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The Mobile Gaming Mavens on the ethics of App Store chart manipulation

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The Mobile Gaming Mavens on the ethics of App Store chart manipulation

The Mobile Mavens is our panel of experts drawn from all sectors of the mobile gaming industry.

With bot farms driving chart position in the free games App Store and Apple cracking down on publishers who use them - as well as the money being spent on complex user acquisition campaigns - we asked them:

Do you think the organic virality of app stores is broken?

XMG's Adam Telfer summed up most Mavens' feelings on the recently unearthed practice of bot farming.

"Buying status hurts the App Store - Apple is right to crack down on it," he opened.

"That being said, if you make the focus of the App Store getting onto the featured lists (by getting into bed with Apple) or top charts (by get downloads any way you can), I don't think it's that surprising that businesses are finding any way they can to get their game into the top charts."

Bolt Creative's Dave Castelnuovo quickly pointed out that this was, thankfully, only a problem for freemium games.

"With freemium, you really need to work hard on your customer acquisition strategy and develop a ton of promo partnerships. Along with that comes a temptation to artificially increase your ranking through the use of a bot farm."

Given that most of these bot farms are run by less-than-salubrious types in Russia and China, he felt that they were likely to promote "crappy games" that ruin the image of modern games and was glad that Apple was cracking down.

Short-term spikes

Thankfully, he didn’t know of a way other than organic virality to get an app to the top of the paid chart - though Tapjoy's network used to be good platform for gaining a foothold in the rankings, he noted.

"For a paid app, the things that matter are, the notoriety of the team or the IP - anything that Rovio does will probably be a #1 app - and beyond that, organic virality."

Indeed, he felt the kind of artificial popularity spikes bot farms afford are most costly than productive.

"We are careful about creating artificial spikes because unless you can maintain a blockbuster campaign for months and months, as soon as the upward push subsides your rank falls like a stone, unless it has developed the ability to stay there on its own."

Jared Steffes of Furywing agreed; "I think bot farming is negative for the industry," he said

"It is just a bandage for problems of a developer or the marketplace itself. It's artificially inflating a number and it always makes waves for the people using the way the natural market works."

The 4 percent business model

Despite Castelnuovo's points, mills™ of ustwo was skeptical about the possibility of any but the top few developers topping the charts organically.

"When I look at the top 100 paid charts these days, I see the same apps sticking, and the same weekly in and out action from great looking titles backed by Apple," he contested.

Meanwhile, the choice facing consumers outside the top charts is huge - and gets bigger day by day. "I heard the other day that you need 2 million DAU to really have an impact with word of mouth!"

Mills™ has, however, come up with a formula for success; a combination of guaranteed Apple promotion, money spent on, game website takeovers, "'bungs' for the social media whizz kids who run YouTube now", link swaps with big games, established relationships with the press, national coverage in print newspapers, airtime on TV, an incredible story, a great game, and the right model for that game.

"Then you need it all to come together at the same time and then you need to fucking pray. Even then, I say your chances are less than 4 percent."

The 4 percent lottery

Though Castelnuovo disagreed that this model was the only route to success - pointing to Temple Run and Zombie Gunship as examples of games that have been designed with longevity and organic virality built in - he couldn't tell you what the key element of success was.

"If you put Whale Trail [mill's game] and Tiny Wings side-by-side, I wouldn't easily be able to tell you which game would do better in the market," he offered.

Despite this, he agreed that 4 percent was very good odds for a top grossing app, compared to the huge pay-off you’d get from a top-ranked game.

"Less than 4 percent to get a long term top grossing app a la Cut the Rope - heck, it would probably be under 1 percent - is pretty good odds, because once you get that hit you're talking a million dollars every 10 days for as long as your app stays in the top five grossing list.

"That's not a business model, that’s more like winning the lottery."

Despite this, he thought the better model was slow-and-steady, just using profits to fund new games, and creep up the app market.

The other 96 percent

Similarly, Tower Studio's Jon Hare was wary of the 4 percent model.

"It's no business model that anyone should touch with a bargepole," he said.

