Apple's App Store: From Wild West to ugly mess

Opinion: Can Apple's App Store really kill off traditional retail games? Steve Boxer investigates...

Oh dear. Apple's App Store - that paradigm-shifting site which, countless overexcited commentators constantly claim, is in the process of rendering conventional videogames redundant and killing off physical retailers - has been in the news again. And, horror of horrors, not for good reasons.

Apple has been throwing its weight around, removing shoddy rip-offs of popular iOS games (Angry Ninja Birds or the singularly derivative Plant vs Zombie, anyone?). Another developer has been singing like an (Angry) bird about how a dodgy company offered to get his free game to the top of the App Store charts, using a bot-farm, for the paltry sum of $5,000. Now that the sainted Jobs has assumed his place on high, is something awry in his ex-fiefdom?


Those unconscionable spoilsports among us who, unaccountably, manage not to punish our credit cards whenever any shiny gadget bearing that fruity logo comes out know that something has been awry in the App Store for some time. To put it bluntly, it's a mess.

If ever a website was due for a redesign, the App Store is it. In fact, it's in such a bad state these days that it actually makes one feel a tiny bit sorry for Apple, even if you rank the Cupertino concern among the most hubristic and overhyped companies in history. For the App Store has become a victim of its insanely huge success.

Getting mighty crowded
When Apple launched the App Store in 2008, it contained 500-odd apps. Today, it holds over 425,000 - the vast majority games. Of which approximately 424,600 are buried as permanently as a mobster in a Chicago flyover. So the age-old web page problem kicks in: once your app falls off the front page, it might as well become invisible, even though the App Store's search engine is pretty decent. And expensive digital marketing is required to get to that front page, let alone to stay there for more than a week or two. So most of the paid-for games you find there are published by big companies.

Of course, that contradicts the supposed ethos of the App Store, which is to emulate the early, Wild West days of games, when tiny teams with truly original ideas could knock out games in a matter of months which could become chart-toppers if they were sufficiently well constructed. Every iOS developer wants to make the next Angry Birds, but it's debatable whether Angry Birds itself would succeed now if it was self-published.

Of course, developers can put themselves on the map by giving away their iOS games for free. But to do that, they need some sort of Trojan Horse - a game that isn't their most innovative effort, because they would like to maximise their potential profits by selling their truly ground-breaking games. And the list of top free-to-download iOS games has recently begun to resemble a Shanghai market stall selling watches, handbags and sunglasses: full of cheap and nasty rip-offs. At least Apple has begun to crack down on such sharp practices, so there's a chance the free games list could return to more meritocratic ground.


Can you see the elephant?
And it's not just Apple that's afflicted (although the App Store is by far the biggest repository of download games). Gaikai's David Perry says: "I went up on gig.com. It has tons and tons of products on there, something like 15,000 Flash games. So I started skipping through the pages to look at them all, and there were 645 pages. I ended up going: 'Are you kidding me? What if you're on page 172 - no one is ever going to see your game. How do you beat that system?'

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