[With crowds of newly minted iPhone games jostling for consumer attention, Game Developer magazine EIC Brandon Sheffield looks at the iPhone App Store and sees it as a microcosm of the industry at large.]

A friend of mine recently released a game for iPhone by the name of Trixel. It’s a fine puzzle game, somewhat similar to Lights Out, in which you flip mismatched colored tiles to match an existing tile image. People who play it definitely seem to like it.

But visually, this game has almost no personality. Certainly, the tiles are large and colorful, there are power-ups and collectibles, and the audio was carefully attended to. But if you look at a screenshot and a description, you would likely not be compelled.

Another group of friends, the folks at Capybara Games, put out an iPhone game called Critter Crunch. This is a puzzle game as well, similar to Magical Drop, and starring a cute frog-thing that eats cutely animated characters. Now, I can’t really speak to which of these two games is more successful, but I can say that if I look at a screenshot of each, one compels me with characters and bright colors, whereas the other looks either a bit kiddie or a bit math-oriented, depending on how you feel about it (and in reality, the game can get a bit hardcore).

Taken as a microcosm of the industry, the iTunes App Store emphasizes some larger industry truths. In the case of something so impulse-buy-oriented as iPhone games, when a number of free titles already exist, one really needs a hook to succeed.

But then, hooks are necessarily oriented toward certain audiences. Some folks may really like the cute characters in Critter Crunch, but others may be completely turned off. Both Trixel and Critter Crunch are good, and both lie within the puzzle genre. So how do you get people interested in Trixel, when Critter Crunch is sitting next to it in the virtual shelves?

Looking at the bigger picture, console games are only on the store shelves for a limited time, before they’re shuffled away to make room for something new. They have very limited space in which to get the interest of the consumer who just wanders into a GameStop looking for something new to play, which happens more than most of us realize.

Someone like you or I will go to the store with a head full of previews, trailers, screenshots, story descriptions, and maybe a few behind-the-scenes stories. But the average consumer is just showing up at a store, looking to be entertained. These games need to grab consumers immediately as well, and have something the idle browser can latch on to.

Casual Consumers

I recently overheard a conversation in a GameStop—a late-teens customer walked in, and found the box art for Final Fantasy XII appealing. He brought it to the cashier and asked what kind of game it was. “An RPG,” was the response. “Oh. What’s that?” “Um, you know, a role-playing game. You have a group of guys, and you go on a quest, and you level up and stuff.” “Oh. Is that fun?”

This anecdote just shows that we can’t rely on the store itself to sell our products. Developers complain about releasing games on Apple’s App Store amidst a sea of other titles, with no way to distinguish a title other than getting featured by Apple. Well shouldn't we be used to dealing with that by now?

The same thing happens in retail. And indeed, isn’t it better than a situation in which your game drops out of the store entirely after a couple months, as with retail? And there are no used games there to cannibalize your actual sales (though one could argue that free games might take a chunk away).

So at this point it becomes a marketing issue. I wouldn’t say that independent iPhone developers need a marketer, but they do need to do some marketing themselves. I’m not just talking about sending out free review codes to folks you might know in the media, though that helps a lot. The reason a personality-free game like Sudoku is so popular now is likely because of this kind of marketing—the mom-oriented media got ahold of it, and it took off.

What I’m talking about is “marketing” in the actual planning phase. If you want the game to sell, realize you’re not just making it for people who innately get it, like you—you’re making the game for people like that GameStop customer. People who don’t understand your game, because they haven’t played it, and have maybe never played anything in the genre. For these people, you need appealing screenshots that make your game look like something. You need a compelling description, and possibly a demo.

That’s the kind of marketing I mean—marketing at the base level. Questions like “Who will this appeal to visually? How can I describe my game in three sentences?” should be at the front of your mind. The kinds of questions publishers would ask, if you had one. Show the game to your mom, or your kid, or your neighbor, and see what they think.

Market in Focus

A lot of companies and developers want to reach larger mainstream audiences, and the iPhone takes all the elements of the wider game industry and puts a greater focus on it. The game has to look pretty, but simple. The concept has to be easy to understand, but difficult to master. It’s everything we’re doing for AAA titles, but under a microscope. I think there are a lot of lessons to learn here, and the iPhone could potentially be used as a test market for larger concepts.