Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why I'm Missing the iPhone Gold Rush

One of the questions I get asked most these days is, "When are your games coming out for the iPhone?" I'm getting this a LOT. I'm not going to do it. But, when you get so many people knocking down your door for something, you'd better come up with a good reason for saying no.

Here's My Game ... Do I Get Rich Now?

When you write games, new platforms become available all the time. Then you have to decide whether to write games for them or not. XBox Live was one such platform. XBox Community Games is another. And WiiWare. And, of course, the iPhone.

When you jump onto a new platform early, the platform might take off, or it might not. If it doesn't, your time was probably wasted. If it does become a success, though, you can get in on a Gold Rush. Some early adopters of the risky platform can end up with tons of money. Pure, joyous greed attracts competitors. Because they're late to the party, some of them make a bunch of money, and a lot more don't.

XBox Live had a real gold rush. Some early games, like Uno, sold sick numbers of copies. But these days, getting a game on XBox Live can mean a ton of hassle and, if the sales estimates at VGChartz are even remotely close to right, there is the real possibility of not doing so good there.

Fart Noises = Millions of Dollars!

The iPhone is in a crazy gold rush phase, and everyone is standing up and taking notice. When someone can make a ton of money on an app that makes your iPhone fart, that should be your first warning of unsustainable sales.

Some early games have done crazy good. But there are starting to be signs that Indie games on the iPhone won't make a fortune. And it'll only get tougher.

As For Me ...

Which brings us back to me. I write big, deep role-playing games. The sort of game that lends itself to long sessions, not something you fiddle with for fifteen minutes on the bus. It would take real work for me to adapt one of my games to the iPhone, and, even then, I don't think it's the sort of thing that would attract a real audience.

There's a lesson for young developers. Make sure your game fits the way people will want to play it. PC Games = Longer sessions. iPhone Games = Ping. Zap! Done.

And, on top of that, the acceptable price point for iPhone games with any depth is now in the area of $4.99. Five bucks! And, if you charge that, forum-dwelling snots from all over the Internets will bitch you out in your ratings for being so greedy. I'm sorry, but I'm not sure I can make a living charging that little for my niche games. It's certainly not something I want to risk months of development on. And I honestly suspect that price point won't support a healthy game development industry. I hope I'm wrong.

(Honestly. The whining in the user reviews for a lot of the five dollar games is amazing. What? Do people think game developers live on air? Jesus.)

When it comes to my business, I am made of pure cowardice. It's hard to make a living doing this, so I have a really hard time doing anything new and exciting and risky. I'll never get rich (as if my games could ever be enough in demand to make me rich), but I can still buy my kids food.

So I will spend my time supporting two platforms that have a proven history in the gaming arena, platforms that have lately been tragically underserved by developers. They're called Windows and Macintosh. Take a look at them sometime. I think there's money to be made there.


  1. You have a very good point. But if iPhone games are small, then why don't you make a small games to take benefit of this gold rush.

  2. While you have a couple arguments laid out and obviously your free to do as you choose, I think your assumption that iPhone games are "Ping. Zap! Done." is incorrect. There are plenty of games out there that require time. Also, keep in mind the iPod Touch is more accessible to more people (no expensive contact to maintain) and is being seen as a Nintendo DS/Sony PSP replacement.

    I've downloaded and am playing 'The Quest' ( Playing in 10 minute jaunts makes it enjoyable as I tend to think about what I'll do next and look forward to playing it again and at the end of the day, I put in a good hour before bed. Check the reviews for it on iTunes, people love this stuff. Perhaps your personal preference is to ZingZap on a phone and do long hauls on the PC but not everyone is like you :)

    Others have and will fill your void. The best of luck to you!

  3. A "small game" can be a lot of work if you want to do a good job. I think Mr. Vogel would be wise to not spend that time making a "small game", especially when the casual-on-the-bus iPhone audience isn't exactly his area of expertise. That time could be spent adding a cool feature to his real games, which is probably a better investment.

    But then again, Mr. Vogel, if so many people are asking you about iPhone ports, might that be an indication that many people with iPhones are actually interested in your style of games? Sure, the common wisdom right now is that iPhone games need to be quick and snappy, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to make an RPG work in that context. I'm not saying it's easy, of course.

    Right now, I'm working on an X-Com-like game for the iPhone, and I'm counting on some asychronous multiplayer features (play by mail, basically) to make it uniquely interesting in the iPhone context.

