How $2 Games Can Still Be a Bad Value

How $2 Games Can Still Be a Bad Value

Much has been made of the “race to the bottom” pricing on the iPhone App Store, which makes it hard to sell a successful app for more than a dollar or two. But I didn’t really realize how pervasive this problem was until I downloaded The Incident, a simple survival-platformer game that involves dodging and climbing heaps of junk falling from the sky. While I enjoyed the old-school graphics and sound effects, I found the gameplay to be a little dull and shut it off (probably for good) after only half an hour of play. Despite the game’s $1.99 price on the App Store, I still went away from the experience feeling like I had been ripped off.

Believe me, I know how ridiculous it sounds to be complaining about the value of a game that sells for less than $2, especially when there are dozens of worse games retailing for $60 or more on store shelves right now. This kind of impulse purchase isn’t exactly going to put me in the poorhouse, after all. Furthermore, at an adjusted rate of $4/hour, I realize that my short experience with The Incident was a better value than many other things I could do with my time.

Despite this, I can’t help but feel disappointed and a bit regretful with my purchase. Part of the problem, of course, is the structure of the market itself. No matter how good a  game is on the App Store, chances are there’s a free alternative out there that approximates the experience relatively well, or at least provides a comparable distraction for less money. To overcome the huge perceived value gap between free products and even cheap products, the paid version has to be a whole lot better than anything that’s available for no cost.

But I think a large part of the problem has to do with expectations. In this case, I went in to The Incident expecting the highly enjoyable experience reported by many friends and colleagues, and was disappointed (and surprised) when I didn’t get it. For most of the hundreds of thousands of games on the App Store, though, I’d be hard-pressed to find a single acquaintance who could give me a recommendation one way or the other. If the game is free I’ll feel comfortable going in for a blind test. But if the game costs even 99 cents, I’d like to have at least some assurance my money isn’t going towards the 90% of everything that’s crap. And my information-free reluctance goes up alongside the asking price.

Sure – I could go search out reviews on the Internet. But I can’t quite muster up the time or effort to find an outlet that I can trust will match with my tastes, and even then the site would only review a small fraction of the App Store’s deluge of daily releases. User reviews are even less reliable, because I have no idea what kind of self-selected sample is taking the time to give their opinions. The App Store’s “Top 25” list is usually a good indication of quality, but it can include a lot of goofy, lowest-common-denominator apps that aren’t all that interesting.

Without some sort of minimal quality control — the kind that console makers have learned to exercise on their game libraries since the fall of the Atari  2600 — I’m afraid many consumers are going to continue to show resistance to spending even small sums on most titles on the App Store. The availability of more games offers more opportunity to indie developers, a major plus it’s true. But with few ways to sift the wheat from the chaff, and fewer still professionally administered and authoritative sources, I can’t help but wonder: How will the best of the best stand a decent chance of making money, or cream rise to the virtual top?

About Kyle Orland
Kyle Orland is a freelance video game journalist with over a decade of experience writing for dozens of mainstream and specialist outlets. He’s the author of Wii for Dummies and the co-author of The Video Game Style Guide and Reference Manual.

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