Gaming on the iPhone: Natural Selection In Real-Time

It all started with a link. It always does.

I can’t even remember now where I first saw the link, but I was easily drawn in by the shiny little object: “Mystery House”, the 1980 aventure game by Ken and Roberta Williams of On-Line Systems (later Sierra On-Line, later later Sierra), had been ported to the iPhone by Artsiness (Josef W. Wankerl), in all of its original white-on-black lineart glory. This is the game that GamePro tagged the 51st Most Important Video Game of All Time — nine spots after E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, although I guess that’s fair since it wasn’t the list of Best Video Games of All Time.

My first thought was, How cool. What a sweet idea, even if today’s iPhone casual gamers barely give it notice, or even scoff at the concept.

Then, I saw that the game was being sold in the App Store for $5.99. Of note, the original Mystery House game had been released into the public domain back in 1987.

The responses, in the comments section and in their forums, were not unexpected — ranging from “We need more nostalgic games like this. Just not $5.99” to “$5.99?! You’ve got to be frickin’ kidding me.” Purchasing it was essentially lowered to TOFTT status, mostly because of the price tag.

Well, that and (as one person pointed out) you can play the game right now just as it appeared on the old Apple //e by clicking a single link for free and kicking back, which is a pretty good point. It’s just not on the iPhone, which doesn’t seem worth the $5.99 entry ticket.

Ignoring for a minute the fact that Mystery House can be played for free online, I find the larger pricing issue interesting, given the relatively young age of the iPhone/iPod Touch gaming scene. $5.99 was probably okay a few months ago when the App Store was still fairly new, but over time this price point has become almost unheard of.

Along similar lines, there is that story circulating just about everywhere about the match-3 iPhone game Dapple, whose author (Owen Goss) recently blogged about the sales performance of the game. Briefly, it took him about 6 months to make, with a budget of about $32,000, and revenue from the first month after release totaled about $535 — despite good reviews and some decent exposure. There are a lot of factors that have contributed to this, of course, but it is interesting to note that the game went on sale originally for $4.99 in the App Store, and I imagine that had at least some role in its sales performance.

The reaction to this has generally been, “No kidding, really?” It is, after all, yet another match-3 game in a market already oversaturated with similar games. Yes, it had good reviews, yes, it has some original gameplay elements, and yes, it was featured on Kotaku. But there’s not a whole lot to make it stand out, and at this point it just seems like another drop in the iPhone App Store ocean. So at $4.99, it isn’t terribly surprising that more people haven’t been tempted to TOFTT.

But that’s where things have begun to settle, just a short time after the App Store started featuring games for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Five bucks is to the iPhone what sixty bucks is to the PC: the high end of the price scale. And the expectation is that, if you’re gonna tempt someone to fork over a Lincoln for your hard work, it had better be something special.

I’m not sure why, I just find that fascinating.

This is especially true in light of Jeff Tunnell’s comments last week about the challenge of the iPhone market (and, as I just now notice, Jeff has pertinent new comments about Goss’s experience posted today). The iPhone is a relatively easy platform for developing games, where you can generally create a game with a small budget and short development time, and be looking at potentially large returns. But the market has become so crowded with casual games that it has become incredibly hard to get your game noticed.

And because it’s an open marketplace, prices have gone down and down. The price point of $5.99 or $4.99 is now basically too high, which seems silly given how low that is, comparatively speaking. There are enough games out there now for $1.99 or $0.99 — and many free games as well — to choke out the more “expensive” ones.

This is in contrast with the mainstream PC gaming industry, where budgets and prices have generally gone up. But unlike the PC game market, where indies can make games for less and, as a result, charge less and generate sales that way, there’s no longer much room for indies to undercut the competition on the iPhone platform.

So how in the world do you actually make back your costs on an iPhone game when you’re charging just 99 cents for it? More sales helps, naturally, but you can’t just hope to have sales in the tens of thousands. Hope and luck need to be taken out of the equation.

I don’t have the answers, but I imagine it takes strategy, planning, and effort. As Tunnell says, don’t put all your games in one market if you can help it. Cultivate a community, if you can, like the way Wolfire Games is doing (and elevating to an artform, if I may say). There are many approaches to take, some of which may work and some of which may not. The challenge to the indies is to figure it all out, if they can. It’s just another form of natural selection at work.

