Who is Still Gaming on iOS?

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So who here is still playing games on their iPhones or iPads? Maybe I’m just jaded and cynical thanks to the once-bright gaming future that Apple never quite delivered on. While I can understand that many may disagree with me, it is hard to ignore how different things are at the moment in comparison with the salad days of 2009-2012, when apps were all the mainstream rage and games were at the heart of it all.

There is no way to keep the kind of buzz that Apple had in those early days of the App Store going at the same pace, but the trick is supposed to be to avoid a crash and turn that early buzz into a strong and steady market. Unfortunately, that wave did crash on the shore of reality a couple of years ago, as the average user now downloads a paltry 1.4 apps per month. Apple is still raking in plenty of profit and the App Store certainly hasn’t suddenly emptied of content. However, the early promise of thousands of developers making a steady living creating apps for the masses turned out to be a pipe dream. The death of that dream has taken many developers in other directions and out of the App Store, which is unfortunate.

In my opinion, the biggest disappointment is that the early success of games in the App Store didn’t translate into a market where users were willing to pay a fair price for higher quality content. Maybe the $50-70 for a console game is extreme, but we never got to a consistent happy medium between there and paying more than $0.99 up front. This isn’t all Apple’s fault, and there is no guarantee they could have done anything to insure a better outcome, but the fact that they never really tried when there was still a chance to change things is frustrating.

Even some of the best games that came out early on in the App Store struggled to maintain steady downloads without slashing prices. When they did, they lost out on potential profit. Combine this with the lack of working demo and upgrade systems, and you had a recipe for frustration. There is a reason that most developers go either the in-app purchase or subscription routes today- they are the ONLY proven ways to make a steady income in the App Store. This informative article from 2011 by 2D Boy (developers of the excellent game World of Goo) details some of the early optimism and possibilities of the App Store, but also the difficulties of hitting the pricing and timing sweet spots and staying visible.

It is easy to see that Apple is trying hard to combat this relative app apathy now, with its new App Store design and new focus on Augmented Reality. In my opinion, the updated App Store is actually a huge improvement over the egalitarian but messy and chaotic former design. Anyone with the right mix of great idea and coding skills could have had the next big hit, at least in the early years of the App Store. However, good luck finding that app without the right amount of buzz surrounding it. I just wish Apple had pulled the trigger on this new design that surfaces the best content and is carefully curated three or four years ago before the bottom fell out of interest in apps. It is better late than never, however, and it may slowly but surely help to kickstart interest in apps by continuously offering users content they may actually be interested in.

ARKit could be the secret sauce that really jumpstarts both public interest and developer innovation in the App Store again.

It is the first thing to come along since the in-app purchase with the potential to really change the face of gaming on iOS. However, it is still very early days, and we won’t know if the promise of AR on the iPhone X and the iPads Pro will be enough to grab the attention of gamer and casual users again for a while. As good of a platform as it seems to be for delivering a solid AR experience to a large existing install base of devices, its success hinges totally and completely on what developers can do with it. For all the potential, there is no way to know if the promise will become reality.

It is easy to draw conclusions based on statistics, as well as the overall mood of the tech community. However, it is usually our own experience and the direct experiences of others that inform us the most. I’ve written at length about my opinions on iOS gaming and Apple’s missed opportunities before (here, here, and here), so I won’t rehash it all again. However, I will say that I have gone from disappointed to completely disinterested in iOS gaming, at this point. I think Apple’s apathy toward the Apple TV’s App Store and its subsequent failure were the last straw for me. I had tried it all before that. I jailbroke my older iPhones and iPads and ran emulators with connected Wiimotes (a better experience than Apple EVER came up with, sadly). I bent over backwards to set up my network to try to get AirPlay to work for gaming on the big screen via an older Apple TV. I tried gaming with an iPad and a digital AV adapter. I tried a couple of pre-MFi game controllers that only worked with certain games. The 2015 Apple TV was the last straw. Now I have a nice MFi game controller that I hardly ever touch anymore because there aren’t that many games that fully support it, and only a few of them a good enough to pay money for.

To me, the sad thing from a gamer perspective is that Apple really had a window of opportunity to be a player in the console and handheld gaming spaces. They could have nailed the tight integration and versatility that Nintendo finally got right with the Switch a few years ago and absolutely taken over the mobile gaming market. Obviously that wasn’t a priority for Apple, and largely because of that it didn’t happen. Being a Switch owner myself, I can say that there is no reason I would ever go back to gaming on iOS for more than killing a little time with a free title every once in a while. Even accounting for the dramatic increase in the price of games, the quality of said games and the overall experience is so much better that there isn’t even a debate here.

When I look around my house, I see mostly similar perspectives even though the kinds of games we play are very different. My wife plays a couple of casual games, but is more likely to be found reading on her Kindle when she has free time. My daughter plays some casual games on iOS, but is just as likely to be listening to music or chatting with a friend when she is using iOS. My boys (16 and 13) hardly game on their iPhones at all. My oldest jailbreaks and runs some classic games on an emulator, but he much prefers console gaming. His younger brother much prefers console gaming, and spends most of his time on iOS watching or recording videos. NONE of us has touched the Apple TV that is still connected to our TV in at least three months.

My household isn’t the exception of my family, either. Out of the more casual phone users in the rest of my immediate family, most do not even play games. The ones who have younger kids or grandkids have some games loaded that they play, but I can’t name five adults in my family who play any iOS games anymore. A few of them who bought iPhones early on when the App Store was still in the gold rush phase DID play at that time because it was something new and interesting, but only a couple continue to today.

You can see from my own experience and from my observations of those around me why I would be cynical about gaming on iOS today. What I would like to know now is whether any of you still game on iOS or tvOS? If so, what types of games are you playing? Are in-app purchases involved? How are you finding new ones to play? Do you ever play on a console, or are mobile games your only outlet? Did you game before you came to iOS, or is this the first platform you’ve played on.

While the App Store’s sales numbers aren’t what they used to be, Apple is still making money and there are still plenty of apps being downloaded. Games have always been the biggest selling and most profitable segment in the Store, so some people are still playing and because in-app purchases are so common today, they are likely still paying, as well. But the question remains- who are they and what keeps them coming back? Let me know what you think or your own experiences in the Comments section below, on Flipboard, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog.

James Rogers

I am a Christian husband and father of 3 living in the Southeastern US. I have worked as a programmer and project manager in the Commercial and Industrial Automation industry for over 19 years, so I am hands on with technology almost every day. However, my passion in technology is for mobile devices, specifically Apple's iOS and iPadOS hardware and software. My favorite is still the iPad.

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