Mobile Mavens

How damaging will paid App Store search ads be for the discovery of indie games?

Our Indie Mavens weigh in

How damaging will paid App Store search ads be for the discovery of indie games?

In June 2016, Apple announced that it would be bringing ads into App Store search.

Developers will be able to pay for their games to appear at the top of search results, with the coveted spot going to the highest bidder.

With discovery already a struggle on the App Store, including ads in the search bar could hurt the developers who can't afford to compete - such as our Indie Mavens.

To find out more about how this might affect them, we asked:

  • Do you think that opening the App Store's search bar to paid ads will allow the bigger developers to push indies out of another area of organic growth?


Simon Joslin Creative Director The Voxel Agents

It is without doubt a blow to indie developers.

Almost by definition we are lacking in the funds required to acquire users, and this change only assists those already successful, or very well-funded.

This is the first move yet made by Apple to unbalance the perfectly equal playing field that was the App Store from 2008-2016. Rest its soul.

For those eight years we had a dream world unparalleled by any previous marketplace. We were given the lowest possible barrier to entry, a developer friendly revenue share, and unbiased curated storefronts that can't be swayed with money.

These reasons made the App Store one of the most important enablers of the rise of indie.

But let's not pretend that the App Store's attempt at egalitarianism wasn't already being thwarted by developers with unfathomably large pockets.

We can no longer hold a picture of Apple as an unblemished white knight, protector of indie.
Simon Joslin

Google Ads, Facebook Ads, and interstitials and incentivised video within our own apps already enabled the big players to sway things in their favour.

So then, it is ultimately no change to the status quo. Apple is merely taking a cut in the extra money that has previously been passed around outside their store.

Unfortunately, it means we can no longer hold a picture of Apple as an unblemished white knight, protector of indies. They've accepted the realities, and so must we. Ultimately, the world is run by money.

As a consequence, things just get harder for us indies.

Fortunately, the market is so huge that indies can still survive on just a fraction of the money that goes through the stores.

It's also infinitely better than facing the old guards that ensured retail shelf space was reserved entirely for the biggest publishers. There will still be breakout indie hits that make tens of millions, but for the average indie it just got a touch harder.

Peril lies down this path though.

Think of how many culturally, creatively and financially significant titles originated from small teams without big budgets: Cut The Rope, Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Crossy Road, Steppy Pants, Monument Valley, Ridiculous Fishing, Ski Safari, Words With Friends, Bonza, Train Conductor - the list is gigantic.

These are the titles that the average consumer thinks of when they think about iPhone gaming - because indies make games that standout. They boldly go where none has ventured before, and they're the ones who set the trends and make the platform defining experiences.

Therefore, the biggest mistake Apple could befell on the App Store is to make it too hard for indies to survive. So let's hope that this path is not ventured down any further in the favour of those with large pockets.

Aaron Fothergill Co-founder Strange Flavour

I’d have to say “I don’t know” if I was going to be completely truthful here, as there are a lot of potential factors between now and search bar ads going live to the general public.

The indications would be that the main benefit of it would be to companies with a lot of marketing cash to play with who now have an extra feature on the App Store, but in theory this is just the top search item.

So once everyone has Clash of Clans, the first unpaid search result may become important again.

The way searches work at the moment is pretty broken. If you enter the exact name of the app you want in an App Store search, you’re not guaranteed it will even appear in the results, let alone near the top.

It’s already difficult for a new indie game to show up on search results.
Aaron Fothergill

Results appear to be based on popularity as much as names and keywords, so you’ll often see search results filled with apps that don’t appear to have any link to what you searched for.

So as it stands at the moment, the current system appears to be game-able by download farms, paid for user reviews etc., and it’s already difficult for a new indie game to show up on search results.

This is something we hit last year when we released Fish! on AppleTV and iOS.

Because AppleTV has no option for direct links to the app on the store, we had to rely on asking people to search for it. On AppleTV this wasn’t horrific at first, but on iOS (and later on AppleTV as more apps arrived) our potential players couldn’t even find our game.