  4. LOL, I saw "The Bottom Feeder" and thought it was a story about Attorneys!


  5. Jeff,

    You might consider letting somebody else port your work to the iPhone for a percentage of the sales.

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  7. Jeff, have you considered splitting every part of your game series into a couple of chapters (4-6 I would guess), each one "yours-to-buy for $5"? Maybe your games would get additional exposure, and you would get a couple of full-blown Mac verison sales. Just being curious...

    By the way, I'm totally NOT riding the iPhone bandwagon. :)

  8. Gold rushes come... Gold rushes go...

    I've been here with both Palm games & Mobile games, iPhone is nothing new, and I'm sure LiveArcade, WiiWare and (eventually) DSiWare will go the same way.

    People think it's a great way for indie developers to get a game out. If you code it, they will come. Actually, it's a great opportunity to spend most of your time on marketing.

    I've looked at iPhone, come to the same conclusion as you, and am instead developing PC games in the niche I love with a plan that makes a decent return on very few copies sold.

  9. I totally see your point... but please, don't keep making PC games. I want to sit on the couch, man! Long sessions on the computer? Bad for my back, bad for my eyes, bad for my social life (not to mention my marriage). There's a reason interest in PC games has been struggling recently.

    Really. I don't mind if you require a keyboard and mouse, but make it run on a PS3!

  10. Ok, think about this: You've got some people who love to play a Spiderweb-style of RPG, but they're stuck at work all day in an office doing some boring job and they need a little escape. Surfing the internet (online games) or actually playing a PC/Mac game are no-nos. But! Our protagonist has an iPhone and is able to turn off the sound and sneak in a little RPG action here and there, and willing to pay 6 bucks to get the game.

  11. Mr said...
    "Also, keep in mind the iPod Touch is more accessible to more people (no expensive contact to maintain) and is being seen as a Nintendo DS/Sony PSP replacement."

    [citation needed]

  12. It would have to be a completely different game to work on an iPhone. Mr. Vogel's games sell for the PC because they could only ever exist on the PC. There aren't console analogues to Avernum or Geneforge, nor will there ever be counterparts on the iPhone. You can't read any considerable amount of text from your living room couch or on a tiny touchscreen. Do what you do well, I say.

  13. Your games are crappy enough that you'd have a hard time turning a buck on any new platform.

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  15. I understand your point but I'm pretty sure your games divided in 5-6 chapters for the iphone could find some interest... (I would probably buy it). You coud make the first chapter free and then for the rest of the 5 chapters sell them at 5$ each which would make you earn 17.5$ per game sold (not as good as your current price point but still not bad I think....)

    And I think that if you have a way to sync the savegames from the pc/mac version to the iphone, some people (like me) might pay for both....

  16. I compleatly understand where your coming from; but why not make a small game just for claiming the goldrush

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  19. I'm a fan of your games, and I'm sure you're comfortable with this decision, but I'd like to offer a few thoughts to consider:

    1. Sure, going into a port effort with the belief that you would be going to unleash a rainbow of easy wealth would lead you down a path to disappointment. But given your cautious nature and experience, you wouldn't need to approach it with such expectations.

    2. You've mentioned previously that porting your titles to other platforms is practically like "free money", and that's for porting content across significantly different platforms. You develop your applications for the Mac. Although iPhone development uses OpenGL ES instead of standard OpenGL, it does use the same Xcode editor, development tools, compiles the same languages, and shares some similarity in APIs. I have to imagine that porting native Macintosh games over to the iPhone would incur a much lower overhead than porting them to any other platform.


3. Much of the effort that would go into the first port could be leveraged in porting your other titles. Because you have no titles on the iPhone, your entire catalog is available to benefit from investing some time to learn how to port your games from one Apple platform to another (again, already using the same languages, development tools and graphics libraries). That's a lot of potential bang for your development buck.

    4. The iPhone's capabilities and form factor offer a good fit for "retro gaming". Potential consumers don't expect iPhone games to compete with Oblivion or Mass Effect in the graphics department. And turn-based games like the Spiderweb ones are great for highly distractable environments like cell phones.

    5. It's demonstrable that there actually are iPhone owners who consume lengthy, deep games on that platform. Redshift, another indie RPG developer, released one of their titles named The Quest onto the iPhone recently. It was a long and deep RPG, with a lot of dialog and perhaps around 40 hours of non-linear exploration. It was released long after the initial "gold rush" of iPhone games where almost anything got press and sales just due to the paucity of options available to consumers.

