Portrait of an Indie iPhone Holiday Game Launch


The holidays are a volatile time for the App Store (s aapl). Our app developer panel already confirmed this, and with EA (s erts) and other major studios selling games at bargain basement prices, things got especially crazy this year. One indie developer provides an interesting snapshot of how launching a game amidst the madness works out.

Colin Walsh, founder and sole staff member of Celsius Games, reveals his experience in an insightful blog post. His game, Red Nova, came out Dec. 14, and has currently been in the App Store for one week. Red Nova is a space shooter that blends Asteroids-type gameplay with an inertial shooter control scheme. It received great reviews from both app review sites and users in the iTunes store. In fact, it’s exactly the type of title that might have taken the App Store by storm a year ago or less, especially at only $0.99.

This year, however, Red Nova had to face cutthroat App Store chart tactics by EA and others. EA’s sale saw a massive chunk of its library drop to $0.99, and Red Nova obviously isn’t going to have the brand power behind it to compete with something like that on its own. Reviews helped the game climb briefly to #156 out of 200 on the U.S. iPhone charts for gaming apps, and it even cracked the top 50 in the Arcade subsection, but its success was short-lived, and by last weekend, it had fallen out of the top 200 on all iPhone charts.

Walsh is the definition of a good sport in his blog post on the subject, noting major publisher sales may have affected his chances of catching consumer attention, but ultimately focusing on the positive aspects of Red Nova’s launch. When contacted for comment, he also noted that timing probably wasn’t optimal, but that he knew the risks:

As for the big studios flooding the charts, it is an unfortunate but almost inevitable outcome given the assumption that the ranking algorithm will be frozen during the App Store holiday. As I mentioned in my post, it was definitely a risky time to launch a new game, and I knew that, but even established indie developers on the App Store are sadly going to feel the effects of these sales. It’s definitely frustrating not being able to compete with the sort of clout that these larger studios have, but it’s something that we’ll have to deal with as the App Store matures. That being said, I still feel the App Store still has a lot of advantages for independent developers trying to establish themselves.

While Walsh isn’t quick to lay blame, I’m less inclined to be forgiving. The App Store was built on the backs of indie developers, who flocked to the platform in droves while big studios were still hanging back, testing the waters with lazy ports of existing titles and franchises. Apple, many might argue, doesn’t owe anybody anything, but is that really true? Aren’t the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad such runaway successes due at least in part to the massive software library it offers users? You know, the one Apple constantly crows about, which contains a significant percentage of independent apps and games.

After coming across Walsh’s post, I downloaded and played Red Nova. It’s genuinely an awesome game. Yet many iPhone gamers will probably never find that out. There’s room enough for both big and small game makers in the App Store, but you can bet EA and other major publishers will do everything they can to make sure they eclipse the smaller fish in the mind of the consumer. I’d like to see Apple at least try to make sure they don’t succeed.

Restricting major publisher access to the charts or limiting its promotional efforts isn’t an option, since that definitely wouldn’t go over well with EA and company. Since those companies provide Apple with a huge amount of revenue, Cupertino wouldn’t dare alienate them, especially not now that there are competing smartphone app platforms waiting in the wings.

Instead, Apple could offer a separate category and chart for indie games. It would give smaller studios some breathing room, and it wouldn’t involve artificially impeding the efforts of big name game-makers. An indie category and chart could simply reside alongside Apple’s existing game subsections and work the same way. Large studios might still complain that such a category constitutes preferential treatment, but it’d be hard to justify that position from atop mountains of App Store cash.

Independent games could still make it into the regular charts, just like titles can currently occupy multiple categories, but there’d be a permanent corner of the App Store where the playing field was level and marketing dollars and brand recognition couldn’t buy success. Sound fair to everyone?

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The insights presented in this article stem from what I consider to be its flawed introductory premise that the phenomenon of a game app having less market success than that with which a comparable or inferior product would have likely been rewarded a year ago should be any indication of where consumer sensibilities currently stand. Bloggers undertaking to make sense of iTunes game app market ought to account for relative availability and practical usability of new developer resources, such as publicly available 2D and 3D engines that make artistic realization of a game’s environment – be it abstract 2D multitouch games, or the more concrete mainstream 3D fare – more accessible to those in possession of considerable artistic assets or imagination.

In more concrete terms, it doesn’t make sense to speculate how well a given indie game “[would have done] a year ago,” when all devs with entrepreneurial zeal, no matter which demographic is their intended audience, are playing catch-up to each other in the areas of performance optimization; integration of cutting-edge and/or authentically retro FX; new ways of employing the multitouch interface;meta-level game enhancements, such as those pertaining to local or global competition; and countless other ways of setting their products (and themselves, to some extent) apart from others and getting the critics’ and customers’ attention.


How about Apple could not freeze the ranking algorithm for a week, surely it is just software that does not need a break for xmas?

Shalin Jain

+1 Tharsman,

App store is a great marketplace and it does well in telling you which games are bought most by the rest of the world (or your country) and also the new releases on the app store. While, there might be scope for tweaking the algo a bit or creating new sections.

Don’t like the argument that indie developer’s are the one who contributed early on and they should always get special treatment. I think it’s quite a level field and great games really win on app store. Companies have grown big just being on Apple’s iOS platform. Many from one-man to a gaming house.

For better discoverability use apps like appshopper to dig out that hidden treasure.

Let the best games win!


I’m not one to praise EA often, but there is a bothersome line in your statement:

“The App Store was built on the backs of indie developers, who flocked to the platform in droves while big studios were still hanging back”

EA specifically was there at launch day with Tetris, Scrabble and Sudoku, this was July 11, 2008. By end of the year they had released Monopoly, Yahtzee Adventures, and Spore Origins.

They tested the watters slowly, but they didnt just stand back until indies proved success. They put their toes into the watter on day one.

That aside, I would like to see more sorting options for everything (this includes browsing categories and top 10.) I would like to see smarter sorting options like average rating and then some sort of modifier based on ratings per day since launch. Heck, plainly sorting by rating would be nice.

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