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  1. Mike Rozak
    Posted March 13, 2009 at 9:45 PM | Permalink

    Software is inherently a monopoly-oriented business… which means: The way to make money in software is to have a monopoly on software that people want. If you have more than 2 competitors of equal quality and features, you’ll probably make nothing.

    Which is why cloning games/software tends to be a bad idea.

    And why games that take 6 months to write are a bad idea, because someone will quickly clone it.

  2. Rubes
    Posted March 13, 2009 at 10:51 PM | Permalink

    Would you say that applies primarily to the casual games business, or the video game business in general?

  3. Mike Rozak
    Posted March 15, 2009 at 2:54 PM | Permalink

    It applies to any software business.

  4. El Clérigo Urbatain
    Posted March 17, 2009 at 4:26 AM | Permalink

    So, you are trying to put your eggs in different baskets, Rubes?

    I think is a really good advice. Having the expensives assets of the game to reutilize them to make a product in quite quick sounds pretty good to me.

    An IPhone Vespers sounds pretty good to me, because your game it’s no a clone, for now it’s quite unique, so you should take advantage of that.

    What about a Flash Vespers? (just joking). But for games for not such quality as yours, I will try to make a Flash, and Java for mobiles of all my games.

  5. Jason Scott
    Posted March 17, 2009 at 9:56 AM | Permalink

    I think most people can agree that taking a public-domain game, doing minor changes to it, and releasing it on a platform for money is pretty cockfuck to begin with. And then charging a relatively high price for it, especially considering all the hard work (gameplay testing, creating the puzzles, ensuring the functionality of the space) was done by people long before you, well… cockfuck extreme.

    People will pay for a good item; and some people will never pay. But a LOT of people will not only never pay for a bad/mediocre item, they’ll feel insulted you even tried to foist it on them.

  6. Rubes
    Posted March 17, 2009 at 1:31 PM | Permalink

    Well, that pretty much nails it, yes. I can only think that the developer was counting on the nostalgia factor for sales, but that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either.

    I’m pretty sure Vespers (the text game) does not qualify as public domain. But I gather I should probably still try to stay as cockfuck-free as possible.

    Urbatain: Great idea, but not quite. It would take some serious work to port Vespers to the iPhone platform, given the graphics and memory requirements. It would be cool to see, though.

  7. El Clérigo Urbatain
    Posted March 18, 2009 at 4:25 AM | Permalink

    And port your product for Wiiware, Xbox, PS3… of course this is not a free and easy bussisness, to port a game to multiple platforms, some money must be invested in that. Maybe for future projects, to have a schedule with that in mind; or already selling the game for PC, investing the profit to build another release in other platforms. Keeping the idea simple: “I have this great game in PC, now I’m gonna offer it on Wiiware”.

    Rubes: Could you tell us again the multi-platform characteristics of the engine you are using? Maybe is already available for Xbox or PS3, or they are planning to, in the future.

    Being sincere, I always not seen PC indie market as “profitable” as console market. It could be quite interesting to hear from guys such 2D boy if the sales they made for World of Goo are more relevant in one platform than another 😛

  8. Rubes
    Posted March 18, 2009 at 9:03 AM | Permalink

    I’m using the Torque Game Engine from GarageGames, which does offer multiplatform support. Right now, it’s simple enough to develop for both Windows and Mac platforms. Linux is possible, although GG stopped supporting Linux at an earlier version of the engine, so it would take a good deal of effort to get it running on Linux (not to mention someone who is more familiar with Linux than me).

    The Torque engine is also made for Wii, Xbox, and iPhone platforms (and also directly within web browsers), but I haven’t looked into that much. It would probably require upgrading from the “old” Torque Game Engine (TGE) to the “new” Torque Game Engine Advanced (TGEA) in order to gain access to the other platforms. That wouldn’t be a trivial process, though. I’m also not convinced that TGEA is mature enough on the Mac platform yet to warrant the move, but I haven’t had the time to look into it deeply.

    The other issue is that, at least on the Mac platform, TGEA would require an Intel Mac to run, so that would forsake the remaining G4 and G5 Mac users, which I’d rather not do (I’m still one, after all).

    Finally, there is the issue of text. The game will still require text input, and I’m not sure how that would be done easily on the Wii or Xbox platforms (not to mention the iPhone platform, although that’s at least conceivable).

  9. El Clérigo Urbatain
    Posted March 24, 2009 at 3:36 AM | Permalink

    It seems the good gods are listening:

    World of Goo Cost, Sales Breakdowns.

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