Core con­cerns

The App Store was once an in­die de­vel­oper’s dream, but is mak­ing games on iOS now more ef­fort than it’s worth?

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Is mak­ing games for iOS now more trou­ble than it’s worth?

The App Store was never con­ceived with games in mind: its rise as a plat­form for in­de­pen­dent game de­vel­op­ers as well as app mak­ers was a pleas­ant side-ef­fect. As a mar­ket­place it of­fered favourable con­di­tions – a low yearly mem­ber­ship fee, and a 30 per cent cut of rev­enue be­ing prefer­able to most pub­lisher deals – and its ac­cessi­bil­ity meant any­one could fol­low their dream of mak­ing and self-pub­lish­ing a game. Now, a few months away from its 10th an­niver­sary, that dream seems in­creas­ingly out of reach for the small studios and bed­room coders upon whose shoul­ders its suc­cess was built.

The year 2017 was the se­cond in a row with­out a new game from Si­mogo, one of Edge’s favourite iOS de­vel­op­ers – and a stu­dio that owes its ex­is­tence to the App Store, as ac­knowl­edged in a blog post from cre­ative fig­ure­head Si­mon

Flesser: “The iPhone has lit­er­ally changed our lives!” But that was as pos­i­tive as it got from Flesser, who con­ceded, with ev­i­dent sad­ness, that main­tain­ing its mo­bile cat­a­logue has be­gun to take a toll. “This year,” he wrote, “we spent a lot of time up­dat­ing our old mo­bile games, to make them run prop­erly on new OS ver­sions, new res­o­lu­tions, and what­ever new things that were in­tro­duced which broke our games on iPhones and iPads around the world.”

As such, it’s no real sur­prise to learn that the stu­dio’s next ti­tle, co­de­named Pro­ject Night Road, will be a con­sole game. It’s not the first time Si­mogo has dab­bled in other plat­forms: its se­cond game, Bumpy Road, made it to PC and Mac, while folk­loric chiller Year Walk was re­fit­ted for Steam be­fore Dakko Dakko as­sisted the duo on a more sub­stan­tial re­tool­ing for Wii U. But Si­mogo’s eighth game will be its first not to be made pri­mar­ily for iOS. For such a dar­ling of the App Store – the for­mat holder has been only too happy to ben­e­fit from its crit­i­cal ca­chet, reg­u­larly fea­tur­ing Si­mogo ti­tles in store pro­mo­tions – that’s a pretty star­tling de­vel­op­ment.

Jus­ti­fy­ing the time in­vest­ment on main­te­nance has be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult, Flesser tells us, even for a stu­dio so in­vested in en­sur­ing that its games run op­ti­mally on ev­ery avail­able de­vice. Of Si­mogo’s cat­a­logue, only De­vice 6 and, to a lesser ex­tent, Year Walk, make the process fi­nan­cially worth­while. “The other ones are just be­cause we care,” he tells us. “If we were to count what was re­ally worth sup­port­ing, those games are not worth it, but we don’t think like that. It would feel weird to have your work just go up in smoke.”

Yet that’s not an op­tion for ev­ery­one. Gam­ing his­to­rian and doc­u­men­tar­ian Chris Chap­man high­lighted how widespread the prob­lem is, in a re­cent tweet that re­ferred to this very tome. Eight years ago, Edge high­lighted the 50 best games on iPhone and iPod Touch, a cel­e­bra­tion of some of the early App Store pi­o­neers. Of those fea­tured, only 10 can still be bought or down­loaded to­day. It hasn’t just af­fected small de­vel­op­ers, ei­ther: early iOS hits Flight

Con­trol and Be­jew­eled 2 were qui­etly re­moved in 2015 by EA, the pub­lisher no longer will­ing to sup­port or up­date the games for newer de­vices. Still, the im­pact was big­ger on the lit­tle man: Otto-Ville Ojala, cre­ator of knock­about multiplayer clas­sics Soccer Physics and Wres­tle Jump, delisted his en­tire cat­a­logue last year af­ter let­ting his de­vel­oper mem­ber­ship ex­pire, briefly giv­ing his games away for free be­fore they dis­ap­peared. His per­sonal web­site tem­po­rar­ily of­fered builds for PC and An­droid so play­ers could ar­chive them, but those who’ve since up­dated their phones to iOS 11 can no longer play Ojala’s games.

