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Third-party app stores - are they good for discovery?
As iOS potentially ramps up to allow alternatives, we take a detailed look.
[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & company founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]
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On iOS App Store alternatives, and why it’s good..
One of the major news stories since Monday, obviously, is a Bloomberg report - more fully interpreted by Ars Technica - that “Employees across Apple are working on changes to iOS that would open the iPhone to apps outside Apple's App Store.”
Specifically, the article suggests that “Apple is attempting to take action by 2024, in response to regulations from the European Union, such as the Digital Markets Act. In fact, the changes could go wide [in Europe] as soon as the release of iOS 17 late next year.”
We should definitely put this ‘alternative App Store/download source’ concept in the category of a) might not happen, and b) if it does, may only happen in select regions that mandate it. But if it does, it’s obviously a big deal for app and game discovery.
So it was super interesting to see Zombies, Run! co-creator - and friend of the newsletter - Adrian Hon write over on Mastodon that he “doesn't only think it's a good thing – I think it's essential to the flourishing of digital culture, and it's astonishing how so many people have become convinced otherwise.”
Adrian wrote a number of counter-points to regular arguments about why hardware platforms shouldn’t 'open up’. With his kind permission, here they are:
'I don't want to install a new store for every app/game!’ - “Do you really think that's going to happen? That's not happened literally anywhere else! It's hard and expensive to run an app store, even big games publishers are giving up on the most open platform we have – the PC.”
‘Apple keeps me safe’ - “Apple checks Mac software for safety through "notarization". Software can be notarized even if you don't sell it through the Mac App Store. They can do the same for iOS.”
‘I don't want App Stores full of junk and scams!’ - “Have you visited the App Store lately? Apple only spends a few minutes reviewing app updates and even major apps routinely break its rules (I found this myself while researching subscription paywall flows). New app stores could be worse, yes – but they could be a lot better, too.”
‘I like the simplicity of Apple's payments and refunds for apps’ - “That won't go away with new app stores, and besides, it's in their interests to make payments easy. Speaking as a developer, Apple's rules make it impossible for us to issue refunds directly, even when we'd like to. So we could provide *better* customer support under a different set of rules!”
Adrian - whose book on gamification is out now, btw - also provided the following insight on ‘the real benefits of third-party app stores’:
Publishers can make a living: “Apple's 30% fee exceeds the margin that book, music, and film publishers have, which is why they're the only game in town.
If you want better e-readers than Apple Books; if you [want] new avenues for people to publish content digitally, this is the ONLY way it will happen. There is NO alternative other than going web-only, with all the pain that entails.”
We can get new kinds of political and adult content. “Apple prohibit games about sex and they've had problems with political speech too. You might handwave this by saying "oh but at least they prohibit the bad stuff too" and I just disagree. This is the "Itch.io" store argument – we could have games about everything and anything, if we had third-party app stores.”
New discovery mechanisms. “The App Store is an awful way to discover apps and it's getting worse since it's infested with ads. It no longer pays for referrals so sites like TouchArcade can't make any money reviewing games. New app stores allow for new, more targeted, discovery mechanisms.”
Faster, fairer development experience. “This is invisible to consumers, but an ever-present overhead on developers, who have to contend with capricious app review processes. It's better than it was before, but ultimately it excludes new developers and people with less experience; it benefits incumbents who know how to navigate and exploit Apple's labyrinthine rules.”
And he concludes: “People have been so starved of the benefits of multiple app stores that they have no idea what you might get. It's honestly tragic, and in economic terms, the opportunity cost is almost incalculable.
We have lost 15 years of digital cultural development because everything has to abide by a single gatekeeper that controls the dominant mobile platform in many countries. I will not be sad to see it go.”
While I know that a lot of this newsletter is focused on PC and console games - and PC is an open platform for stores, while consoles are not - I think it’s great to look at this issue holistically. Will consoles eventually want - or need - to offer alternative download methods or stores? It’s not as crazy a concept as you might think…
Where did big new PC/console games go in 2022?
So, we don’t have a big concrete, empirical statement to make on this. But we thought it was super interesting that one of Kotaku’s main ‘2022 year in review’ trends posts is called, simply, ‘2022 Was The Year Big Video Games Stopped Coming Out’.
Although it’s very much a consumer-driven piece, Luke Plunkett’s comments are interesting, precisely because they play into the big themes we’ve been discussing this year:
Big AAA launches - besides titles like Elden Ring, God Of War, Horizon - are thin on the ground: “As recently as four to five years ago the year would be full of big, expensive releases from major publishers. Especially now, during holiday seasons that were once jam-packed with the kinds of games that begged you to pre-order them with big posters at a GameStop, that would clog up an E3 press conference. In 2022 you could hear a pin drop for whole months at a time.”
