It's hard to reconcile the value expectations of a 99¢ discard with those of a video game. One is supposed to offer single-use expendability, the other is supposed to offer depth and challenge over time.
I contend that iPhone players are not so much dissatisfied as they are confused: should one treat a 99¢ game as a piece of ephemera, or as a potentially rich experience?
But the iTunes App Store has encouraged a race to the bottom among paid applications. Developers want to make money, but consumer response suggests a reticence to spend.
The result so far has been cheaper and cheaper apps: according to the mobile distribution firm Distimo, iPhone app prices have dropped 8% in April alone, with many games settling in at 99¢.
For example, Reflexive Entertainment's Airport Mania, a click-management airline game, cost $19.99 when it was first released for PC and Mac. A year later, it still goes for $9.99 as a downloadable.
When the iPhone version hit the App Store, it was priced at 99¢. In fact, Reflexive even felt compelled to release a free "lite" version of the game.
Apparently 99¢ is a risk worth taking on a cup of coffee, but not on a sophisticated, long-form videogame worth ten times more on another platform.
Indeed, an order of magnitude value loss seems to plague iPhone applications in general. Take Tweetie, an excellent Twitter client by atebits. The Mac OS X version sells for $19.95. The iPhone version, $2.99.
Yet the programs offer exactly the same features with the same quality. One might argue that an iPhone program is more specialized than a desktop one, but in the case of games or Twitter clients, both platforms offer similar types of value, even if that value expresses itself in different circumstances.
Admittedly, giving a game away for free could invite "freeconomic" uses of the sort Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson has recently advocated.
But access to the App Store's forthcoming micropayment features still require an initial purchase. A free cup of coffee and a change jar for cream and sugar is quite a bit different from a $1 cup of coffee with a 25¢ add-on for milk.
One of the emergent results of App Store pricing has to do with its long-term viability for developers. Thanks to a very public Apple promotion, it's well-known that the App Store has enjoyed one billion app downloads since its launch.
A number of effusive stories in the mainstream press have detailed how developers have quit their day jobs in favor of full-time iPhone development thanks to the fat profits reaped from the endless cornucopia that is the App Store.
Ethan Nicholas' iShoot
And indeed, some indie developers are doing pretty well. Cases like iShoot's Ethan Nicholas are rare, but Mark Johnson recently published sales data for his game Hit Tennis, which has netted around $10k since its release six months ago. Not bad, but not an income either.