Losing iReligion

A great deal has been written about the App Store, both good and bad, and much of it comes from developers I know and respect. It almost seems pointless to add my own thoughts to those who are more widely known and respected than I am, but given how my feelings have evolved regarding the App Store recently I think it’s worth a shot. If what I have to say gives a potential iPhone developer reason pause and re-examine their entry into the space then it will have been worth it.

The App Store is broken. I know from the outside glancing in, it may not look that way but it is. It also doesn’t seem like it’s broken from Apple’s point of view since the store and its tens of thousands of software titles have helped place the iPhone firmly at the head of the smart phone industry. But speaking as a small developer who’s been releasing Mac software for over a decade, the App Store is broken. The ironic part is that if you had asked me this a few months ago I would have denied it with my dying breath.

Since it first launched in July of 2008, the App Store has been evolving and changing to suit the needs of both Apple and consumers. Unfortunately for developers many of these changes have hurt more than they have helped. The utter race to the bottom of the pricing structure by thousands of developers has created tremendous pressure to set applications at either free or near free price points. I know this first hand because when Twitterrific for the iPhone first debuted we set it’s price at $9.95 which, by today’s App Store standards, is almost unheard of. It wasn’t long before lagging sales and increased pressure from competition forced the Iconfactory to lower the application’s price to $3.99, still “expensive” by App Store standards. Not only was the price lowered, but the feature set was more than doubled and yet many users still complain it costs too much. While these changes represent perks for users, it also means that sustaining profitability for a given piece of software in the App Store is nearly impossible unless you have a break-away hit.

This leads me to the next point of failure for the App Store – visibility. Everyone has heard about the so-called “gold rush” certain developers have experienced. Flight Control’s 1.5 mil sales record. Trism’s incredible $250,000 short-term bonanza. But for every one of these lottery wins in the store, there are hundreds, if not thousands of developers who see little if any return on their investments of time and money. What’s worse, the success or failure of a particular piece of software in the App Store depends as much on Apple deciding to feature your creation as the creation itself. One can shift the tables in one’s favor with a sizable advertising budget, but many of us like the Iconfactory don’t have such generous resources at our disposal.

When the Iconfactory & DS Media Labs released our latest iPhone game, Ramp Champ, we knew that we had to try and maximize exposure of the application at launch. We poured hundreds of hours into the game’s development and pulled out all the stops to not only make it beautiful and fun, but also something Apple would be proud to feature in the App Store. We designed an attractive website for the game, showed it to as many high-profile bloggers as we could prior to launch and made sure in-app purchases were compelling and affordable. When the moment came, Ramp Champ shot up the charts quickly but just as quick, it hit a brick wall. Within days the app that had peaked at #56 on the top paid chart fell off the top 100 despite receiving praise from users and reviewers alike. The lack of store front exposure combined with a sporadic 3G crashing bug conspired to keep Ramp Champ down for the count.

A new version that corrected crashing was completed quickly, but once again the App Store reared it’s broken head as the review process kept the fix out of user’s hands for almost two weeks. By this time it was too late and momentum had been lost. Despite a “What’s Hot” feature by Apple in the App Store, Ramp Champ’s sales have not lived up to expectations for either the Iconfactory or DS Media Labs. What’s worse, many of the future plans for the game (network play, online score boards, frequent add-on pack releases) are all in jeopardy because of the simple fact that Ramp Champ hasn’t returned on its investment.

In order for a developer to continue to produce, they must make money. It’s a pretty simple concept and one that tends to get lost in the excitement to write for the iPhone. It’s difficult for me to justify spending 20-50 hours designing and creating new 99¢ levels for Ramp Champ when I could be spending that time on paid client work instead. I would much rather be coming up with the sequel to Space Swarm than drawing my 200th version of a magnifying glass icon. But I’d also like to have some assurances from Apple about reducing the length of the App Store approval process, having the ability to respond to factually incorrect iTunes reviews, not be limited to 100 beta testers, or that large, prominent developers won’t always get preferential treatment. In short, I’d like to know things will be fixed and I don’t mean merely posting a page of marketing text in iTunes Connect.

