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Top free games charts are killing indies

By on January 13, 2014
FlickrCC William Hook

This is a guest post from John Griffin, co-founder of

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.