Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
October 30, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 30, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Gaming the App Store: The Start of an Indie Ice Age
by Emmy Jonassen on 03/05/14 03:35:00 pm   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.


Indie Ice Age

As an indie supporter and marketing professional, nothing outrages me more than developers who pay their way into the App Store’s charts with shady acquisition practices. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against paid acquisition. (I don’t think you’ll find a respectable marketer who does.) What I am against are acquisition methods that simulate or incentivize real user activity--like downloads or positive reviews--to trick the App Store’s charting algorithm. If left unchecked, these practices will turn the App Store from a place to discover quality games into a banner farm for subpar apps backed by deep pockets, forcing indie games into extinction.

Why is charting such a big deal? 
Before one can grasp how damaging shady acquisition practices are, it’s important to understand the power of charting. By applying what we know about app monetization to the real-life example below, we can do just this.

In late 2012, AnyList, a grocery list app, was released on the App Store. After one week, AnyList had generated 215 downloads. Soon after, Apple featured AnyList as “New and Noteworthy” for two weeks. During this time, AnyList generated over 60,000 downloads--a 28,000 percent increase from before it was featured.1

Now, imagine AnyList was a free-to-play game with in-app purchases. Knowing that three percent of freemium users make at least one in-app purchase that averages $9.99, AnyList could have earned at least $17,000 from being featured for just two weeks.2 Compare this to the $64 the app could have earned the week prior and all of a sudden the allure of charting becomes understandable.

Why is charting such a big deal for indies?
For an indie who statistically won’t make over $10,000 in his/her entire career on the App Store, $17,000 in two weeks is a dream, however, the App Store makes it possible with its charting algorithms and promotion philosophy.3 Let me explain.

In the above example, Apple chose to feature AnyList based on criteria that focuses on quality and appeal (i.e., is the app good and will App Store customers like it?).4 In fact, all apps that get promoted in Apple- or customer-selected charts are there because they match these criteria. What isn’t factored into this criteria is marketing budget. Why? Because ensuring apps get promoted based on quality, not how much marketing developers can afford, maintains the App Store as a place to discover great content. It also allows developers with no marketing budgets, who create amazing games, to get discovered--making the App Store a critical distribution channel for indies. No wonder indies are responsible for publishing 68 percent of mobile games!5

What would happen to indies if Apple’s charting algorithms were compromised?
With the App Store being so critical to indie success, any compromise to its charting algorithms would clearly have an impact. How big would this impact be? Let’s consider the below example.

Substandard Studios publishes Crap-O-La to the App Store as a free-to-play game with in-app advertising. Substandard then finds a “marketing agency” that guarantees Crap-O-La a spot in the App Store’s Top 10 in exchange for $96,000.6 Substandard agrees, pays the agency and within one week, Crap-O-La is on the Top 10 generating two million downloads and $50,000 in ad revenue per day. Meanwhile, App Store consumers are furious with Apple for recommending such a terrible game and confused how it could have so many downloads and excellent reviews. Apple is furious because Substandard has gamed the system, tarnishing Apple’s reputation for promoting quality content and causing it to lose consumer trust. And finally, indies who followed the rules, publishing quality games, are passed over because Apple’s charting algorithms failed.

While it may seem innocuous for a naughty developer to game the system every now and then, if left unchecked, this could become status quo. And in a world where developers must spend almost $100,000 to compete, indies have two options: find investors and risk being forced to build games they became indies to avoid or find another distribution channel. Both options are not ideal and will eventually lead to the disappearance of indie games on the App Store altogether.

How can we stop this unfortunate scenario?
Apple doesn’t have to be the only one taking a stand against unethical marketing practices. In fact, they shouldn’t be. As indies or indie supporters, we should take unethical marketing practices just as, if not more seriously than Apple. Below are four ways indies and indie supporters can curb and slowly eliminate unethical marketing behavior.

  1. Do Your Research
    If you’re an indie fortunate enough to have a marketing budget, make sure you hire reputable marketing agencies and/or consultants. How? Check references, read reviews and so on. A good marketing vendor will have no problem providing you with references, examples of work and any other information you need to make an informed decision (barring disclosure of confidential information of course). In addition, a good marketing vendor should do this with complete transparency and no guff. If you discover or get the faintest whiff of a fishiness, move on and warn your indie friends to do the same.

  2. Monitor Your App’s Activity
    If the agency you hired is managing your lead acquisition, be sure to monitor your game’s activity closely. Pay special attention to (1) little to no in-game activity after download (i.e., are the downloads you’re getting actually playing the game?) and (2) similarity between positive reviews (i.e., are your positive reviews similar in content, language, style, etc.?). If you are seeing any of these patterns, your marketing vendor could be engaging in unethical behavior.

  3. Raise Awareness by Taking a Stand
    Unethical App Store marketing practices impact the indie community in a major way and should be something you care about. Help generate awareness around the issue by taking a stand. Talk about your feelings on the subject with other indies, on your social media properties, on your blog, etc. Don’t feel the need to go crazy on the subject, but any attention you draw to the issue will make it harder and harder for agencies to get away with continued shadiness.

