Apple's 99 cent store

How under-priced games are ruining the iPhone

Apple's 99 cent store

When something seems too good to be true, it usually is. The dozens of cheap games lining the digital shelves of the App Store appear to be a bonanza for iPhone gamers. Snatching up high quality titles like Topple and Flick Fishing for pennies can only be a good thing. Yet there's more than good value driving down the price of iPhone games. A highly competitive market is giving rise to unexpected problems that threaten to undermine affordability and game quality.

During the first few weeks of Apple opening business on the App Store, pricing was variable. High profile games such as Super Monkey Ball and Tetris launched with exorbitant $9.99 price tags. SEGA saw strong sales despite the high price, but competing games suffered. Tetris, along with a slew of other titles, were forced to drop in price to court downloads. Super Monkey Ball succeeded thanks to prolific promotion by Apple. Price had been a hurdle for those games without as much marketing, prompting a downward shift in pricing.

This, of course, was reasonable. Many of these preliminary games had been overpriced, particularly those that had been ported from mobile and then jacked up for an iPhone debut. Consumer backlash against these games led to a natural adjustment in the market. That signaled a healthy shift instigated by consumer demand and expectation. Most iPhone games shouldn't top $4.99, with a select few deserving a higher tag. Compilations, anthologies, and triple-A games can justifiably cost more. One-dimensional arcade knock-offs and episodic content, on the other hand, can't.

Unfortunately, the downward pricing trend has become a spiral. Games across the spectrum of quality have been forced to take lower prices in order to compete with a sea of titles. What was a blue ocean only four months ago has become a blood bath. Developers are scrambling to make games profitable in the face of hundreds of competitors.

Topple, for example, is a quality game that carries the same low price tag as the disappointing Cosmic One and Radius. Half a dozen Space Invaders clones cost more than ngmoco's brilliant first effort, which has the detrimental effect of junking up the market. ngmoco can't charge any more than 99 cents for Topple because it would get buried. The fact of the matter is cheap games sell. Had Topple been $1.99, it would likely have underperformed in comparison to lower quality games simply because of price.

There's good and bad news out of this. First, the good news: quality games are receiving the attention they deserve because they're cheaper than ever before, so people are grabbing them. The bad news, however, is that it's creating an unrealistic expectation that these quality games should always be inexpensive. Reality dictates this business model won't last because the cost of developing triple-A games isn't supported by a 99 cent price point. Developers can't make Kroll for 99 cents, yet iPhone consumers are demanding it.

In order to reverse this alarming trend, some developers have resorted to temporary price drops to spur sales. The objective is to sell a bunch of copies in order to land a spot on the coveted top 25 list. A poor store front means this is the only viable way of getting exposure on the App Store. Unfortunately, this causes massive instability in the market and angers consumers with constant price fluctuations.

Apple needs to take leadership and inject stability in the App Store, but it won't. As such, it rests on developers to take measures to compete in a sustainable manner. Chief among these measures has to be fair pricing. If you're creating a bold experience, give it a $4.99 price point; if your game is a Breakout clone, don't charge more than 99 cents. Fair pricing will bring a much needed sense of balance to the store that is fundamental to its future.

Second, developers need to aggressively market their titles other than by trying to land on the App Store top 25. The notion that there aren't marketing avenues on iPhone is rubbish - there are plenty of options available to promote a game. Advertise on popular handheld gaming websites, work to get exposure via interviews, previews, and reviews, launch a website for your game - these are just a few. You're out less money by doing these than you lose by dropping the price.

Consumers share in the burden too. Be prepared to spend an extra dollar or two for a game that deserves it. Don't reward crappy knock-offs and clones that carry an unjust price. As with any retail front, speak with your dollars, vote with your cents. Change, literally, is what we need here and it has to start from the ground up.