    It's the only thing on the app store that is comparable to Spiderweb games, and by far the best surrogate to gauge potential reception on the platform.

    The game has received 182 owner reviews on the app store. I don't know for sure what percentage of purchasers typically take the time to write a review, but the two published pieces of data that I know of (iShoot and Dapple) both had a review rate of just below 3% at the time of their data publications (7,100/250,000+ and 4/131, respectively). While obviously this is a terribly small pool of data, it is what is available. From this, one could extrapolate that Redshift's RPG, The Quest, may have sold around 6,000 copies on the iPhone. Of course, I'd propose obtaining more direct sales figure data from Redshift (or at least gaining more data points to extrapolate from) before making any decisions. But at least this offers one way to gauge whether there's truly no market for this type of game on the iPhone.

    As a second point of information, Redshift has stated publicly that the iPhone release was their most profitable platform, and while it hasn't brought in ridiculous landfills of cash, it's done better for them than any of their previous releases and they're now focusing on doing new iPhone development, as well as working on porting over their existing expansions. 

    And finally, The Quest has one of the longest and most active threads on Touch Arcade, a highly popular iPhone gaming site. Again, this suggests that at least some subset of iPhone users must be interested in this sort of game.


6. There's no reason to assume that price sensitivity is uniform across the app store. Yes, consumers who are likely to buy "games" like iFart aren't going to even look twice at any game priced above $1.99. And yes, they'll whine on the forums about any title priced above that. But these consumers aren't the sort of people who are ever going to appreciate or be interested in a game like Geneforge no matter the price. Their price sensitivity isn't relevant to your potential consumer base.

    Someone looking for an old school, story-driven RPG isn't going to go off and buy iFart just because it's cheaper. You know well that fans of this style of deep and meaty RPG are loyal to the genre and that the pickings are slim on any platform, let alone the iPhone. The niche consumers of this type of game only get a couple of quality, story-driven titles per year across all platforms. It's hardly an oversaturated market for your niche, facing heavy pricing pressure.

    7. The $20 premium section of the store should be here fairly soon. Even customers outside of niche markets will become accustomed to paying more than $0.99 for quality games soon.

    8. Piracy is non-existant on legal iPhones. And while there are certainly some people out there with jailbroken iPhones, the vast, vast majority of the 3+ million iPhone owners are just simple consumers who aren't voiding their warranties or risking their means of communication by hacking their phones to jailbreak them.

    9. The app store is the only source of distribution for the platform. That means that any titles ported by Spiderweb would be placed in front of the eyes of every single iPhone owner who has any interest in RPGs. Those potential consumers don't have to stumble onto Spiderweb's website after hearing about their games by word of mouth or by reading an obscure review.

  20. Yes but why would you want to play a game like Geneforge on your phone and not your notebook? What possible advantage could there be? You want to sit down for a while and become immersed in Spiderweb games. On the go, you can't do that on a phone.

    As for people going "why not just do it for a quick buck," I think perhaps you are missing that if Mr. Vogel just wanted a quick buck he would probably be doing something completely different with his life.

  21. Why does everyone seem to believe that the iPhone is only for 'short' games? What about the millions of people stuck on a plane, train or bus traveling for hours at a time? Let me tell you the "Ping. Zap! Done." games get stale quickly in those situations.

  22. Here is my argument for not joining the gold rush: objective-c

    (and that i bet on Android instead)

  23. "Yes but why would you want to play a game like Geneforge on your phone and not your notebook? What possible advantage could there be? "

    It's like asking why anyone would want to play GTA on their phone and not on a fancy console with a big screen TV and surround sound. The answer would depend on the individual, but a recently released GTA-clone with basic 2D graphics, poor controls and a thin story line has sold more than 400,000 copies on the iPhone so far.

    Part of it may be why nearly ten times as many Nintendo DSes have been sold than XBox 360s. Portability and convenience are huge.

    Another reason is that not everyone has a notebook. I went a couple years without a notebook until I picked up a replacement last week. Up until I got the new notebook I'd say that my iPhone was the main medium that I used for cruising the web and playing games, even though I had a powerful computer upstairs in my office. I had the desktop for doing work, managing finances and such, but the iPhone was handy to pick up when I wanted to look something up when I was on the couch, in bed, at a restaurant, laying out by my pool or hammock, or while traveling or waiting for someone/something.

