We Can't Make It Here Anymore

The mobile games market has been a rollercoaster ride for developers, marked by initial optimism quickly tempered by the industry's harsh realities. Jeff Tunnell, a seasoned game developer, witnessed firsthand the ebbs and flows of this volatile market. The early successes of Free To Play (f2p) models, such as PushButton Labs' Social City and Jet Pack Joyride, sparked a wave of enthusiasm among developers. Spotkin, another ambitious studio, even shifted its direction to adapt to the changing market dynamics, hoping to capture some of the success these pioneers had found.

However, the optimism soon faced challenges in the mobile market's App Store discovery system. The over-saturation of games, with little room for the "long tail" to thrive, made it increasingly difficult for non-Top 100 games to be discovered due to broken search and visibility mechanisms. This issue was compounded by the intense competition, with hundreds of thousands of games entering the market every year, making the battle for visibility daunting.

The disparity between unrealistic expectations and the success rate for indie games became more apparent. While hits like Clash of Clans, CSR Racing, and Puzzle and Dragons made headlines, it was rare for indie developers to achieve such levels of success. Even games that managed to break through, such as Ski Safari or Plague, Inc., were considered outliers.

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A case study that highlights these challenges is Color Sheep by Trinket Studios. Despite being featured by both Apple and Google and receiving considerable media coverage, the sales for Color Sheep were modest ( 50,000 copies, ~$35,000 gross). Even after significant marketing and exposure efforts, this limited success underscores the difficulty of making a substantial impact in the crowded mobile market.

The statistical odds stacked against indie developers are daunting. With an average of 126 games flooding the market daily, the likelihood of getting featured by Apple or Google stands at a meager 0.56%. The App Store's dominance further complicates the ability to create demand outside its ecosystem, highlighting the need for better discovery and distribution mechanisms.

In light of these challenges, a proposal has been made for Apple and Google to create APIs that allow for creating specialized game stores. This would enable better discovery and distribution for games beyond the cluttered App Store environment, offering a glimmer of hope for developers struggling to get their games noticed.

The perspective on making a living in game development remains grounded in reality. The inherent difficulty of succeeding in this industry is acknowledged, yet there is encouragement for those driven by passion rather than financial gain. Jeff's journey through the ups and downs of the mobile games market serves as a testament to the resilience required to navigate the challenges game developers face, emphasizing the importance of perseverance and passion in the face of adversity.

First published May 2, 2013 and last updated at February 17, 2024