  4. Help Your Indie Comrades Out
    One of the reasons I am so fond of the indie community is because we help each other out. Promotion is no exception. If an indie releases a game you feel is excellent, tell people about it. A simple Tweet or Facebook post to a group of followers carries a lot more weight than a paid ad. It may seem insignificant, but if enough indies participate, these small gestures can add up, becoming a powerful marketing vehicle.


1. Jeff Hunter, "Being Featured on the App Store,", (Aug. 22, 2012).

2. Jeferson Valadares, "Consumers Spend Average of $14 per Transaction in iOS and Android Freemium Games,", (Jul. 25, 2011).

3. Owen Goss, "Results: iOS Game Revenue Survey,", (Sept. 28, 2011).

4. While Apple has never published the criteria it uses for selecting which apps it promotes on New and Noteworthy, or how its charting algorithms work, it is widely believed that Apple selects apps based on their quality (i.e., graphic quality, gameplay quality, etc.) and how well an App Store customer might like the app.

5. Peter Ferago, "Indie Game Makers Dominate iOS and Android,", (Mar. 6, 2012).

6. Kyle Orland, "Pay to rank: Gaming the App Store in the age of Flappy Bird,", (Feb. 11, 2014).

Related Jobs

Churchill Navigation
Churchill Navigation — Boulder, Colorado, United States

3D Application Engineer
CCP — Newcastle, England, United Kingdom

Senior Backend Programmer
Guerrilla Games
Guerrilla Games — Amsterdam, Netherlands

Animation System Programmer
Square Enix Co., Ltd.
Square Enix Co., Ltd. — Tokyo, Japan



Josh Cavaleri
profile image
Hi Emmy, thanks for the post - it was very informative.

From an Australian perspective, fake reviews and testimonials are potentially illegal and our regulator, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), has provided some information on the issue from an Australian legal perspective (relating to products and services generally).

As a games business, if you become aware of fake reviews for your game and you don't do anything about it, the ACCC may investigate you for being in breach of Australia's consumer laws. The ACCC has previously fined a business $6,600 for publishing fake testimonials on their website.

Thanks again for sharing.

Emmy Jonassen
profile image
Hi Josh,

Thank you for the comment.

I was not aware of the strict laws Australia has against such unethical practices, so thank you for sharing this link. I'm looking forward to reading the Aussie regulations on this page!

Take care,

Doctor Ludos
profile image
Thanks for the article!

However, I'm not sure that the ability to game the system is such a problem for Apple: as long as people buy apps, they are earning money. So I'm not sure they'll ever do something to prevent such behaviors before long, event if the whole "Crap-O-La" series gets in the top of popular apps rankings...

And I think it' also illegal to write fake reviews/comments in France laws, though I don't think any company was fined for it yet due to their App Store ratings (it was mainly targeted at fake consumer reviews on online shops for "material" goods).

Emmy Jonassen
profile image
Thank you for the comment. You bring up some good points.

I agree. Apple is definitely a for-profit company, so at the end of the day it's all about the revenue. However, I would argue that because of its interest in money, Apple does care about this kind of behavior.

The App Store makes all of its money off of consumers engaging with a game (paying for a download, purchasing in-app items, viewing/clicking ads, etc.). If consumers start losing trust in the App Store because they can never find good content, there will be a decline in activity translating to a decline in revenue. Apple does not want this to happen, which is why it's in Apple's best interest to prevent the kind of unethical behavior that tricks consumers into thinking an app will be good, leading only to disappointment and distrust. Apple might not take serious efforts immediately, but believe me, once that revenue starts dipping...oh boy!

Doctor Ludos
profile image
Thanks for your reply!

I agree with you that Apple will move when the profits will start decreasing, but my question is: will they really decrease?

According to another "hot" article here, Appstore profits is only 1% of Apple total revenues:

Even if the real number is something like 2,3,4 or 5%, I unfortunately fear that, as long Apple image isn't damaged enough by those practices to start slowing down their Iphone/Ipad/Imac retail sales, they won't move. Like someone said "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".

That being said, I totally agree with you on the negative potential of those practices, and I wouldn't use them myself - but to perform an industry-wide change on this topic, I think Apple/Google need to make the move too...

Denver Coulson
profile image
It blows my mind how many "companies" have contacted me to sell x number of reviews and ratings. It just feels dirty even having to deal with these kind of emails on a weekly basis.

Good article though. It's good to see this coming out in the open.

Shea Rutsatz
profile image
Good article. But like mentioned above, I can't say that I think Apple/Google would have much of an issue with the Crap-ola games being on the top of the charts. In my opinion, lots already are.

I really wish there were more options and abilities to search through the app stores. Both are terribly narrow, and searching only based on a games name doesnt help much when I want something new. I like trying out indie games, but the front pages just dont offer much besides the weeks newest FtP and any good indies are buried.

