Stateside: Apple is powerless to thaw the App Store's big freeze

Mobile creativity is being throttled

Stateside: Apple is powerless to thaw the App Store's big freeze
Chicago-based Carter Dotson is a senior writer at, which was acquired by publisher Steel Media in 2012.

Is mobile gaming stagnating? Well, look at the top of the stores.

Change, which has been frequent and dramatic in the mobile space since iOS and Google entered the scene, seems to be frozen at the top.

Take a look at the App Stores' top grossing chart, and what do you see? Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans at the top. Sure, they've flip-flopped positions occasionally, but they've been up there. They've been up there for a while.

The only difference on Google Play is that Clash of Clans has only just launched in beat form. And, when it comes to the rest of the games on the list, they're not all that different: they're mostly card games, casino games, puzzle games, and simulation games, overwhelmingly free-to-play titles.

Is this a problem?

No change

One thing's for sure – it's been this way for months. Any change has mostly in rank, in the skins around some of these games and the ways that they monetise, rather than their being an influx on fresh blood on the stores.

There's a lot of large, well-established studios behind these games, and given their ability to market them, it's hard to see this changing.

And this is a big problem for everyone else working in mobile: the big players are settling in, perhaps finding for the first time the consistent formulas necessary to win big on mobile.

Can you remember when Clash of Clans wasn't near the top of the charts?

What's more, they're formulas that smaller developers often can't or won't replicate: massive marketing campaigns and in-app purchase tactics meant to create whales who fuel the games.

This is all happening, of course, independent of the platform holders, and definitely independent of Apple.

Apple wants to be an influencer, but its hand is a weakening one.

Not that it isn't trying, hiring experienced people to curate its apps. In 2010, Apple hired long-time IGN editor Matt Casamassina to be the App Store's global editorial games manager.

Just recently, Apple hired the assistant manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, Jay Sartori, to manage the sports and entertainment category of the App Store.

Yes, Apple hired an actual sports executive to help curate sports apps - it takes editorial discovery especially seriously.

Is Apple an influencer?

However, talk to developers featured by Apple and they'll tell you that it's only a small part of the way to success.

What's more, when it comes to free apps, Apple can only deliver downloads, not revenue.

For example, FIFA 14 and Pocket Trains were both featured by Apple at the end of September and made it into the top 10 free chart as a result. Neither, however, is even in the top 30 when you look at the top grossing list.

This can, in part, be down to the way games monetise, as well as the type of gamer they attract, but the important thing to note is, when it comes to actually turning a profit, for most studios the relevance of securing a feature spot with Apple is dwindling, and unless you're King, Supercell, or one of the other big shots, this should worry you.

If Apple, the massive, domineering store holder that it is, exerts such little influence over the success of the games and apps it chooses to feature, then where's the room for the plucky little upstart?

And that's the thing: It'd be unfair to suggest Apple doesn't care for those upstarts – it has demonstrated in the past it's willing to feature games from relative unknowns – but Apple and Google alike are losing grip on how their stores should operate.

Same old, same old

They can change the algorithms and fiddle with the seams, but they're not hitmakers anymore.

Success on mobile is fasting becoming a game of who has enough money to build awareness, or who already has hit titles they can cross-promote with.

The indie gold rush is definitely over, and the odds of another Imangi or NimbleBit springing up somewhere – a tiny two-or-three person studios that amasses mainstream success – are slim.

Will we ever see a game like Temple Run come out of nowhere again?

But this isn't just a case of indies losing out financially.

Part of what made mobile such an exciting space to be in after the launch of the App Store in 2008 was the fact that studios were constantly innovating and being rewarded for that endeavour.

Rather that sequels being guaranteed bankers – stagnating the market as they do on consoles – developers learned that, taking a risk and doing something different was more likely to pay off.

In short, this innovation drove mobile forward. Fast forward to 2013, and the variety of titles at the top of the charts is very low. New ideas are being shut out, or driven away from mobile entirely.

The mobile market deserves to be more than just a playground for wealthy companies to profit off of the same formulas just with new skins. Mobile gaming's massively successful era was born from the idea that anyone could make an app and potentially succeed.

The first part is still true, but the potential for the second is rapidly falling away, and it appears Apple, Google, Microsoft or BlackBerry are powerless to halt the decline.

Stateside columnist

Freelance writer covering mobile and gaming for @toucharcade, @Gamezebo, and more!


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Maxim Zaks
Sorry but I think you mixing some stuff up.
As you sad Apple can only deliver downloads. AppStores are distribution channels which can be used by everyone, an indie developer or an established game studio.
Top grossing chart is another story, this chart shows who can make the most of it's users. Who nailed it's monetization strategy.
King and Supercell example shows that this company nailed the F2P concept.
How ever I wouldn't say that "The indie gold rush is definitely over".
Supercell and King brought "the game" into another level. As an indie I need 100 times less revenue to consider my game as a huge success. A game which converts 2K a day won't even show up in top 500 grossing Apps, however 60K / month is a nice salary for an indie developer don't you think?
Moritz Voss
Temple Run, as the game that has around a dozen sequels and spin-offs, is probably a very poor example for "innovation".

In fact, it's quite the opposite - the type of massively marketed big player game that the article becries.

There were other 3D runner games of similar quality before it. But none were marketed as well and tweaked to monetize as well as the Temple Run series.
Rob Leach
I wonder if what we're seeing is less of a big company stranglehold over the App Store and more of a movement towards familiarity as games reach further and further into mass market. That casual and popular markets have never thrived off of innovation like the core markets have, and perhaps this slowing of the App Store churn points less at Apple and more at the consumer.
Phil M
The main question is this. If a developer made a great game, great visuals, addictive and even included IAP's, and launched it on the App store without any money being spent on ads etc, would it do well? or would it sink?

If the answer is it would sink, then obviously there's something wrong with the App store.
Simon Windmill
Respectfully, I have to disagree Carter. Apple - and all the other gatekeepers - have no obligation to publishers/developers to maintain "accurate" charts for their stores. They could be replaced with an entirely curated "top games" list which would provide the same benefit to the (typically new or casual) user in showcasing the best apps on the platform. They could have a chart that only tracks apps from the last, say, month. They could just "hide" the charts deeper so users look at the existing curated features first.

The triple benefit is avoiding the chart freeze, reducing the risk of scam or simply terrible apps getting featured, and getting rid of a lot of the chart manipulation companies, leveling the playing field for all.

So why don't they? The cynical Brit in me assumes that a lot of money and/or power is changing hands with the massive publishers, but as a little guy I have no idea.