I don’t think I’ll find anyone who will argue with me when I say that the App Store of 2016 is a crazy place. The fun thing about being involved in the world of the App Store since before there even was an App Store is just how deeply I can appreciate how insane things have gotten. For this particular story, let’s rewind the clocks back all the way- When the App Store was new, and most of the games were supremely basic. We’re talking solitaire games, tilt-controlled mazes, and “games" which effectively amount to toy apps that used the touchscreen in weird ways like Koi Pond. Gameloft, believe it or not, played a massive role in legitimizing the App Store as a platform for “full" game experiences through rapid-fire releasing loads of games which at best were highly “inspired," and at worst, were straight up clones.
Gangstar: West Coast Hustle is a fantastic example to point at, perfectly illustrating exactly what I’m talking about here. In 2009, a lot of great games were released, but most were pretty basic or otherwise iterating on game formulas which had worked really well in the past. Puzzle games, line drawing games, dual stick shooters, tower defense games, and other quick experiences were king in 2009. Gameloft coming out of left field with a open-world Grand Theft Auto-like game was mind-blowing. The thread in our forums exploded with excitement, and to fully appreciate just how big of a deal this was, take a look at iDracula, another game for the era that was considered one of the best things you could get on the App Store at the time.
If you were even vaguely interested in iOS gaming, you gladly flipped out the seven bucks for Gangstar. Accusations went flying that all Gameloft was doing was ripping off Grand Theft Auto, particularly amongst the surprisingly vigilant contingent of Gameloft haters, but it was easy to rationalize away with a thought process along the lines of, “Well, GTA isn’t on the App Store and probably won’t ever be on the App Store." (Remember, back in 2009, iOS gaming was looked down on even harder than it is now because it had yet to truly split from J2ME cell phone games in overall consumer perception.) The logic continues, “So, I might as well grab Gangstar because I like GTA and playing something that’s at least sort of similar is better than not playing it at all."
There was a very long time where Gameloft was incredibly far ahead of the curve when it came to providing these “full" experiences on iOS devices. Their trick was they were able to pull from their extensive back-catalog of other “big" games of theirs to port them to iOS, but as soon as iOS started getting huge they switched gears to making brand new iOS games that felt a lot like the “real" console games you recognized. The experience of course was never 1:1 with the original, but it’s like going to a restaurant and ordering a Coke when all they’ve got is RC, you still drink it because it’s really your only choice if you’re feeling like cola. Back in 2008, Gameloft was all about the iPhone, and that trajectory persisted through 2009, particularly as they then went on to release successful knock-off after successful knock-off. Hell, we only recently got a “real" Assassin’s Creed game, meanwhile Gameloft had a pretty decent clone out all the way back in 2011.
Recently though, things haven’t been great for Gameloft. We haven’t covered all of them, but Gameloft has been scaling back and closing studios left and right. They’ve also seemed to really struggle to find their place in the modern App Store, particularly as they change course on games like Modern Combat 5 which was originally pitched and released as a “gamer" game with one price and no free to play hijinks… Before shifting gears to a kludgy free to play conversion in March of last year. Most people consider the MC5 team to be Gameloft’s top-tier developers, but when they released their own (admittedly, pretty good) Clash of Clans clone, no one cared.
It’s a fascinating study of App Store history, as if anyone would’ve suggested back in 2010-ish that in only a few years Gameloft would be struggling to keep their heads above water to the point that they’re now the target of a hostile takeover by Vivendi… Well, that would have been insane. It’s not much of a surprise though, seeing how things have gone. Looking back at our Gangstar example, why on Earth would you ever download Gangstar now, when instead you can not only decide to download a real Grand Theft Auto game, but decide which game from a spread of classic GTA titles ranging from Chinatown Wars to San Andreas.
A few of their recent heavily licensed games like Minion Rush and Spider-Man Unlimited have seemed to have done alright, but with no titles currently anywhere to be found in any of the top 200 lists, it’s unbelievable how far Gameloft has fallen. Gameloft’s early strengths came from being intensely familiar with developing across the dumbfounding array of different cell phones available in the 2000’s, then using those massive resources to build game experiences that were bigger (and often better) than anyone else. In 2016, when there’s effectively two platforms between iOS and Android, and players can just choose to download two different Halo games over Gameloft’s Halo-like NOVA, those strengths have been effectively totally negated.
Where does Gameloft go from here?