Marc Girolimetti
profile image
Nothing could be more timely than this post and for that I thank you. My team and I haven't necessarily been debating marketing strategies, but rather the state of the revenue model in a mobile device driven environment. Taking a stand is something many of us have to do with our own businesses. You hear that the paid app model is dead, which I agree, for those who whip up game apps and toss them into the fire, hoping they'll catch on. You hear that IAP is the only way to go now, because the market will only interact with free and maybe they'll pay for your, most likely, pay to win strategy, which reeks of the Internet circa 1999-2001. Of course we knew what happened then; ad revenue plummeted, companies shut down in droves and everyone realized that perhaps we should demand and, oh yeah, pay for high quality content. Thankfully, everything evolved and start-ups can now create and function using tools that cost next to nothing, which allow us to get into the fray and mix it up with big money players, who are too busy not evolving towards the next step. Yes, even some of us, who eschewed publishers, because there was gold, GOLD, over yonder in these self-publishing stores need to think about who we are and who we need to help us to be successful. Never have we had it any better and nor has there been a bigger focus on supporting indie studios. The options are bountiful for us. We just need to make the right choices for our businesses and run with it, because there is no Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B,A, Start to cheat our way to success.

Troy Walker
profile image
well... when you employ a flawed system, what can you expect? people will take advantage of it until it is changed.

apple just needs to come up with a better system for rating.. its' their problem not ours. if the only way to get viewed is to pay, then that is the game that's played.

Patrik Kotiranta Lundbeg
profile image
I am not that familiar with Apple because I am an Android user but buying ratings is not the only bad thing that I witness a lot.

There are apps that ask you to rate them in the app, understandable because Google Play is too many clicks away for the user. A natural problem that comes out of this is that a lot of users that play the game doesn't rate it. Another problem is that several developers implemented their own rating system in the app because Google doesn't provide one from what I know of. A few of these developers also implemented gates that only allow users to give 5 star ratings...

Other apps are asking for access to this and that service in the phone... uh... why does a 3 in a row game need access to the contacts, system etc? One explanation is because they are to lazy to fill in the correct information in the Play Store but others do this because they are doing naughty stuff.

I think that it is impossible to ask developers to play the system in an ethical way as long as those that do not care will not listen at all. The only long term solution that I can see is that Apple and Google tighten the rules, update their systems and make sure that unethical developers doesn't even get the chance to play the system.

Will it affect Google and Apple? Definitely at some point, it is at least an opening for a competitive OS to exploit. Just provide a safe App store that cannot be played by unethical developers. Find a way to protect children from purchasing F2P garbage in unethical apps etc...

Phil Maxey
profile image
There's a number of issues here. First up the players themselves.

Some players want indie games. They want crafted and well loved games about the meaning of life or space journeys or another rogue game, these however are not the majority on the App stores. The majority on the App stores want free games which are simple to play, they want something which will make them smile, laugh and yes frustrate them, Flappy Bird is a perfect example of the kind of game the majority of App store players will happily play if it's put in front of them (remember that last bit).

Next up is the platform holders, Apple and Google. They set the rules. They are not merely the key holders or the gate keepers they actually built the gate/wall and everything else. If it a game is on an App store it's because it was approved by the platform holders. If a game is visible on any of the screens of the stores it's there because the platform holders are happy for it to be there.

Lastly, developers. Many of us want to make games which do not merely make money but actually are "good" games, i.e people who regard themselves as games players (as opposed to the casual playing majority on mobile) actually rate our game because it offers them something in terms of quality or originality. The problem on the mobile stores is that these kinds of games will always appeal to the minority, not the majority. Developers who want to make quality games and who do not have an ad budget (which let's face it is most indie developers) are being squeezed on both sides. They are competing with games that have taken 2 days to make and are getting countless more plays, and they are squeezed on the other sides by big budget premium games who also have a huge marketing budget to push them up the charts.

So what's the answer?

Firstly you got to make sure the kind of game you are making is the right fit for the App store. Some games work great on tablets for example, but some don't. Some work great with touch, some don't. Also don't be fooled into thinking that the games that has success 2-4 years ago will do so now, so it's just a case of making them again with new visuals and you will get success, you won't. The App stores of today are a very different place to what they were years back.

2nd whatever game you do, you have to have a plan in place to promote and push it from the very first line of code you write right up to and well beyond the launch. Promoting of your game will be a full time job and will probably take more time than the actual developing of the game itself. Yes it's a pain in the ass, but it's the reality of indie game making today.

3rd, and even if you do all of the above, there's still the chance that a game made in 3 days will come flying past you in the charts and make 100 x more than your game which you have spent a year making, because that's just the nature of the App stores and mobile and until the platform holders change the rules, change the structure of the stores so more attention is given to games which have obviously had more time spent on them, then it's always going to be like that.

Ara Shirinian
profile image
It seems disingenuous to expect (or even hope) that Apple/Google will do any of those ethical things that you frame as being in their best interest now, when all of the problems of monetization on these platforms are precisely idiosyncractic side effects of how the app stores continue to be maintained, organized and presented to users.