How clones, fear, sanitisation and free-to-play soured Apple’s iOS gaming revolution

iOS

Much has changed in the two years since we called Apple “the hottest property in handheld gaming” and said that the company had “changed the videogame industry irrevocably”. Between E236 and today, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs has passed away, iPhone 5 has launched and bifurcated, Game Center’s poker-table felt has been torn off in favour of a spartan interface, and a wave of licensed iOS controllers has reached the market, drawing iPhones and iPads closer to the traditional world of videogame hardware. In other respects, though, nothing is different – Apple seems no closer to infiltrating the home console business through its set-top box, for example.

But crucially – at least for the people who have seen iOS platforms become integral parts of their gaming lives – it feels like the potential we saw in Apple’s devices to become a disruptive force has dissipated. Where we once saw a promising new marketplace of fresh ideas, unrestricted creativity, and daring new ways to play, the App Store of 2014 is swamped with cash-guzzling junk, shameless knockoffs and predictable sequels. Games worth discovering still exist, but they mostly dwell on the fringes and in the shadows, while endless horror stories suggest that paid-for games are simply no longer profitable and are dying out. What happened to the iOS gaming revolution?

The App Store is still turning over an extraordinary amount of money – the marketplace attracted spending in the region of $1bn in December 2013 alone – but the lion’s share of the profits is going to an elite cabal of developers making free-to-play games. The App Store’s Top Grossing chart, which remains the most prominent method of getting games in front of players, has effectively frozen. “All of the top-ten-grossing apps in 2013 were over a year old,” says free-to-play design consultant Nicholas Lovell. “There is no other entertainment industry where month on month it’s the same things at the top of the charts – not for books, not for DVDs, not for movies.”

This chart has become a self-sustaining cycle, acting as a billboard for games such as King’s Candy Crush Saga the whole year round, which in turn keeps them at the top. And while the most egregious ways to game the rankings have been stamped out by Apple, “people are definitely buying their way to chart positions”, according to Lovell. “There’s no doubt about that.”

The App Store’s Top Grossing chart remains largely static, acting as a year-round banner advertisement for hugely successful games like Candy Crush Saga.

“I think the Top Grossing charts should be removed from the stores,” says Barry Meade of The Room developer Fireproof Games. “It’s entirely unreflective of what is actually for sale and teaches users nothing about the exciting new stuff that’s out there on their devices.”

But no matter how much the stagnant chart positions have played a role in free-to-play’s uprising, it’s not surprising that the model would become dominant on iOS and Android. These platforms have always been skewed towards those looking to fill snatched moments here and there, and they’re markets where straightforward, inexpensive games such as Angry Birds have long ruled the roost. But dropping up-front pricetags has smashed even the perceived barrier to entry, massively broadening the player pool.

In itself, free-to-play isn’t an evil phrase or business model. Even self-identifying ‘hardcore’ gamers have flocked to free PC games such as Dota 2 and PlanetSide 2, after all. And there are certainly cases on iOS where the model supports, rather than undermines, an enjoyable game design, most notably in GungHo’s Puzzle & Dragons. But there’s still a problem. “With seemingly everybody in mobile development hearing the call of the cash, free-to-play mechanics are skewing investment into an ever-narrowing field of game types,” Meade warns.

Successful free-to-play games tend to be endless runners, match-three puzzlers, lightweight city builders and strategy games, with few exceptions. Attempts to adopt the model beyond this narrow band have not been positively received: hyped FPS The Drowning was critically panned, while even a big-name, well-promoted title such as PopCap’s Plants Vs Zombies 2 dropped out of the top 100 in many countries’ Top Grossing charts in a matter of months.

Good free-to-play games exist, and Plants Vs Zombies 2 is testament to that. But even PopCap’s well renowned sequel dropped out of the charts quickly.

“Some types of game, particularly those with skill-based mechanics, really don’t suit free-to-play at all,” says Paul Taylor of Frozen Synapse creator Mode 7. “I don’t think developers should feel pressure to take them in that direction.”

Indie developers are having an especially troubled time in this environment. For every story about a venture-capital-backed superfirm pulling in daily revenues of $2m, there’s another tragic tale of some tiny studio trying to find success in the F2P market and getting crushed. Mikengreg’s Gasketball gave too much away for free and flopped. Earnings from Rubicon’s Combat Monsters have been “tragically disappointing”, according to the studio’s Paul Johnson. When Radiangames launched F2P puzzler Bombcats, “people just never felt the need to pay for stuff”, explains creator Luke Schneider.

