Being labeled a 'featured indie' app or game doesn't help developers

Shane Schick

In a video store, indie movies might be marketed on a shelf called "hidden gems." In record stores--and there are still a few of them around--indie music labels might see their CDs lumped under "alternative" because they usually produce music outside the traditional pop/rock categories. For indie mobile games, though, they're just called "indie" by the app stores, and it's a label that they may need to shed. 

A recently published report from Distimo sheds some fascinating light on a mysterious subject: the impact of being "featured" by Apple on downloads, revenue and other factors. As might be expected, being a featured app can lead to considerable uptake. For example, in the category called "Amazing Puzzlers for 99¢," downloads of apps were six times higher in the featured period than before this period. Unfortunately, though, becoming a featured app doesn't create a universally magic effect.

"In March, the Apple App Store introduced two feature categories that showcase indie games: 'Essentials: 10 Incredible Indie Games' and 'Indie Game Showcase.' Apps in both categories did not profit from this free attention in terms of downloads and revenue," the Distimo report said. "A possible reason for this could be that most of the games in these categories were paid and that the effect of being featured is minor for paid content. Consumers might prefer the free spin of the freemium apps, instead of following the recommendation of the store to purchase a paid app."

I suspect there's more to it than that. What does "indie" really mean in the sense of an app? I doubt most consumers could tell you. Industry experts might define such apps as produced by smaller studios or entrepreneurs, or firms that aren't associated with traditional console video game companies. Depending on who's looking at the app store categories, it might suggest "fringe interest," "cheaply made," or "too weird to get produced by a major publisher."

Distimo's report showed how important the vocabulary of app store categories can be. Revenue of Superbrothers: Sword and Socery EP by Capybara Games went up after being featured in "Spectacular Stories: Games" from March 14 to March 20. In contrast, being featured in 'Essentials: 10 Incredible Indie Games' (March 28 to April 3) resulted in a flat line for the revenue, the report said.

App stores don't necessarily have an obligation to promote indie games, but it's in their interest to position apps in the most attractive way possible to customers. There aren't usually categories like, "Games produced by large conglomerates."

Similarly, if there is any evidence to suggest "indie games" carries a negative connotation (and Distimo's report, among many other things, offers precisely that evidence), it may be a term better used within the app industry rather than the mainstream market. Otherwise, even though it technically has five letters, some developers might start thinking of "indie" as a four-letter word.--Shane