There’s No Way Quality iPhone Development Can Be Sustainable

I spent three hours yesterday while sorta-watching the NBA playoffs playing Baseball Superstars 2009 for the iPhone after briefly mucking around with the free version.

To save you a review, this isn’t only a somewhat-casual yet complete baseball game for your phone, it also includes:

  • A 36-game season mode.
  • An RPG mode with accelerated games where you only play when you are at bat (other baseball games on the console do this but I can’t remember which. I know Madden‘s superstar mode does something similar in football.
  • Super Batters and Pitchers with special abilities
  • Mission Mode
  • Homerun Derby
  • Trading
  • Training
  • Special Equipment
  • &c.,

You can play it in short bursts or long sessions. It is dead simple to learn, but provides tons of options as you get better. In short, it’s the kind of game I kept pressing to create at my last job.

Now there are problems with it. It is obviously an up-port of an older cell phone franchise as it somewhat anachronistically puts buttons on the screen rather than giving you full touch control. It’s legacy probably largely defrays the cost. But I paid $2.99 for the game.

$2.99.

A spicy chicken sandwich at Wendy’s costs more.

The description said it was on sale from $4.99. They needed to have a 40% sale because $4.99 wasn’t selling with a fully featured free demo.

Unsubstantiated rumor pegs Apple’s cut of sales at around 30%. So Gamevil got $2 from my sale.

I’ve bought DS games for $35 that provide much less content. Let’s say that I am running a studio or publisher and I have to choose whether to produce my new project for the DS or the iPhone. Let’s say that average retail price per unit is $24 since later sales will be discounted. Let’s also say that it costs me $9 to buy & print a cartridge and support all the infrastructure that gets that cart to your store. (I’m just waving my hands in the air here, but I’m in the sorta-ballpark) My publishing concern gets $15/sale. I have to sell seven and a half times as many copies on the iPhone to yield the same amount. Now, I understand that the iPhone and App Store have a broad reach, but the difference between 50k DS sales and 375k iPhone App Store sales is stark.

Where Apple excels is that they set themselves up as the sole publishing gatekeeper. If I wanted to make a DS game myself, I couldn’t. Nintendo needs to license me dev kits which they won’t do unless I am already a developer. Even once I pay the premium to get the kits, I have to find a publisher who gets a cut both financially and creatively and then the game again needs Nintendo’s approval before it can make it to market. So Apple provides a lot less overhead on the front-end, meaning the market can be populated by titles from major corporations and one man teams of guys living in cottages.

But if quality titles by professional organizations can’t get even close to the money generated on consoles from the iPhone, they will either stop making quality titles or scale them down so far that it is cheap enough to not lose a lot of money. They’ll go with the DS because they can easily step over the hurdles that Nintendo et al set up so that every schmuck can’t make a DS cart.

And even the single-guy-doing-his-thing model can’t survive long unless it is with very small and unambitious projects. Let’s say it takes that guy six months to do his project and he can make $70,000 coding at a “real” job. He needs to make $35,000 per project. At $3 ARP and Apple’s 30% cut, he needs to reliably get 17,000 sales on word of mouth.

While Baseball Superstars 2009 and other titles I’ve picked up recently have been pretty great, we don’t and won’t see anything like Hatsworth, The World Ends With You, Hotel Dusk or any of the other top-tier DS games. If we do, it will be an aberration. And that’s sad because the iPhone can do almost everything the DS can do and it has the bonus features of carrying all my games simultaneously and converging with the phone/GPS device that I take absolutely everywhere.

Keep buying App Store games, even if they are a shocking $4.99. I’d be interested in seeing how the companies that are putting out software for $19.99 and higher (very specialized stuff I see in the app store all the time) are doing.

Postscript: The upcoming microtransactions capability that will come with version 3.0 might change everything. Or it might be a big waste of resources.

Update: I tried to do some searching for the most expensive games on the App Store, but you can’t search by price. I did find this game called Jet Setter which attempted to release at a $1,000.00 price point. Apple let it linger in approval limbo until they dropped the price, giving it the old pocket veto. Does anyone know of any games that are priced about $9.99 (and have stayed there?)

5 thoughts on “There’s No Way Quality iPhone Development Can Be Sustainable”

  1. I think the message here is to start investing in Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwiches.

    I think the iPhone gaming industry is largely hampered by the fact that I don’t see the iPhone as a game console. You don’t see any marketing for any “exclusive to iPhone” games. They’re all either experimental things that you just happen to find on the app store, or quick and dirty ports like the one you mentioned that exist to juice a bit more money and marketshare out of an existing game. BTW, what is the business model for non-iPhone cell-phone game companies? Perhaps the app store profits are secondary to, say ad revenue for them.

    Nintendo should start opening up the virtual console apps to the iPhone. It’d be hard to get the controls right, but I could see people paying $10 a pop to have classic Zelda, Mario, or Sonic games on their iPhones. Nostalgia can be a powerful marketing tool.

  2. Actually, after playing Baseball Superstars, I’m pretty sure you could do almost any old school game well by just overlaying buttons over the screen. It’s much more responsive than I thought it would be – the remaining issue being the lack of tactile feedback. The roadblock there is the license holders. Nintendo just doesn’t release games on non-Nintendo platforms (since the CDi).

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