When you go to the Apple iOS App Store and browse through the various apps pretty much all most users will see is Top 10 lists. And really as a user you should deliberately ignore Top 10 lists, precisely *because* they are the most visible parts of the store’s app collection.
This makes a position in that top 10 list an extremely valuable position for app creators, and critically this means that often the kind of apps you find there are apps that have been specifically created to sit in the top 10 hauling in money. Once in the top 10 apps tend to stick there, mainly because at that point they *are* the most visible apps in the store and thus most likely to get chosen.
So there’s a huge value attributed to those top 10 positions, and you’ll find companies striving hard to put their apps there, which is understandable. But is striving hard to put an app in the top 10 the same as striving hard to make something cool for the sake of making something you really believe should exist?
In discussion a few weeks ago we were talking about “what makes an indie game indie” and one of my personal criteria for that comes out of considering the motivation to make a game. I think indies tend to make games because they have a particular vision and want to create something that fulfils that vision, and they hope to make enough money to sustain the process by so doing, almost as a by-product. Whereas non-indies set out explicitly and primarily to make money, and it’s the game itself which is the by-product. And I like the games I play to be labours of love rather than by-products.
It’s much the same with the Top 10. Sure, the two categories are not mutually exclusive – it is possible for a good indie game to “go viral” or whatever and luck into that hallowed space, but by and large the stuff that you find there has been put there by people with a very specific money-making aim in mind.
You may ask “so what?”, since there are top 10s in all kinds of other fields too and the same thing applies to them too, surely? Well, yes – but the trouble with the app store is that pretty much the only way you can view stuff just by browsing is by going through the keyhole of the Top 10 lists. And the further you get away from that exalted space the more your discoverability drops away until you have a situation like it is now, where basically those in the Top 10 positions do very well and everybody else is lucky to make 50p.
There needs to be more middle ground, a way for people to be able to work off-mainstream and still be able to get a reasonable return for their investment of time and effort.
So how can we work towards this?
For a start, ignore the top 10. Simply because something is up there doesn’t automagically make it good. I still sometimes see “Justin Bieber” come up in the trending topics list on Twitter but that doesn’t mean I’m interested in him. You might find the odd gem that manages to break through up there but it’s far more likely you’ll be encountering stuff that’s been engineered to be there for the explicit purpose of hoovering up money.
Be prepared to dig around a bit. There are subcategories on the App Store that you can find with a bit of digging around (although even these aren’t super reliable; there’s actually a “Retro” category on there in the Games section and there isn’t a single Llamasoft game listed therein, despite LS having been probably the most prolific developer in that category in the last year and a half). Be prepared to spelunk around a bit in the less exposed categories deeper in the store away from the Top 10 honeypots at the entrance.
Read reviews and recommendations. Take note of the little icons underneath the app description when you buy one which indicate what people buying that game also bought; you may find a few unexpected gems there. *Give* recommendations, both in person to your mates when you like a game, and when you want to support the developer of a game you’ve enjoyed, go and give them a vote on the app store. (Doubly definitely do that if they *haven’t* nagged you to do so in their app. Those ratings mean a whole lot more when they aren’t explicitly solicited).
Be loyal to your favourite developers. Chances are if you like one of their games you’ll like most of them. Go buy the back catalogue. Keep an eye out for their new releases. Pimp them to your mates. Praise always means a lot more coming from the mouth of someone who is genuinely happy with a product than it is falling greasily from the distended lips of some self-praising marketing hype machine.
Basically try to navigate the app store in such a way as to avoid the sticky fly paper of the Top 10s dangling at the entrance. Everyone will be better off for it in the end.
Developers too should ignore the top 10. My mum occasionally sends me newspaper clippings about some lucky chap whose app suddenly got popular and now they’re a millionaire or whatever – and it’s true, it can happen! And so can winning the lottery, but you’d be daft to set out to make a living buying lottery tickets and waiting for your big day. Better to build a body of work, build a reputation, work to make life sustainable on the middle ground somehow. Be nice to your users by not following the herd with hateful “monetization” bollocks and unnecessary use of IAP. Work at trying to be a good guy rather than just hoping to be a lucky one. The more of us who manage to do that the better, anything to lessen the hegemony of the Top 10.
We need diversity and sustainability outside of the current “all or nothing” way of doing things and a step in the right direction has to be – ignore the top 10!
(And yes, if one of my games ever gets to the top 10, feel free to ignore that too) .