We Can’t Make It Here Anymore

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.

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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.

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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

13 thoughts on “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore

  1. I own an Android tablet, which means that my mobile gaming needs are served through Google Play. Their store is littered with …insert your favorite derogatory term here. Everyone I’ve discussed the issue with from ages 7 to 50 still perceive mobile games as throwaway time-wasters. (unless it’s on 3DS or Vita which is an entire ball game entirely)

    The only quality gauge I have for mobile games is the indie humble bundle. And even that is incredibly hit or miss.

    Taking Spotkin’s QuickShooter as an example, I would have never even heard about it if I hadn’t been subscribed to their newsletter.

    I concede the point that a good way to circumvent this would be with thematic hubs or stores. To really make this work, I think that communities need to be built around these themes/stores to discuss the games, interact with the developers, and engage discussion with the users, etc.

    Not many people will agree to maintain such apps/websites/communities for free though, so are we looking at another % of revenues sliced off the developer’s share? In this case, why not just go with a publisher who can use its brand name to increase your chances? Both of these options seem to be the complete opposite of self-publishing.

    Lone-Wolfing it doesn’t seem to be the successful strategy unless you are extremely lucky.

    • In order to really fix the problem, I believe the App Stores should actually share back some kind of affiliate fee with the entity running the store. We pay the App Stores for distribution, storage, and bandwidth. They should be willing to pay some of that back to the “retailer”, and there is precedent for this as Apple pays a small affiliate fee for links into the store.. I think a bunch of people would be willing to run a store for somewhere around 10% because there are many more opportunities for making money in a store once you have it set up (selling virtual “endcaps” to developers for instance).

      I totally agree with you on the need for building community around the store. If you remember what we did with Great Games Experiment, I think we were on the right track, but never had enough time to really figure it out. We were trying to build up groups of people around specific kinds of games, but ended up selling GarageGames, and the experiment was over.

      Your mention of using a publisher is interesting. So far, I have not seen the rise of publisher much for mobile, but I think they will become more important. Getting access to their networks of players, money for ads, and eventually, even money for distribution may eventually be the game developers only hope. Deja vu all over again!

      However, when I think of publishers on mobile, the ones that come to mind are Chillingo and Crescent Moon, but their steady stream of better than decent games and their lack of making them into hits is one of the data points about why I am worried about how developers are going to make it in the mobile market the way it is currently set up. They have not figure out how to do anything more than get Apple features, and their games do the normal two week swan dive in the charts once the feature wears off. So, it appears they are not really publishers, but feature getters.

  2. The 0.56% is not completely correct. There is a second “app store featuring” shelve and that is getting featured in the GameCenter itself. That is maybe only 1/50 of the traffic, but still, raises the chances from 0.56% to a whopping 0.561%. :-)

  3. The App Store is a very competitive market and discovery is still pretty broken. But not all of the data points you cite are relevant to this. The number of games added to the store per day and the number in total are largely irrelevant, as the overwhelming majority of those are not competitive and/or not being marketed in any meaningful way.

    I hope that your friend managed to get something useful out of exhibiting at PAX beyond direct downloads. It seems like quite a bold move to exhibit an original-IP casual mobile game at a consumer show. And 50,000 sales is a pretty respectable number. I don’t know how much it cost them to develop, but I think if 50,000 people are willing to reach into their pocket they have a proven case for developing/marketing the game further. (It’s not like the traditional market where you put a game in a box and forget about it.)

    Considerably more than five games per week achieve any kind of visibility – as well as charts and featured slots there are curated lists and games capitalising on popular search terms. App Store discovery would be improved a LOT if users could make Amazon-style recommendation lists.

    • You are right. Many, many of the game flooding into the app stores are crap, knock offs, and shovel ware. But, how are the users of the stores supposed to know the difference? In fact, without being featured how does a user even know a game is released? Apple has dropped their new games by date feature (You can still get it if you have not upgraded to iOS 6) and Google does not have it.

      Thanks for the tweet about this article.

  4. Given the problems with the app stores — and it does seem that developers are gradually reaching a consensus — it seems like there’s a competitive opportunity for one of the platform owners to fix the problem. Why do you think it’s taking so long for one of the underdogs to remember it’s all about “developers, developers, developers”?

  5. the world is one massive toilet bowle. you push hard and release something into it and with a little luck the good crap floats. maybe your turd sinks, well thats ok you will have another ready soon and this time you will use what you learned the last time.

    You want long tail sales but you also want infinite discoverability and free marketing. i want that too, but until the world gives it too me i’m going to keep playing it’s crappy game.

    • I’m not asking for guaranteed success from the app stores. If I release my turd on the Internet, there are no guarantees, but at least I have a fighting chance of getting people to look at it before it sinks.

      Like I said, I am going to keep playing the game too, but maybe speaking out will help get the situation changed.

  6. As someone who would prefer to spend their time making a game and less time getting people to find the game it’s frustrating. It’s largely why I spend my time tinkering with game dev nowadays rather than shipping games, which is what I really enjoy doing.

    • Making games is fun. Getting people to play them is even more fun. If you are just doing it for fun, you should consider making a Flash game and releasing it on Armor Games. At least you will get a lot of plays. If you make something that breaks out, then port it to Mobile, ala Kingdom Rush.

  7. Kostas Michalopoulos says:

    As you said, the problem is simply that the stores are bad when it comes to discoverability. As a user, i simply have stopped looking at either store (beyond the front page infrequently just in case i’m lucky – and no luck so far) because i can’t find anything interesting. It isn’t that there aren’t interesting apps and games in there: i just can’t find them!

    I think that both Apple and Google should focus on this issue since i can’t see how making it hard for the user to find apps he’ll like is good for them. And IMO they should start by putting tags the user can search with, which should be relatively easy to implement. For something more advanced, they could try to figure out what people like (by asking them, perhaps) and do suggestions in a last.fm-like way (of course, like with last.fm, this creates a “bubble” so they also need to avoid that by suggesting some random thing now and then).

    But today things are very sad – in many cases the games aren’t even in proper categories (and there aren’t even enough categories).

    • It is funny because Google built their business around discoverability, i.e. discovering any little bit of information you would ever want. You would think that the Play Store at least would do this well, and that would make Apple have to improve to keep up.

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