How not to do it
Alert followers of the App Store will have noticed a game taking up residence in the upper reaches of the charts recently.
Fruit Ninja thoroughly deserves its success. It's a beautiful game, absurdly simple but lovingly executed and endlessly compulsive. Judging by its OpenFeint leaderboards, it's sold well over half a million copies in the six weeks or so since it was released, generating almost a quarter of a million pounds for its creators after Apple's cut of the proceeds.
(Man, there has to be an apple-cutting joke in there somewhere.)
What fewer people know about is the near-identical game that preceded it and completely flopped.
As Fruit Ninja took up what looks set to be a long-term residency in the top 10, Blade Man had been sitting on my AppShopper wish list for months, waiting for a price cut that never arrived. But out of professional interest I took one for the team and bought it this weekend, because it looked like it was almost exactly the same game as Fruit Ninja. And when I booted it up, my suspicions were confirmed.
The core gameplay of the two titles is practically indistinguishable. A handful of items are tossed up from the bottom of the screen, and you slash at them with a swipe as they fall back towards the ground, trying to chop as many as possible in a single gesture. Blade Man's graphics are pretty, it's smooth and slick, there's a quite clever scoring/lives system, and it's easy to get into. So why did it stiff when Fruit Ninja hit the jackpot?
The main answer is pretty obvious. Despite the constant protestations of idiots and vested interests, the App Store market really, REALLY likes paying 59p (99c) for high-quality games. Show it something it vaguely likes the look of at that price and it'll almost certainly take a punt on it, and if you've got something really good the word will spread like wildfire. Try to get greedy, though, and they'll shrug and move on to one of the thousands and thousands of cheaper options competing for their time and attention.
I didn't notice Fruit Ninja having any unusual amount of marketing or hype, but by providing a simple, well-made game that's easy to grasp and play but remains challenging and addictive no matter how much you practice it, developers Halfbrick have cracked the magic formula at their second try, and been rewarded by an avalanche of money that shows no signs of letting up any time in the near future. Meanwhile, SunArt (makers of Blade Man) look on sorrowfully, rueing their short-sighted avarice and thinking "It could have been us".
(In a similar scenario, the hugely-hyped Canabalt – a game which benefitted from a very large existing market awareness via the deservedly popular Flash version – caused massive controversy on iPod gaming forums when it was released at $2.99, the same price as Blade Man. It had a brief sales spike as everyone reviewed it, then nosedived out of the charts.
Meanwhile, the very similar Run! – with none of the brand awareness, none of the hype and a stupid, hard-to-search name – came out for 99c just a month earlier, and has quietly sold around 300,000 copies.)
Smart developers – those who've grasped the nature of the App Store market instead of bitterly railing against it – are making very tidy sums of money out of iPod and iPhone games. And here's the crucial thing, which disproves the usual howls of complaint from failures – they're doing it even without being big chart successes.
Plenty of coders will grudgingly concede that you can do well if you fluke a top 10 hit and thereby overcome the Store's visibility issues, but still gripe that that's your only – remote – chance of turning a profit. And yet, Run! has barely ever troubled the top 100. It isn't currently in the top 200 paid games, hasn't ever gone free, and has only had a couple of updates, so it rarely even shows up on tracker sites like AppShopper. But this one simple running-stick-man app has earned its indie creator around £14,000 a month net since release WITHOUT ever really appearing on the success radar.
Don't believe anyone who whines that it's hard to make money with a really good game on the App Store, viewers. They're either lying, or imbeciles, or both. But the lessons that intelligent creators have learned there (and that stupid ones stubbornly resist learning) apply across the board.
Nobody's saying that new disc-based Xbox 360 games could or should be sold for the price of a Twix, of course. But trying to shift anything other than triple-A nailed-on blockbusters at £40+ is commercial suicide, and has already lead to the wholesale slaughter of small developers and publishers (not least by diverting a large slice of the revenue pie into the pre-owned sector, as consumers desperately try to save even a few quid). Attempting to cling onto it will soon finish the job.
There are signs that publishers are belatedly waking up to this fact. If I was you, though, I'd still be selling my shares in mainstream gaming companies while they were worth something, and lumping everything on Apple, and on iPod game developers who sell their wares for 59p.