Raising the Game

Creating four-star apps that can compete in a sea of  ‘crapware.’

illustration by Kim Foxillustration by Kim Fox

It really doesn’t take more than a few clicks to realize that you’re dealing with a classic glass half-full/glass half-empty situation.

On the one hand, you’ve never encountered so many affordable games in one place at one time—and most of them don’t set you back much more than the cost of an average bag of Doritos. On the other, a lot of them seem to look like something you might have thrown together in the course of a week as part of your senior-year computer science project, and they all seem to involve zombies, Guitar Hero clones and farting.

Welcome to Apple’s App Store, where one company’s vision of game-development democracy has played out into several million gaming apps for the iPhone and the iPod Touch. As long as you respect Apple’s somewhat confusing standards of what constitutes inappropriate violence and sex, it doesn’t take much to download Apple’s software development kit and begin putting together your very own application. For would-be developers, it’s a potential gold mine. For the consumers who buy the end-result products, which start at 99 cents and run up to 10 bucks, it’s the Wild West. Quality can be as elusive as a tumbleweed dipped in pig grease, and knock-offs and clones lie like pixelated rattlesnakes in every patch of grass.

And for the companies that have been publishing successful apps for years? It’s like trying to float above what can sometimes seem like a sea of crap—or as David Hansson, creator of Ruby on Rails, recently put it in an interview with BigThink, Apple’s “warehouse of s—-.”

That’s a gross (in more ways than one) exaggeration. Still, there’s no way to deny that the quality spectrum is wider in Apple’s App store than any other gaming platform. To some of the more established game app publishers, it’s amusing, confusing, and occasionally frustrating—all at the same time.

“Yes, you have guys spending a few days making a fart application,” says Chris Byatte, the director of U.K.-based Chillingo, publishers of apps like Monster Mayhem, Defender Chronicles and iDracula. “But there’s also a quality firewall. In the top 100, a lot of the games are pretty dumb. I want to be sure we rise above that.”

Chris Byatte, ChillingoChris Byatte, ChillingoAt least one of his company’s apps certainly has: That’d be the ubiquitous Angry Birds, the feather- and physics-based catapult game that’s seen more than 6.5 million downloads and holds the honor of being the fastest-selling app in App Store history, with a seemingly permanent clawhold in the top-10 paid apps list.

Byatte co-founded Chillingo in 2002, after spending years building up Clickgamer.com, a site that hosted games designed for the Windows mobile platform. When Apple rolled out the app store for its own family of MP3 players and mobile devices, it was like a bomb had exploded in the room. It was a moment when, as Byatte puts it, “1,600 development studios changed direction.”

“This was the device we’d been waiting for,” he says.

Byatte, 39, sees the advent of mobile gaming (and the iPhone and iPod Touch in particular) as a throwback to what some used to hail as the golden age of video game development—the 1980s, those halcyon days when a bunch of guys in their bedrooms were putting game code on cassette tapes, tossing them in sandwich bags, and delivering them by mail order through ads in the back of DIY review magazines.

“The guys who used to run those magazines, they’re the directors of these app publishing companies today,” he says.

In the ensuing years since the App Store’s debut, the rush among developers to cash in on the latest big thing has led to the store’s sometimes Wild West feel. A quick glance at a recent list of the App Store’s top 20 free and paid game apps ends up being a picture-perfect screenshot of the current situation. Breakout hits like Lima Sky’s Doodle Jump, Angry Birds, and bedrock standbys like Tetris are camped uneasily next to scatological specials like Pimple Popper. And every successful game jostles with 50-plus clones that shamelessly cop its ideas and/or gameplay.

That’s nothing new, says Andrew Stein, the director of mobile gaming for PopCap, the Seattle-based company that gave us two of the biggest and best selling apps ever—the Bejeweled series and the tower defense classic Plants vs. Zombies.

Andrew Stein, PopCapAndrew Stein, PopCap“PopCap has faced the challenge of competing against a sea of crappy knockoff apps since its inception,” Stein says. “There are hundreds of terrible (and some not so terrible) clones of Bejeweled, yet Bejeweled always rises to the top.”

Part of what’s made that possible is another democratic aspect of the App Store—the feedback section, where users get to wax rhapsodic over good game apps or blast bile at those who don’t live up to their billing.

“The App Store community definitely pull no punches in their evaluation of the apps,” says Stein, who says his company’s games typically average reviews of four-plus stars. “Most of the clones average one or two stars and are usually brutalized in the reviews. This feedback helps customers not get stuck buying ‘crapware’ and focus on the quality games.”

Stein believes that customer feedback is what prevents the biggest risk in the current App Store environment: Customers sick of blowing cash on crappy apps leading a backlash and walking away.

Fixing the problem upstream

Of course, the best place to kill a crappy app is to convert it to a good one in QA and development. Byatte says that Chillingo has an internal list of criteria and metrics that detail what make an app good (sorry, guys; he’s not sharing). But he will admit that the make-or-break moment almost always comes down to the same point on the development curve.

“Invariably, I find that our producers can spend a few weeks polishing a game, and those last miles make a huge difference in quality, and how a game will sell and connect with consumers.”

Companies like Chillingo field app pitches from would-be developers and established team about as many times per week as there are NFL football games in the fall. Most of them, he says don’t pass muster.

“You’re basically panning for gold,” Byatte notes. “And all these guys want to do is get their game out. They’ve left their day jobs to pursue this dream, and they need it to make some money. What they actually need is to give it a few more weeks to bring it to the next level.”

When asked if he’s ever passed on a title that later became a hit, he admits there was one game that crawled into the top 10 for a few weeks before sinking back into the herd.

“And I’m OK with that,” he says. “The truth is, I’m not looking for quick spikes.”   Get In Media

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Angry Birds in the news

New York Times columnist Virginia Heffernan wrote about her addiction to Angry Birds a couple of weeks ago: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/03/magazine/03FOB-medium-t.html …and speculation continues that there will be a movie based on the game. There’s even a trailer on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Bk_nqUQ0fc