Last week saw the release of Angry Birds 2 (Free), the latest in what has been a long chain of high profile, high budget free to play titles to hit the App Store in recent years. Unsurprisingly, it’s a pretty damn great game, which in itself isn’t much of a shocker considering the amount of resources Rovio must’ve dumped in to the project to revitalize the Angry Birds-iverse. What also shouldn’t be news to anyone who follows the iOS gaming scene, is how the launch of Angry Birds 2 brought about the same old free to play blame game as grumpy gamers raced to point fingers to who was responsible for another game series going free to play.
Once people with this mindset finish blaming “greedy" developers, the next great target seems to be the games media. The logic goes something like this: Game developers, eager to please game critics, are tailoring their games based on what gets positive reviews. We published a review praising Angry Birds 2, and other big free to play games like Candy Crush Soda Saga so, one tiny logical leap later, and Angry Birds 2 has an energy system “because TouchArcade loves free to play."
Backing things up a bit, I’ve been supremely happy with the growth TouchArcade has seen and how we’ve evolved as a media platform over the years. What used to pass for a review compared to the kind of thing we publish now is just night and day. Our forums have grown exponentially, and we’ve even expanded to doing near-daily game streaming via Mobcrush. Our community rocks too, as when we needed help, the call was answered to the tune of thousands of dollars to keep the lights on.
On a real good month, we’re averaging around two million unique visitors, with a good chunk of those hits coming from highly influential people in the iOS games space including folks from nearly every level of Apple. We’ve heard from developers that Apple has contacted them because of preview coverage they saw on TouchArcade, we’ve confirmed this both through talking to ex-Apple employees and by seeing a pretty reliable trend of discovering some niche game, shedding some light on it, then seeing it get prime App Store featuring the following week. We’ve got investment groups, publishers, producers, independent developers, and other people in the creative space following us daily.
Oh, and of course, the army of supremely savvy iOS gamers who live in our forums, and make up the bulk of our traffic. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve done, and for a niche site, even in sort of a weird spot right now financially, consider TouchArcade to be an incredible success. The respect people have for TouchArcade has even opened up a lot of cool personal opportunities for me, particularly as I’ve flown all over the world doing all kinds of different public speaking engagements to evangelize iOS gaming, like this recent brief talk at AltConf on how developers can market their games better.
Anyway, so take an absolutely outstanding month for us traffic wise, where we hit two million unique visitors. …Then compare that to the one million downloads Angry Birds 2 saw in its first twelve hours on the App Store. We’ll make the simple, but likely woefully underestimated assumption that these downloads sustained at a constant level (Which is sort of crazy, as word of mouth, social sharing, and other things typically cause download numbers to explode when a new hot game launches.) and say that they hit two million downloads on the first day. So, for the angry anti-free to play gamer logic to hold any kind of weight, it also needs to come with the belief that we saw the largest burst of traffic in TouchArcade history the day Angry Birds 2 was released and everyone decided to download the game.
…Except, even that doesn’t make sense, as our review wasn’t even published until the next day, when Angry Birds 2 had already separated from several stages of solid rocket boosters and launched so well it was beginning to escape the App Store orbit. For this “Argh! The free to play loving media is to blame for this!" thing to hold any water, TouchArcade would need to have a level of mass market influence that’s so far beyond the realm of reality it’s kind of incredible to even think about. Being able to drive millions of downloads would be high on the list of the first things I’d wish for if I ever come across my own Monkey’s Paw, but right now it just isn’t realistic on any level. In an absolute best case scenario, the way we can sort of do that is finding some weirdo obscure game, kick-start the word of mouth, then through the chain of someone telling someone else eventually have PewDiePie play it. Another decent example is discovering 10000000 ($2.99) which everyone knows now, but similarly had a real slow burn. The most mainstream reach we’ve ever had was the Confederate flag drama, which really just piggybacked on existing US political drama that was boiling over that week.
Again, I’m real proud of what we’ve done with TouchArcade, and don’t mean to downplay the influence we have built. The thing is, it’s not the people reading TouchArcade who are fueling the free to play market, it’s the vast majority of people who have bought the billion iOS devices in the wild, or the people who have bought the billions of Android devices capable of running most of these games over the years. These free to play titles so many core gamers dislike have an appeal that’s so wide and universal, it honestly doesn’t really matter if we (and by “we" I mean me, you, other savvy iOS gamers, etc) love them or hate them. Getting mad at TouchArcade because I like Angry Birds 2 is about as productive as shouting at someone you see riding on the subway because they’re standing there playing Candy Crush (Free). At the end of the day, you end up looking like the crazy one.
We review a lot of the big-name free to play games positively, because typically they’re really good games- They have to be. Free to play games released in 2015 come with an insane budget behind them, not only in the initial development, but also in the live team that’s going to spend years supporting and updating the game. Sure, there’s all sorts of hijinks developers can do to promote a free to play game, along with all kinds of monetization tweaks and tricks, but we all know just how stingy people can be when it comes to spending money in or on iOS apps- People aren’t, and won’t spend money on something unless they’re enjoying it. The days of being able to release some junky game (free to play or otherwise) on the App Store and expect to see any kind of return are long gone. With the free to play space even more competitive than the paid space, these games must be good, or they bomb.
The best comparisons I’ve seen to describing free to play games is to liken it to fast food. Are Chicken McNuggets going to change everything you know about eating food? No, but they’re really great, and tons of people love the because they are awesome. Does enjoying pounding 10 nuggets once in a while make you not appreciate gourmet food anymore? Of course not, a statement like that would be asinine to make, but this is the kind of logic that gets thrown around all the time in the world of mobile gaming. Believe me, it’s A-OK to enjoy both supremely free to play titles like Angry Birds 2 or Candy Crush while still really loving when supremely special indie mega-hits like Sword & Sworcery ($3.99) come around.
At the end of the day, it’s all about being well rounded. A fun game is a fun game regardless of how you pay (or don’t pay) for it. We cover both popular free to play stuff and ultra-niche premium indie titles (and everything in between) because the TouchArcade team and I totally appreciate mobile gaming in all of its forms. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, and blaming anyone or anything because something exists that you don’t like but someone else does, well, that’s a pretty terrible way to spend the limited time you have on this planet. As far as us being to blame for free to play? That’s even crazier.