Developers Still in the Dark About Apple’s Policies on Incentivized Installs, Rankings

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By Kim-Mai Cutler Comment

Three weeks after Apple began rejecting apps containing offer walls, developers are still in the dark about what is acceptable and what is not under the platform’s new approach.

Last month, Apple began sending rejection notices to developers if their apps contained incentivized installs or offer walls where players can get virtual currency for free in a game if they download other apps. This practice emerged over the last year as a way for developers to earn extra revenue and to predictably get visibility for their games. By paying for enough downloads on these walls, developers could break into to the top of the charts. This is in turn raised criticism that these networks were effectively allowing developers to buy rank or “game the charts.” (We published an explanation of the model back in January here.)

Although Apple tolerated incentivized installs for months, it reversed course in April, arguing that they violate the iOS developer agreement by manipulating chart rankings

The company’s change in stance was a setback for many developers who have made their apps free in recent months and turned to in-app purchases and offer walls for revenue. Of an estimated 99.9 million downloads of iPhone apps in the U.S. in March, 39.9 percent of them were free games with in-app purchases, according to mobile app research firm Xyologic.

What’s Happening Now?

We haven’t covered the issue in the last two weeks largely because Apple hasn’t provided any clarity and developers have been reluctant to speak on the record. Apple hasn’t said what its final policy will be or fully explained the reasons behind its turnabout last month, according to multiple developers and install networks.

We’ve heard of anecdotal cases from the install networks where developers have been able to pull strings with connections at Apple and get their apps in the door that include offer walls. But then in other cases, they’re still getting rejected: text-messaging app Pinger said it had an update with an offer wall rejected this week. Many developers, like Sequoia-backed Pocket Gems, responded by taking offer walls out of their newest titles.

Developers that haven’t sent updates to the store since Apple’s changes say their offer walls are working just fine and many Tapjoy campaigns are actually operating normally as we speak. The rankings algorithm, which Apple tinkered with last month, looks like it largely went back to what it used to be and new apps are surfacing with regularity.

All of the uncertainty in the developer community was vividly underscored in game developer Glu Mobile’s earnings call this week, where the company had to speak publicly to its investors about the financial fallout and Apple’s positioning on the matter.

“The situation is still unfolding,” said chief executive Niccolo de Masi. “There is not perfect clarity on where a line is or isn’t in regards to offer-based monetization mechanisms.”

Glu, which went public before Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, is in the middle of making a transition away from a carrier-dependent strategy of making games for feature phones. Using freemium games that make money with virtual currency, Glu nearly doubled smartphone revenues quarter-over-quarter to $5.9 million (under generally accepted accounting principles), it said in its earnings call this week.

But it had to take an extremely conservative stance with earnings guidance for the second quarter. The company’s assuming that it will earn $2.8 million in offer revenue this quarter, much less than it probably would have expected a month ago. Half of that figure has also already been transacted.

Glu is now saying that smartphone revenue (using non-generally accepted accounting principles) will grow by between $550,000 and $1.55 million to between $7.25 and $8.25 million. That would be a marked slowdown from the $3.3 million in quarter-over-quarter smartphone revenue growth it posted in the the first quarter. (Glu’s beaten guidance for the last five quarters, so the company is also probably just playing it safe.)

What’s the financial fallout?

  • If we take Glu as a benchmark for other free-to-play games with in-app purchases, we’re looking at offer walls contributing one-third of game revenue. Glu said offer wall revenue made up $2.2 million in revenue of the $6.7 million in smartphone revenues it earned last quarter (using non-generally accepted accounting principles) or about 33 percent.
  • Glu is predicting quarter-over-quarter revenue growth will slow and it’s preparing for the case that incentivized installs eventually become banned on the platform. “The situation’s unclear and Glu is preparing for the full range of possibilities — from CPI (cost-per-install) being highly discouraged to being highly permitted,” de Masi told us.
  • Distribution may become more unpredictable and the ultimate effect of losing offer walls may be hard to calculate since its effect is so circular. Developers use offer walls not only to earn revenue, but to distribute their work. If they get shut down, acquiring users may become more unpredictable and if developers can’t get users in the door, they can’t monetize them.
  • It’s still unclear what other forms of advertising will benefit from the crackdown. Some developers we’ve talked to are looking at advertising where they can still reward users with virtual currency if they take actions like viewing ads. But we haven’t seen an alternative to offer walls gain traction among developers yet since the situation is still unclear and it’s only been a few weeks.

Who Else is Affected?

Basically, all of the top game developers who regularly push multiple free apps into the Top 100 grossing apps on the iOS store may see a slowdown in revenue growth this quarter.

When Xyologic published its report last week, it listed the top developers who had the biggest download numbers for free apps with in-app purchases. We find it to be a pretty representative list of all of the developers who probably are facing what Glu is seeing this quarter. Just to stress: the chart below contains estimates for U.S. downloads. They are not global figures.

Naturally, the companies that may feel the most pain are the install networks themselves like Tapjoy. The company recently voluntarily dampened the effects of its campaigns by limiting the number of downloads any single app could facilitate.

In the end, it’s likely that this is a temporary setback for most game developers. iPhone and iPad adoption continues on its upward trajectory and Android is very promising, although average revenue per user is still much lower.

When The Same Thing Happened on Facebook, At Least It Had a Roadmap

Like we’ve said before, it’s deja vu all over again for many of the companies providing offer walls like Tapjoy and Super Rewards. These companies, which transitioned from doing different kinds of offer walls on the Facebook platform, faced an uncannily similar situation on that platform in 2009.

Tapjoy, which used to be known as Offerpal and had a totally different management team, came under fire for not having tighter standards over the quality of offers it was providing. Facebook, wanting to financially tap the burgeoning ecosystem it was supporting, launched its own virtual currency Credits and selected a rival to be its primary offers provider. This decision will eventually crowd other companies in the space off the platform.

In Facebook’s case, it at least provided a developer roadmap. There has also been more than two years of time between when Facebook began testing its own payments platform to July, when it plans to make Credits the mandatory currency for canvas games. This has given third-party companies and developers months to plan ahead for this transition.

Apple, in contrast, has not really communicated its new approach to the developer community. The developer agreement does say, “Developers who attempt to manipulate or cheat the user reviews or chart ranking in the App Store with fake or paid reviews, or any other inappropriate methods will be removed from the iOS Developer Program.”

But Apple didn’t decide to interpret offer walls as a violation of this clause until last month. Apple’s lack of communication in managing this issue makes Facebook ironically seem like the patron saint of transparency.

Not that this will do anything to deter developers. iTunes payments are so fluid and the market size is so large, with 189 million iOS devices sold cumulatively as of last quarter, that developers will still be climbing all over themselves to be on the platform.

Pick your platform. Pick your poison.

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