Ten years ago, the world of gaming and the value of cellphones changed forever. Those directly involved knew July 10, 2008, was significant but even they couldn’t predict the sort of paradigm shift that day would usher into the world.
“It has redefined the games industry and game development ecosystem by setting the rules in terms of business model and distribution and have converted the smartphones as the most-played gaming platform in the world, outnumbering consoles or portable gaming devices by a factor of 100,” said Xavier Carrillo, CEO of developer Digital Legends. “The App Store is also responsible for moving all gaming industry distribution from a physical ‘box’ model to digital downloads.”
The launch of the App Store ten years ago didn’t just open the door to application and game development for the iPhone, it sparked a programming revolution.
“I don’t think it’s possible to really encapsulate the impact of the App Store on games. That’s how large it is, and it’s still occurring,” said Nathan Vella, co-founder and president of Capybara Games. “Before the iPhone, you developed for consoles, handhelds, or maybe PC. Mobile wasn’t even a blip on the radar. Now the App Store is arguably the biggest platform in games… in ten years. How do you even qualify that scale of impact?
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“For us, it provided a platform to create a game we never would have made elsewhere. ‘Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP’ was a game conceived and created because of the App Store. That’s a heck of an impact for Capy.”
It’s been ten years since Apple launched the iPhone’s App Store with 500 apps. The journey from those 500 apps and no downloads to the roughly 130 billion downloads from a vast library of an estimated 2.2 million apps that now pack the store is one that brought with it a sea-change in just about everything the device and its embedded store touched. This January, Apple announced it had paid developers $26.5 billion last year alone.
But before that could happen, Apple needed to find a group of true believers: developers willing to create something new for a completely untested platform.
The company found those developers for a cross-section of apps, but game developers seemed most hungry for a chance to create for the new system.
Among the first apps to appear in the App Store were a slew of games from a variety of developers with a wide range of approaches.
There were games built around familiar IPs like “Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D,” “Tetris,” and “Super Monkey Ball.” There were completely original games like “Trism,” “Critter Crunch,” “Kroll,” and “Aurora Feint.” And plenty of recreations of table top classics like chess, checkers, and Mahjong.
Several of those early game creators found their games being introduced by Apple’ Steve Jobs on stage during the unveiling or up on stage themselves.
Digital Legends’ Carrillo was brought into Apple’s circle of trust before the unveiling. He said he had early meetings with Steve Jobs and the executive team at Apple to prepare for their keynote and his presentation of “Kroll” on stage.
Even in those early, pre-launch days, he saw the App Store as a complete change of paradigm for both distribution and reach.
“The App Store was built on the success of iTunes, reaching a wide audience all around the world,” he told Variety in a recent interview. “At that time, games and apps distribution was a walled garden that was vertically controlled by the operators and carriers. The entry barrier was very high and only a few games/apps were chosen by the operators to be available on their distribution channels and you needed to have a lot of muscle in business development to open those doors, and most of the time you had to negotiate the deals country by country.”
And revenue for those who did manage to leverage their way onto a carrier’s mobile phone store was wildly unbalanced, with the carrier often taking as much as 90% of the revenues. The App Store, on the other hand, made it easier to publish a game or other app and Apple took just 30% of sales.
“This was a huge revolution,” Carrillo said. “It was hard to believe.”
Steven Demeter’s success on the iPhone actually started before the App Store launched, but it wasn’t until the store went live that the success of his game “Trism” allowed him to quit his job.
Before the App Store opened, he tried shopping what would become the App Store’s first major success story around to traditional publishers. But no one was interested. It wasn’t until he self-published the game on the store when it launched that he soon was earning millions $5 at a time.
It took him four months to prepare “Trism” for the App Store’s official launch.
Carrillo said he still remembers the words that were used during that keynote presentation to introduce “Kroll”:
“… they are based in Barcelona (Spain) and they only started on the SDK two weeks ago, and what they have been able to accomplish in two weeks building this game makes you forget you are watching it on a mobile device and think you are watching it on a game console.”
Even those not brought into Apple’s inner circle pre-launch were blown away by the possibilities that the App Store offered once it debuted.
“As a user, I was amazed with how quickly and easily I could discover and install new software,” said Gordon Wood, lead engineer on “Super Monkey Ball iOS” and currently studio director of Sculpin Studio/Other Ocean: Prince Edward Island. “It quickly became apparent that there was going to be an app for everything you could want, and many that you never imagined. It was an exciting time seeing all these new ideas being brought to the market. As a developer, Apple made the whole process very simple — from developer tools, to device deployment, to publication. It was refreshing to just be able to build and release something so quickly.”
