The iTunes AppStore started off as a fantastic meritocracy. It enabled any company, whether large or small, to make some money if they could produce a fun game. However, this reality is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Take my game "Trism" for example. I created it this past spring in my nights, weekends, and whatever other time I could get away from my day job. I released it on opening day of the AppStore back in July for $4.99. Apple pegged it as one of the quality titles on the store, and gave it good placement on the front page numerous times. Hundreds of positive reviews piled up, and many people bought it. It was a complete success.
Compare this to the way the AppStore is now, only a few months later. Recently there was a game called 'Pinch and Pop' put on sale for $3.99. It's a fantastic game -- if I had come up with that idea back in the spring, I would have created it instead of Trism. From what I can tell, the guy who wrote it is likely similar to me -- a small company looking to make it big. Apple has recognized this, and is giving Pinch and Pop premium placement on the AppStore. However, the game has only been reviewed 20 times, and although it's rated very high, the game hasn't cracked the Top 100 list yet.
What's changed? How can a fun, well-produced, independently-created game succeed one month, while another suffers just for being released just a little later? The answer, I believe, is the price. Trism was put on sale for $4.99 when it was released in July. Back then it seemed cheap, because many other games were being sold for double that or more. By all means, $4.99 truly is cheap -- it's practically nothing compared to what you'd pay for a new Nintendo DS game. More importantly, it's the bare minimum price for what a small game studio needs to make in order to stay in business.
Since the AppStore opened, more and more companies have been selling their games for less and less money. Some companies promise to put out dozens of games for free or at $0.99. They do this because it's one of the only ways to get recognized on the AppStore: the "Top" rankings lists are determined by the number of units you've sold in the previous day. I'll repeat that in case you missed it -- the top rankings go by the number of units you've been able to sell in the previous day, NOT by the amount of money you've made. So there's an incentive to strive for "impulse buys" and ignore portential profit.
The problem with this is that not everyone can afford to price their games so cheaply. It's an incredible risk for an independent developer to have poured his blood, sweat, and tears into a game, and suddenly realize he's going to have to sell it below a price which he feels is fair. Many independent developers try this anyhow, and quickly see that the game has to be an absolute hit or else it will not make much money at all. Other independents reject this notion and take their chances by selling at a higher price. They may initially make a decent money, but unfortuately it factors their game out of the top lists, which is the kiss of death in today's AppStore.
The only companies who can afford to consistently sell games less than they're worth are larger companies who aim to dominate the AppStore. This is classic sales technique called "loss leading". You can see it in every large company from McDonalds to WalMart. What they do is advertise a mediocre item at a low price in order to get you in the door, and once you're in, they convince you to buy other items which have huge markup. McDonalds doesn't make a penny off the burger they sell you -- the profit's all in the frenchfries. Similarly, Sony sells the Playstation 3 game console for less money than it's worth because they know you'll make money by selling games.
What's wrong with this, you ask? After all, the game players are enjoying many cheap games. Well, the problem is that this will eventually kill the AppStore. In time, less and less independent developers will create games for the iPhone because they just won't be able to make enough money at it. Instead, they'll sell their games to larger companies who can guarantee it gets the exposure it needs to be a hit. This is turning us back into wat we had before the AppStore -- a developer / publisher model, in which the developer is oppressed and the publisher usually ends up making most of the money.
Conversely, it hurts media giants as well. For example, have you ever wondered why PopCap has only released one of their games, Bejeweled, on the iPhone? They could have easily released 10 of their games by now. However, there's such a pricing war going on, they're probably thinking "Why should we spend the time developing Peggle or Bookworm for $2.99 on the AppStore when we can spend our time writing PC versions for $20 a pop"?
This brings me to the crux of my argument. The AppStore is becoming more and more flooded with games every day. We've arrived at a point in time where independent games need to have some kind of boost to stand above the rest. A game can no longer succeed by simply being advertised by Apple on the AppStore -- it needs something more.
Your options as an independent developer? Sell out to a larger company and have them use your game as a doormat. Or, you could spend a fortune in advertising and PR. Neither of these options sounds all that appealing to me. What if there were a free, easy-to-use way to get your game recognized by a relevant, interactive community?
We've been working on this since July. What we've come up with is a revolutionary ecosystem we're calling "Onyx Online". It's set to launch soon and it has the power to fundamentally change the AppStore for the better.
In a nutshell, Onyx Online is the XBox Live Arcade ecosystem brought to the iPhone. I wrote this kind of system into Trism as a case study, and it's been a complete success. Since Trism launched in July, we've been hard at work adapting this online code for use in any iPhone game, and the results are stunning. What we're going to do is allow any developer to insert the Onyx code into their game, which will instantly enable online scoring, achievements, leaderboards, and customized forums.
I've read about other companies who aim to release similar ecosystems for the iPhone, but if you read the fine print, they are closed systems that will work only for that company's games. Onyx Online is an open system which any developer can use. Best of all, Onyx Online is free.
The beauty of Onyx Online is that it's completely viral. We've got about a dozen games right now which have approached us as early adopters. Each of these games will feature the Onyx Online backend when we go live. Inside the games, players will be able to create an account which store their achievements and high scores. The players can then log into the forums and see what their friends are playing. Onyx Online provides a great way for these users to see which games they've played, how they're doing in each, and how they compare against their friends.
A month after launch, who knows, maybe there'll be an additional 12 games that sign up. The next month it could double again. If each of these games features 20,000 unique users, you've suddenly got an ecosystem of a million users. Any upcoming developer can freely and easily tap into this entire collective. If you're writing the next hit game but you're unsure how to get it noticed, why wouldn't you want a free way to get it instantly seen by a million gamers?
In addition, there are other benefits to using Onyx Online. by having a system that keeps track of scores, there'll be no more lost data when users upgrade to a new version of your game. Additionally, if you have a demo version of your game, your players' scores will be retained when buying the full version. Level packs are possible using Onyx as well -- we're set to launch a paid level pack for Trism this holiday season. Last but not least, we plan on taking Onyx to Android and beyond, so if your game is cross-platform, Onyx can help your players retain their scores and achievements between platforms.
The iPhone needs a system which empowers people and allows independent developers to be recognized and rewarded for their hard work. We're proud to provide Onyx in an free and accessible way, seamlessly harmonizing with the AppStore. We're set to launch very soon, before the end of the year. If you would like to become an early adopter, feel free to visit http://onyx.demiforce.com/.