This is an open letter I am penning of my own accord. It has no relationship whatsoever to my employer, and concerns an issue I have been lamenting for quite some time now, not just as a developer, but as a consumer.
Dear Apple and Google (and much of the game industry),
The game industry is being ruined, and it starts with you. In a bygone era, the best way people could play games was by purchasing consoles - Ataris, Super Nintendo, Playstation, to name a few. Consumers could buy hardware specialized for unique experiences you just couldn’t replicate through film or television and gaming took off. Gameboys, Playstation Portables, and other such handheld consoles were the next thing that redefined my childhood, delivering thousands of adventures and play experiences. Soon, games would discover netcode to power online games, again, a huge inflection point in gaming history. Games could deliver scenarios that explored the depths of human relationship in a massive social web, while simultaneously pushing our reflexes to the limits. Games delivered stories, competitive experiences, puzzling curiosities, and everything in between. As consumers, we eagerly anticipated what bigger and more exciting title would come next. As developers, we sought hard to innovate and build grander experiences byte by byte.
However, iPhone and Android happened and this was an inflection point nobody anticipated. It’s not the phones mind you. These beasts could easily power games the likes you’ve never seen on such a form factor. I’m referring to the App Store and the Play Store which I think are the worst things to happen to gaming since, well, ever.
Bold claim? Let’s look at the numbers. Right off the bat, a developer or publisher needs to be comfortable losing 30% of all revenue to Apple and Google. Full stop. OK so let’s lop off a third of a traditional dev team (that’s a third less of everything, content, art, gameplay, engineering, audio, etc). But it’s worse than that of course because Apple and Google control all distribution also. The storefronts (that’s the App store and the Play store) begrudgingly offer games and are so useless at pushing actually compelling content that the only way to reach users is for the game industry to spend billions in performance ads to get there game to the top (not an exaggeration, the mobile ad ecosystem largely fueled by games had a market cap in excess of 70 billion USD in 2018 and it continues to grow).
Because distribution is so competitive, games are designed to do one thing and one thing only. Suck the user in and never let them leave. After all, that user cost you a dollar (at least!) to acquire in a world where they only really had one chance to discover you. The money they earn per user gets flipped immediately back into ads to keep the engine going. The recipe? Reams of mechanics built around pay-to-win scams, gatcha gambling, and user manipulation disguised as gameplay.
It’s a scam because studios can (and do) exploit all sorts of behavior that isn’t remotely regulated. For example, a studio can track a user’s spending behavior, and if they are inclined to spend more, lower drop rates for a coveted item. The studio can artificially inflate the need for said coveted item in a pay-to-win context, or oversell the value of a good. In an unregulated environment, it’s just Wolf on Wall Street manipulation of the unsuspecting looking for a good time but without a happy ending. Don’t think this is happening? Well first, how are you so sure? And second, I encourage you to actually try some of these games to see what I mean, and by some of these games, I mean literally every game on the top grossing page of the App Store.
To say the industry is sick is an understatement. Most of these products (even the “better” ones) would not have been remotely compelling to the audience in the previous generation of handheld consoles. What’s the issue? Again, you start with distribution. There’s ONE place you can download apps on an iPhone, and practically one place on Android for the majority of consumers who aren’t savvy enough to sideload apps. That means that studios market their games either in that one place, or on ad exchanges that serve ads for all the apps (in that one place). If you’re following so far, you’ll recall that this costs billions of dollars, and the revenue off the top goes straight to you (Apple and Google).
That’s all fine and dandy for lining your pockets, but has it occurred to you, that maybe the reason top-end phone sales are slowing is because products that deliver high-end fidelity on your platforms just don’t exist? Take Zelda: Breath of the Wild from Nintendo. It’s primarily played on the Nintendo Switch but it can run on the WiiU as well. The flagship iPhones and Androids all exceed the Switch in hardware processing capability. But there isn’t anything approaching the quality of this 97 metacritic game on your phones, and as things are, it can’t happen.
With all the money being siphoned away from the development studios into your coffers, games on your platforms are developed in conditions that cannot, and do not, attract good talent. After all, good talent would be wasted anyways since a title that can afford more advertising will race to the top spots and overshadow any attempts at a novel idea. So, they resort to predatory pricing models and designs intended to print money and stay competitive in a winner-take-all market that you created.
And it gets worse. The rest of the game industry sees that just as your mobile game ecosystem is unregulated, so too is the PC ecosystem and this is how we end up with disasters like Star Wars: Battlefront II’s MTX and such. It’s nowhere near as bad as your ecosystem though, because at least consumers have better options, and there isn’t this crazy performance marketing ad-web. I don’t doubt however, that every PC and console game publisher envies the better profit margins of the game whales that print millions of dollars off the back of a bug-ridden pay-to-win un-fun experience.
And of course the giant elephant in the room is that magical number that keeps cropping up: 30%. Isn’t it awfully convenient both of you (Apple and Google) have fixed that number at the exact same number? A sane person would assume that in a competitive market, this number would be cut down to something that is within profitable margins to operate, but not much better since you’d be trying to undercut each other? Right? And no, you can’t convince me that 30% is as low as you could go, since we have things like Steam that take 15% and offers more services and a better platform than you do. The truth that I’m sure you are aware of, is that you collude in a duopoly, and you’ve rigged the rules.
What do I want? I want more open platforms. I want less predatory pricing. I want a good chunk of the money currently going to you guys and the ad exchanges, to first, go back to the consumer, second, go to developers who are passionate about making good products, and third, for some of that money to flow back to games and products that aren’t scams. I want those scams to cease to exist, so that publishers aren’t pressured by shareholders to chase profit margins that would frankly be unrealistic in a regulated market.
As a consumer and as a developer, I’m fed up with the dishonesty and lack of a moral compass in an industry that could be transformative to people’s lives that you are both complicit in, and continue to perpetuate with inane policies. You have an amazing platform, hardware, and hordes of willing developers and gamers that would love love love to play pure games on your devices. I know there’s nothing in the rules and regulations that be that keep you from doing what you’re doing, but I hope someone stops you, or that you stop first.