The iPad's chicken-or-egg developer problem

The iPad shares much in common with the iPhone, though making money off it continues to be a challenge for some developers, according to industry experts.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
5 min read
Playing Gameloft's Asphalt 5 on an iPad.

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO--While the release of the iPhone 4 may have taken some of the wind out of Apple's iPad marketing sails, developers are still scrambling to produce apps for the new tablet device. One of the biggest problems to crop up though, is how much of a priority the iPad continues to be, versus creating something for the iPhone--or another platform first.

At first blush the reasoning behind this seems simple: there are just more iPhones and iPod Touches out there than the iPad can hope to approach in the next few years. Especially after this past weekend, where Apple announced that it sold 1.7 million iPhone 4s in just three days; that's compared to the 3 million iPads Apple sold after its first 80 days on the market. Any developer hoping to make a profit out of their first app knows full well there are more potential customers where there are more devices.

But there's more to the problem than size. It's that developing apps, and games in particular, for the iPad, is very different than it is on the iPhone. Not in the software or familiarity when coming from the iPhone, but in how the game ends up playing on a bigger screen. And to make the really great apps for either device does not always mean they'll port over well to either platform--at least according to developers and industry insiders at Monday's inaugural iPad Games Summit in South San Francisco.

Take for example Playfirst, the makers of the popular Diner Dash series. At the Summit, Playfirst's lead game designer Dana Nelson explained to the crowd that the company had had great ambitions of including complex, gesture-based minigames as part of one of its Dash iPhone games, but that in the end, the small-screen real estate proved to be a problem. When moving their Diner Dash title up to an iPad, Nelson explained that they tried out the mechanic again, and finally found a set of simple gestures and a "can't fail" game mechanic that worked. The only problem was that it couldn't be ported back over to the iPhone--at least not in a way that they've figured out yet.

For any developer, that difference creates problems when developing a game, since you can't always scale things up and hope it will still play the same. Peter Farago, the vice president of Flurry Analytics, which has been tracking the usage habits of Apple's hardware (including the iPad prior to its release), echoed similar concern during a panel about market research. He emphasized that iPhone games, even when scaled up, tend not to translate well to the larger hardware based on the ergonomics of the device. "It's a one-button philosophy. You hold the iPhone in one hand, so a game like Doodle Jump where you can use the accelerometer, or [something else] with a button or two works well," he said. "Games we think work better [on the iPad] are Words with Friends and real-time strategy games like a Command and Conquer where it was a mouse, and a point-and-click experience."

Farago's solution? Just start from scratch, and build a title that's been designed from the ground up for that hardware.

Though according to Jason Spero, who is the vice president and North American general manager of Google-owned AdMob, that's not always as important as good timing. Spero suggested going one step further. Using the iPhone and iPod Touch as recent examples, Spero said developers in search of early success should design apps timed for the launch of these new devices that take advantage of the specialized hardware. Then "camp outside of Apple, with a sign that says 'feature me!'" to get a chance at being a promoted application.

The "holy grail" though, which was referenced several times throughout the day, was something far deeper than a pat on the back from Apple, and arguably a goal that developers on any platform could try to reach. "You want to be that app that people want to fire up to show off to their friends," explained Playfirst's director Chris Williams. "The one that helps them justify purchasing that $500 device."

Such a task is not easy though, and one that boils down to how specific the app is to that device--something that brings us back to the problem of how developers (big and small) spread out and prioritize their development resources. This was easily the most controversial item discussed at the show.

During a panel on prepping applications for the launch of the iPad, Michel Kripalani who is the president at Oceanhouse Media (which owns the rights to publish apps with the Dr. Seuss intellectual property), explained that his company had seen great success in launching a high number of applications that ran off the same game engine, and promoted one another. Each time one of these apps made it higher up in the charts, it would, in turn drive sales to the other apps, which kept the cycle going. Though even with the high volume Kripalani insisted that Oceanhouse was not just in it for a quick land grab. "We average four and a half to five stars across all our apps," he said. And that the company's philosophy was "it's five stars, or no stars," in reference to Apple's App Store user rating system.

On the other end of the spectrum was the aforementioned Playfirst, which also makes a variety of games, but dropped everything--including ongoing iPhone titles--to work on the iPad version of Diner Dash. Playfirst's Williams explained that while the company usually tasked just three people to one of its projects, they added 20 people to get it done in time for the iPad's launch.

Then there was Eros Resmini, who is the vice president of marketing and developer relations and Aurora Feint--a company that is in a rather unique position of being a game developer itself, as well as a social-networking back-end for game developers. Like Oceanhouse, Aurora Feint does similar cross-promotion for games that are a part of its Open Feint network. However Resmini suggested that a much better way at getting your game to be popular is to first make it good, then make it a universal app (one that works on the iPhone and iPad--but loads differently based on what platform it's on), so as to keep consumer confusion down.

Will these tactics pay out big for small-time developers though? Resmini, as well as the other panelists in the monetizing session at the very end of the summit, said that getting into the millions of dollars of sales for a game is getting closer to fruition, but we're not there yet. Resmini said that even though a few developers in the Open Feint network were pulling in six figures from App Store sales, he thought it would be the big companies that get to that next level first, due mostly to being able to get away with higher pricing.

More importantly though, Resmini said, the goal comes down to how good the games are. Citing a report by Frank N. Magid Associates released last week that said Americans alone are estimated to have spent $168 million on virtual goods from their mobile phone in the past year, Resmini said simply: "as people develop more interesting games, that will be a very different number."

The continuing question, it seems, is whether the iPad is the platform those games end up on first.