Frank Mitchell

Surviving in the post app store economy

As the Steam Summer Sale winds to a close, I find myself asking

“Where does the market go when everyone has their own app store?”

Steam was the first app store I ever encountered. A friend got me hooked in 2006, touting them as a way to get the games you own on every device you own. This was about three years after they released.

There wasn’t much on Steam in the beginning. Valve’s own titles where there, plus some stuff from id and Eidos. Maybe a hundred games in total. Today there are thousands of games on Steam. Forbes estimates they may account for up to 70% of all downloaded PC games.

But PC games aren’t what most people think of when the phrase “app store” pops up. Apple owns that brand with their iOS store. I got my first iPhone in 2010, two years after the App Store went live.

The mobile market is a lot bigger than the PC games market. There might be thousands of games on Steam, but there are millions of apps on the App Store. And Apple isn’t alone in that market. Google Play launched three months after the App Store to fill the gap for Android users. Microsoft joined the party in 2010 with the Windows Phone Store, and Amazon opened their Kindle store to developers that same year.

Digital distribution is hot right now. Every publisher wants their own virtual store front. You maximize profits if you aren’t giving thirty percent to Steam or Apple. Every device owner wants applications that feel native. You want the things you use to feel good. But that intersection leaves developers, the people that build games and other software, at a loss.

Traditional publishing has a developer boxing their software and shipping it to a distribution center. A publisher then handles the business of getting that software in all the relevant physical store fronts. App stores change that. Now getting your game on Steam or Amazon or the Windows Phone Store is just part of the development process. Developers are required to be their own publishers.

Knocking on the door of every app store isn’t easy. Sure Amazon has a software development kit and lots of documentation, but their SDK doesn’t look anything like the Steam one. Concepts you learn when developing on a Kindle don’t have one-to-one mappings onto an iPhone. You can argue that’s the nature of software, every library is different, but when that nature creates a barrier to shipping your product, it poses a problem.

It also creates an opportunity.

Internet pundits would argue that the web wins. HTML, CSS and JavaScript are powerful tools for building online software. A browser is available on every platform. Sharing and discovery are built in. Digital distribution is just a hyperlink away.

Even if you write for the web, entry into an app store isn’t guaranteed. Wrap your web app in PhoneGap and Apple can still reject it for not looking native enough. Want global high scores in your game that show up on both Steam and iPhone? You’ll need to integrate twice and ship on two separate app stores to get there. Want to do something even more complicated, like having actions in your iPhone game change what happens on your friend’s PC game? Now you need to build your own back end system.

So the market fragments. Small companies focus on getting in a single app store. Medium companies have iOS and Android and Windows and Linux departments so they can get in all the app stores. Big companies build their own app store. Eventually everyone has their own app store.

Then the publishers come back.