Apple needs to tighten up on sleazy App Store behaviour says Hiive's Andrew Rollings

Time to take control

Apple needs to tighten up on sleazy App Store behaviour says Hiive's Andrew Rollings
| Creatures & Castles

Press attention might focus on the million sellers, but it's the scores of independent studios getting by on a dripfeed of downloads that provide a more realistic impression of the ins and outs of the App Store.

Hence, when we last spoke to Hiive's Andrew Rollings – co-creator of iPhone title Creatures & Castles - back in January, he spoke of the problems developers have getting attention for their titles.

A lack of visibility for smaller studios on iOS was his primary concern.

Since then, Rollings has detailed his frustrations with what he described as the "frankly shocking level of detritus on the App Store" to The Street, going on to suggest that Apple is struggling to deal with the stresses and strains created by the sheer size of the marketplace.

Only fair then that we caught up with him for his latest take on working on iOS, with particular interest afforded to Rollings' view on the scores of recent trademark tussles that also threaten to give Apple's platform a bad name.

Pocket Gamer: What damage do you think the abundance of clones - titles that blatantly copy other releases - does to the App Store?

Andrew Rollings: Aside from the obvious dilution of sales, the abundance of clones reeks of a lack of imagination on the part of the cloners. Is it really that hard for a developer to come up with an original game concept, or at the very least an original twist that differentiates their game?

In the case of the cloners who slavishly copy an existing successful game on the iOS platform, I believe it's a fundamentally dishonest activity. As far as I can see there can be no reason to copy an existing game design unless it is an attempt to steal sales from the original author.

One can feel slightly more charitable towards those who copy games from other platforms or mediums, as they are making available a new game that wasn't previously there. However, in the case where the original game designer is in the process of converting their game to iOS - e.g. from a Flash game or a board game - and they are pre-empted by another developer, this is a similarly sleazy activity.

Examples of this include the board game Hanto - a direct copy of Hive - and any number of the sliding block puzzles based off of Rush Hour.

The situation in the case of these two examples is a little more hazy, as arguably the knock-off copies are better than the official versions. This does not excuse the behaviour though. Theft of ideas may not be illegal, but that does not mean it should be acceptable.

Additionally, 'theft of ideas' is a nebulous concept to define. Is Half-Life a copy of Doom, or does it add enough to the mix to be considered a unique and original game in its own right? I believe that it does, but ultimately - except in the most egregious cases - originality is in the eye of the beholder.

Where do you stand on the practice of some publishers who overtly reference big blockbuster console releases?

Well, I don't want to specifically insult or upset any of the developers of these titles, as the previous argument about 'how similar is similar?' still applies.

However, it should be considered that iDevices are unique in what they offer to game developers and players. No matter how accomplished the 'homage' to an existing title, a game that is not designed to the unique strengths and weaknesses of the iDevice does a disservice to the player.

I have not played N.O.V.A myself, but I've read enough about it to understand that its similarities to Halo are no coincidence. How hard would it have been for the developers to come up with an original story/setting for their game?

The impression I get is that they intended to have their game identified with Halo in order to benefit from the success of the console title. I won't go as far as to say that this type of piggy-backing is a dishonest practice, but it's certainly not 'whiter-than-white' pure.

Having said that, companies that take this approach seem to have made significant amounts of money doing so, so obviously it's delivering a product that the consumer wants.

Even so, if I were the owner of any of the titles that served as inspiration, I would be feeling more than a little aggravated at the slight, whether I had plans to release on the iOS platform or not.

Do you think the complex nature of trademark law effectively gives studios working on clones the green light?

Because of the multinational nature of the App Store and the patchwork of trademark laws across the world, it is very difficult, not to mention expensive, to successfully obtain and defend a trademark world-wide. However, once a trademark is obtained, the holder is legally obligated to defend it or risk losing it.

In an ideal world, we could rely on people to respect the trademarks of others but sadly, when there is money to be made, it's quite obvious that unscrupulous developers are perfectly happy to ignore such silly trivialities as trademark and copyright law, particularly when they know that, firstly, it's unlikely that all but the most deep-pocketed developers can afford to challenge them and, secondly, the public tends to side with those who are infringing rather than those who are being infringed upon.

Another issue is trademark fatigue; there are enough shoddy and fatuous infringement lawsuits initiated by those who are simply out to make money from the hard work of others - Tim Langdell vs. Mobigames, for instance - that any new infringement lawsuit is automatically viewed with suspicion.

The recent Doodle Jump and Stick Sports cases are good examples of this.

In the former case, the holder of the Doodle Jump trademark overstepped his legal bounds as his trademark was for Doodle Jump, not Doodle, and consequently did not have a strong legal case – he had a moral one perhaps, but not a legal one.

It would have made more sense for the developer to attempt to get the trademark on the word 'Doodle' applied to computer games instead, much as Stick Sports have the trademark for 'Stick'. This latter case is much stronger.

In my opinion, both were justified. I would surmise that the great majority of developers naming their games 'Doodle XXXX' or 'Stick XXXX' would not have done so - or even have developed them in the first place - were it not for the success of Doodle Jump and the Stick Sports line of games.

The App Store seems to have created a great environment for profiting from the inspiration of others - more so than in any other comparable computer game sales arena.

In your experience, how difficult is it to get the attention of consumers on the App Store?

In a word, very. Unless you have either a game that tickles the public fancy or the good fortune to be featured by Apple, you're not likely to see much success.

Sadly, I have had neither.