Some of this is the result of a ‘pandemic logjam’, but not the majority: Luke identifies other trends, such as ‘AAA games being more complex & taking longer to make’, the fact that “remakes are now big business”, and obviously, the “ongoing obsession with turning the few released games we do get into a live-service experiment.” These are major, multi-year trends…
The persistence of older GaaS titles is also a big part of it: as Plunkett notes, this is visible “everywhere from Call of Duty’s persistent Warzone to Fortnite’s seasons. Big games aren’t just not getting released anymore; the ones that are will never go away.” Heck, look at Take-Two’s Grand Theft Auto over the past few years? It doesn’t need to release lots of big games, if GTA Online is bringing the $ yearly.
Kotaku’s Plunkett is keen to note that AAA’s changes shouldn’t necessarily be painted as a bad thing market-wide, and says: “if you want to talk about lil’ platformers on the Switch, or city-builders on Steam, or weird horror adventures on itch.io, then this was a bumper year.”
But post-pandemic, some of these bigger, delayed AAA titles may have trouble with over-elevated expectations in a crowded market. Are some of them muscling into genres where a popular ‘live service’ game is already providing new content and high retention?
For example, does GTA and its various add-ons provide so much open-world fun that games like Saint’s Row or Goat Simulator 3 have trouble building big market share? Is that market essentially walled-off, unless you stop people playing Grand Theft Auto & convert them to regularly playing your new game? It’s a big, complex question…
The game discovery news round-up..
Finishing off for the week - we’re next back with a newsletter per week for the two holiday weeks, unless it’s a news wasteland - the following game discovery and platform goodness is hot to trot:
Netflix continues to go on the attack when it comes to new games, with Kentucky Route Zero and Twelve Minutes getting added on mobile - plus: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge and Tilting Point’s Vikings: Valhalla are coming to the service in Q1 2023.” Their slick ‘end of 2022’ trailer is above…
Over on LinkedIn, Andrei Podoprigora has some opinions on the most important skill for the indie dev: “knowing what will ‘wow’ your intended audience… Will you wow a fan of turn-based combat by putting your game into yet another alien setting? Probably not. How about a city builder where citizens are beavers, and they need to control rivers? OK, that’s something.”
PlayStation updates: - the latest ‘new’ Game Catalog titles for higher PS+ tiers include WWE 2K22, Far Cry 5, Mortal Shell, and Gigantosaurus (woo!), among others. Also, Sony is limited-time discounting PlayStation Plus for the holidays: “12 months Essential $29.99; 12 months Extra $69.99; 12 months Premium $89.99.”
The fact that Steam’s store page ‘developer’ link doesn’t always go to a separate dev page - either because the dev never set it up, or because the publisher didn’t redirect it properly - has become a hot-button topic in recent days. (I don’t think most publishers do this on purpose. But they could also now fix it.)
Microlinks: 2023’s LudoNarracon Steam festival & showcase got announced for May 4th-8th, with submissions open now; there’s now a beta of MagnaPlay, a PC indie game subscription service; the year in review for influencers x game streaming reveals Lost Ark & Elden Ring as the top debuts of 2022.
Regional charts: Pokemon Scarlet and Violet blasted it in the Japanese charts, selling 3.1 million boxed units between Nov. 18th and the end of the month; Pokemon and the new God Of War headed European charts in November, but overall, there was “a decline of 17% over November 2021” - largely due to Call Of Duty timing changing.
Did you forget about the crank-controlled ‘tiny handheld system’ the Playdate? Well, it’s still around - and fulfilling pre-ordered units - and creator Panic updated that it’s making a game/app store for Playdate games called Catalog, and it’ll have eShop-style music. Mm, eShop music…
Mobile game $ trends? Here’s a good round-up of the data.ai and Deconstructor Of Fun report on 2022 in mobile: “In [the third quarter] of 2022, each week consumers spent more than $1.5 billion and downloaded more than 1.1 billion games. While this is a slight decrease on the same quarter in 2021, it remains a comfortable 25 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels in Q3 2019.”
Multiple platforms do ‘your year in review on our game platform’ at this time of year: Nintendo is advertising theirs for the Switch with top games played, etc, and ‘PlayStation Wrap’ - as detailed by Polygon - is the same thing on Sony platforms. It’s fun, right?
Microlinks, Pt. 2: the demands of daily livestreaming are driving creators to rethink the benefits of Twitch fame; a handy GameRefinery round-up of mobile game updates & trends in November 2022; a profile of Geoff Keighley, “gaming’s master of ceremonies”.
Finally, although it’s a Musk joint (sigh), we would be remiss not to point out Tesla’s official video trailer for ‘your car can now play Steam games!’ The future is here:
[We’re GameDiscoverCo, an agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? We run the newsletter you’re reading, and provide consulting services for publishers, funds, and other smart game industry folks.]