    And from a gaming perspective, it's nice to be able to be able to sit down on the couch with your wife and unobtrusively play around on your phone while she's watching Sex and the City. It generates a lot less heat than secluding yourself away in your office for hours on end to do your gaming.

    It's a platform that you're guaranteed to have with you at all times, no matter where you are. And it's a platform that's justifiable to carry with you no matter the circumstance. I personally would be pretty embarrassed as a 40-year-old man to pull out a Nintendo DS on the train or to have a business colleague see that I traveled with one. But your cell phone? It'd be weird to not have it with you.

  24. Correction to my last post:

    The iPhone GTA-clone has sold over 65,000 (not 400,000) copies so far.

  25. It seems to me that, if you like RPGs, then something like the iPhone would be great for grinding your characters. If you could run an app that let you import character stats, kill some monsters or play some mini-games just for the EXP for about ten minutes, and then export your new stats back to your PC, you could have the best of both worlds. It would sure beat waiting for the bus doing nothing.
    Or, you know, you could just read a book or something.

  26. As a person who is writing an epic scale game for the iPhone, I can say that there are 3 (or 4) reasons not to develop for that platform.

    1. Lack of memory. If you are not careful you reboot the phone (This is bad).

    2. Lack of storage/download time. You have very little space to play. You can put most of your content on your own servers, but that cuts out the Touch market.

    3. Screen size. The small footprint of an iPhone makes it hard to sell page after page of text. If you plan to port a game from the Mac or Windows, you must shrink all of your graphics.

    4. (Special bonus reason) I don't need the competition.

  27. And I still don't understand why so many people are whining about Jeff's pretty set decision to not go to the iPhone. As for me, I firmly believe that RPGs belong on the computer or console (which are pretty much computers these days), so I wholeheartedly support this decision. I have yet to see a great RPG on a handheld that isn't along the lines of Mario or Pokemon or Final Fantasy or Fire Emblem. And if you haven't noticed, Spiderweb's RPGs don't fall into that kind of category.

  28. Completely agree with Jeff! I think the iPhone gold rush is slowly fading away. And an elaborated RPG isn't the stuff iPhone players usually play. A strategy game ala Advance Wars would fit well on the iPhone but then again as soon as I say these words somebody else might already have started and it gets even harder to compete in the now flooded app store.

    Another point is I believe Jeff isn't developing games out of greed but out of love to RPG games and that's a better thing any time because you do what you love to do even if it's only bound to Windows and Mac.

  29. I've ported one of my games (The Goalkeeper) to iphone and despite being probably a unique game for that platform, I still make much more selling it for Pc/Mac.

    Iphone gold rush? no thanks.

  30. Good for you! Keep up the good work.

    Best of luck!

    Melvin Durable

  31. I do not think anyone specifically said these so I shall contribute.

    Having limited screen real estate would make it a lot more then just a port. I would assume having to redesign everything would cause problems. How would you precisely select the correct are for a spell or projectile? I don't have fat fingers and have trouble with some games. I can see that frustration might come about from constantly selecting a wrong area, because of where you thought you touched and where the screen said you touched are slightly different.

    To fix this you need larger buttons and map squares, but if they are larger then you are so zoomed in on the map that you cannot easily navigate or attack at long range.

    So in my opinion the port would take a lot of redesigning to make the game not frustrating on a system with input that is not precise and has limited screen real estate.

  32. Hi Jeff,
    If you ever change your mind about the iPhone port, I could help you out. I'm currently writing a c++/opengl game for the iPhone. If your games are written with c++/opengl they could be ported quite easily. As the others have said, converting the UI to use multitouch will be the hard part, but it can be done.

  33. Oddly I just wrote something about that in my blog at Gamers Daily News... (

    While I agree with many of the points stated I disagree that you can't have a full-sized RPG on the iPhone. Case in point is The Quest which actually is quite good old school RPG fun (mostly hack n slash but with some other questing). So there's no reason to not make those types for the iPhone. In fact I would be the first in line to see it :)

    I'm sorely disappointed in a lot of the iPhone titles (as I said in the blog entry) and we need more developers to make bigger, better games and show the others how it's done. I'll even help promote it if it's good.

    Christophor Rick
    Gamers Daily News

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