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How Google Play Can Help Indie Game Devs and Leapfrog Apple’s App Store in the Process
by Rob Weber on 04/24/14 03:32:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Google recently introduced an important new rule prohibiting deceptive promotion of apps on Google Play. It’s great that Google is clamping down on spammy advertising. However, the new regulation doesn’t really address a core, underlying cause for the practice: broken app discovery. With more than two thirds of apps failing to break even, it’s no surprise that some indie devs desperately turn to sketchy ad practices or bot farms that manipulate rankings. Of course, Apple’s App Store struggles with the same woes as well, but given that Google’s core competency is content discovery, it’s fair for the market to expect much more from Play.

Fortunately for Google, there’s a number of means to quickly gain the edge on discovery over Apple. In the process, the search giant can greatly help the independent developer community. (Which, after all, makes up the majority of app developers.)

  • Reform the Ranking System: At the moment, Google Play’s “Top Apps” lists are too directly tied to ad spend. Most indie developers don’t have a large enough advertising budget to compete on this playing field, and consequently, none but the very most successful indies last long enough on the top ranks to be noticed. To make things even harder for indies, most Google Play users only download apps from these Top Apps lists. One solution is to create indie-only lists (see below). Google should also tweak its general ranking algorithms to give more prominence to apps gaining traction without ad dollars.
  • Address the 5 Star Problem: Similar to the crippled ranking lists, many or most apps with consistent 5 star ratings got them not through organic acclaim, but by working the system. (One common, if very dubious technique: An app prompt asks users if they like the app, but are only taken to the app store to post a review if they answer “Yes”.) There are a number of ways Google could reform this system; here’s just two ideas: 1) Only allow app ratings after fifteen total minutes of gameplay, to curb unfair judging; and 2) Add a pop-up prompt automatically - directly from Google Play - so the users never have to leave the game. This is important to ensuring that the true app ranking score is captured. (The latter is important because most developers don’t typically send users who don’t like their game to the app store, so the majority of reviews are not a good representation of the broader gamer population.)

In any case, it will probably take months to fix star ratings and rankings, and a lot of behind the scenes A/B testing to achieve the best balance. But there’s other, simpler features Google Play can introduce now to help level the playing field immediately:

  • Create Indie-Only Top App Lists and Badges: Is it fair that it takes over $100,000 in advertising to achieve enough visibility to grow “organically”? For a company that claims to do no evil, it sure makes sense to address this contradiction. To do that, Google should consider duplicating Top App lists only featuring indie developers. That would attract heavy downloads for those with limited budgets. (There’s many ways Google can define what constitutes an “indie” developer, but the underlying goal is to highlight apps made by small teams on limited budgets.) For similar reasons, apps designated as indie should have a badge or other special icon which affirms that status. This will also give indie titles an underdog appeal to consumers searching for original games to play.
  • Indie Developer Profiles: Related to the above, I’d love to see Google Play add a profile feature which allows indie developers to literally put a face to their apps. Doing this will instantly add a human interest element to Android’s app ecosystem, and help create stronger ties to devs and the consumers who love their games.  (Consider how important the personal element has been to the success of Kickstarter projects.)
  • Integrate developers’ YouTube channel into their app pages: Game footage videos are a key way gamers discover and decide to download games (especially from lesser known studios and publishers), and Google happens to own the largest video network of them all. Google should give developers the option of embedding their YouTube channel into every game that they own. This will also help level the playing field by giving indie developers the fastest, lowest budget, most honest way to promote their game -- simply showing how it plays.

Beyond Discovery: Better Advertising Solutions

App discovery isn’t the only problem facing game developers. Just as bad is developers’ inability to generate enough revenue to stay in business. According to most industry reports, two thirds of game developers fail to break even. Many attempt to make money through advertising. Most do it wrong. Nearly all give up. However, advertising is the primary revenue generator for an increasing majority of game developers, especially as free-to-play overwhelmingly becomes the dominant model. At the same time, as Google’s new policies show, Play is being hurt by deceptive ad networks. So Google should not only crack down on bad actors, but also encourage white hat ad players and innovative ad content formats.

To start, Google can encourage developers to move beyond spammy ad formats by seriously committing to deploying native ad formats, which preserve games’ user experience. While advertising is never going to be the perfect or entire solution, native ads that incorporate high design standards move things closer to a pure gaming experience without having to charge gamers a premium to cover development expenses (and deals squarely with the reality that some 98% of gamers simply make no in-app payments). For some tips and tricks, I wrote this guideline of techniques for successfully integrating native ads in games.

To be sure, even if Google were to implement all these changes, it wouldn’t guarantee sunshine and roses for app developers. With such a large market to compete in, most of their apps will still fail. But with the “bad guy” advertisers handcuffed, indie developers at least have much more peace of mind. For now, they can work with ad networks which monetize in a brand safe, transparent, user-friendly way. Google just needs to capitalize on this move by also helping devs at the discovery level. That way, well-deserving, low budget games -- no matter how much their big budget competitors spend -- have less incentive to turn to the next shady ad practice.

Robert Weber is the co-founder and senior vice president of business development at NativeX, the leading native advertising platform for mobile games. Weber became an entrepreneur at the age of 16 when he launched a multi-million dollar business in his basement. In 2006, he shared the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award with his twin brother Ryan. Rob is a Board Member for NativeX and an angel investor to many start-ups. He enjoys sharing his passion for entrepreneurship with others by serving on the board of non-profit Minne*, a 4,400+ member community focused on strengthening the Minnesota tech startup ecosystem.


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Peter Eisenmann
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But how would Google benefit from going the extra mile to support small devs? A lot more money is coming in from the big guys :(

Robert Green
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That's true, but at least on the apple side, it's a relatively small amount of money compared to the amount they make from hardware. As such, if recommending good (and ideally exclusive) games increases the chance that they'll sell another iphone and/or ipad, then it might be in their best interests. Alternatively, if you can take some of those 98% of F2P non-payers and upsell them to paid apps, there's plenty of money to be made there.
I'm not sure either of those apply to google though, since they're not making billions in hardware, and they've never been much of a proponent for paid software.

Robert Weber
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Google still ultimately values having a strong app ecosystem to strengthen its Operating System so they can acquire more data on users, and that means a strong business for most of the Android app developers which are primarily indies.

Robert Green
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I feel that there's a lot to like here, but a lot of it seems to rest on this nebulous concept of an 'indie' that's sometimes easy to understand at a high level, but hard to define in practice. To give an example of how complex it can be, my employer is an independent developer, in the sense that we're not owned by anyone. But sometimes we do take funding from third parties for games that are published under their names, sometimes we take funding from third parties but publish under our own name, sometimes we release entirely self-funded games, and we've even published games made by other indie devs. So even within one company, it can be really difficult to determine what indie actually means.

I do agree that they need to re-evaluate how they do ratings though. My suggestion would be to prevent linking to a ratings page from anywhere, and instead integrate it into the store app. Just now and then, if you visit the store or haven't done so for a while, it could prompt you to rate whatever you've downloaded lately. That way it would put a bit of time between when you last played something and when you're being asked to evaluate it, and remove the ability for developers to selectively send players likely to rate higher. They should also provide a large 'bug report' button on those pages so that the 1-star rating isn't used exclusively to mean "did not work on my device".