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Mobile's broken app store discoverability

How Steam, Google Play and Apple's App Store compare and how platform holders prioritise ads over useful recommendations for users
Mobile's broken app store discoverability

Mobile app store discovery is fundamentally broken.

That’s nothing new to anyone in the business. Discoverability across the games market is an issue - too many games, too little time, and standing out amongst the crowd is the perennial challenge for developers and publishers.

But mobile has a particularly big problem that has existed for years. On PC, platforms such as Steam provide an array of discovery options and have a distinctly different approach to those offered by Apple and Google.

PC grows as mobile declines

Speaking at Nordic Game last week during a ‘Steam Business Update’ presentation, Kassidy Gerber from Steam’s business team discussed how the company supports developers on its store, conducts promotions, and how it shapes discoverability to surface the most relevant games for players.

Gerber showed the impact of its work on discovery and developer support - year-to-year revenue on Steam keeps rising, and hasn’t dived back down following the Covid lockdowns which added 10 million extra concurrent users. It keeps on rising.

Steam year-over-year revenue growth 2018 to 2024
Steam year-over-year revenue growth 2018 to 2024

Steam has now hit 36.3 million+ peak concurrent users and 10m peak in-game users.

Newzoo’s latest report on the 2023 games market, which revised its revenue estimates for the year, showed 8.4% year-on-year growth for the global downloaded/boxed PC games market, now worth $39.6 billion.

In contrast, mobile games revenue fell by 2.1% to $89.9 billion.

The way mobile games are marketed to reach billions of consumers around the world is different to console and PC. It would be an oversimplification to say that issues with discovery would fix mobile’s woes (that would require easing App Tracking Transparency policies to start with, and arguably a change in consumer habits for actually using the marketplace).

But a different approach to discovery by mobile’s platform holders could only be a net positive to the industry.

It’s an opportunity for the Epic Games Store and Microsoft’s web-based mobile Xbox games marketplace, which are both set to launch this year, with their main challenge being that they'll need to attract consumers and developers to a new store.

How Steam fuels discovery and supports developers

Steam doesn’t sell ads or promotional space on its store, or as Gerber described it, “access to eyeballs”.

Instead, games are served to users based on their interests and preferences, while their wider friends network or breakout hits in the local region are also factors in what games users are shown.

Steam sales are well known in the PC space, with seasonal sales taking place each year. According to Steam’s own data, average daily revenue for each seasonal sale has, for the most part, grown each year since 2019.

Growth of average daily revenue for seasonal sales on Steam
Growth of average daily revenue for seasonal sales on Steam

“It's worth noting that this growth isn't localised to just the biggest names,” said Gerber.

There are also nine additional themed sale events and festivals throughout the year, with some of those based around Steam tags, which helps players identify and find games they want.

Steam also has a host of other features to support developers, including but not limited to Steam Workshop and Early Access (Google also supplies the latter for developers in beta).

Mobile discovery

Steam is not immune to criticism or discoverability issues (its dominance on PC is also a big topic of debate). But it does feature a raft of tools and provides developer support to help generate sales on its platform, which continues to grow, to somewhat justify its fees.

Apple's App Store and Google Play don’t feature the same kind of tools and levers to attract organic users. Developers I’ve spoken with say that being featured on an app store doesn’t move the needle like it used to.

Apple redesigned their App Store in 2017 with a bigger editorial focus more akin to a magazine than a typical marketplace. In 2016 and 2017, Apple also rolled out Search Ads, through which publishers can pay to promote their game at the top for certain App Store search terms. This can include the game name of a rival.

Apple’s services business, which includes advertising, Apple TV+, Apple Music, Apple Arcade and iCloud, generated $23.1 billion in 2023, a rise of 11.3% year-over-year from $20.8 billion in 2022.

The Financial Times previously reported forecast estimates from Evercore ISI of what Apple's overall advertising revenue could look like up to 2026:

Apple estimated advertising revenue 2020 to 2026. Source: Financial Times and Evercore ISI
Apple estimated advertising revenue 2020 to 2026. Source: Financial Times and Evercore ISI

It's a large revenue driver for Apple, and like Google, one it won't want to shy away from.

Steam's search and home page experience

Steam, Google Play and the App Store have different experiences, priorities and layouts.

Here’s a comparison of the stores when you first enter them. It's worth noting that Steam typically opens an extra window for promotions as well.

On Steam, the top banner (for a larger desktop screen) starts with the latest, limited time, themed sale. It then highlights ‘Featured and recommended’ games based on what the user might be interested in playing.