It is a truism that everyone who creates content is a control freak. From fine artists that decide what gallery their work will hang in, to architects who scratch tooth and claw with stubborn clients about what materials will be used in construction. Software developers are no different. We all want as much control over our creations as we can possibly have and the App Store in it’s current state has removed a significant level of control from our hands. I’m not ready to throw my lot down with those who have renounced the platform just yet, but unless some significant changes come very soon, myself and others like me will have no choice but to focus our development efforts elsewhere.

UPDATE: Several developers have contacted me and told me privately that they think it isn’t so much the App Store that’s kept Ramp Champ from being a success as it is the game itself. Given the fact that Freeverse’s newly released and shallower ‘Skee Ball’ currently sits at #6 in Top Paid apps in the store, part of me wants to agree. I could second-guess myself about what didn’t go right with Ramp Champ but in my heart of hearts I know RC is better than 90% of the games that get to the top of the list. I have to keep telling myself that what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger in the end. Hopefully.

UPDATE II: Seems I’m not the only one cooling to the idea of developing for the iPhone. Macworld’s Dan Moren reporting from the C4 independent developers conference says many of the developers are frustrated at their lack of control in the App Store. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one.

UPDATE III: Marco Arment has written an excellent piece that addresses my post. I agree with much of the analysis there and tend to think that their may indeed be “two App Stores” so to speak. As a result of suggestions from both Marco and the commenters here, Ramp Champ’s vague app store description has been re-written and new screen shots posted to show more content. Thanks to everyone who suggested these changes, I think they will definitely help sales.

Comments

  1. Darren says:

    I’ve spent well over $1000 AUD on the AppStore, mostly games. If a $12.99 AUD game comes out that I’ve been looking for, I buy it. I don’t wait for sales, they are all dirt cheap anyway.

    Much as I love Icon Factory though, I had no interest in Ramp Champ or Skee Ball, simply because of the type of game. I’m sick of all the basic match 3, flick the paper in the bin, etc type apps. But I’ll always buy good solid titles.

    I’m sure Ramp Champ is great, I’m just saying why I never bothered to look at it.

  2. Greg says:

    I have to agree with Darren, I was tempted to buy ramp champ simply for the beautiful visuals, but after purchasing a number of games, it comes down to gameplay, and I just don’t consider flicking gameplay. Frenzic was excellent, I bought that and enjoyed it very much, however Ramp Champ is a game formula/mechanic that is available free by other developers. Yes, it was presented in a wonderful GUI, but that’s not enough. Paper Toss was fun because there was a changing dynamic with the wind speed, but Ramp Champ just looks like the same exercise repeated to infinity with an overstated rewards system.

  3. Jan Korbel says:

    I bought Ramp Champ as it was featured by Gruber (http://daringfireball.net) and I liked the obvious, careful work that went into design, sound… the whole experience.
    BUT… allas, I did not made it through the Clown town – manage only to knock down all the clowns and nothing more – toooo hard.

    And when you invest your 10 minute iPhone playing window a few times and still make now progress… well, it was back to Strategery for me (278 wins : 223 losses on level Brutal, by the way ;) )

    I imagined that you played it so much during development, you become too good in it and did not set the difficulty right.

    Just my two cents.

  4. Ged says:

    Jan, there are four ramps included with Ramp Champ, did you try any of the others? Some ramp’s goals are more difficult than others so it’s not fair to judge the game from one level’s difficulty. Also, goals are not the only thing to accomplish in the game. You play to earn tickets which lets you buy prizes. Have you purchased any loot yet?

    I encourage you to play more and explore the game. Don’t take your first 10 minutes on one level as “everything” Ramp Champ has to offer. Thanks for listening.

  5. Alex King says:

    RampChamp is 10 times better than any skee-ball style game on the app store – and the way you’ve set it up with prizes and trophies, it actually makes something like flicking a ball pretty darn fun. It’s downright sad that Skee-ball is #6.

    I will note though – when I bought the game, I wasn’t clear on what I did. I’d though that it was a collection of different kinds of carnival games, not just ball throwing. So I think what some people are saying about the name/awesomeicon not being clear might be true. Might be something to experiment with.

