‘Suddenly everyone had powerful games machines in their pocket’ … Tetris on an iPhone.
In the 15 years since it launched the App Store, Apple has proved again and again that it cares very little about games – though it is happy to make billions from them. I should know: I was an App Store games editor for seven years.
It all started so well. When the iPhone and iPad arrived, those devices transformed games almost as much as they upended the rest of the tech world. Suddenly everyone had powerful games machines in their pockets, and it was amazing. Some wonderful developers broke through. Zach Gage kickstarted his career with the artsy Tetris-meets-wordsearch game SpellTower; Adam Saltsman’s Canabalt turned platforming tropes into a desperate post-apocalyptic dash; ingenious gothic puzzler Helsing’s Fire gave us our first glimpse into the mind of Lucas Pope, later the creator of Papers, Please.
There were so many more. And not just indie games but mainstream bangers: Spry Fox’s brilliant Triple Town, Rovio’s Angry Birds; Flight Control; Doodle Jump; Cut the Rope; Drop7; Jetpack Joyride; New Star Soccer. All true breakthrough games for developers that had never had global hits before.
Apple seemed to create a whole new games ecosystem by accident, then presided over it like a contemptuous landlord
So what did Apple do next? Nothing really. It seemed to create a whole new games ecosystem by accident, and ever since has presided over it like a contemptuous landlord. It takes a tasty 30% cut of almost every in-app purchase while doing next to nothing to earn that fee. Recent privacy policies – including the introduction of that “ask app not to track” pop-up you will have seen again and again – have even actively harmed the mobile games business.
As the App Store grew and grew, Apple’s small App Review team in Cupertino, California, which checks whether a game should be approved for sale or not, was overwhelmed. At the same time, free-to-play happened, and the mobile game gold rush was on. Developers released their games for free and made their money from the in-app purchases of a small number of high-spending players – termed whales – instead of asking everyone for cash upfront.
Lucas Pope’s award-winning Papers, Please.
The woefully understaffed team of app reviewers couldn’t handle the volume of games coming through – and seemingly still can’t today. Ask any staffer at a mobile game studio and they’re guaranteed to have an app review horror story involving their game being repeatedly rejected for an arbitrary reason, or removed from sale entirely. Developers are being treated with contempt.
Meanwhile, some brazen clone sails through the app review process no sweat. It’s been happening for years. In 2016, a hilariously fake “Minecraft 2” was approved for sale by the App Review team and made it all the way into the Top 10 chart before it was pulled from sale. Brazen Pokémon rip-offs make it through surprisingly often too.
Late last year, the developer of indie hit Vampire Survivors said it had to rush-release a mobile edition to stem the flow of App Store clones and copycats. Recently a fake ChatGPT app made it through app review and quickly climbed the charts before someone noticed and pulled it from sale. It’s not good enough.
A rush to beat the clones … Vampire Survivors Photograph: PR
Apple could have reinvested a greater fraction of the billions it has earned from mobile games to make the App Store a good place to find fun, interesting games to fit your tastes. But it hasn’t, and today the App Store is a confusing mess, recently made even worse with the addition of ad slots in search, on the front page and even on the product pages themselves.
Search is still terrible, too. Game developers search in vain for their own games on launch day, eventually finding them – having searched for the exact title – under a slew of other guff.
Mobile games get a bumpy ride from some folks – this esteemed publication included – for lots of reasons. But there is good stuff out there. If you want the best of mobile right now, try Marvel Snap, Song of Bloom, Beatstar, Brawl Stars, Royal Match, Among Us, Vampire Survivors, Mario Kart Tour, Archero or Scrabble Go. Try blockbusters such as Diablo Immortal and Call of Duty Mobile too, both cleverly compressed PC and console games which are much more immediate and accessible than anything you’ll find on a dedicated games platform.
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Among the best … Marvel Snap. Photograph: Marvel
However, finding the good stuff is hard. Apple – and indeed Google’s Play store – opened the floodgates to developers without really making sure that what’s out there is up to standard. It’s a wild west.
Happily things may be about to change – including that 30% commission on all in-app purchases. After a bruising US court battle between Apple and Epic Games over alleged monopolistic practices, government bodies in the UK, EU, US, Japan and elsewhere are examining Apple and Google’s “effective duopoly” over what we see, do and play on our phones.
A recent White House report stated that Apple and Google’s current app store policies “have the potential to harm consumers by inflating prices and reducing innovation”. It recommended that the tech giants open up their digital storefronts to outside competition and offer other ways for users to pay for in-game content.
So perhaps, once those huge App Store profits are under genuine threat, we’ll see Apple start to take its role as a mobile game platform more seriously. It has the excellent Apple Arcade subscription service, sure, but it’ll take more than that to help rescue mobile gaming’s reputation.
Neil Long is a journalist and former App Store editor who runs mobilegamer.biz, a website for the mobile games industry