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GDC: Refenes' & Saltsman's Baffling $350 App Store Success
GDC: Refenes' & Saltsman's Baffling $350 App Store Success Exclusive
March 11, 2010 | By Chris Remo

March 11, 2010 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, GDC, Exclusive

"I absolutely fucking hate the iPhone App Store," declared indie developer Tommy Refenes during his segment of the Indie Game Makers Rant at Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this week.

Refenes, known for his work on Goo! and the upcoming Super Meat Boy, has philosophical objections to Apple's mobile digital distribution platform. "The majority of people who do anything for the App Store work on it and then kind of get screwed over," he said.

The App Store "is the Tiger handheld game of this generation," Refenes explained. Just like low-quality LCD-based handheld games, the true successes of the App Store seem to be translations of established franchises and brand names that present severely downgraded versions of their original experiences. He pointed to less-playable iPhone versions of Assassin's Creed, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mega Man 2, and Street Fighter IV as examples.

After all, as Playfish co-founder Kristian Segerstrale observed during GDC, seven of the eight best-selling App Store games last year were mobile versions of existing major game franchises.

"It's just a way to sell a brand," Refenes said. "That's what the Tiger handheld games were, and that's what I think the App Store is."

But Refenes' rant wasn't limited to a debatable analogy. He came equipped with a personal experience that further confirmed his impression of the App Store as a place where traditional correlations of quality have little meaning.

"About five months I started an experiment, and the experiment was basically to prove the App Store is kind of shit for most things," he said.

Along with fellow prolific indie developer Adam Saltsman (Canabalt, Wurdle), Refenes developed a "joke game" for iPhone titled Zits & Giggles, consisting mainly of popping virtual pimples.

Like so many other iPhone games, Zits & Giggles launched at $0.99. Sales were never remarkable, and they eventually tapered off entirely. But rather than pursue a traditional marketing strategy like offering the game for free for a limited time, Refenes did just the opposite: he raised the price to $15, exorbitant by iPhone standards.

Shockingly, "the day I put it up to $15, three people bought it," Refenes said.

"So," he continued, "I said, 'I'm going to put it up to $50.' Four people bought it."

After observing that fortuitous trend, Refenes decided to test its resilience by boosting the game's selling price every time at least one copy was sold.

"I stopped paying attention to it for a while," he recalled, then "I checked it on Valentine's Day, and 14 people bought it at $299."

The game has now reached a price tag of $350.

Based only on Refenes' sales figures for a limited number of the game's many price tiers, Zits & Giggles generated at least $4,431 at the $15, $50, and $299 price points alone. It currently holds an App Store customer rating of two and a half stars out of five, with only two written reviews, one of which reads in its entirety, "It's hilarious." (Its official description still claims it costs "a FRIGGIN DOLLAR.")

"My conclusion to all of this," Refenes said, "is that the people who you're selling to on the App Store are not necessarily gamers."

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Tim Carter
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This is Pricing 101. A high price causes a perception of value. A low price yields a perception of cheapness. That's all.

Wolf Wozniak
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This article brings joy into my heart.

George Kotsiofides
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Awesome. Makes you wonder just who *is* the audience on the app store.

The kids shout the loudest I guess on the road to $.99 or free, but who are these people that drop $200 on an app>???

I think we should be told!

Janne Haffer
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I have a feeling there's a few people wondering what that $299 charge on their credit card is, not making the connection with a game they thought they bought for $2.99

George Kotsiofides
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So this:

"My conclusion to all of this," Refenes said, "is that the people who you're selling to on the App Store are not necessarily gamers."

Should be changed to this?

"My conclusion to all of this," Refenes said, "is that the people who you're selling to on the App Store are not necessarily paying attention."


Joe Cooper
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This is what I've always said. Anyone who prices a game at $1 on the app store is a retard.

The whole idea that it will help it stand out is inherently stupid; a 99 cent iPhone app is dropped into a bucket of tens of thousands of 99 cent apps that have a distinctively bad reputation.

On the flip side, if someone actually wants a game, they'll buy it for five. Hell, I just rented an HD movie on there for five.

I don't get why this is so hard for people. This "race to the bottom" is classic mass hysteria, nothing more. Just like the "let's make a crappier Wii version, then not advertise it, then act butthurt" routine.

$350? That's got me a bit miffed but I'm sure there's some millionare around who thinks the idea of a $350 iPhone zit popping game is _hilarious_. Understand that the price is part of the joke. A 99 cent zit popping game is worthless, but a $350 zit popping game is art.

