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Opinion: Gaming the Store

This opinion piece from Liquid Advertising media director Kevin Joyce first appeared in Game Informer issue 228. Joyce is a advertising expert whose company has handled dozens of video game clients on different platforms.

Given the relative lack of exposure and limited marketing budgets to raise awareness about apps, rankings play an incredibly outsized role in obtaining visibility. A top spot in the rankings can make or break your game. The dynamic is self-perpetuating: Once you’re there, more people see your app while browsing the store, which leads to more sales. If you’re not in the top 25, it’s incredibly difficult to crack it.

Most people perusing the app rankings assume that they are as fair a reflection of a game’s popularity as weekly movie box office numbers. But with the stakes of getting to the top of the app store so high, game publishers would be foolish not to consider any and all possible tactics to get there.

As it turns out, Apple does not have a transparent set of criteria, in the absence of which publishers must speculate on the rules based on the results they see in the marketplace. Whereas Android’s app rankings seem to factor in downloads, frequency of app usage, and length of time it stays installed on a user’s device, Apple’s appears to be (almost) entirely driven by installs. Publishers can manipulate the rankings in several ways, and they’re practiced routinely. To this point, Apple’s responses have seemed uncharacteristically delayed, often leaving publishers and marketers scratching their heads wondering when the Apple hammer will drop. 

The Power of the Price Drop

The most common way to skew the rankings is to temporarily discount the price. This spikes downloads from deal seekers, driving the game up the rankings. Within days, the app returns to full price while sitting in a highly visible spot near the top of the app store. Users presume that the app is well worth the full price, considering the ranking spot. At no point is this practiced more than immediately prior to Christmas, when Apple freezes the rankings. The sales come fast and furious in the days immediately prior to Apple’s freeze, as publishers jockey for a top spot through the all-important holidays, when folks get iPhones, iPods, iPads, and iTunes gift cards. 

This tactic is hardly limited to only the scrappiest, small publishers. Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto III on the App store on Dec. 15 at $4.99, and instantly was top of the charts. Five days later, the natural decline started, and they found themselves at #8 overall on Dec. 21, on a trajectory to be well out of the top 10, and possibly out of the top 25, during the Apple freeze.  So, on Dec. 22 – just one week after launch – Rockstar dropped the price to $2.99. They shot back up to #4, and were locked in at that prime spot until the freeze ended on the 28th. Great for them. Not so great for the folks who paid full price during the first week.

Interestingly, the music industry has responded to a very similar discounting trend. The likes of Lady Gaga and many others benefited massively from one-day promotions that sell albums at a heavily discounted price (as low as $.99). In response, Nielsen Soundscan – the sales authority behind the Billboard rankings – has ruled that it will not count sales priced below $3.49. It will be interesting to see if Apple ever announces a plan to factor in these deep discounts to how heavily each install counts toward the rankings.

The Appayola Store

With free games, you can’t drop the price – so theoretically you might think the rankings are more transparent. However, were all those downloads legitimate? Or were they spurred by the latest iteration of the old payola scheme when record companies bribed DJs to play certain songs in heavy rotation to get to the top of the charts?

Services have cropped up that offer publishers a guaranteed spot in the top 25 for $5,000-10,000. (Depending on the deal, this could be Top 25 overall, or Top 25 within a category like Simulation, Adventure, etc.) These services claim to have sophisticated marketing techniques but by all accounts seem to use bots to generate roughly 50,000 downloads – just enough to crack the top 25.  Because of these bots you’ll see games skyrocket out of nowhere or suddenly chart in new categories (like an educational game appear in the arcade category weeks after release) and then disappear just as suddenly – but not before garnering enough legitimate downloads from their brief exposure at the higher ranking. As an advertising professional, I can tell you that this is only possible in two ways – big, expensive, advertising campaigns or bots, which are are a heck of a lot cheaper.

Read on for Apple's response to these kinds of tactics – such as it has been.

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