Could the true cause of Apple’s woes be the fall of quality mobile Apps?

Zachary Spears
Feb 14 · 7 min read

Nine years ago Apple introduced In App purchases to the App Store. As predicted, this caused a “fundamental shift” in the way developers built and designed apps for consumers. Could this simple decision, which changed the way we consume mobile content, be what is causing Apple’s iPhone sales troubles?

Greetings! by Tyler Lastovich

This would not be the first time Apple has made a major mistake regarding the App Store. Upon its initial launch the first iPhone had no App Store, no Dev Kit, and no official channel for publishing applications on the device. It was not until hackers released the first jailbreak for the iPhone and began creating rogue apps, that Apple saw the opportunity and created iOS 2. This added the App store, and their first path for developers to design content on the mobile device.

The problem with In App Purchases

More than 10 years later the App Store looks wildly different. Recently Apple added Stories alongside a complete redesign. This signifies that the tech giant recognizes not only the value of the App store, but of quality content… or so one would think.

While many of the Apps featured in these Stories are fun and notable, veteran iOS users like myself have noticed a slow but impressive shift in the App Store over the years. Where we used to get quality content from game and app creators trying to be the next Appillionaire, we now get half-baked content designed to feed users a stream of advertisements and one-time transactions.

I think a good way to illustrate this transition away from quality content to quick cash grabs can be illustrated by the App store giant Gameloft. Founded in 1999, they have been publishing content to the store from the early days. If you look back at their first releases there were a lot of really solid games. For example, Gangstar is essentially a white label version of Grand Theft Auto. This mobile game offered an open world, with numerous missions and a large map back in 2009. Another good example would be N.O.V.A. which featured gyroscopic controls, and Online Gameplay in the same year. While these older games charged a large ticket by early mobile standards, you only paid ~$4.99 and you could play the entire game. No interruptions, no ads, no additional purchases.

Current games from the same publisher offer a vastly different experience. The latest version of Gangstars for example, Gangstars Vegas is free to play. However, in order to accomplish tasks in the game a player must use in game currency. This currency consists of dollars, as well as diamonds, both of which are difficult to accrue. These currency forms are mostly purchased directly through In App purchases, and if you cannot afford cash you will be forced to sit through 30 second ads. Here is the list of the possible transactions in Gangstars NV:

  1. Handful of Diamonds $1.99
  2. Pocket of Diamonds $4.99
  3. Pouch of Diamonds $9.99
  4. Puny Cash Bundle $1.99
  5. Bagful of Diamonds $19.99
  6. Daddy’s Super Stash Pack $1.99
  7. Handful of Diamonds $0.99
  8. New in Town Pack $3.99
  9. Puny Cash Bundle $1.99
  10. Mini Cash Bundle $4.99

A long time fan of the franchise I tried to play this new iteration of the game and found it nearly impossible to enjoy without sinking countless hours grinding for money or shelling out actual real life cash. As you can see above, if you decide to spend real money, it can add up fast. I desperately miss the days where I could pay ~$4.99 or more and just own all of the games content.

Games like this are designed to keep you paying out money in order to enjoy the content, and this method works, extremely well. Supercell, the creator of the popular game Clash of Clans made $964 Million in 2015 alone. This game is free, and only offers advertisements and In App purchases as their revenue methods for this game. Additionally the wildly popular first person shooter Fortnite is making nearly $2 Million every day from iPhone users alone.

Beyond the frustration of quality games being ruined by these methods of monetizing mobile content, many developers have resorted to quick cash-grabs instead of investing time into actual quality content. Over time indie developers have transitioned away from beautiful, thoughtful projects like Machinarium to quick cash grabs like Merge Dragons! which offer far less original or engaging gameplay. You can see this quite clearly by simply reviewing the top grossing apps page.

The worst part is that this is not likely to change on its own. Mobile gaming has become such a booming industry that it is dominating the gaming market at large, making up over 50% of revenue in the industry to date. newzoo expects that consumer spending on games will grow to $180.1 billion by 2021, with mobile gaming making up nearly 60%.

Complaints about this format are not new, and represent an ongoing war within the gaming community. Players have been speaking out for a long time that they prefer the pay-and-own model over microtransactions for a long time. But what does this decline in quality of content have to do with a drop in sales for Apple’s iPhone?

Child playing on iPad by Annie Spratt

Why this hurts Apple

Apple makes impressive hardware. Even if you do not consider yourself a fanboy, you have to recognize that Apple has been an industry leader for technology and devices since the beginning of the personal computing revolution. But why would I need a fancy iPhone when I can play the same crummy games on a $99 Android device?

A good example of this is the new Augmented Reality capability of the flagship iPhone XS and XS Plus. This technology is quite impressive, along with its hardware. However, the developer community seems to have responded with an almost unanimous shrug. Designing content for such an advanced system is difficult work, and the cost/benefit is significantly lacking when you can rake in cash with a simple clicker game.

While quality apps and games can still be found here and there in the App Store, it is hard to justify owning a $999 device when the content you consume is just going to feed you a barrage of ads or constantly charge you $0.99+ for 2D dragons. With fewer and fewer quality apps and games, it because much more difficult to justify the purchase of such expensive devices.

Back when developers invested countless hours working on personal projects that built app store legends like Alice for the iPad, it made sense to yank out your pocket book to gain access to that wonderful content and the quality hardware it seamlessly ran on. But now that developers can slop together apps that feed you ads for a quick buck, there are significantly fewer reasons to buy iOS over Android, or FireOS, which provide significantly cheaper platforms to much of the same content.

Why Apple likely does not care

For the tech giant, managing the App Store has never been a labor of love. In the beginning, this was great and allowed an even playing field for developers to get their projects out there, based on the merit of their code. However now, even with the introduction of Stories, Apple has done very little to encourage quality development. This is because Apple infamously collects 30% on every single App Store transaction. So no matter who or how the money is made, they get a cut. As long as the apps are making money, Apple doesn’t seem to care about the overall quality of the content offered on its platform.

alone together by Matt Reiter

Can this be fixed?

There is no easy solution to this problem, as Apple has essentially neglected the quality of the App Stores content for far too long. The economy of advertising and In App purchases alone is massive, and numerous companies bank their livelihood on its existence.

Apple needs to find a way to promote single-payment, high quality content. Encourage developers to spend their free time indulging their dream projects once again, and ignite a new era of appillionaires, not based on ads or microtransactions, but single purchase content that’s beautiful and worth our time, money, and Apple’s hardware.

One potential solution that I think is interesting is a subscription program of high quality Apps and games that have no ads or transactions, that developers can produce for. Similar to the way Netflix runs, but for mobile content. Quality applications and games with a straightforward pricing model.

Whatever the solution, I hope they find it soon. I miss my old home screen of fun and engaging apps. So do many others who remember the glory days of mobile gaming and productivity.

Zachary Spears

Written by

Freelance artist and journalist with experience in startups, crowdfunding, filmmaking, design, and community management. More more at zachspears.com.

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