  6. EDAM says:

    basically people don’t want to be nickel and dimed with in app purchases for silly games. Ramp Champ didn’t look overly original or compelling, and I’d rather spend money on a whole game not a game thats going to bug me for more money later.

    My example of a good game on the App Store would be Eliss

  7. EDAM says:

    “We (Iconfactory) spend at least 3840 hours (8 designers for 7 months) on art and design of Ramp Champ.”

    Maybe thats your problem, you needed someone with a bit more business sense to point out it shouldn’t take that long to string a few minigames together

  8. Matt says:

    FWiW, Ramp Champ is the only game for the iPhone I have downloaded and played more than once or twice. It’s heartbreaking to hear that it has not lived up to expectations, but Iconfactory and DS Media Labs should take heart that they created a thoughtful, beautiful game.

  9. Jan Korbel says:

    @Ged: Upsy-daisy… You know I’ve never really noticed the four buttons at the bottom until yet?
    Anyway, allow me a one more comment to the difficulty: Guess it’s my bad wiring, but I can’t skip levels. I took the Clown Town as first level and wouldn’t move from it untill I finished it… which I did not manage.

  10. Dave says:

    I think the failure of Ramp Champ is fundamentally a failure of marketing. Here’s my suggestion. Create “Ramp Champ Lite” with a single level (and maybe only a few prizes). Make it free. Simultaneously, offer a 2 week sale on Ramp Champ offered at $0.99 (optional).

    I’ll bet dollars to donuts that RCLite will easily break the Top 10 and as a result RC sales will skyrocket.

    Also, I don’t think gameplay killed RC. You can’t play-test the games so buyers are going off of sales charts, product placement, and perhaps reviews. The above commenters talk about how RC needs a clear, entertaining proposition. In terms of what the game looks like, the screenshots have a heavy emphasis on the prizes/toys. Many users (especially 14 year old boys) likely want a Skee-Ball game, with the prizes as a bonus, if anything. That’s the strategy that Skee-Ball employed, and it worked for them. The graphics and design of RC may be delightful, but should not be the primary reason people purchase the game.

  11. Str1f3 says:

    I saw this story through Marco’s blog and I hope things really pick up for this game. Initially when I saw Ramp Champ stories on various sites, I wasn’t too interested. It wasn’t until I had saw the videos of the game, I immediately bought it. At this point, it was well after the initial release. I have to say that it is really brilliant and extremely well thought out. I purchased all the new updates and haven’t been disappointed. I hope that those updates you mention do come to pass but either way I’m having a lot of fun with this game though I feel like screaming when I just miss a goal. :)

    The next thing I do today is to write an iTunes review extolling the virtues of this app. I hope you continue to make iPhone apps because there is probably no one better in the App Store when it comes to making a beautiful GUI.

  12. Chris says:

    If I can make a comment about the game itself, I’ve found the controls frustratingly difficult. Difficult in a way that detracts from the fun of the game rather than contributing to the exploration of it. I find that the area between limp-wristed tosses and major league fastballs to be very small, and I get quite painful wrists if I play for any extended period of time. It’s kept me from buying expansion packs, or from really playing the game past making one or two achievements in a level.

  13. I’m sorry, but I don’t agree that the reason that Ramp Champ didn’t do well has to do with it’s price. I just bought a game at $1.99 called Soosiz that is fantastic. As I have stated in my emails to you, Ramp Champ is not fun to play due to the accuracy issues I mentioned.

    Also, Ramp Champ is just as shallow as Skee-Ball is. Sure, you have several ramps to choose from where Skee-ball only has the one. Yet, Skee-ball is way more fun to play because I can actually hit the targets I am aiming for on the first try and hit them 3 even 4 times in a row. I can’t do that with Ramp Champ.

    Also, Skee-Ball has something that Ramp Champ doesn’t have. The ability to buy different balls to throw. That alone has caused me to play Skee-Ball for hours collecting tickets so I could buy that cool looking 8-ball or butterfly ball. All I can buy in Ramp Champ are useless prizes that are pointless. Sure Skee-Ball has those too, but the extra throwable balls make Skee-Ball well worth playing. That and the ability to actually hit targets successfully.

