GDC: Refenes' & Saltsman's Baffling $350 App Store Success
"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
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."