Normally I take a pretty upbeat stance about the opportunities in the games business here on this blog, but this one is down a little more than normal. I’ll try not to be too depressing, but as I was getting ready to write this article, the James McMurtry song of the same name kept popping into my head.
Last year when we were first starting Spotkin I was stoked about two things, Free To Play (f2p) and the mobile market. Having just come off the success of PushButton Labs creating f2p Social City (Facebook) and seeing f2p hits like Jet Pack Joyride coming from relatively small companies in the Mobile market, I thought that the future direction for our company and for others was clear. Unfortunately, a bunch of things changed during the past year and a half, so we have changed our direction by 180 degrees (in Silicon Valley parlance, we have “pivoted“). In this article, I will just address the problem with the mobile market, and talk about my views on f2p in another article.
I still love the mobile market, and Spotkin will continue to make games for it, but we are changing the way we go about it. Over the next couple of years there will be literally billions of mobile devices in the hands of people, but the App Store discovery system is so broken that the “long tail” barely exists. Your game is either a hit or it is not, and in fact, even most of the “hits” are not working out (see below). If you consider that there are literally hundreds of thousands of games in the marketplace and several hundred more per day entering the market, there is not enough room on the virtual “shelves.” Finding a game that is not in the Top 100, is nearly impossible. Even if you know the name of the game you are looking for, search is so broken you can barely find it. Put another way, hundreds of thousands of games are vying for about 200-300 slots that are readily seen when a player opens the app store on their device.
Of course, we have all heard the siren song of the unbelievable success of Clash of Clans, CSR Racing, and Puzzle and Dragons, but no self resecting Indie developer believes they will get that kind of success. However, they do think the next level down is attainable. Many, many Indie studios can make a game like Ski Safari or Plague, Inc., but even those games are incredible outliers with only a few coming each year.
So, instead let’s examine a game like Color Sheep from my friend Tom Eastman’s company, Trinket Studios. Color Sheep is a simple game with a nice play mechanic and great art. In spite of winning the two “app store lotteries” and getting featured by both Apple and Google along with stories in the New York Times and on huge traffic YouTube channels, their game has only sold around 50,000 copies, which has grossed $35,000 (after app store cuts). Considering that they spent $10,000 to launch and market their games at PAX, they have netted $25,000 before paying their wages. This is great because they do get to live another day (assuming Raman livability) and make another round of games, but what are the odds your game is going to do this?
Well, according to 148apps.com, there are an average of 126 games per day entering the Apple App Store, so that is 882 games per week or nearly 46,000 per year. Assuming Apple features five games per week, your odds of getting featured are .56%. The odds are actually a little lower than that because any time a popular company like Rovio releases a new game, it is essentially an auto-feature. So, Color Sheep could essentially be called a one in a thousand game. Do you have what it takes to make a game like that?
Now, back in the day (2009) when the Apple App Store had a whopping 25,000 games, I posted an article telling developers to quit whining, that the App Stores are simply distribution mechanisms and owe them nothing. It is your responsibility to market your game and drum up player demand. While I still believe that, apps are becoming so popular that many people are not even using the Internet anymore, so creating that demand outside of the app store is getting harder and harder. Apple and Google are doing little to help this problem, and the eco system is becoming unbalanced.
Just so I am not a whiner myself, I will offer a suggestion of what Apple and Google could do to fix this situation. The main thing would be to act like a distributor and create API’s that allow others to create “stores” around their content. Imagine a great RPG store or a thoughtful educational store that was free of all of the clutter of the App Store. This would open up discovery so much, and allow many, many more games to be found and sold.
As to making a living making games, it has always been hard. If you are in it for the big money, you probably want to get out. If you love it, you will find a way, and will make games in spite of the odds.
Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker
Make It Big In Games