Apple · Browsers

As a web game dev, one point in favor of an App Store debut (and many against)

As I round the corner on my latest (yet to be announced) game, I’m faced with a harsh reality: needing to publish to the Play & App Store. Why?

Unlike my first two games, this upcoming one relies on swiping mechanics, where the player needs to reliably input left/right & up/down gestures. Certain aspects of Safari’s behavior cannot be overridden through a web API. While PWAs can prevent left/right swiping, up-down swiping (the “rubber band” effect) is not something that can be disabled. In my new game, this actually leads to ‘refresh’ being accidentally triggered, which is a showstopper.

Why I fear directing customers to the App Store as a solo bootstrapped dev:

The App Store is a hostile place for a market-validated app idea:

  • It’s another place rivals will advertise against the name of your app. This pay-to-play environment will cause you to worry about Customer Acquisition Costs, even for a game that could otherwise be viral.
  • You will lose ~30% of any in-app monetization you add down the line (slightly less via multi-year subscriptions)
  • You can’t count on much in-store discovery, even for highly rated & novel apps (read below for my experience)
  • The App Store is rife with scammers ripping off competitors and launching copycat apps (remediation is slow and requires press attention)
  • Top charts on Apple/Google stores essentially out your game as being a market-validated idea, which (better funded) rivals can hone in on.

Maintaining both a web app and iOS app adds unnecessary overhead as a developer:

  • splitting my userbase (and their game stats) across platforms introduces new server complexities
  • simply rebuilding the app and submitting for review every single time i want to tweak the game slows everything down

You give Apple and Google even more leverage over you than they already have:

  • App reviewers can capriciously block or prevent your app from being approved at any time; it’s completely unpredictable and -in the best of cases- slows you down and sucks your time.
  • Apple/Google can deem elements of your game against their (sometimes newly changed) rules.
  • Apple creates exceptions (double standards) for big companies like for WeChat, Roblox, and (at times) Amazon and others when it comes to rules. You are not a big company and won’t get these.
  • Now Apple/Google own and manage your relationship with your customer, not you. That alone is an enormous amount of leverage, even if it comes with certain conveniences.
  • Apple is dead-set on preventing you from communicating in an honest way about your game/app. You are entering a highly-censored realm, where Apple can compel speech from you.

On the other hand, simply being on the web allows:

  • Frictionless onboarding: jumping into gameplay is basically instant, no downloading required.
  • Users can still add your game’s icon to their homescreen as a browser bookmark (more on this below).
  • Better SEO potential depending on game content (mine are text-heavy, which plays well with SEO)

Some reservations (why the Store still makes sense sometimes)

The primary reason to build an iOS app often comes down to people’s expectation that an app will be in the store, especially for the Boomer generation. “I’m having trouble downloading your game”. This “there’s an app for that” needs to be reset. Fortunately, the web dev can educate users. To debunk this misconception in my games (JOTJOLT! and Quorbo), I have embedded a 5-second video on how to add the game to the Home Screen, and voila! I don’t hear that complaint anymore.

The main thing I miss about being in the store is reviews. My Mac app had an average star rating of 4.8 across 40+ reviews in the US, and that was an awesome signal for potential customers to see. As of today, the web lacks an equivalent (ubiquitous, seemingly-authoritative) signal. That being said, having good ratings and emailing the app store about an upcoming feature push does not guarantee even a response from the company when it comes to being featured.

Mobile app stores account for most gaming revenue globally.

So you are leaving money on the table if you aren’t in the store with a popular game. But this post is focused on where to launch as a solo (bootstrapped) game dev. Popular casual games like Wordle eventually find their way in to the App Stores, but being there initially was not key to a good outcome. Lastly, it is easier to become popular without being noticed by rivals outside of the store. Again, getting ripped off is endemic to app store culture.