Gaming the App Store: The Start of an Indie Ice Age

Gaming the App Store: The Start of an Indie Ice Age

As an indie supporter and marketing professional, nothing outrages me more than developers who pay their way into the App Store’s charts with shady acquisition practices. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against paid acquisition. (I don’t think you’ll find a respectable marketer who does.) What I am against are acquisition methods that simulate or incentivize real user activity–like downloads or positive reviews–to trick the App Store’s charting algorithm. If left unchecked, these practices will turn the App Store from a place to discover quality games into a banner farm for subpar apps backed by deep pockets, forcing indie games into extinction.

Why is charting such a big deal?
Before one can grasp how damaging shady acquisition practices are, it’s important to understand the power of charting. By applying what we know about app monetization to the real-life example below, we can do just this.

In late 2012, AnyList, a grocery list app, was released on the App Store. After one week, AnyList had generated 215 downloads. Soon after, Apple featured AnyList as “New and Noteworthy” for two weeks. During this time, AnyList generated over 60,000 downloads–a 28,000 percent increase from before it was featured.1

Now, imagine AnyList was a free-to-play game with in-app purchases. Knowing that three percent of freemium users make at least one in-app purchase that averages $9.99, AnyList could have earned at least $17,000 from being featured for just two weeks.2 Compare this to the $64 the app could have earned the week prior and all of a sudden the allure of charting becomes understandable.

Why is charting such a big deal for indies?
For an indie who statistically won’t make over $10,000 in his/her entire career on the App Store, $17,000 in two weeks is a dream, however, the App Store makes it possible with its charting algorithms and promotion philosophy.3 Let me explain.

In the above example, Apple chose to feature AnyList based on criteria that focuses on quality and appeal (i.e., is the app good and will App Store customers like it?).4 In fact, all apps that get promoted in Apple- or customer-selected charts are there because they match these criteria. What isn’t factored into this criteria is marketing budget. Why? Because ensuring apps get promoted based on quality, not how much marketing developers can afford, maintains the App Store as a place to discover great content. It also allows developers with no marketing budgets, who create amazing games, to get discovered–making the App Store a critical distribution channel for indies. No wonder indies are responsible for publishing 68 percent of mobile games!5

What would happen to indies if Apple’s charting algorithms were compromised?
With the App Store being so critical to indie success, any compromise to its charting algorithms would clearly have an impact. How big would this impact be? Let’s consider the below example.

Substandard Studios publishes Crap-O-La to the App Store as a free-to-play game with in-app advertising. Substandard then finds a “marketing agency” that guarantees Crap-O-La a spot in the App Store’s Top 10 in exchange for $96,000.6 Substandard agrees, pays the agency and within one week, Crap-O-La is on the Top 10 generating two million downloads and $50,000 in ad revenue per day. Meanwhile, App Store consumers are furious with Apple for recommending such a terrible game and confused how it could have so many downloads and excellent reviews. Apple is furious because Substandard has gamed the system, tarnishing Apple’s reputation for promoting quality content and causing it to lose consumer trust. And finally, indies who followed the rules, publishing quality games, are passed over because Apple’s charting algorithms failed.

While it may seem innocuous for a naughty developer to game the system every now and then, if left unchecked, this could become status quo. And in a world where developers must spend almost $100,000 to compete, indies have two options: find investors and risk being forced to build games they became indies to avoid or find another distribution channel. Both options are not ideal and will eventually lead to the disappearance of indie games on the App Store altogether.

How can we stop this unfortunate scenario?
Apple doesn’t have to be the only one taking a stand against unethical marketing practices. In fact, they shouldn’t be. As indies or indie supporters, we should take unethical marketing practices just as, if not more seriously than Apple. Below are five ways indies and indie supporters can curb and slowly eliminate unethical marketing behavior.

