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Who controls the App Store?
by Byron AtkinsonJones on 10/02/12 07:53:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



Who controls the App store?

I was recently at a meeting of small developers and the one complaint they had about the App Store was that if EA, Sega or some other large developer releases a game it instantly gets onto the front page of the App Store the day it’s released and yet small developers have to sit and pray that some editor at iTunes will notice their app and hopefully consider it to even appear in ‘new and noteworthy’ let alone the featured section and this certainly doesn’t happen on day one. This isn’t a new phenomena and it’s a complaint I hear from small iOS developers at pretty much every meet up I go to.

As a result smaller developers have had to find alternative means to get noticed and sell apps. This is where the App discovery Apps come into play. Some enterprising developers noticed a trend in the App store where people would wait till an App came down in price or it became free and then they would get it. The obvious gap in the market was an App that tells you when this happens so they filled it and the App discovery App was born. They are incredibly popular. I don’t have one because I have a friend who contacts me to tell me that some game has just gone down in price and to get it – which also leads onto another facet of these App discovery Apps: there is a certain amount of viral aspect to this whole process which is gold dust for an App developer. You want people talking about your App, the more people they tell, the better.

These discovery Apps in turn led to an interesting tactic utilised by small developers and that is to release your App at a price point, and once it’s been out for a few days reduce the price to something lower or make it completely free. This has an effect of pushing your App into the headlights of the discovery App and that means pushing it to the top of the list. This means that we developers have an algorithmic method of getting onto the front page of some form of the App store even if it is one step removed. It’s better than nothing in a world where the hardest thing is getting eyes on a game. It may seem like making games is hard but believe me in comparison to making games, getting people to look at them, let alone buy them, is far harder.

Another emerging way for small developers to help each other was through cross-promotion. This is something I am quite enthusiastic about and have spoken about many times at public events. The idea is that if somebody plays our game then we will cross-promote another developer’s game, giving that developer and game exposure they might not ordinarily have and in return that developer would cross-promote our game. It’s collaborative effort and It might not necessarily lead to an excessive volume of sales but it does break that first hurdle to a sale: discovery. Collaboration is the one advantage that small developers have that the larger companies don’t and it’s and advantage we can make use of if we are allowed to.

Yesterday, over twitter came a link to an interesting article by PocketGamer ( detailing a change in the Apple iOS developer program that could mean all of the above could come to an end: “Apps that display Apps other than your own for purchase or promotion in a manner similar to or confusing with the App Store will be rejected” The one saving grace we do have is the ‘”in a manner similar to or confusing with the App Store” which hopefully reads as an App that tries to make itself look like the App store but the proof will be in what Apps suddenly disappear from the store.

Even if an App does dress itself up to look like the App store there is only one way to (legally) download or buy Apps and that is through the App store so if you did click buy it’s going to have to take you to that App store. So what has Apple got to lose by allowing an App that looks like the App store to exist? What do they lose if somebody goes to another App store to indirectly buy Apps? The answer is simple: control.

Control over what we see. It can’t be consumer protection because as we’ve already mentioned you can only buy Apps through the App store so a ‘fake’ App store has to eventually pass control back to the ‘real’ App store. But what could be different are the Apps that are presented to the user. We could in theory have an App store that only shows games developed by indie developers and not games by EA or another equally large company.


If you listen to the Tadhg Kelly’s or the Nicholas Lovell’s of this world they will tell you that the days of the console game or the games you pay for outright are coming to an end and that the future is not only digital but a free digital world. If you looked yesterday on the App store one of the featured games is Tiger Woods by EA, which happens to be free. The large companies are finally starting to stir and take notice of the digital world that we smaller developers used to rule. With a dwindling console market their only hope is to not only enter the the App store but to dominate it – make sure that the first games people see when they browse the store are the games they make, not anybody else’s. So it’s not a massive leap of the imagination to infer that they might apply as much influence or pressure to ensure that this is the case.

In my early days as an iOS developer I naively called Apple to ask what a developer needed to do to get featured on the front page of the App store. I was told by the kind developer relations operative that nobody had any control over what appears on the front page of the App store and that I should just make the best App I could and wait for the day that an App store editor might call me. I wonder if EA got the same answer?


You can contact Byron at and follow him on twitter as @xiotex

Cross posted from:

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Joe Wreschnig
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"I wonder if EA got the same answer?"

Honestly, I think yes. As you say, EA is not in any position of power here. Apple is, and Apple is going to hype the games that sell (because the reviewers are humans, sometimes just games they really like) because those are the games that make them money in turn. The next Angry Birds is going to make them more money than whatever under-the-table kickbacks EA can rationally offer.

That's not to say the featuring process on the App Store is *fair*. EA has giant advertising muscles it can flex to make sure people who do curate the store have an interest in the game. EA has the development power to make sure it will demo retina graphics, or 16:9, or Game Center, or local multiplayer, earlier than other games, and Apple wants to showcase apps that do those things. Big tech companies in the Bay Area generally just have a lot of employee cross-pollination, so it's not unlikely that some producer at EARS is eating lunch with some PM at Apple and happens to show the game and starts a chain of recommendations that gets the game to the curators.

There's all sorts of ways that EA has power over getting this game featured that e.g. an indie developer in the UK doesn't just using regular human social networks. You don't have to hypothesize a "black ops" recommendation line for that to be the case, and I'd be honestly surprised if one exists - EA just has the resources to monopolize the bandwidth on the regular line.

"It can’t be consumer protection..."

It can, and I explained how at
_kill_game_promotion_services.php#comment171056 .

Byron AtkinsonJones
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Nice article.

Here's an interesting question: What constitutes manipulation of charts? In the past this used to bogus companies offering to boost App Store ratings, leaving reviews etc.. but promoting Apps by featuring it in your own App, be that through a 'Free App A Day' type mechanism - how is that different from a conventional store increasing sales by reducing the price on launch? At what point does a marketing technique become manipulation?

I don't think that EA having teams of people working on products means that they are more responsive to changes, I've worked for EA and the political mechanisms would be enough to ensure that isn't the case. I don't think there is a hidden black-ops line for EA to be able to talk to Apple, it's just that I truly believe that if I were to call at the same time as EA that the EA call is the one that would be answered. I know that there are a lot of iOS developers who feel the same.

Michael Rooney
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I think Joe's point is that he agrees EA has a higher priority, but it's not by any underhanded tactic. If you went to lunch 3 times a week with apple employees and told them about the $50,000 ad campaign you were about to start for your games and let them play a bit at lunch, they'd probably be interested in you too.

I think you're seeing it as apple thinking, "Oh it's EA. Put them on the front page," where the reality is more likely, "Oh it's EA. They'll have a huge marketing push, support all of our platforms, and I know the game is good because my friend Doug works there and let me play with it when we went out for sushi last week. Put them on the front page," or some combination of those. It's not hard to see why, in the latter situation, they'd take EA's call.

"At what point does a marketing technique become manipulation?"

Doesn't marketing technique start at manipulation?

Luis Blondet
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"Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows "

-Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows.

Justin Sawchuk
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And the #2 paid game on the app store is slender (and its a cheap poorly made clone of agent parsec original game) but still makes me happy to note that indies can not only beat but kick the shit of the big boys.