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The App Store: Still Broken After All These Years.

Question: how can you take an older, paid iOS title and update it into a modern mobile format without screwing over all of your current customers? Answer: you can't. Screw away!

Question: how can you take an older, paid iOS title and update it into a modern mobile format without screwing over all of your current customers? Answer: you can't. Screw away!

 

When I released my first game for iOS, “Poker With Bob”, in early 2011 it was before IAPs, interstitials, freemium models and high res iPads. The standard approach was to have two versions: a free “lite” version and a paid “full” version. In mobile game terms, it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The release of the iPad2 brought cries from customers that didn't like the pixelated game on their brand new devices. The game engine I was using at the time had no support for a “universal” build. As a result, “Poker With Bob” and “Poker With Bob Lite” were soon joined by “Poker With Bob HD” and “Poker With Bob HD Lite.”

 

Leap frog to three and a half years later where I've finally begun work on a rewrite and update of the game (in Unity). This updated version is a cross platform update that will support iOS, Android and WP8 in a single project. It makes sense to make it a single version that you download for free, get an ample sampling of the gameplay and then have an opportunity to unlock the full game for a nominal fee. Of course, this new approach is incompatible with any of the four versions of “Bob” that currently exists in the app store. So I contacted Apple to discuss my options. Surely there must be some system in place to accommodate the upgrading of older iOS titles, right?

 

My first question was to ask how I could consolidate the users of the “standard” and “HD” version of the game into a single group that had access to the new unified version? I quickly shot past their first tier of tech support and was bumped up to level two where I began conversing with a very nice lady who listened as I explained my predicament. After thinking for a moment she came up with what I guess is the standard Apple suggestion for this scenario: pull one of the games off of the app store, then you'll only have one. I inquired as to how I take all of those now orphaned customers and transfer them over to the remaining app. The answer: you don't. So, they lose access to their game and have to turn around and buy it again? The answer: yes. When I asked, in essence, isn't evil to screw over the people that have actually paid for your game? I was told that I could use my free promo codes to accommodate these individuals. I don't know which is worse: that Apple has no system in place to allow older titles to catch up to modern times or their assumption that all of those apps couldn't possibly have more than 100 pay customers.

 

I asked how high profile titles like “Temple Run” managed to shift from pay to freemium without screwing over the previous pay customers. She explained that anything is truly possible. That something could be done. But that would only happen if you were a big enough fish in the pond and Apple was calling you and offering you some possibilities. The other suggestion she made was to take advantage of the brand new “bundle group” system that would sell multiple premium games together at a discounted price. Sort of your own personal “Humble Bundle.” I could lower the group price low enough that previous customers wouldn't feel ripped off. Two problems with this scenario. One) this system wouldn't be limited to just previous customers so I'd be selling the deeply discounted group to new customers as well as current ones. Two) more importantly this only pertains to premium paid apps. It doesn't work with IAP. And since I'm in the process of trying to replace my only premium app this doesn't seem very viable either.

 

And this is what I'm left with. No good choices. One scenario I was toying with was to update the paid versions to a single freemium model and adding an unlock code for current users that would keep them from re-buying the game. Unfortunately Apple won't allow anything like this. You can't have an app with “special codes” used to unlock content that happens outside of the app store eco-system. Of course there's no alternative that's offered inside the app store eco-system either. Another scenario is to keep the status quo. Update the free and paid versions. The problem is that unless you're selling a high profile IP, premium is a bad model these days. The bigger problem would mean that instead of having a single unified game project I would suddenly have five. And since one would be freemium and the others free/pay it would mean that they would be significantly different in code. Not to mention that any revisions would then have to be propagated across all five builds instead of a single update. I could just pull down the “HD” version of the game and replace the current paid version with the freemium version. But that's completely unfair for all of the people who have supported the game through their purchases. And would most likely bring a wave of 1-star rants to the new version.

 

Here is the only workable solution that I can find. I will release the new freemium version as “Poker With Bob 2.” It's difficult to call it a full fledged sequel but, in fairness, there's tons of new features in this new version. Cross platform multiplayer (iOS vs WP8, etc), leaderboards, Game Center and Google Play support as well as a much requested “career mode.” I'd stop future sales of the previous versions of the games but let it remain there so current customers would still have access to it. I'm sure that there will be some current customers that will complain about having to buy this updated version to get the new features. But I still feel it's much better than depriving them of their current version and forcing them to pay again to get back to full paid gameplay. Maybe if “Poker With Bob” had had a “Temple Run” level of success, I would have better solutions for this problem. But I've got to believe that I'm not the only early developer that is facing this same issue.

 

Lest you believe that this is an Apple bashing rant, the reason I didn't have this issue with Google Play is because I never released the game for Android. The fragmentation that was present in 2011 (before Samsung's dominance) was so bad that I decided to pass. It's completely possible that I would have suffered a similar issue with the folks as Google. Maybe others can speak to having a similar quandary on that platform.

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