to how to sell their games. This will not continue. If you only know how to make games, it might be in your best interests to hook up with somebody that understands marketing and sales. That can be in the form of finding a partner that can work on those aspects or even considering finding a publisher that will handle those efforts for you.

I say that open markets are best. Sure a lot of bad games will be made, but they will quickly fall off the new release charts, and they will never be heard from again. If you are counting on the featured lists or the best sellers lists to market your game for you, you might as well pack it up now. That is a naive business model and, while lightning may strike a lucky developer once in a while, you need to have a better plan than relying on pure luck.

-Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker

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  • aschearer

    I appreciate the negative argument you put forward here but do you plan to follow up on this post with a positive argument about what a developer can do when it comes time to bring his game to the market? For instance, I imagine simply buying a bunch of text or display ads wouldn't make for a successful marketing campaign, but what would?

    • Brian Richardson

      The tone is ranting, but the message isn't. Open markets allow you the freedom to figure out the answer to your question. If there's a gatekeeper in the way, you have to spend a lot of energy appeasing them and still have to spend energy trying to figure out how to get the word out!

      • http://coderhump.com Ben Garney

        There are a million books, articles, and techniques for marketing. Subscribe to Seth Godin's blog. Guy Kawasaki's blog has good articles, too. Go visit http://personalmba.com/ and read some of the books from it.

        But beyond good marketing, you also have to have a good product. Make something that doesn't suck and you are ahead of 50% of the market already. If you make something good you are ahead of 90% of everybody. If you make crap, it won't get you very far (unless you compensate by having, say, very good marketing).

  • http://www.thestillofthenightcausesastorminthemind.com Jeremy Alessi

    Great topic! I've just delivered my 3rd game to the App Store and I was just thinking about how I had to switch from development to marketing strategy. In general it's actually not that hard to get on just one of the best selling lists. There are several.

    The general idea is to find a lower competition category that your game can fit into. For example I initially launched my latest game SkylineBlade in the Action and Simulation categories. Sales have been good but after 2 days the title has begun its decline from the top of the New Release list. While my sales were good, they weren't quite good enough to make the top 100 in either of those categories (missed it by about 30 positions).

    By watching other titles and using the same keywords that they use for search I can see a list which is ordered according to popularity on iTunes. Then I can cross reference that and see where these other titles are positioned in other categories. Long story short I've moved my latest title over to Adventure and Racing which are perfectly applicable and where my title will appear in the top 50 or possibly even the top 20 best sellers.

    There is a definite strategy to selling on the App Store. Of course you also have to make contact with the players themselves through websites like TouchArcade. It was through their forums that I began building up an initial base so that the title had some recognition at launch.

    You also need that player base to help you take advantage of the update system. By getting real time feedback from players you can streamline functionality and add new content that they want to see. This all ensures that the next update of your title (which brings it back to the top of the new list) is even more fun for newcomers than the last update.

    As for the closed system, I think people trust iTunes more than some random company on the Internet. People give them their credit or bank information because it's Apple. The only thing they need to do is type their iTunes password to buy something rather than having to pull out the credit card for each purchase. Creating the technology to do this for my own website isn't difficult, in fact I've had the technology for the last 2 years or so but earning the brand recognition and trust would take longer. For the small developer that wants to make games but is still living month to month the App Store is quite possibly the only solution.

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      Great response, Jeremy. I agree there are many. many positive reasons for using the App Store. I think one of the reasons these types of memes get spread is because the press likes to amplify any perceived “cracks” in Apple's armor. They are essentially “the sky could be falling” types of articles.

    • Dave

      Hey Jeremy, I grabbed SkylineBlade last night, was fun. Is that a ShiVa game? I'm now looking back on your article etc with renewed interest as you've already blazed a trail in the market.

      • http://www.thestillofthenightcausesastorminthemind.com Jeremy Alessi

        Dave, I'm glad you had fun with SkylineBlade. It was actually developed with Unity. I ended up picking Unity over ShiVa after prototyping Debris with each tool's trial version. Both are good tools with similar functionality. Unity though is a few steps ahead on just about every level. In addition I needed a good physics engine and I found Nvidia PhysX to be better than ODE which is non-deterministic. At the end of the day Unity is the closest thing to Photoshop for games that I've witnessed, it's a really amazing product.

        BTW, I put up a pretty lengthy App Store Strategy article on my blog, check it out if you're getting into the iPhone business:

        http://www.TheStillOfTheNightCausesAStormInTheM

  • http://www.subreal.net timaste

    I agree with this. I am always surprised to hear indie developers calling for a more closed market.

    • http://www.thestillofthenightcausesastorminthemind.com Jeremy Alessi

      I think there's something to be said for balance. No one is calling for a more “closed” market. The App Store is really very freeform. I don't see how it could be more freeform unless it was on the open Internet.

      The benefits of the App Store far out way the old Developer/Publisher model. Apple doesn't care whatsoever what your game is about so long as it isn't pornography and it isn't something which infringes upon their business model. There have been many highly successful games which would not have met the quality standards presented by Garage Games back in the day and yet they are many times more successful financially than for instance Aerial Antics which I had worked on for a year before it got the go-ahead to be published.

