Apple Doesn’t Care About Games

Tell us something that we didn’t already know.

In his (not so) recent article in The Guardian, I was an App Store games editor – that’s how I know Apple doesn’t care about games, a former App Store editor, Neil Long, confirms facts that we knew to be true, even obvious, through our experiences with game submissions.

The fundamental conclusion, that Apple doesn’t particularly care about games, is self-evident. Apple is not a game company, and they don’t value games as a way to sell hardware, or increase prestige, or whatever the hell Apple’s mission is these days. Oh, right… their primary mission is increasing shareholder value, so they have no immediate incentive (and very little foresight) to invest in nor properly support the mobile game ecosystem they created “by accident“.

The article confirms what we already surmised, from a “woefully understaffed team of app reviewers”, to comical submission failures, to generally making whatever changes seem to bring in the most profits, regardless of the effects on their customers, game publishers, or the long-term health of the entire system. They don’t see a reason to address the fact that the median income of an iOS game on the App Store is, literally, $0; as long as a few games make them loads of cash, they do not care.

This is, of course, why Apple did the calculus and determined that it was considerably less expensive to reduce commissions to 15% for most game publishers (which costs them absolutely nothing for the majority of games) than to lose their monopoly on iOS sales. (Honestly, I don’t actually know how many “publishers” have signed up for the App Store Small Business Program to get the commission reduction, since a seemingly large, and growing, number are non-professionals.)

I could speculate on the theoretical issues that will be an increasing problem for the App Store in the future, but instead I will mention the very real issues that are happening right now. First, the economics of mobile games (for both Apple and Android) are no longer generally viable without manipulation techniques. A handful of games are making millions of dollars per month (or even per day), but the vast majority do not earn enough in their lifetimes to cover the cost of development. There used to be developers advocating a “mobile first” design strategy, and now I hear nothing about this approach; I do hear about companies deciding that it is not worth the effort, and I know that is a very active discussion point for our future games.

On the other hand, despite the ostensibly strict submission and approval process, Apple is allowing the App Store to be inundated with multiple copies of essentially the same game, submitted by “different” publishers. In some categories I have explored, it is easy to download just a few games and find at least two that are obviously based on the same source code, with only minor graphical revisions (or else cloned so closely as to be counterproductive). I don’t know the actual business model (whether it is a larger company flooding the market, or somebody selling source code packages, or amateurs just submitting sample game applications from some tool or another), but the result is that the App Store experience is getting steadily worse. I love the fact that a 12-year-old with talent (as I was when I got started programming games long before any of this was possible) can gain valuable experience by publishing their own game on this platform, but when every game is either a first project, a clone, or a product with a 6-figure marketing budget, there is little value to be found.

Here are the questions that have to be asked by professional developers:

  • Why should we commit resources to developing a game for iOS (or Android) when the chances of profiting are very slim?
  • What incentives do we have to update and improve released products that have not recouped costs on this mobile platform?
  • Why should we develop for a platform where discoverability is such a problem, and getting worse all the time?
  • What incentives do we have to bother to remove a “zombie” product (i.e., one that earns nothing) from the App Store once published?
  • Why should we bother to support a platform whose owner so clearly does not care about us nor our support of their platform?

I do not have any tangible solutions to suggest (publicly) at this time, primarily because changes are up to Apple and they are unlikely to listen to me (based on every previous interaction). In general, though, as the article says, “Apple could have reinvested a greater fraction of the billions it has earned from mobile games“, and further, it could be seen to actually care about those of us who work hard to make a living developing games and, in the process, supporting their platform (and bottom line). You know, any reasonable change that does not make our lives more difficult or potentially cost us more money to compete would be a start.

3 thoughts on “Apple Doesn’t Care About Games

  1. I’ve got an email telling me that I can renew my Apple Developer Program membership in a few days. As much as I like being able to produce and provide cross-platform games, I might decide my time with Apple is over.

    My first $100+ to them was in 2019, according to my records. Before then bought my Mac Mini and an iPhone SE in 2017. I also bought an iPhone 7 for a second test device.

    I’ve had a total of 8 iOS app sales in all that time. Clearly I have not recouped my investment, but I also recognize that I haven’t done a great job in promoting what I have worked on.

    That said, I was part of a class action lawsuit and got a settlement that was over $1,000. So, that covers most of my Mac Mini costs at least?

    But I am seriously questioning what value there is to keep paying Apple each year for the privilege of having my game continue to be available, putting me more in the hole and requiring more effort to recoup more expenses.

    And that doesn’t cover the time spent updating already-finished games for new SDK compatibility.

  2. Yeah, it can be a difficult decision. For us, we still build products for clients, so it is not a real choice and, honestly, a fairly immaterial expenditure in the scheme of things for a full-time game developer. Essentially, we spend ~$100 per year to keep the option available.

    The big issue is how much effort to sink into development for a platform that seems unlikely to recoup. We have sold more units on iOS, but ultimately not to a significant degree, such that I deliberately did not calculate whether or not my lawsuit settlement (likely identical to yours) exceeded my sales profits.

    The other issues are less tangible: does having an iOS product help sales on other platforms? How much is it worth for me to maintain iOS development experience? Is having an iOS product equivalent to buying a lottery ticket? 😉

    As a fluke, we had two sales this week, but Apple doesn’t care about them any more than it did about the 3 months prior with none at all. 🙁

  3. I think part of the issue is that the sheer number of titles in the App Store works against anyone making money unless they can get exposure from Apple in the App Store. The search function in the App Store is useless unless you are looking for a specific title or developer — a general search for a game type drowns you in titles whose listing order is a mystery to me. If the ordering is by installs/downloads/buys, then it works immediately against any new title or update getting any views. Plus, there are simply too many free titles to get anyone to pay anything for any game. The last time I waded into the In-App buy API in iOS it was a nightmare and something not worth my time.

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