Putting a Premium on IPhone Games
Games for your iPhone and iPod Touch remain one of the more popular sections on the App Store, with page upon page of offerings to browse. Since there's so much heat and light focused on iPhone gaming of late, it's little wonder that rumors have spread about a reworked "premium"-priced game site within the store.
I'm taking such reports with a healthy dose of skepticism, and so are some of my contacts in the iPhone game development business.
According to the rumors, later this year, Apple will introduce a premium game section of the App Store which will feature larger games than are currently available, priced at US$20.
For what it's worth, when I checked with Apple, a spokesperson told me that Apple, in customary fashion, doesn't comment on rumors, so no further information was forthcoming out of Cupertino.
If you're not familiar with the App Store right now, $20 is markedly higher than what games sell for right at the moment. It's not unusual to see new premium games for the iPhone and iPod touch cost $10 or $8, but $5 and less is more the norm. Many of the "shareware"-quality game titles only cost a buck or two.
But it's interesting to note that the "sweet spot" for new premium games has changed since the App Store opened. While you still see some new games from major publishers priced at $10, it's more ordinary to see them priced at $5 or even $8. That sweet spot remains in flux, and it's been creeping back up after bottoming out at a buck or two during the 2008 holiday season.
Twenty bucks certainly isn't an outrageous amount to pay for a portable game, if you're playing a Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) on Nintendo DS title. In fact, with a few exceptions, new releases for those devices typically cost $30 or more.
But games for Sony and Nintendo handheld systems demand a higher price because they command a bigger budget and feature expanded production values--more complex game mechanics, higher-quality graphics and sound effects. With a few exceptions here and there, most of the games for the iPhone are much smaller-budget productions.
Even the games produced by some top companies in the iPhone space based around recognizable name brands and game titles may have an origin on another platform, typically another phone system. So at least some of the work--art assets, game logic--is in a form that's portable to the iPhone, and therefore has a lower production cost.
That's not to suggest that the iPhone, either in current or future incarnations, isn't up to the task to compete with Nintendo and Sony. It certainly could, over time. It's just that the economy that's already begun to develop around the iPhone doesn't seem to favor that right now.
I conducted a straw poll of a few iPhone game developers I know--nothing scientific, by any stretch--and most agreed that what they've read and heard about this new premium store sounds like bunk.
It's hard to believe that consumers who have gotten accustomed to paying only a dollar or two--or in some cases $5 or $7--for an iPhone game would suddenly start paying $20. Unless the experience is dramatically different than it is now.
Obviously, that's a big exception. But even some of the developers who dismissed the rumor out of hand were careful to say that it was possible.
What would it take to make a $20 game for the iPhone? Perhaps a better question would be: what would it take to make iPhone users pay $20 for a game? I expect it would need to clearly be a big-budget game--something that offers iPhone users a dramatically different experience than what they're accustomed to today. The game would also have to have some sense of exclusivity or uniqueness--"me too" also-rans and ports from other platforms aren't going to cut it, especially if they're released after they already debut on other platforms.
In the end, though, I really don't think the iPhone is suited for a $20 game experience. Having played literally hundreds of games since the iPhone was released, I haven't found many that sustain my interest long enough or offer a compelling enough experience for me to try to get $20's worth of entertainment from. And the device itself--the touch screen, accelerometer, and size of the iPhone--has as much to do with that as the games I've been playing.