After a self-promotion for Steam Deck, it then heads into special offers, a browser by category section, games ‘Recommended based on the games you play’ and a ‘Because you played’ section.

Meanwhile, searching for a game shows the title I searched for at the top (if available), related DLC and some similar titles. There are also further advanced search options to the right.

Apple's App Store search and home page experience on iPhone

The App Store opens up on the ‘Today’ page with editorial and the option to download a promoted app, before moving on to trending apps.

On the games page, it features the top game - Supercell’s Squad Busters, and then 'What we’re playing'. Other featured sections include 'Must-play games' and 'More games you might like'.

When searching for an app, in this case Clash of Clans or Squad Busters, alternative, paid-for app placements from Search Ads appear first, based on the search term.

Google Play's search and home page experience

Google Play opens onto the ‘For you’ games page, with a featured app and deal at the top, before moving straight onto paid-for ads. It’s followed by pre-registrations and then a ‘Recommended for you’ section.

As with the App Store, searches for Clash of Clans and Squad Busters surface sponsored ads for that term as a priority. In Squad Busters’ case, three other games - Match Masters, Rush Royale and Hearthstone - appear above what is the hottest game launch this week on mobile.

Supercell can be thankful for pre-registrations that will notify users automatically of its release, thus avoiding a marketplace search entirely.

There are three distinct approaches on show here:

  • Steam focuses on sales and user-driven recommendations (pushed by its algorithm based on their specific preferences)
  • Google pushes sponsored apps to the fore (which makes sense for an ads business)
  • Apple focuses on editorial content and its own recommendations, as well as providing space for ads.

From these examples, Steam’s approach works best for its users, and by extension, for developers and publishers, as Valve is doing everything it can to get you to buy something you might be interested in. 

Valve could potentially generate more revenue by charging for ad space, but that could negatively impact the store experience for users which has been finely tuned to making you buy what it’s selling.

Apple’s curated approach seems flawed - surely an algorithm would create a better store experience than a team of editors that can’t possibly know what individual users would want?

Meanwhile, Search Ads ultimately degrades the App Store discovery experience by pushing real search results down.

Google focuses some of its attention in the featured section on deals, but not to the degree that Steam does for mass, store-wide sales. It then pushes ads to the forefront of the store experience before getting to recommendations, even moreso in search than the App Store.

Direct-to-consumer catalyst

Speaking to PocketGamer.biz, Archie Stonehill, head of product at direct-to-consumer web shop provider Stash that's looking to provide an alternative to app store purchases, said developers don’t see as many benefits from their relationships with app stores as they have in the past.

“Starting in 2020, that kind of organic discovery had been more or less replaced by ad monetised Apple App Store space.”
Archie Stonehill, Stash

In the early days, he said, featuring was a major channel for acquiring users and scaling a game, making app store relationships critical. That’s no longer the case.

“Starting in 2020, that kind of organic discovery had been more or less replaced by ad monetised Apple App Store space," said Stonehill.

"Though partly been driven by the rise of hypercasual and changing consumer behaviours, Apple's ad business now monetises much of the store’s real estate developers previously could bargain for.

"The result is that today, being featured isn’t as reliable and is much less impactful, especially in terms of actual spend (versus install numbers).

“This is largely why game developers feel that the 30% cut they pay to the app stores isn’t justified. If that money isn’t going back into helping them acquire organic users or other added value, why are they paying so much? 

“It’s a big catalyst for the direct-to-consumer web shop boom we’ve seen in the last half year or so, and also why many developers are excited about alternative app stores. 

“The way we see it, either the app stores need a discoverability overhaul, or they need to lower the 30%. Hopefully it’s both.”

Fundamental rethink required

Apple and Google would do the games industry and consumers a huge favour by making their app stores more usable and worthwhile for consumers, and help support developers fighting with a broken user acquisition model (that Apple itself broke with ATT).

It would also give the platform holders a greater defence for their 30%. The iOS and Android ecosystems may have billions of users between them - but they are not easily accessible to publishers that have to spend increasingly more money to find them, with little visibility on getting the right users.

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At the cost of billions of dollars to their own bottom line, it seems highly unlikely Apple and Google will change unless there’s a fundamental rethink of how their marketplaces provide value to consumers and developers.

Maybe competition from Epic and Microsoft - other direct-to-consumer activity and marketplaces emboldened by the European Union's Digital Markets Act - is just what the mobile games industry needs to fix these issues.