The Race to the Bottom

Ustwo's Monument Valley is getting a hard time in the App Store right now because its creators dared to release additional content for the $4 game as a $2 in-app purchase. Disgruntled players are leaving 1-star reviews to protest the paid-for extra levels, despite apparently enjoying the game a lot, like "Jared" in this ridiculous example from yesterday. Having not previously bothered to review the game they liked so much, these people decide an appropriate form of protest is to leave an angry negative review to drag the game's score down. They're not reviewing the game, they're reviewing the idea of a chunk of new content they've decided not to buy because it costs money.

Do people have any idea how much weight these review scores have? No. Indie developers are made or broken by this sort of thing, and using reviews as a weapon in this way is ridiculous. It hurts the people that need it most, and it's a great way to ensure that the App Store becomes a place where you can't get great indie games (that you enjoyed, until just now!) because those developers will go broke or go elsewhere. The App Store is chock full of dross, and it boils my piss to see successful breakout hits like Monument Valley be dragged under because they dared attempt to charge a fair price for their work.

People have no idea how much effort goes into creative work. They also apparently don't understand commerce. When you buy something, unless stated otherwise you're handing over money for a product as it stands right now. You pay money for a sandwich; you pay money for a book; you don't expect any free food or book content after the point of purchase, right? Of course not. When Phil Fish announced he wasn't going to continue developing Fez 2, he was attacked by people who considered that their paying for the original Fez constituted some sort of contractual obligation to Phil Fish to keep working on new Fez games. That they had "funded the development" (actual quote) of Fez 2 with their purchase of Fez. Uh, nope. That's not how it works. Indie developers typically get into all sorts of debt while dedicating their time to making games, and if they're lucky they can pay that back if they eventually sell. Phil Fish wasn't sitting on a pile of cash idly considering whether to make another game with it. Watch Indie Game: The Movie (which you'll have to pay money for, sorry) to see this in action with a bunch of other developers.

We are apparently rapidly approaching a world where owners of $600 smartphones not only balk at paying more than $4 for a game  (this is a well-established joke) but expect that $4 game to come with free additional content for life. The author of the review linked above refers to Candy Crush (core game free with boosters available via IAP), which is produced by a massive studio, and only massive studios can afford to give away their content in this way because other games in their portfolios can cover their costs. Indie devs can't do that. And yet people continue to treat all developers as equal and anyone trying to recoup more than a pittance in the pricing of their work is pilloried.

The App Store pricing tiers don't help this. Anything above $4 seen as being wildly suspicious; these are tiers generally reserved for specialist applications. Developers targeting the mass market are incentivised to charge lower and lower prices for their products (and don't forget Apple takes a cut too), and for a lot of people the price of an app becomes the determining factor in a purchase.

We have to make this better. Indie developers need to be able to charge a fair price for their work. Players need to get their entitlement issues under control. The App Store review system needs to take account of this sort of weaponisation. And perhaps we all need to get used to a world where quality might cost more than $4.