"It means 24 out of 25 games makers may as well just stay in bed and do nothing - they would save money and time that way. Making games should be a business for people who are good at it, not a technical version of X Factor."

His complaint extended to the other 96 percent as well.

"Too many small companies these day are built on the back of small investment funds - other people's money."

He felt this led to a long-term sense of financial irresponsibility, and undermined the sounder independent companies.

Hare continued; "If you run your our own business only on the money of the partners involved, with no borrowing, spending quickly becomes a lot more painful and pissing development money away is absolutely not an option."

Machinework’s Andreas Vahsen agreed, citing a case of a HTML5 tools development shop which burnt through $17 million of capital and then closed.

"How many games could you have built with that $$$? Cue: death march for the HTML5 crowd."

Nothing ventured, nothing lost

Indeed, the consensus was that venture capital encouraged studios to act in short-term ways, such as bot farming. Creativity-driven mills™ was damning about app developers who spent venture capital on user acquisition.

"Too many app houses right now are VC backed, spending a fortune acquiring users and being return on investment negative but preaching the success of their install base. An install base who, firstly, never spends and, secondly, is happy to move onto the next dreadful experience at the drop of the hat.

"The only point for the company is to sell out to some other nutter who will never work out how to convert users to cash."

He felt that cash spent iterating and building organic followers was better than that lost on making stand-out games in an attempt to play those 4 percent odds.

Vahsen mostly agreed, though he felt developers need to make money somehow 'advergames' his own solution.

Studios should also keep building cheaply iterated games with 2-4 weeks coding time, he suggested, with spare time spent on producing your own tools and engine, and cross-promotion.

"Sum total - find something that resonates while grinding it out. We got lucky - 1,500,000 downloads on 3D Hunting: Alaskan Hunt last 60 days.

"Now we have critical mass - we can push our own games up the charts via in-game cross promotion. That's plenty to make a difference."

Path less taken

Tag Games' Paul Farley agreed with Castelnuovo that long-term business focus is more rewarding, financially and creatively - though he disagreed with mills™ that you should sacrifice profitability to creativity. He thought that you had to fund your games from profits and remember that the huge successes are outliers.

"Our path is a long and difficult one, but the rewards are ultimately greater should we succeed and I'm not just quantifying success in just the financial sense."

He was equally damning about the VC-backed firms, seeing them as short-term entrants who would make their money back by whatever means and then leave.

"The very nature of VC investment is that investors want a quick return and the focus is therefore only on short term profit/valuation.

"It’s easy to see why so many desperate studios, with the clock ticking, resort to using bot farming and other dubious marketing techniques. However, what's really interesting in this recent case is to see so many large publishers allegedly involved."

Grabbbit and Runne

Again, most of the Mavens agreed with mills™ that grabbing for a user base that’s ultimately disloyal and transient was a very bad way to spend capital. Farley’s take was that using an ethically dubious technique to succeed is dangerous in such a changeable ecosystem.

"I'm guessing these publishers are hoping that by the time Apple catch up to them they will have made so much money it won't matter and they can go legit, or they’ll have exited by then."

HandyGames' Christopher Kassulke argued that the money to buy reach doesn't last when the market changes.

For HandyGames, the studio's established titles, Facebook fansites, and partner network, all combine to cross-promote their games.

It's expensive to build but self-sustaining: "Building up a company to get a one-hit-wonder done is very dangerous and as already mentioned most of those companies will not be around in some years," he said.

Charles Chapman of First Touch Games, also agreed that a good game is the base of success - but "the single biggest marketing benefit you can have for an iOS release is support from Apple.

"Apple, despite all the apparent secrecy seems pretty fair, with decent games - which do well even in just one territory - getting picked up and featured in some way elsewhere."

His personal tip, given the difficulty of Western markets, was to chart elsewhere.

"Our most recent release got top 10 in South Korea with no Apple support, and as a result the following week it was featured prominently in South Korea and Japan, and others followed.

"So targeting individual smaller territories and growing from there may still be a decent strategy, even if it seems a bit of an old-fashioned or traditional marketing approach."