Games

To Live and Die in the App Store

Marshall Sandoval
Sunburn! (Secret Crush, 2014)

Have rumors of the death of iOS gaming been greatly exaggerated?

Last year, Edge published an article titled "How Clones, Fear, Sanitisation and Free-to-Play Soured Apple’s iOS Gaming Revolution". With the exception of a few bright spots, the article painted the App Store as a place that indie games go to die and fretted that clones and free-to-play titles were choking off any hope of innovation on the platform. Less than a year later, innovative games are still arriving for iPhone and iPad. Are things still heading the wrong way or have rumors of the death of iOS gaming been greatly exaggerated?

There is little doubt that problems on the app store persist, but the iOS ecosystem is making progress. A case could be made that 2014 was the platform’s strongest year ever from a creative standpoint. “I’d say there are more good games on iOS than there ever have been,” says Matt Myer, one of the designers of Ephemerid: A Musical Adventure. Evidence of the burgeoning creativity in the mobile space comes in part from the multiple Independent Games Festival award nominations given to mobile games this year.

In previous years, the Seamus McNally Grand Prize from the IGF has been awarded to popular games like Crayon Physics Deluxe, Fez, and Minecraft. This year, 80 Days and Metamorphabet were nominated for the honor, while The Sailor’s Dream was a runner up. IOS games were also nominated in the Excellence in Visual Art, Design, Audio, and Narrative categories, and Bounden and Desert Golfing were nominated for the Nuovo Award.

Additionally, Desert Golfing and Monument Valley made their way onto numerous game of the year lists. 80 Days also topped the list for many publications, and it was a major success story. Jon Ingold, co-founder of inkle Studios, explains, “80 Days is now our most successful game, both critically and financially, and it should give us a bit more freedom to take some more risks in the future.” The accolades have added up for iOS games, and for Monument Valley and 80 Days, the praise has led to financial success.

The creative renaissance may have come from developers’ increasing understanding and embrace of the unique gameplay possibilities on tablets and smartphones. Diego Garcia of Secret Crush, the developer of Sunburn!, says, “It’s easy to feel downtrodden by the prevalence of borderline exploitative monetization schemes and so many crappy clones, but I feel like we’ve reached a point where developers have stopped trying to jam a square game into a round interface and are really learning what shines in the pick-up-and-put-down world of mobile games.” Ingold echoes the potential for new frontiers of gameplay on the platform: “I think we’re only beginning to see what makes a good game on tablet, say, so it’s a very innovative space.”

Game Oven Studios’ Bounden requires two players and an Android device with an accelerometer or an iPhone. Eline Muijres, a producer on the game, says, “By making unique content you can’t find anywhere else, we hope to offer an experience worth paying for.” The game’s ballet dancing gameplay simply wouldn’t work on any other system.

Some issues listed in that ominous Edge article seem to be improving already. Papers, Please and Valiant Hearts: The Great War were ported to tablets since the publication of the piece. Apple’s regulations are still problematic, but the presence of these games seems to indicate a willingness to embrace games with more serious themes and mature content.

The difficulties around being discoverable on the App Store, though, are still plaguing some independent developers. It is easier to find some indie games on the App Store, as Muijres notes, “Indie games are not completely hidden anymore. Apple picks an indie game to feature each month now,” but some titles seem unshakably locked into the upper tier of the charts.

Along with Myer, Brent Calhoun developed the aforementioned IGF nominated Ephemerid: A Musical Adventure. Both indicated that Apple still has a long way to go in highlighting indie games. Calhoun says, “Looking at the top charts is kind of depressing because they don’t really change. Some games have been there for years. The top of the market has just sort of calcified. That’s not to say that there aren’t a ton of great experiences to be had on iOS; there are. I just wish people didn’t have to dig for them so much. It would be nice to see Apple step in and act like a true platform holder.” Myer made similar comments: “The situation with the App Store was certainly better back when we started Ephemerid in 2011. It was already a race to the bottom then, but now it’s not even a race. Everyone is at the very bottom.”

Similarly, pricing issues continue to be an issue. Ingold has observed such problems:

There’s still an elephant in the room, and that’s price. The market prices on the App Store -- with the $5 tag on our game seen as ‘premium’-- are pretty destructive; they strangle developers achieving low-to-middle-level success, when those developers tend to be the ones doing the most interesting work. You shouldn’t need to be Editor’s Choice to break even on a game... I think that’s changing, people are starting to realise that free titles only offer certain kinds of experiences -- and in particular, the $0.99 app market seems to be dying out.

Diego Garcia mentioned the massive advertising buys of larger publishers, and he recounted the massive Candy Crush Soda Saga advertisements all over New York City when Sunburn! was released. 2014 was also the year of the ubiquitous Game of War: Fire Age commercial. Smaller independent developers frequently complain about being priced out of the market.

Things on the App Store aren’t perfect, but innovative and artistic games were as strong as ever last year. Sunburn! level designer, Toni Pizza summarizes it well: “Yes the market is brutal, but that’s not pushing designers to shy away from taking risks.” If you look past the top of the charts, new risky and exciting titles can still be found.

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