Punch Quest was “way too generous” at launch, says Rocketcat Games’ Kepa Auwae. Just 0.1 per cent of the game’s players spend money on the game. “We raised the prices of everything by around six times [to make it successful],” Auwae explains. “With this style of game, where people buy progress, you really want to intentionally hobble the balance of your game so it preys on people’s impatience.”

Namco Bandai’s recently released iOS version of Tales Of Phantasia demonstrates how F2P cash grabs can destroy a game, though. In this incarnation – available only as a free title – the game’s difficulty has been cranked up and key save points have been removed in a bid to get players to buy resurrection orbs at $2 a pop.

Punch Quest review

Rocketcat Games’ Punch Quest was, famously, an overly generous free-to-play game which had to be updated with much higher in-game shop prices in order to make any money.

Lovell notes that “free-to-play games are a different skill [for developers], and you’ve got to make games that you expect to maintain and support for a long time, which is something that not all developers want to do”.

So long as the same clutch of top free-to-play games are turning over the same incredible amounts of money, however, we’ll continue to see titles that fit neatly into the same narrow but proven categories. And the influx of publishers to the market isn’t helping. “It’s great that some are making loads of money from free-to-play,” says Meade, “but the inability of publishers to see what else mobile gaming can be leads them to be profit-chasing and risk-averse to a ridiculous degree. The sheer ubiquity of free-to-play is freezing mobile gaming at a very shallow and immature state of its development, when it should be at its most exciting, dynamic and diverse.”

The issues facing the iOS gaming landscape because of free-to-play also spill out in the form of hundreds of games content to chase the tails of ideas that have worked in the past. It’s impossible to miss, for example, the explosion of games that copy the core gameplay template of Supercell’s evergreen Clash Of Clans almost to the letter, including Gree’s Call To Arms, Gameloft’s Total Conquest, and Space Ape’s Samurai Siege. EA’s reboot of Dungeon Keeper – a series born at UK studio Bullfrog in the ’90s, which helped it forge a reputation for thinking up and executing original concepts – also leans on the same gameplay loops. It’s perhaps most telling of all that Supercell’s next game, Boom Beach, which is currently undergoing beta testing in Canada, is also a twist on Clash Of Clans, with Vikings and dragons replaced by soldiers and landing craft.

Lovell puts this kind of risk aversion down to “creative fear”. “A lot of my clients are starting with an endless runner simply because they want to learn the free-to-play business in a known genre,” he says. “Think of it like a journeyman wood maker who had to do some basic pieces in order to understand his craft.”

Supercell’s breathtaking success with Clash Of Clans has inspired a rash of copycats.

This all makes free-to-play sound like a toxic substance that’s killing off innovative games single-handedly. But a number of free-to-play iOS games have proven themselves as worthwhile pieces of entertainment, and there are further culprits to consider when looking for reasons behind the App Store’s troubling stagnation.

Visibility, and therefore discoverability, continues to be an issue, but a more offensive trend is the proliferation of cheap clones of indie games on iOS, brought about by the App Store’s low barrier to entry. Vlambeer almost didn’t make Apple’s iPhone Game Of The Year for 2013, compulsive angling sim Ridiculous Fishing, because a clone named Ninja Fishing beat it to market and sucked away the team’s motivation – not to mention potential customers and profits – like a spacecraft’s airlock.

Such blatant copycatting doesn’t affect only indies, either. Homemade Games’ recently released Front Wars, for example, is a ruthlessly executed clone of Intelligent Systems’ legendary strategy game Advance Wars, going so far as to riff on the original’s cover art with its App icon. That it is a well-made rip-off – bringing to Apple’s platforms what Nintendo will not – does little to make up for its shamelessness. It feels like it would never reach the market as a PC title, but in the wild west of the iOS market, there it is.

Some are attempting to bring law to the App Store, if not justice. The most recently documented case is King’s trademarking of the word ‘Candy’ and its application for ‘Saga’. It says this helps it to combat the clones, such as Candy Blast Mania. Less easily understandable, however, despite statements to clarify its position, is its decision to oppose Stoic’s trademark for PC strategy game The Banner Saga. While the nuances of trademark law are complex, one thing is clear: it will be a bad day if original games suffer because of ripoffs on other platforms.