That's probably more due to my own failings than any particular bad luck or misfortune. Still, it was a first attempt for an iOS game, and it's certainly much better than a lot of the junk that's out there - it just apparently didn't have that 'spark' that it really needed to meet my admittedly fairly low expectations.

How has Creatures & Castles performed since we last spoke?

After Creatures & Castles won the second place award for best iPad Puzzle game in the 2010 Best App Ever contest, there was a modest surge of interest from app store purchasers and a couple of other outside parties.

Sales increased to about two hundred copies per day for a few days, and then slowly trailed off over the subsequent two weeks back to pre-award levels.

Are there any steps Apple could take to make your life easier? Is it even Apple's responsibility to ensure studios are afforded some level of visibility?

If I'm honest, I can't really complain about Apple's treatment. From my limited perspective it has seemed perfectly fair and even-handed.

However, it does perturb me slightly when I see the aforementioned blatant knock-offs featured in the 'Game of the Week' position on the App Store, which is effectively Apple tacitly approving the production of knock-offs for its store. I suppose it doesn't care really, as long as it gets its 30 percent cut.

As far as the App Store is concerned, are poor quality apps on the rise?

Anecdotally, and based on my own unscientific observations, I would say no - they seem to have levelled off or even be on the decline.

There are still far too many. However, if it were only the poor quality apps that were the problem it would be so bad; the poor quality apps in combination with the clone army represents a much greater issue that, if Apple is not careful, will cause it to garner the same 'shovelware' reputation that has plagued the Wii over the past couple of years.

You've spoken before of Apple introducing a review system in its app approval process, or automatically removing titles with bad user reviews. Isn't there a danger such processes would make the platform a minefield of rules and regulations?

Ultimately, what we as developers have to remember is that the App Store is a service for the consumer, not us.

What service does it provide the consumer to make a poor app available for purchase? Sure, it allows Apple to boast its store has the most apps, but if a significant proportion of the available content is dross, what good is it?

Secondly - and this may be an unpopular opinion - when it comes to my phone, a device that carries a lot of my personal data and is constantly connected to the internet, I positively welcome the curated approach of the App Store.

I want somebody to be vetting and verifying every application that runs on my phone, to make sure that it's not performing anything untoward - such as silently running up long distance charges, wasting available bandwidth on click-fraud, or whatever ingenious scheme the malware writers will come up with next.

I don't want to find out after the fact that my phone has been doing stuff that I did not authorise and had no control over. As far as I know, there are no trojans or malware apps available for un-jailbroken iPhones. The same cannot be said for Android - an environment with much fewer safeguards in place.

Could heightened rules and regulations endanger the marketplace's role as a home for independent developers, though?

If an app is good, it will eventually get good reviews.

However, if an app still has no reviews after six months, for example, and/or is no longer being actively developed, then it's highly likely that it's either blandly mediocre, or of interest to no-one. In this instance, I'd see no problem with removing it from the App Store.

On the flip-side, if an app received nothing but terrible reviews, then it has no business being on the app store in the first place.

Is segregation between games and the way they're listed the only way to ensure titles get the attention they deserve?

There are several simple steps that Apple could take to expose more apps to the consumer without drastically altering the purchase process.

Probably the simplest of these would be to replace the fixed top 25 category in the App Store with a rotating display drawn from the top say 250 apps with some slight weighting towards the top of the chart.

Other simple changes along these lines designed to showcase more apps that otherwise wouldn't get exposure would most likely go a long way toward smoothing out the runaway positive feedback effect of the current system. In fact, the only people I could see complaining most about changes such as these are those who currently benefit the most from it.

These would also be the people with the most money and, presumably, the most influence against such changes.

Fortunately - or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint - Apple tends to do what is best for Apple, as can be seen by its recent in-app purchase changes, so hopefully, as long as Apple was able see the benefit, changes such as these would stand a chance of being implemented if they were determined to improve the overall experience.

All things considered, do you regret launching Creatures & Castles exclusively on the App Store?

I certainly don't regret it. I think it's a pretty good game, and while it may be no blockbuster, it's a solid, original four-star puzzle game.

I enjoyed the process of making it, and would do it again in a heartbeat. It has also had some secondary financial benefits beyond the initial sales, so overall it looks like it will be financially worthwhile. It's not going to pay off my mortgage or buy me a vacation home in Europe though. Shame.

What I do regret is the timing of my release; for some reason I had it in my head that releasing just before Christmas was a good idea. Big mistake. It vanished from the new list within a couple of days - as opposed to the couple of weeks during less busy periods - and was trampled in the rush from the big boys trying to get positioned in the charts to benefit from Apple's App Store processing shutdown - a period of one week where the charts wouldn't be updated.

With hindsight, I should have released in a quieter period. It still may not have been a huge success, but it may have made a significant enough difference such that I could be recounting this from a beach with something strong and alcoholic in my hand rather than sitting at home drinking a coffee.

In any case, I doubt that sales would have been significantly better on other platforms; if anything they would have been worse given the stories I've heard about rampant piracy. Not only that, but I would have had to have dealt with significant platform fragmentation.

As a lone developer, I don't have the resources to be able to test an app across the whole range of devices. It's a lot harder to get a good review than it is to get a bad one; if a purchaser likes your game, you may get a review, but if it crashes or fails to function correctly, you can bet that a indignant review will swiftly follow.

Thanks to Andrew for his time.

You can find out more about Creatures & Castles by visiting Hiive's website.

Keith Andrew
Keith Andrew
With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font. He's also Pocket Gamer's resident football gaming expert and, thanks to his work on, monitors the market share of all mobile OSes on a daily basis.