      On the other end of the spectrum it takes a lot of time and energy to generate traffic on the Internet. People may complain about the App Store but as Jeff said the Internet consists of millions of competing products, not just 25,000. By comparison the App Store is a beautiful thing. Apple provides millions of eyeballs for only $99 a year and a 30% cut of your sales. You cannot possibly generate the sort of traffic you receive on the App Store for that kind of money. An App in the App Store might be akin to a needle in a haystack but a website on the Internet is like a water molecule in the ocean.

      I have not felt restricted by the App Store creatively and at the same time I've never felt like it was impossible to get noticed. People may not have liked certain Apps but it's apparent that they at least witnessed them.

  • jgostylo

    Ah ha ha ha ha! This post is awesome! I remember the lesson my father used to try to drill into me when I was a kid. “You're smart, but no one gives a crap if you are also lazy.” It took longer than it should have for that lesson to drive home with me.

    It sounds like the people who Jeff is ranting against have not learned this lesson yet. If it is easy everyone will do it. If everyone starts doing it, it suddenly isn't easy anymore. People who aren't lazy will always make sure lazy people don't take what could be theirs.

    Even if these developers get their closed markets, they will still be vulnerable to market darwinism and will be attacked by much more savvy, determined, and ruthless opponents.

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      I don't think these people are lazy. I believe they are misinformed. I also think they are being terribly elitist, i.e. if they have made a small amount of success, and feel that others should not be given the chance to succeed. As far as I can tell, there have not been any break out, great games fostered int he WiiWare market, but I know for a fact that there are many break out games that have some from the free markets.

      • http://www.thestillofthenightcausesastorminthemind.com Jeremy Alessi

        The only game I've really heard much about from the Wii Ware side of things is World of Goo. I think it's a really good point though that people get an elitist attitude when they do catch a break with a completely closed system like Nintendo's. In essence you have to get a little bit of special treatment somewhere to catch a break like that. If you're on the Internet or even something like the App Store you're pretty much at the whim of the market so you have to really earn your spot with the masses, not just hit it off with a few people.

        • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

          Tower of Goo came out of the free side of the Internet and was ported to WiiWare with updates to become World of Goo.

          • http://www.thestillofthenightcausesastorminthemind.com Jeremy Alessi

            Yeah that's right, it wasn't even originally from Wii Ware. So I guess that's another point in the “reaching the players first” column.

  • Keith Johnston

    Jeff, what do you think are the chances of another video game collapse like in 1983? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_game_crash_o

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      I don't think there will ever be another video game crash like the one in 1983. That crash was caused because there was really only one very under powered system on the market that could not allow for enough variety in the types of games that could be made. A flood of look alike games could not all be profitable.

      That said, game sales can dip. The market does not have to grow like all game companies seem to assume it will. That is why I would not buy stock in the large game companies because they are doing essentially the same thing, i.e. flooding the market with a lot of look alike games. This intense competition is also why I believe the price of games is heading lower.

      • http://coderhump.com Ben Garney

        If you sit down and play through all the Atari 2600 games, it becomes obvious why the 1983 crash happened. The games weren't much fun. Atari was inadvertently in the business of convincing everyone in the US that video games weren't worth buying. And they succeeded!

  • http://nongames.blogspot.com chico

    Jeff Tunnel: “A flood of look alike games could not all be profitable”

    It's interesting how this scenario is more likely to happen within a closed market context.
    Open markets can push innovation forward. Thanks for reminding us again. That was a nice post!

  • http://www.aidantaylor.com JohnScottDixon

    Hey man – I applaud your thoughts here. This is an amazing opportunity at a time when any opportunity should be welcome! BTW, there are always more than one way to skin a cat! There is a myopic focus on the relationship between the App Developer and the App Store. I believe there's even larger market for App Developers in selling their existing Apps to Companies – BRANDS!!! There are so many Apps that could really accelerate if they had the love and support of a brand behind them. Here's an example:

    Period Tracker (helps women know their cycle better) – why isn't that owned by Tampax?

    Look around, there are thousands of examples like this. All I see is opportunity. I believe in this enough that I built and launched the first iPhone App Auction last Saturday. I hope I'm right!!! But guess what, if I'm not – I'll get back up, dust myself off and go at it again!

    This should help others with thoughts like aschearer!

  • marshmonkey

    hey Jeff and MBG fellows, I have written up a blog post in response / based on Jeff's here: http://www.nimblebit.com/2009/03/the-trouble-wi

    By the way, kudos to one Push Button Games for making One Button Press available!

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      Nice article, Marsh. Like I commented on your site, I think the iPhone App Store would be much better with a Web interface similar to the way Amazon does it for the Kindle, i.e. let user browse and purchase apps on the website, then push them to the iPhone. The sales of apps would sky rocket.

  • http://edumobile.org/ vishy

    There still is a lot more money to be made. That is the truth on the iPhone and in business in general. The main traits remain the same – you need to have something that stands out in the noise… unless you are an early mover. Its important you just don't make another tetris clone or bejeweled clone with a “great unique twist”. Wont work. We conduct online mobile and iphone development courses (EDUmobile.ORG) and once the course is complete we encourage our students to innovate. Look at the interface that the iPhone gives you and innovate. Don't just copy. Do something different… spend time in coming up with your “first” commercial idea. Dont just thrash it out in 60 minutes and start coding. Take time. Lots of time – atleast 2 weeks – to come up with an idea. See whats on the appstore… and DONT copy it. Anyways, we also offer a co-publishing deal, so anyone interested, get in touch.

  • http://playscreen.com/ William D. Volk

    Nicely Put!