Sean Farrell
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Assuming that most did not pay a couple of hundred bucks by mistake; you must take into account the elite / deluxe factor. Putting a normal product in fancy golden wrapper and selling it for much money, does not make sense, but it works. There are people that buy it, because it is expensive. iPhone and iPod users are on the richer side anyway, since they bought the Apple product that is on the lower end of price-performance rating. Its a question of style...

Chad Wagner
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This is my strategy (albeit on a smaller scale)! I intend to release a game at $1 -- then increase the price to a regular price ($5-$10). Thereby awarding early adopters, and taking advantage of the early publicity. If people buy it later, they must have been looking for it (based on reviews or buzz) and should be willing to pay more realistic price for it. Offhand (to me), this seems like a better pricing model for apps in the world of shovelware. But, I have little to lose, since I invest only my personal time in the development. It's crazy to see that strategy taken to its extreme -- and working!

Reid Kimball
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I think downloadable games are being priced much too cheaply, even at 19.95 or whatever. Game developers aren't valuing their most important asset very highly, which is interactivity. There ought to be a premium for interactivity. If you have a 2hr DVD that costs $20 bucks, a 2hr video game can easily cost $30.

David Bruno
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Ahhh, remember when Kevin Smith said "F**k DVDs," and that HD DVD was the way to go...?

Yasuhiro Noguchi
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Does anyone know if Messrs. Refenes and Saltsman actually got paid by Apple on their sales?

I'm thinking about the possibility of credit card fraud nixing the "sales" numbers.

robert toone
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I agree with @Janne.

simply because the same thing happens in WOW (yeah WOW). I have seen it happen. Because the customer assumes app games are not expensive, they think the number actually is 2.99 and not 299. Some people in Wow would purposely put their items in the AH for say 100Gold and the usual price was only 10Gold.

Hmm. that gives me an idea :D

Jeremy Glazman
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How exactly was this 'experiment' supposed to "prove the App Store is kind of shit for most things" ?

Franchise games push more volume than indie games because of their recognition factor, even if they are bad games (like most franchise games on the App Store). I don't see this changing, on any platform, any time soon.

This doesn't change the fact that all of the best games on the App Store are indie games, and that it's a great indie platform.

David Bruno
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Bringing some reason and logic to the conversation. Way to go bud!

Tyler Peters
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@ Jeremy


I love a lot of the indie games on the store - I've played some of the big franchises too, though most have sucked.

Look, nobody is forcing people to make apps for the store, and if you have a bad experience with it then move on. I, for one, love the fact that anyone can create an app and place it in the store for (nearly) whatever price they want.

Try to do that on PSN or XBL!

David Bruno
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Not only can a pub/dev set their app. at whatever price they choose, but they also don't have to jump through hoops and pay out the back end to get their app updated.

Thomas Rab
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@Yasuhiro Noguchi

This wouldn't be credit card fraud. If someone can't pay attention to what they're paying that's their own fault. Credit card companies have no sympathy for these people. I often deal with these type of cases and the card holder pretty much never wins.

As for the topic on hand, I think this mentality of having to set your app to $.99-$3.99 is ridiculous. We can only blame ourselves for this, or at least the developers who started this trend. Sure iPhone games are usually smaller in scope than most games, but selling your game you spent a lot of time on for mere pennies compared to a PC or console game...

Joe Cooper
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Shouldn't 350 be displayed as 350.00 anyway?

In which case you could only mistake it as costing $35000, which I would hope would make a sale _less_ likely.

Max Williams
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I wonder if the people who bought it at the crazy high price were working for a market research/strategy analyst/business consultant/etc type of company. You know, who look at trends etc. They might go and look for all the apps which are priced very highly and download them in the interest of research rather than wanting to play them. There must be a load of these charlatans claiming to be experts in iphone strategy etc.

Alex May
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I don't think this proves anything, and is kind of a dick move that preys on people's inattention or gullibility.

Adam Bishop
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The article lists the prices rounded to the nearest dollar, but when I found the game on the official app store it's listed as $399.99, which seems to me to indicate that it would be virtually impossible to mistake the price since presumably $350 was actually $349.99.

David Boudreau
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Uh, I'm a little confused here- the article says "Its official description still claims it costs 'a FRIGGIN DOLLAR.'" Does "FRIGGIN" mean, the following word times three hundred fifty? No? Then yeah that seems kind of deceptive.

Billy Cheung
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I love these social experiment.