  1. Do Your Research
    If you’re an indie fortunate enough to have a marketing budget, make sure you hire reputable marketing agencies and/or consultants. How? Check references, read reviews and so on. A good marketing vendor will have no problem providing you with references, examples of work and any other information you need to make an informed decision (barring disclosure of confidential information of course). In addition, a good marketing vendor should do this with complete transparency and no guff. If you discover or get the faintest whiff of a fishiness, move on and warn your indie friends to do the same.
  2. Monitor Your App’s Activity
    If the agency you hired is managing your lead acquisition, be sure to monitor your game’s activity closely. Pay special attention to (1) little to no in-game activity after download (i.e., are the downloads you’re getting actually playing the game?) and (2) similarity between positive reviews (i.e., are your positive reviews similar in content, language, style, etc.). If you are seeing any of these patterns, your marketing vendor could be engaging in unethical behavior.
  3. Raise Awareness by Taking a Stand
    Unethical App Store marketing practices impact the indie community in a major way and should be something you care about. Help generate awareness around the issue by taking a stand. Talk about your feelings on the subject with other indies, on your social media properties, on your blog, etc. Don’t feel the need to go crazy on the subject, but any attention you draw to the issue will make it harder and harder for agencies to get away with continued shadiness.
  4. Help Your Indie Comrades Out
    One of the reasons I am so fond of the indie community is because we help each other out. Promotion is no exception. If an indie releases a game you feel is excellent, tell people about it. A simple Tweet or Facebook post to a group of followers carries a lot more weight than a paid ad. It may seem insignificant, but if enough indies participate, these small gestures can add up, becoming a powerful marketing vehicle.
  5. Report and Boycott
    Finally, if you discover a marketing vendor engaging in unethical practices, report it to Apple and warn others to stay away. This may seem harsh, but it’s the only real way to set a precedent.

1. Jeff Hunter, “Being Featured on the App Store,” http://blog.anylistapp.com/2012/08/app-store/, (Aug. 22, 2012).
2. Jeferson Valadares, “Consumers Spend Average of $14 per Transaction in iOS and Android Freemium Games,” http://blog.flurry.com/bid/67748/Consumers-Spend-Average-of-14-per-Transaction-in-iOS-and-Android-Freemium-Games, (Jul. 25, 2011).
3. Owen Goss, “Results: iOS Game Revenue Survey,” http://www.streamingcolour.com/blog/2011/09/28/results-ios-game-revenue-survey/, (Sept. 28, 2011).
4. While Apple has never published the criteria it uses for selecting which apps it promotes on New and Noteworthy, or how its charting algorithms work, it is widely believed that Apple selects apps based on their quality (i.e., graphic quality, gameplay quality, etc.) and how well an App Store customer might like the app.
5. Peter Ferago, “Indie Game Makers Dominate iOS and Android,” http://blog.flurry.com/bid/82758/Indie-Game-Makers-Dominate-iOS-and-Android, (Mar. 6, 2012).
6. Kyle Orland, “Pay to rank: Gaming the App Store in the age of Flappy Bird,” http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2014/02/pay-to-rank-gaming-the-app-store-in-the-age-of-flappy-bird/, (Feb. 11, 2014).

Emmy

Emmy Jonassen is a marketing pro who helps indie developers build adoring fanbases. Marketing people who love buzz words call this "lead generation."

6 Comments

Csaba

about 4 years ago

Emmy, great article and love the footnote/sources. Very helpful. Another way for big and cash rich developers to squash indies is to sue them for frivolous reasons knowing they have no budget to fight back. Candy Crush anyone? Emmy, what's your take on that saga?

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Emmy

about 4 years ago

Great question! Obviously, I have very strong feelings about this. As it relates to King, trying to sue everyone over "trademark" infringement, is absolutely ridiculous. I'm no lawyer, but I know that to truly prove trademark infringement, you have to show that the "competitor's" name is similar enough to your product's name and being used in a similar enough market that it is causing a loss in your profits due to consumer confusion, etc. The indies that King is going after are clearly no financial threat and the names/games cannot be confused with Candy Crush. This kind of behavior on King's part is completely ridiculous and unacceptable. And, the only way King will stop is if there is public outcry. As indies, this is another issue we should take seriously and do our part to put a stop to. Phew...ok...I'm going to stop pounding on my keyboard and let the color return to my knuckles. Thanks for the comment :)

