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Top free games charts are killing indies

By on January 13, 2014
FlickrCC William Hook
FlickrCC William Hook
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This is a guest post from John Griffin, co-founder of Gamesparks.com


Might as well start off the new year with a controversial topic.  Top Games charts.  All of the stores provide charts to help promote a subset of games from within their now vast games catalogues.  Apple and Google both have nearly 1M games on their stores.  With so much choice, how is a consumer meant to decide what to purchase or what to download for free?  The answer, in the eyes of the store owners, is to supply charts.  Typically the stores provide 3 charts and nearly all of them adhere to the same set:

  • Top Free Games:- Based on the number of downloads.
  • Top Paid Games:- Based on the number of downloads.
  • Top Grossing Games:- Calculated based on the revenue made from each game either through premium pricing or in-app purchases.

The problem is that these charts are no longer useful to consumers. Companies of means can literally just buy their way to the top of them.  Consumers typically use charts like this to try and make informed choices about which games may be the best. In the past, this may have been a reasonable way to do go about your research but given companies can purchase the pinnacle position, the chart is no longer any kind of indicator as to how good the games are. Downloads can be bought and they are currently estimated to cost between $2 – 3 per download.  Only a small subset of games developers can afford this so the result is these charts are dominated by a small number of games companies.  Admittedly, some of them have great games but some of them don’t … and that’s where this falls down from the consumer perspective. (As an aside, I notice that Microsoft provides more revealing charts on the Windows Store. It provides a Best Rated chart which is useful.)

Whatever about the consumer, the indie games developers are getting completely shafted by all of this. With the digitisation of everything, effective distribution costs went to zero and for the first time indies could compete on a near level playing field and boy … compete they did.  This revolutionary but apparently temporary phase created smash hits like Angry Birds, Tiny Wings, Temple Run and many many more.  It’s in practically all of our interests for this to continue, but there are barriers. These barriers are getting higher and higher, and starting to kill this indie revolution just as it has started gathering momentum.  The ‘Top Charts’ are not the only barrier, but they are a nice easy target to throw stuff at.

The solution could be straightforward.  Give consumers a set of useful charts that are better indicators of which games are the best.  Most Frequently Played, for example.  There are lots of other similar charts that could be produced.  There are probably a few different ways to calculate Most Frequently Played but the one I like the best is based on the Daily Active User (DAU) to Monthly Active User (MAU) ratio.  For those not familiar with this ratio, it is a good indicator of the level of engagement a game has.  DAU to MAU is usually expressed as a percentage: if you look at a popular addictive game like Candy Crush, it has a ratio of about 30% which means people are playing it on average 10 times a month.

There is a slight technical barrier to all of this in that many games are played either offline or do not record anything on the server side.  This is presumably why most charts are based on downloads. However, this is no longer truly valid.  Especially when you consider that, to feature in the Top Grossing charts, the device must be connected to make In-App purchases (IAPs). Devices are nearly always connected and as we go through 2014 that assumption will just become more and more valid so there are no excuses. Another argument may be that repeated plays are also a function of marketing spend, but I am not buying that. The level of engagement a game has is much more a function of good game design, social integration, smart player communications etc.

I don’t expect the major stores to change any time soon but maybe, just maybe, the more pioneering store owners and the ones more friendly to games developers will see the merits of adding better charts and if they do, the self-publishing movement can continue to thrive.

About John Griffin

John is the CMO of GameSparks and has been working in the media / games industry for nearly 20 years. Having previously worked with household names such as Sky, BBC, EA and Disney, John moved on to set up GameSparks early in 2013 with co-founders Griffin Parry from BSkyB and Gabriel Page of ioko. GameSparks is a cloud-based platform for mobile game developers to help them create games more quickly and for less money. Post launch, the game mechanics we provide as-a-Service are designed to leverage virality, increase retention and drive new revenues.

All games will one day run in the Cloud. Nearly all mobile games will embrace freemium and be delivered as a service implying the need to evolve over time. This evolution places new challenges on games developers and GameSparks' sole purpose is to help address this and make it easier for developers to be successful.
  • Oscar Clark

    John’s commentary here is absolutely right and something I have been talking about for years. When I ran the 3UK games offering we found a reduction in sales arose when someone put a top 10 chart on the site whilst I was away on holiday.

    The reason – charts only show you what has been bought already or rejected already not what could be interesting. They are an ego trip for the developer and only have the appearance of value to the player.

    Not having any list you can trust is worse by the way.

    I’m not recommending going back to putting it back in the hands of people like me with our own individual tastes but instead to look for smarter more targeted approaches. Something a bit more ‘human’ thant the ‘Amazon’ or ‘Genius’ methods e.g. you like Action Games. Here is the top Action game we haven’t shown you before and a link to find more action games.

    I had good data at the time to show that this increases sales dramatically and even more so when the display changes more regularly. When we had a weekly change to the games portal we saw the average repeat user return just over 7 days; when it was daily the average was just above daily. When we changed the deck every 4 hours… yeap every 4 hours.