Capybara Games’ Nathan Vella said the store’s launch at the time was revolutionary.
“It’s important to remember that, in 2008, digital storefronts were still in their infancy,” said Vella, whose first game for the store was “Critter Crunch.” “We’d seen Xbox Live Arcade and PSN, early-phase Steam, but nothing was really that effective in connecting the consumer with what they wanted, let alone exposing them to games they didn’t know they wanted. Apple introduced a store that was easy, intuitive, and clearly designed for user experience. I remember being pretty blown away by how well thought-out the store was compared to everything else we’d seen.
“And of course, like everyone else, I thought it was a hell of a move to make. Turn your mobile device into a portable computer, and make any and all software easy to buy? Hell yes.“
Jason Citron, whose Feint line of games for the early iPhones in some ways lead to his creation of communication megalith Discord, said he was drawn to the store’s ability to bring games and apps to users without them having to go to a physical store.
“That was huge,” he said. “The ability to offer games quickly and easily alongside an easy way to pay was the key to taking the iPhone from a phone only to a gaming device. It also opened up distribution options for devs of all sizes and for audiences around the world. We knew it would be big. I’m not sure we could have anticipated how fast it would grow.”
While Apple’s approach to the App Store — creating an open platform relative to what other mobile stores offered, and a greatly reduced cut of the revenue — was transformative, it wouldn’t have had the same impact had it not been tied to a device that was equally innovative.
“It was magic,’ Carrillo said of the iPhone. “We were immediately seduced by the beauty of overall design of the iPhone and by the slickness of the UI and navigation. The size and quality of the screen contributed to enhance our graphics, achieving a spectacular results.
“You have to realize that when the iPhone came out, all smartphones had physical keypads. So touchscreen was something completely new and we had no idea how it would work for game controls. But after some tests, we realized that it would open a lot of new possibilities in terms of controls.”
On top of that, the pre-iPhone smartphone market was broken up into two main operating systems — both of which weren’t very user friendly: Symbian and Java. “It was extremely painful for developers to build game for those OS,” Carrillo said. Comparatively, he said, the iOS was easy to develop on and provided seamless integration with the phone.
Vella said Capybara was drawn to the iPhone because it managed to straddle the two markets it was already developing for.
“We were in the thick of developing for Nintendo DS, and finishing off some legacy projects for pre-iPhone mobile devices,” he said. “We were making games for gaming-only hardware, and for phone-only hardware. My initial impression of the iPhone — a device that straddled both and succeeded wildly — was mostly awe, mixed with a bunch of excitement. That was immediately followed by the realization that we had to start at ground zero to learn how to design for touch.
“Lots of the first round of games leaned on gyro, which was pretty revolutionary at the time, but never seemed to be a great primary control method. Touch, on the other hand, clearly had the potential to be great… it was just that no one had any experience designing for it. We had to iterate a ton on ‘Critter Crunch’s’ touch controls before we even had something semi-playable.”
Other Ocean’s Wood said that the power and technology of the iPhone — which might seem quaint by today’s standards — was a big attraction for a lot of developers.
“The screen had a high resolution (for the time), it supported OpenGL for 3D graphics out of the box, and it had a powerful processor,” he said. “More interestingly for us, however, was the built-in accelerometer and, particularly, the multi-touch screen, which was not something we’d worked with before. We no longer had a joypad or keyboard, and the lack of tactile response with a touch screen meant we had to think of brand new ways for the player to interact with our games.”
While Citron went on to create and sell an iOS communication platform, which eventually led to the creation of Discord, his initial series of games for the iPhone were the “Aurora Feint” puzzle role-playing titles. Those were created to dig into the touch ability of this new phone.
“It was different and we knew there would be a transition in terms of how people play and how games are made with that in mind,” he said. “The touch screen experience lends itself extremely well to more casual gaming experiences but ultimately was not how the hardcore games and gamers play. So the question became, can you create that kind of content and how do you take that traditional controller/mouse and keyboard experience to a touch screen? Alternately, can you only have casual game content or games built specifically for touchscreens on these mobile devices?
“To be honest, I’m not sure anyone has come out with a final answer to any of that quite yet, but it’s been interesting to see how mobile games have evolved to allow players to enjoy games without necessarily needing to replicate an exact controller experience (‘Fortnite’ being a good example of that).”