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Michael

about 3 years ago

The whole "Editors Choice" seems to be a scam. Typically games are from GameLoft, Chillango, etc. And while there may be decent games, most of the time, the quality feels like... well, terrible - and unbelievable Apple would choose it over an indie app that gets lost. i.e. When games come out Thur. night in the iTunes store, I always scroll to the end of "whats new". That is how i found "The Shadow Sun" While this game has its negative reviews for taking so long to come out, and the graphics not being what it should be, due to the length of time, and I suppose the use of UnReal Engine... it was actually a great game in comparison to what was Editors choice... almost every week. The negative reviews, which are interesting, are from hardcore gamers that expect certain things from their rpg, and would never get the Editors choice games... and do not realize they hurt what good development is in there by not seeing the full picture. Another game, suppose you would have to "youtube" it now, is Evhacon. Made by an Italian indie who paid a programmer and used UnReal Engine. I found it by accident, as I even went further to click on role playing subsection in games... and scrolled, saw icon, gave it a chance and was like... wait, this looks like a 'real' game. And it was great... short, but great. No worse than more than half of what passes through Apple because of Crecent Moons, GameLoft, etc. So... games are lost at the get go. If you are listed as a game in the Apps section, great. If not, then you need to be at the top of the game page... if not... maybe whats new... [but typically people just click on apps and see what is there, not even going to the game section, let alone scrolling whats new every Thurs.] I will say i have an issue with Gameloft, as I have bought games from them, to have them drop support and yank it from the store. Backstab is one, an assassins creed like game. [not because of legal issues as they had a Ubi venture with Rainbow six... that never got updated once, but is still there - and Modern Combat 5, which was advertised as 'no in apps', but you had to have an internet connection. After you bought the game with promise of no in-app, they added in-app, and you had to update as it required internet connection to play. That is actually, illegal, from my view point, unethical, and Apple has been a real disappointment as far as gaming. It was conceivable that Apple had a lot to gain from being a real gaming platform... suppose the mass majority are happy with whatever flat, colorful, rather ugly, game is released. i may be biased, as i love gaming, Assassins Creed, etc. and hope for those games, as the iPad gets better specs, to finally make its way to iOS - like what Ubi is actually planning on with one of their games. i am interested, on the side, in developing a game... but to what end... you can't get it marketed. i have a friend who had a successful app, but from marketing to programming, he will never do it again... and it was well received, and reviewed well across the various review networks. Its nice that you are trying to help people... not sure, with Apples setup, how far indies can actually get, without selling out to a game loft, though I'm not sure that is an option. Typically companies hire people to crank out... to be honest... crap that people will buy. Ah... anyway, thanks for the help you are trying to provide. - M.

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Emmy

about 3 years ago

Michael, thank you for your comment. I can tell you are quite passionate about this topic, as many, including myself, are. It's clear that Apple needs to work on its methods for discovery that not only rule out gaming the system, but any kind of curation bias. This is of course a hard thing to do, and has complications on both ends (for Apple and Developers/Publishers). Perhaps moving to a system where Apple curators, aren't necessarily connected with Apple (i.e., Steam) might be an interesting thing to try. Of course, that has downfalls too. Again, it's a complicated issue, but one that needs to be addressed.

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Jaco Pieterse

about 3 years ago

Just got your tweet about this article. And well done, nice article. I feel for the indie developers struggling to promote their games especially if its a unique game and not just another clone of something! I know its hard I'm one of them. I've submitted my game to the review sites you suggested, but don't hear back from them. Any idea what the average waiting time for a review is? Great site and thank you what you do for the Indie Community!

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Emmy

about 2 years ago

Hi Jaco, thank you for the comment and kind words. I'm glad to hear my site has been of help :) This is a good, but tough question to answer. Because of the enormous amount of requests review sites receive, getting a review can take a while. That said, I don't know if there is an "average" waiting time. I'm sure it's different for everyone, but in my experience it has varied widely. In some cases, a review pops up within a week, in others over a month and sometimes, not at all.

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