  14. Jet says:

    I really want to second this:

    You failed to make it clear what kind of game ramp champ is! From the perspective of someone looking for a fun game to play, this is deadly. It’s probably related to the paradox of choice, but if it’s unclear what something is about, I suspect people will avoid it. When I was looking for a simple strategy game, I know I did. I gravitated to the apps that looked like strategy games, and if there was some poor app out there which was a better game, but had some ‘creative’ (and non-intuitive) title+icon, I missed it.

    Skee-ball’s icon kicks your butt in this regard – just from their icon, you can immediately see what the game is about.

  15. Haven’t read the other 74 comments, but just wanted to add that I bought Ramp Champ solely on the Iconfactory name and with no clue from the original description or product images as to what the game actually was. Upon realized it was several identical-looking skee ball games, I was very disappointed. Giving it another chance a few days later, I became addicted. There are many possible reasons why the game wasn’t as popular or successful as you may have hoped, as you mention in the post, but I think the poor positioning/description/screenshots is an important contributor. Perhaps you, as the designer/developer, were too close to the game to realize that the marketing was off. What marketers (apparently) disparagingly call “product love.”

  16. Mark says:

    i don’t know why this game isn’t a better seller. i bought it, played it a lot over subsequent days, and still return to it now and again. it’s not expensive, and it’s thoughtfully designed and very beautiful to look at. it has depth, which is more than can be said for something like paper toss. it’s still on my home screen, if that tells you anything.

    there is a randomness to the controls, but that basically reflects reality. with practice i found i could generally get the ball to go more or less where i wanted it, at least enough to make two or three achievements on every level. having said that, the crashing issue was a pain, and it wasn’t just 3g iphones. my 1st gen touch crashed in every gaming session.

    hopefully it’s a slow burner (sales wise). like a number of posters said, a free version with one ramp might get people off the fence if they spend time with it. what’s to say that although sales may not have lived up to expectation so far, it can’t turn around?

    one minor point – i never heard the term “skee ball” until i read it on the ramp champ site – i didn’t even know those games had a name. maybe i just had a sheltered upbringing. or maybe that term is particular to the us, and means nothing to international users.

  17. Simon says:

    I also bought Ramp Champ and have enjoyed playing it, but here’s my take on why it has failed:

    I suffered frequent pauses and crashes on my 3G with 1.0. I frankly don’t believe that this was a issue limited to a select few users. My brief Googling at the time (and this was immediately after release) turned up countless descriptions of stability issues both in forums and reviews. This really hurt Ramp Champ’s credibility.

    I have played the game countless times over the last couple of months but have never mastered it. The controls are simply way too hit and miss. I simply can’t understand why your focus testing didn’t flag this as a show stopper.

    The performance on a 3G is also pretty choppy making the gameplay even more frustrating.

    But I think the primary reason for the commercial failure of Ramp Champ is that the majority of iPhone and iPod Touch users simply don’t care for Ramp Champ’s attention to detail and therefore just see the game for what it is: simple, shallow, gameplay dressed up as something more.

    But the App Store market is made up predominantly of people in their late teen/early twenties who have simply no idea how much effort is required to develop an iPhone game and therefore absolutely no idea how to place a price/value on a title. Everything is too expensive. They’re looking for a cheap thrill and want disposable apps with a price tag to match.

    This isn’t Apple’s fault. It’s a generational thing: you’ve developed a game which appeals to moneyed 30-something designers, developers and the Mac technorati but are trying to sell it to a market of 15-20 year olds who see no value in Ramp Champ’s qualities.

    At the end of the day IF simply misjudged the market.

  18. RJ says:

    I was one of the people who bought this game right away after reading about it on TouchArcade, looking at the screenshots and recognizing the iconfactory name.