Shadi Muk­lashy is the cre­ator of Last Can­non, one of the 40 lost games from that Top 50 list. “I grew up want­ing to work on games,” he tells us. “iOS was the first op­por­tu­nity I had to com­pletely self-pub­lish any game cre­ation I could dream up.” Last Can­non cer­tainly wasn’t Muk­lashy’s only suc­cess on the plat­form, but as he be­gan to work full-time on new projects for other for­mats – in­clud­ing mech shooter Hawken and top-down multiplayer bat­tler In­visi­gun He­roes – he found him­self strug­gling to keep up with es­sen­tial main­te­nance for his other games. Un­able to con­tinue sup­port­ing new de­vices, he took them down from the store, rather than leav­ing them up but un­playable for some. “I don’t like hav­ing par­tially-bro­ken apps rep­re­sent­ing me in the wild,” he says, though he con­cedes that, but not for the an­nual de­vel­oper fee, he may have left the apps up so those with older de­vices could still play them. Last Can­non and Back­words may still have been earn­ing enough to cover the cost, but for “a din­ner or two per month”, Muk­lashy reck­oned it wasn’t worth the ever-in­creas­ing ef­fort on his part.

The tech­ni­cal chal­lenges of keep­ing old games up­dated dif­fer be­tween de­vel­op­ers. Muk­lashy had de­vel­oped his early games us­ing Xcode, Ap­ple’s in­te­grated de­vel­op­ment en­vi­ron­ment, and up­dat­ing them to the much newer ver­sions would have re­quired sig­nif­i­cant work. His other big prob­lem was more uni­ver­sal: “The in­creas­ing num­ber of de­vices also made it harder to phys­i­cally test all my changes and ver­ify their func­tion­al­ity.” In that re­gard, he says, Ap­ple has lost one of its com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tages to An­droid. “Hard­ware com­pat­i­bil­ity-wise, it’s still prob­a­bly in­fin­itely bet­ter, but I guess it’s in­evitable that with time it would be­come more and more dif­fi­cult.”

This is an is­sue that’s prov­ing steadily more de­mand­ing for a de­vel­oper like Si­mogo, which has seven games to con­sider each time Ap­ple up­dates its hard­ware or soft­ware. It hasn’t helped that its games are 2D, since chang­ing as­pect ra­tios can have a much big­ger im­pact, as Flesser ex­plains. “Many 2D games are specif­i­cally de­signed so you know what the player can see on the screen: imag­ine play­ing some­thing like a 2D plat­former, where sud­denly a plat­form be­comes vis­i­ble that was not meant to be seen,” he says. “And be­cause 2D art is of­ten made to look nice in a spe­cific res­o­lu­tion, it tends to look jaggy when down­scaled or blurry when up­scaled.”

That’s not an is­sue for those who make games in 3D, which can be scaled more eas­ily. New res­o­lu­tions and ra­tios haven’t re­ally been a prob­lem for Fire­proof Games’ pop­u­lar The Room se­ries. “Our games are pretty good at adapt­ing for those,” says stu­dio di­rec­tor

Barry Meade. “The iPhone X pre­sented some slightly dif­fer­ent prob­lems with the notch, but Ap­ple did a good job of mak­ing sure that didn’t break old games.” In­deed, it has a trick up its sleeve as far as fu­ture-proof­ing goes. “Each game con­nects to our servers when it first boots

“The amount of work you have to put in in the long term is so much higher than for con­sole games”

up and down­loads a set­tings file which tells it what res­o­lu­tion and graph­ics set­tings it should use for the de­vice it’s run­ning on,” the stu­dio’s tech lead Rob

Dodd elab­o­rates. “If new de­vices are re­leased or some­thing changes in the OS that af­fects per­for­mance, we can tweak those set­tings on the fly with­out re­leas­ing an up­date.” Clever stuff.

Then again, OS up­dates can be some­thing of a lot­tery. “Gen­er­ally, they cause us no work other than grab­bing the beta ahead of re­lease to check ev­ery­thing’s fine, but oc­ca­sion­ally there’s one that causes us a lot of work,” Dodd tells us. “One ex­am­ple was Ap­ple’s 64-bit up­date. To sup­port 64-bit de­vices na­tively we had to up­grade to a very re­cent ver­sion of Unity. The Room was around four years old at the time, so that was a time-con­sum­ing process.” Its se­quel, a mere two years old, was a much sim­pler propo­si­tion. Even so, en­sur­ing all of its apps had 64-bit sup­port rep­re­sented about a month of work for Fire­proof: a not-in­signif­i­cant amount of time for a small team.

