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