There’s things we could have done, like given it a stupidly long name or subscribed to one of the many dodgy paid for review services, but generally speaking it’s a problem for new, low budget games.

So whether things get worse or better for indie devs on the App Store in iOS 10 will more than likely depend on whatever else Apple’s doing with the search system aside from the paid ads.

Apple will probably make a lot of money from them, so perhaps one for the rumour mill: What if Apple aims to make most of its App Store income from paid ads and reduce its %age cut on apps like it’s done with subscriptions?

It does have me very worried though.

Nathan Fouts Founder Mommy's Best Games

It seems like Apple is at odds with itself. Are they helping the consumer or helping themselves?

The "broken" way the search bar works, makes some sense, if you assume some twisted Apple logic: They think their users don't know what they want, so they 'help' them by giving them the most popular thing associated with the search made.

This is no longer Apple trying to put the consumer first, but simply taking some money on the side.
Nathan Fouts

So in some ways, the user gets a good game, but maybe not the exact name they searched for. (Yes, this is terrible for indie devs).

But with paid search ads, this is no longer Apple trying to put the consumer first, but simply taking some money on the side.

If we try really hard, and apply more twisted Apple logic, I guess you could say "with expensive ads, you'll have higher budget games which will probably have better production values and lead to a better game experience".

In reality, it's all quite a stretch. I really struggle to pretend that 'exact searches not returning the game you want' is a good idea.

Like others, we saw this with our own, very uniquely named game, that it did not return top results until it had great reviews/downloads.

Instead of *fixing* the search problems, they now complicate things.

I'm not from Planet Apple and don't speak their native language. Despite years of trying to understand their culture, I still don't get it.

Matthew Annal MD Nitrome

We too have been confused by Apple's search results.

Searching for Nitrome on the App Store does bring up our games, but with it a host of other games which, as far as I can tell, have no link to our made up company name what so ever.

What's to stop the big players buying all the search names of featured games during feature week?
Mat Annal

Now it seems that people will also be able to pay to show up when people search for our company name rather than ourselves.

It's hard to see this as anything other than negative, but I guess unrelated games already show up without them paying Apple, so perhaps it will make little difference to the indie dev.

I would add that, from an indie perspective, most people download our games during feature week, so we would be much greater affected if Apple took payments to adjust their featuring than their search results.

So perhaps we should be thankful that's not the least for now!?

Then again what's to stop the big players buying all the search names of featured games during feature week?

I certainly worry that this will be prone to abuse, and that it could hurt the smaller devs.

Pierre-Luc Vettier CEO Zero Games Studios

While on consoles manufacturers try to attract as many indie devs as possible, Apple is doing the exact opposite with this kind of shi**y decision.

I've the same opinion as my comrades: asking devs to pay to push their games on the search bar will increase competition between big publishers, and studios will give Apple even more money.

Meanwhile, small indie studios will just struggle even more to make their way into top charts.

Maybe one day, the most innovative indies will stop developing for iOS to focus on other platforms, and then they will regret their decision, but it seems very improbable.

Travis Ryan Studio Head Dumpling Design

I’ve not had chance to fully mull the implications of this, but of course it’s going to impact smaller developers.

As most indies will attest, beyond that initial grass-roots PR push and a featuring or two, you’re left staring into the abyss of ‘how can I reach my audience?’.

Adding another paid channel to success risks further unbalancing an already stacked play-field.
Travis Ryan

Unless you have a viral hit on your hands (viral components becoming ever more vital in the design process) or some barmy guerrilla marketing strategy, you’re looking at costly influencer/user acquisition and now paid search to boost visibility, not to mention the scope for being muscled out of your own brand/IP if you have a success.

Without investment or publisher backing to navigate these channels it’s tough enough, so of course this is going to squeeze out the little guys.

Adding another paid channel to success risks further unbalancing an already stacked play-field for smaller developers.

Then again, perhaps this is a move on Apple’s part to boost the overall quality of content.


Ric is the Editor of, having started out as a Staff Writer on the site back in 2015. He received an honourable mention in both the MCV and Develop 30 Under 30 lists in 2016 and refuses to let anyone forget about it.