Not many have the re­sources to take that hit, of course, and with the costs likely to out­weigh the ben­e­fits for smaller studios, Meade imag­ines that some will in­evitably be­gin to move away. Any sort of ex­o­dus, he says, would be a tragedy in the dig­i­tal age. “Sim­ply up­dat­ing some­thing to keep work­ing on a plat­form can take weeks of dev time and test­ing, so if your mar­gins are pretty tight, which is true for so many de­vel­op­ers, you lose the eco­nomic case to main­tain your games,” he says. “Where pre­vi­ously up­keep was just an oc­ca­sional bother, you now have to fac­tor OS changes into your busi­ness model.” In one sense, he sug­gests, this isn’t any­thing new for an in­dus­try where the in­ex­orable march of tech­nol­ogy reg­u­larly ren­ders old hard­ware ob­so­lete. “But what has changed is that we now have thou­sands of small de­vel­op­ers mak­ing a slim liv­ing off a mar­ket that pre­vi­ously couldn’t sup­port them. So with ev­ery ma­jor up­date a few more games hit the wall.”

Flesser sug­gests it needn’t be that way; if OS up­dates were built with back­wards com­pat­i­bil­ity in mind, the­o­ret­i­cally noth­ing would have to be done with old games to keep them func­tional. “Look at some­thing like Win­dows, which has in­sanely good back­wards com­pat­i­bil­ity,” he says. Still, he has some sym­pa­thy for Ap­ple, which is un­der pres­sure from its own users to pro­duce new hard­ware and soft­ware up­dates, and thus has to make com­pro­mises some­where. “It’s prob­a­bly mostly to do with pri­or­i­ties, and it just doesn’t seem that back­wards com­pat­i­bil­ity – or ef­fi­cient back­wards com­pat­i­bil­ity – is high on that list for Ap­ple.”

Is there still, we wonder, a way to thrive on mo­bile? If any­one’s well-placed to of­fer ad­vice, it would seem to be Meade, given the pop­u­lar­ity of The Room and its se­quels. But he’s well aware that there’s no such thing as a sure thing on this plat­form. “Suc­cess comes down to volatile fac­tors like his­tory and cir­cum­stance, as well as other squishy, un­com­fort­able sub­jects such as taste,” he says. “I mean, The Room won Ap­ple’s iPad Game Of The Year 2012 – I wouldn’t ad­vise any­one to build a busi­ness plan around that.” Flesser, mean­while, be­lieves that the bar­rier to en­try is still much lower than on con­soles, but there are dark clouds on the iOS hori­zon. “The amount of work you have to put in in the long term is so much higher than for con­sole games,” he says. “If you’re a stu­dio like us that is con­stantly want­ing to do some­thing new, it’s be­com­ing harder to jus­tify mo­bile than it was a few years back.”

There lies the crux of the mat­ter. A plat­form that was once, in Muk­lashy’s words, “ex­tremely lib­er­at­ing and rev­o­lu­tion­ary” now seems re­stric­tive and no longer cost-ef­fec­tive for many small teams. Mean­while, as in­die studios look else­where to sell their games – the rush to Switch and Steam will bring its own prob­lems, of course – more and more mo­bile clas­sics are be­ing lost to the dig­i­tal ether. Though its free-to-play mar­ket may be thriv­ing, the App Store will cel­e­brate a decade of busi­ness hav­ing alien­ated many of the same de­vel­op­ers that first car­ried it to promi­nence.

If there are any con­clu­sions to be drawn from the games that are still around from ten years ago it’s that strat­egy games and puz­zlers have longevity – though plenty of those have fallen, too

Screen-res­o­lu­tion changes have re­quired sig­nif­i­cant re­con­struc­tion work on De­vice6

Si­mogo’s Si­mon Flesser (top) and Fire­proof’s Barry Meade

TheRoom se­ries shows the ben­e­fit of scal­ing projects to suit the mo­bile mar­ket: the games may look ex­pen­sive, but they’re rel­a­tively com­pact

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