Vlambeer’s Ridiculous Fishing was a victim of a shameless clone – sadly, it has become a familiar story .

Then there’s Apple’s stringent rules on what content is acceptable in the iOS games department. These rules forced the removal of Sweatshop HD – a satirical game about a production line manned by children – which crippled UK developer Littleloud. Games that have anything to say about the conditions at the factories where iPhones are assembled have been banned. A game about the Syrian civil war was forced to change setting to a fictional country, while a game about smuggling illegal immigrants over the Mexican border was turned into a game about carting cuddly animals to the zoo, metamorphosing from Smuggle Truck into the more wholesome-sounding Snuggle Truck.

Development guidelines urge game creators to distance themselves from touchy subjects and controversial topics: “If you want to criticise a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a song, or create a medical app”. Would Lucas Pope have made the confronting Papers, Please for iOS with the threat of an instant App Store rejection hanging over his head like the big red stamp in his game? Developers with controversial themes to explore are increasingly gravitating towards Android and PC, where content isn’t as sanitised as it is on iOS.

Despite all these hurdles, though, the doom of paid games on iOS has been exaggerated. “Paid games are more than viable for Fireproof. They are a lifesaver and fortune changer,” says Meade, whose box-opening puzzler The Room has sold 2.5 million copies to date. Swedish indie studio Simogo has also enjoyed success by swimming against the iOS tide. Last year, it released Year Walk, which sold 200,000 copies, and Device 6, which sold 100,000. Co-founder Simon Flesser believes developers can remain profitable so long as they don’t bet the farm on one enormous project. “I think it’s important to have modest expectations,” he says, “and have good backup [options], and try to build up a good portfolio over a longer period.”

Even games that hew closer to console titles have found success on iOS. Like most paid-for titles, Kickstarted stealth game République quickly dropped off the Top Grossing charts, but designer Ryan Payton says he’s very pleased, telling us that it’s “actually exceeded our internal goals in early adoption of the Season Pass and international sales”. Payton also believes that “console-quality games definitely have a place on the App Store. This is just the beginning”.

The success of Republique is a sign that console quality games can work on iOS, says its developer.

Assassin’s Creed IV spinoff Assassin’s Creed: Pirates also enjoyed “significant sales”, according to Etienne Tardieu, senior sales manager at Ubisoft. “The premium market still exists,” he says, “especially on iOS, and Apple has been supportive of our effort on this segment.” Games such as Infinity Blade, Joe Danger and Oceanhorn have also proved successful, despite their higher prices and more traditional audiences.

Games in niche genres do well, too, providing they suit the device. UK studio Slitherine says that its £14/$20 Battle Academy has outsold the PC version by a ratio of ten to one, while Tin Man Games has put out enough mobile remakes of classic choose-your-own-adventure gamebooks to open a small library.

Ports are also sources of profit, and not just for nostalgic classics such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Sonic The Hedgehog, or high-profile console games such as XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Independent creators are extending the profitability of their PC and console games with App Store releases. “Although Frozen Synapse iPad has contributed only a small fraction of [the game’s] total revenue, we were still able to make a reasonable profit on it,” says Mode 7’s Taylor. Developers also expand their reach on the App Store. “Most iPad customers are buying the game on that platform first. Early on in its life, I think quite a few of our PC players picked up the game, but for the most part we seem to be reaching a new audience.”

Silhouette platformer Limbo, underworld RTS Skulls Of The Shogun, scientific brainteaser SpaceChem and sneaky puzzler Stealth Bastard all broadened their lifespans on iOS (albeit with the latter renamed as the more Apple-friendly Stealth, Inc). Then, of course, there is Minecraft, whose Pocket Edition has sold more copies than the PC original. It’s also the only paid game to consistently join the free-to-play titans on the Top Grossing chart, but it’s hard to argue with Lovell when he calls it “an outlier by any definition”.

Minecraft’s Pocket Edition has outsold even the PC original.

Looking at the games that have done well for their creators, it becomes obvious that the key to iOS success is little different to any other platform. Not only must a game be of high quality and sufficiently polished, but it needs hype, anticipation and the ear of the press. The one differentiator unique to iOS is promotion from Apple itself via placement in one of its coveted, massively influential ‘Featured’ slots.