    This resulted in a 3 fold increase in revenue

    oh! and combined with lifecycle pricing (a debate for another time) we saw a total of a 10 fold increase in average revenue per user.

    Perhaps if they did that the app stores might start becoming more important than the hardward businesses they serve.

  • Simon Chang

    Tend to think this is more of a topic fueled by disgruntled indies coping with survival issues, some mistakenly assuming they would somehow redefine the industry with their game(s) if only barriers to app discovery weren’t so high. The hundreds of millions of iOS mobile users seem generally satisfied with the quality and innovation that’s “entrenched” in Apple’s top ranking charts. Many of my friends and family have performed exhaustive AppStore searches for better games drilling deep into search results for things/games of interest but have ultimately concluded that the top ranking charts are reliable sources of superior entertainment. In other words, to them at least, there aren’t that many diamonds in the rough and even if there are a few hidden gems that are occasionally buried away, they frankly won’t be missed.

    Furthermore, we might overlook that some of these deep-pocketed companies which have “shamelessly purchased” a visible pedestal on top charts to drive discovery have actually focused even more resources to attract and retain talented people who design and develop extremely competitive games that are fun and engaging. In short, app discovery is probably just part of puzzle for indies striving for long-term success.

  • I disagree that we can’t cope with the volume. Over 100,000 new books are published in the UK every year, and we seem to cope with that.

    Greenlight is good, but will prove to be a red herring for many: people who think getting onto Steam is the holy grail will be disappointed when it becomes easier to get onto Steam, because there will be more failures on Steam. Expect the misery about Greenlight to start in early 2015.

    I think chart filtering *can* deal with the volume. It’s just about experimentation. Maybe it’s about what your friends are playing (although would mean that Gamecenter and Google+ have to stop being rubbish). Or about what is keeping players for a long time (although that risks rewarding incumbents). Or it is about a personalised chart based on your installed or played games (although Genius doesn’t seem to live up to that).

    I prefer an open system with a filtering problem to a closed system with a privileged curation problem. Not everyone agrees with me.

  • Baobaby

    Thank you, fair points.

    Look, nobody wants a closed platform, I was just making the point that 500+ games coming out on iOS every day is not helping the discoverability problem. No chart filtering systems could effectively deal with than amount of volume.

    This volume is damaging the chances of ‘hidden gem’ indie games getting their chance of promotion or getting noticed in the charts.
    This is why Steam started their green light process, so that quality indie games stand a better chance of getting noticed.

  • I’m afraid that I disagree with much of your analysis or the logical conclusion that stems from it:

    “It’s down to word of mouth”. This is not true. Word of mouth can help, but great games can also die. The top players (Candy Crush Saga, Hay Day, Clash of Clans) are buying free players for anywhere from $1 upwards (and I’ve heard the CPA can spike as high as $8) to stay in the charts. These companies get great word of mouth but they are also spending heavily to keep the competition away.

    The Top Grossing existed to provide a metric that showed where customers where seeing value. It originated to help a game that retailed for $4.99 to compete with $0.99, by measuring revenue not downloads. It’s not a great chart, but it is better than relying purely on download numbers.

    I agree that having a better chart would be better, but I think that probably starts my adding more charts. I would like Apple and Google to start creating “best” games using a much more sophisticated algorithm. I am not sure that it is yet happening as much as you suggest (although it is happening).

    But it is the last point that I take the biggest issue with. “Too many games”? Really? The whole joy of the Appstore is that anyone can publish. It enables niche games to compete with the mass-market. It stops a small cabal of mainly white, middle-class men deciding which games get “published” which is a real risk of the console model. It’s not perfect (Apple’s rejection of Littleloud’s sweatshop game or the one about the Israeli/Palestinian challenges is a bad thing), but it is way better than arbitrary gates.

    I am a massive supporter of open platforms with high quality filtering tools. Your final comment suggests that you would prefer a closed system for some theoretical decluttering benefit.

  • baobaby

    Apple bend over backwards to try and support the small developers. If the game is good enough Apple or Google will promote it. After that its down to word of mouth whether it sticks in the charts or drops out shortly after the game comes off promotion.

    I agree that the Grossing chart should be dropped (and it will), but the chart algorithms already take into account many more factors than just pure downloads.
    Adding loads more chart options is not the answer.

    The main problem is there are too many games being released. Most are poor quality. This clutters up the system.

  • Sik

    One suggestion I’ve seen was to ditch charts altogether and to suggest to try apps that friends have tried, like some (non-app) stores do. Sort of a fake word of mouth. This way apps get a chance to don’t get drowned out by those that happen to be lucky to be at the top of some arbitrary chart.

  • PS Vita Roundup

    I thought that was why indies were flocking to niche formats like the Wii U and PlayStation Vita. These buyers are more interested in quality of game and experience, and while the market is a lot smaller, they get greater prominence, especially as the big names are dropping these formats