    I played it for a few hours over the first few days and discovered to my dismay that underneath the very beautiful graphics was a control system that was, IMO, deeply simplistic. It just wasn’t possible to put thought and effort into improving aim. Not only that, the game had slight graphical hiccups that revealed inconsistencies such as targets being knocked down after the ball was occluded by them. And I soon realized that the ball really wasn’t 3D at all, it didn’t scale as it moved ‘away’ from the player, which disrupted the sense of dimensionality (I realize I am probably in a distinct minority to whom this kind of thing matters, but it did)

    This is in stark contrast to a game I had been playing quite a bit around that time, “10 Pin Shuffle” a shuffle-board/bowling game. The two games are superficially similar, both require upward swipes on the iPhone surface to slide an object down a flat playfield toward targets.

    “10 Pin Shuffle” has a sterile atmosphere and workman-like graphics. But I continue to play this game and have invested much more time in it than R.C. simply because it has great gameplay. The controls are deep, intuitive and consistent. With effort, my performance has improved over time, which is rewarding.

    I can’t explain how R.C. failed to sell well, because it did have good word of mouth (except from me, I posted my views in a few places online). Perhaps the initial word of mouth was based on the admittedly stunning graphics, and it ran out of steam as people played it more…I can’t say.

    All of that said, I want to add that Frenzic is an example of a game with fantastic gameplay mechanics AND nice graphics. It was an early favorite iPhone game and it still stands out as a great example of how good iPhone games can be.

  19. John says:

    Speaking as a buyer rather than a developer, I’m not sure you are ever going to have it easy when competing against 85000 apps, probably soon to be 100,000.

    I buy a ton of games that frankly I am probably never going to get time to even play once. Take Spore for example. The premise of the game doesn’t appeal to me at all. But hey, they seem to have spent a ton of money on the game (probably more than you spent on RC) and it came down to 99c, so what the heck, I bought it. There’s a ton of great stuff on the app store for 99c.

    Now on the one hand, I agree absolutely that developers deserve more than 99c. On the other hand, they wouldn’t have got my 99c for Spore had the price been higher, because I’m not even sure at this stage I will get around to playing it.

    The rule of thumb for game buyers is I think, wait for it to come down to 99c, THEN buy. While you are waiting you are hardly bored or hard up for content.

    The exception to this rule is utilities, which if you like it you like it, price doesn’t matter so much, because you KNOW you are going to use it. And games for which the concept really jumps out at you as wonderful, or which they have an existing franchise. For example, I bought Pac-man as a nostalgia trip. Its harder and harder to think of games that you must have, price be damned, because there is so much stuff that is at 99c already in that category, and so many developers running “sales”.

    In the beginning, you bought anything at any price. Then you bought anything on sale. Then you bought anything on sale less than a few bucks. Now you only buy if it is 99c.

    I’m not going to buy Ramp Champ at the current price, not because I don’t think you deserve that price, but because I’m overwhelmed and buried with content already. If you drop the price to 99c, I will probably buy it, but even then I may not even play it, or if I do play it it might be for 5 minutes. Such is the reality in a world of plenty. I sympathize, but I don’t see any solutions, other than to adapt to the new 99c world. The good thing about the 99c world is at least you can get volume, and folks like me buying who won’t even necessarily use it.

  20. Keith says:

    I don’t mind paying well for iPhone apps; I appreciate the work of developers and absolutely support that they need to be adequately compensated and that the App store has flaws. Of all the games I’ve bought, free, cheap, expensive or otherwise, I admit I bought Ramp Champ based on (if I recall) a glowing review from Daring Fireball (if this is an error, I’d just say than I read a positive review from a website I trust, such as DF).

    And, eh, I didn’t think the game was all that. A weird combination of repetitive, uninteresting, and eventually just too difficult, without a lot of reason for me to spend the time trying to advance. The touch required was just so fine — a little finger-sweat, a spec of dust on the screen…. achieving the higher goals was impossible round-after-round, and then I wondered “Why am I trying to do this?”

    For whatever reason, I found replaying a game such as “Let’s Golf” to earn performance-enhancing equipment and clothes to be worth the time investment.

    Anyways, it’s all an interesting conversation and in the end I hope those that produce quality products succeed — and Apple should do whatever it can to create a playing field to make that happen.