So while free-to-play continues to dominate the charts, and limit the sort of experiences that the App Store has to offer, there is still a place for paid games for discerning players. And looking to the rest of 2014, there seems to be a fresh wave of the sort of daring and innovative ideas that led us to call the App Store the hottest property in handheld gaming in E236. For proof, consider Ustwo’s Escher-inspired Monument Valley, Steph Thirion’s long-awaited otherworldly epic Faraway, the popup papercraft Tengami from the ex-Rare developers at Nyamyam, the Japanese superhero management sim Chroma Squad, and an inventive game about shuffling comic book panels called Framed.

Joshua Boggs, director at Loveshack, defends his decision to launch Framed as a paid game exclusively on iOS amid horror stories about the death of premium games by pointing at the numbers. “Apple said this time last year the App Store had 500 million active users,” he says. “What excites us about that number, though, isn’t an infinite number of dollar signs. It’s the potential for what an audience that large means. It means a diverse audience, niche audiences – many people from many different backgrounds, many people looking for different experiences. By making the games that we want to play, we’re technically hitting a potentially large demographic that we’re a part of.”

But he’s quick to add that “Framed will be heading to other platforms, too, eventually”. And that’s something you’ll hear from a lot of developers who are now making their games for PC as well. It makes good financial sense, but it could have a knock-on effect on the quality of iOS titles. If game creators choose Steam first and iOS later, or make their games with multiple platforms in mind, we may start to miss out on the kind of ideas that really take advantage of a touchscreen. Take, for example, Simogo’s Device 6, which has you turning your phone on its side and upside down to follow the winding corridors of words, or Crabitron, which lets you use four fingers to pantomime the pincers of a ramping space crustacean. Then there’s the gyroscope-reliant Ridiculous Fishing or the tactile The Room. “We have to give tablet owners a reason to look at the paid charts, and that means making ever more interesting and different titles that really exploit the tablet experience over anything that’s happened on other platforms,” Meade says.

As The Room games prove, games which focus on getting the best from iOS devices’ functionality can break through.

So what’s ahead for mobile? Will the introduction of better hardware, like the 64bit chip in your iPad Air, or Nvidia’s Unreal Engine 4-capable Tegra K1 unit, change anything?

“We long for the day when the A7 chipset is our minimum spec,” says République creator Payton. “That day can’t come soon enough.” Fireproof’s Meade has a similar view: “I think The Room was helped by being unabashedly a game for high-end devices.” But Lovell warns that the industry’s obsession with faster chips and fancier graphics could be disastrous. “Traditional publishers think it’s all about graphical fidelity, which means they will continue to push up the cost of making this stuff without increasing the revenue opportunity.”

The recent spate of Apple-approved controllers from gadget makers like MOGA, SteelSeries and Logitech are less interesting to the developers we ask. “As long as they are optional thirdparty peripherals, I don’t think controllers will have any major effect on the way we play games on iOS,” says Simogo’s Flesser.

République is controlled through a one-tap system because “until a large percentage of consumers play iOS games with a gamepad, we’re going to continue focusing on developing better ways for players to control touchscreen games”, Payton says. “That’s how the vast majority of the hundreds of millions of iOS users are interacting with their devices.”

The controllers could be part of that ever-present threat that Apple might infiltrate your TV, and take on consoles, but nothing has changed – at least publicly – in that regard since our previous look at Apple’s ambitions for the living room back in E236.

Is Apple’s iOS revolution is on hold, or cancelled completely?

But the real factors in the future of the iOS gaming landscape will not be chips and controllers, but business models and software. Will we really see the last of the premium games slowly squeezed out in favour of a glut of brainless free-to-play repetition, or will the paid, adventurous and refreshing apps that made us excited about the App Store in the first place hold their niche, or even make a triumphant comeback, in the next few years?

“We’re spinning on a super-conservative dime, showing very little vision and no feel for what’s possible,” says Fireproof’s Meade when we ask him to sum up the state of the App Store. “Mobile games in general are designed by committee, in awe of their successful peers, answerable only to player usage data, and tactically designed to give users nothing but what they already know. We think ignoring all of that is our way to sanity and success.”

Whether more developers share that way of thinking will determine whether the iOS gaming revolution is truly cancelled, or merely on hold.