It all begins

I have had the great honor of working with and alongside some of the greatest game creators to date.  Several of those greats helped get Atari, Activision, and Williams off the ground.  Working with them gave ample opportunity to hear about their experiences of building the 1980’s arcade machines the start of the console industry and the incredible accomplishments of the 1 person development team.


One aspect of the early industry I never really considered was the boom and collapse of arcade machines.  Over dinner and drinks with these greats they talked about their experience with early coin-ops.  They painted a vivid picture.


When arcade machines first came out every liquor store, candy store, shop, bar, or you name it needed to get a video game.  There was a mad land rush.  Arcade machines were selling like crazy filling up every available corner in the nation.  Then something happened.  Every corner of every shop that cared got their machines.  Now the landscape changed.  It was no longer a question of selling a machine to fill a hole.  It was a question of REPLACING a machine that had most likely already been paid for.  All of a sudden these very expensive machines fell under intense scrutiny.  Only a handful would sell well anymore.


Others have told me how it had been incredibly difficult to pick the winners.  Why would a game with a knight on an ostrich lancing hatching enemy knights be the hit?  No one could get a decent formula down at the time.



Eventually the industry dropped into a rhythm.  Arcade machines would be:

Where you get better graphics

That died

Where you could get side by side multiplayer

That died

Where you would get better peripherals

That’s mostly dead


Consoles have progressed along their own lines and have come to be the machines where you can get the interesting peripherals, multi-player at the same time with those in the room or afar, and get the best graphics found.


That seems to be on the cusp of changing too.


A new fad

Now we have social games and mobile games.  They were both introduced with fanfare.  Each has had their enormous share of GDC talks as the new gold rushes.  The hype has died down a bit as the market is getting saturated.


What I find fascinating is how effectively single player social games are thriving on mobile platforms such as iPhone.  The mobile platform seems to be pulling in the lead as a whole but it looks like they might be on a losing track for developers and many haven’t quite seen it yet.


During the recent past of the 2000s the mobile app industry sprung to life.  Early companies with pre-install deals made a killing.  You could get thousands and thousands of users to pay you a monthly fee for the right to have your game on their device.  When a mobile phone subscriber got a new phone they would buy a few apps and usually hold onto them for the two years they had the phone.  Once they upgraded their phone they would buy a new slate of apps.



The new face of the mobile industry has changed and looks a great deal like the old arcade industry.  You can find great apps that have made $0 and average apps that are raking in the dough even though they both had equal support across all fronts.  If you get a large enough install base you can self-promote but you have to manage to get that install base first.  iPhones are just like the bar of the 1980s.  They have room to hold apps.   When someone gets a new phone they want to put apps on it.  Apps get downloaded.  With just a bit of luck, some of those apps are purchased apps.  Due to the fierce competition apps cost $0.99 or more.  Great! So far we’re making money.


For fun let’s say a user bought Tipulator.  2 years passes and the consumer trades in their iPhone for the new model.  If everything was backed up correctly both apps make it back onto the new iPhone without issue.  The bar corner is still full.


As long as the phones continue to be reverse compatible there is no foreseeable reason to get rid of the old apps.  The PS3 could play PS2 games but that is a completely different proposition from the iPhone 3G, 3GS, iPhone 4, and soon to be iPhone 5.


My $4.99 PacMan might just have bought me that coin-op classic for the next 10+ years.


The bar just got a little more full.  All of my future devices already have apps on them even when I buy them new.  Each new iteration will either have to sell into the next generation of owners or, like the old arcade machines, fiercely fight to prove they are worth the limited space.  If they win the limited space, on average, is worth a whopping $1.49.


Tipulator and PacMan run the risk of drastically reduced sales for future Phones.  Utility apps will have the hardest time to muster new sales, unless they really start to think outside the box.


My current advice is to be sure your apps get their replay value through consuming content.  Angry Birds has a set number of puzzles and ends which greatly reduces re-use as opposed to a title such as a chess game which is good forever.


Make your titles with the ability to support each other to help users want to download your other titles or your partner’s titles when content is running out on yours.


If you can structure to offer a legitimate service, your best bet is to charge a recurring fee for the service and let the app be free.  For the greater good of your company and the community have your apps reach a point where it is ok to get rid of them and free up that dark corner of bar.  Just be sure you don’t violate the terms of service agreement.