Looking back now ten years later, this crop of early iPhone App Store explorers say that the impact of that decade on gaming and phones can’t be overstated and that they have high hopes for the future.
“The iPhone clearly set up the vision and defined a change of paradigm,” Carrilla said. “The magic still remains and revives with every new announcement, even if new competitors followed this lead and came out with touchscreen devices with high performance.
“Our hope is that the iPhone will keep surprising us with disrupting hardware and also expect games business model to diversify by combining free-to-play and subscription elements.”
Vella said that, while the wonder of that at-the-time new technology has become almost ordinary to most, its impact remains immense.
“I’ve loved seeing it become a great home to games of all types, from ultra-creative indie titles to amazing mass-market titles,” he said. “It’s at the point now where I believe the industry treats iOS as a gaming device just like we treat PC or console — it’s a unique platform with its own strengths and weaknesses.“
The normalcy of iPhone games also brought with it a level of basic design knowledge that makes creating those games much easier, Wood added.
“Touch games are so commonplace now that it’s easy to forget how difficult it often was, at first, to design games that made sense for this new input scheme,” he said. “We are all so used to playing games on our phones, now, that the problem of a touch interface is rarely the major concern at the design phase. Mobile devices have continued to grow in power and capabilities, and are so powerful now that they can often rival game consoles, if developed for in the right way, so the situation for a game developer has only improved.”
Citron said it’s not just the iPhone that have become more sophisticated and creative, it’s the developers and the games they create for it.
“It’s pushed all of us to think differently, which has worked in all of our favor,” he said. “The next generation of gamers will be as proficient with a touchscreen as they are with a controller and be far more open to some of the new types of games coming out on mobile devices.”
And perhaps most importantly, the iPhone was the first major device with mainstream acceptance to not just remove the barrier for publishing, but normalize instant gratification game purchases.
“The idea of being able to release games directly to the App Store (without needing a publisher), and for users to be able to download and install an app in one touch of a button was a paradigm-shifting moment for the games industry, and for the software industry in general,” Wood said. “The path from typing code on your keyboard, to your player playing your game became a whole lot shorter, and cheaper. This meant we saw a return to the time of the ‘bedroom coder,’ where a person or small team could develop a game on their own and see success, and quickly. Many of these small companies and startups have grown to be powerhouses in the industry, and large game publishers have got in on the act too. But, there is still the ability for someone to write the next big game in their bedroom, and I think that’s a very positive thing that the App Store has brought to the industry.”
While all of the developers Variety spoke to for this feature praised the innovative thinking that paved the path for success on not just the iPhone but on smartphones as a gaming device, they all also had ideas for how to make sure the device, the store, and the ecosystem continue to be innovative and successful.
For Citron, whose Discord also has an iPhone app, the future should include blurring the lines between smartphone game development and game development on other platforms.
“I would love to see the development ecosystem evolve in a way where devs are considering mobile as part of their approach to making games and the kind of people who play them,” he said. “Games should be accessible to everyone and mobile allows people who may not have access to a console or gaming PC the ability to play deeper games and engage in a more social gaming experience. I would love to see more of that as gaming evolves as a whole. Those connections through games are important to us at Discord so keeping that a priority in developing games themselves would be super.”
For both Vella and Wood, rethinking the free to play business model is an important future step.
“While there are hundreds of great games on the App Store, I would like to see the market begin to shift more away from the Free To Play model and towards a subscription or premium model instead,” Wood said. “Free To Play, with in-game purchases, has become the standard on mobile and is what users expect – but it often results in shallower games that take a lot of the artform out of game development. Hopefully Apple’s addition of a subscription payment model to the App Store will help us see a shift back towards the often richer gaming experiences that we see on consoles and PC.”
Vella also thinks there’s a way to solve business-model problems.
“Free to play gets a super bad rap amongst independent developers, but perhaps we’re the ones best suited to solve the problems we see with the model via new approaches and big risks.”
While some see free-to-play games potentially eroding the promising future of the iPhone and App Store, other’s remember the significant impact it had on the industry.
“I absolutely believe that the iPhone and mobile devices as a whole ushered in this new free-to-play popularity,” Citron said. “They made it mainstream and more understandable and comfortable. Traditional games were always more “buy a game to play the game” but with mobile games falling more often into the free-to-play approach, it’s given us all a chance to support game devs based on quality and experience.”