  21. Jason T. says:

    Hey, reading through some of Ged’s comments, the only thing I feel I should mention is that it takes effort to step out of your bubble when making a game. I have yet to play Ramp Champ, and skee ball isn’t my thing so I don’t plan to, however you have attempted to refute most people’s criticism of the game – but we have strategy! different levels of achievement! etc etc. If you spent 3500+ hours on the game as you mentioned, you are playing solely for yourself at that point, and there will be no way at all to get objective feedback without getting other people’s opinions.

    Plus, are you going for casual gamers? Are casual gamers the one going to all of the app review websites to see what’s new and hot, the source of your positive reviews? I don’t know about that. They are the ones probably basing their impulse purchase on the reviews on the app store, which as others have noted is an exercise in frustration to address.

    Yes, there is luck involved, and other games are not as polished or deep, but sometimes people aren’t looking for that. Remember, especially as designers, that we need to focus on the gameplay first, and then spruce it up from there, vs making everything look nice and then making it playable. Just my humble opinion, but you seem to have had a “if you build it, they will come” mentality. The game does look great, but that shouldn’t be the main selling point.

    My 0.02

  22. Ron says:

    Ged,

    You need to try 2 things immediately to capitalize on this Skee-Ball popularity right now.

    1. Change your icon – you current has no meaning to most. Use one of your cute stuffed animals in place.

    2. Drop to 99 cents for a bit.

    Just suggestions…
    R

  23. Parystec says:

    All,

    Maybe if everything falls to the lowest price point then maybe the software development will fall to the lowest level too. As what would be the point in putting 3500+ hours in when you are not sure what you get out. You can not even be sure you can get the name for your project registered !!!!#’}

    Yours Parystec

  24. QC Guru says:

    I went to the rampchamp website and tried to view the video of your game in ie7 & ff353 on XP. IE7 gave a JS error & FF353 did nothing, probably a lack of quicktime on my pc – however it should prompt to install the plugin or better yet use one of the thousands of flash video players out there. Test Test Test (not all people with an iPhone use a mac).

    Tried the same on Safari 403 on a Mac and the video loaded but VERY slowly (I have a 10Mb link). Maybe use youtube or vimeo.

    Either way not the best way to present your app.

    Best of luck.

  25. Ged says:

    QC, thanks for the feedback, but the videos for Ramp Champ are hosted on Amazon S2 hosting so if it’s loading slow for you, I humbly suggest it’s your internet connection or Amazon that’s at fault, not the Iconfactory. Also, the game is targeted for iPhone owners so it’s important that the video plays on the iphone itself. That means flash players are out. Lastly, a quick search of YouTube for “Ramp Champ” reveals over 600 results with the first 5 clearly showing the game play.

    I’m not trying to be a pain, I’m just saying that just because you couldn’t watch the video doesn’t mean we didn’t do our job. Thanks for listening.

  26. John says:

    Just a few thoughts…

    I’ve seen so many posts like these that say “we had a great app, only a bug caused it to crash 20 times a day, and Apple took a long time to approve the update”. Maybe a little more testing up front?

    Re: race to the bottom. If you can sell the same app for a higher price on some other mobile platform, good for you! As a purchaser, I selfishly enjoy the price competition between app developers. If someone sticks to their guns and a reasonable price point, and their competition undercuts them too much, well, won’t the competition eventually go out of business or post one of those “I’m switching to Android” rants?

    I haven’t tried Ramp Champ, but there could be a zillion reasons affecting sales. Maybe people are put off by the rhyming name. Maybe the description sounds too much like some other game that was disappointing.

    I used to use Twitterific, but there was the Twitpocalypse, and then I realized the “Favorites” selections didn’t get sent back to the web site, then sometimes the “Favorites” icon wouldn’t even work on the iTouch itself, and I got a lot of “invalid argument” errors when I knew there was a strong connection, and it was off to a free competitor for me. (Actually I alternate between 2-3 different Twitter apps, but Twitterific has gotten pushed to page #3 on my screen so I rarely notice it anymore.) Now that I’ve read this post, I notice the IconFactory blurb on the startup screen, but I was not aware before this of who the publisher was.

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