Someone Gamed Apple's App Store:Revenge of the Dentists Edition

It is encouraging to know the likelihood of breakout success in the app store is over 100 times better than the likelihood of winning the Powerball lottery. Unfortunately based on the sheer volume of apps in the store, it is still in the million to one range. Fortunately, unlike Powerball, we can increase the likelihood of success by charting. The top ten apps are easy to find and can build enough momentum to get millions of downloads. In this freemium world of ours, millions of free downloads means tens, maybe hundreds of thousand paying players. Most developers cross promote to their base, or use services like Appoday or Freeappaday to achieve the necessary velocity to crack the charts. But apparently, it is not the only path to success. Maura Thompson used a different method. She targeted a market with a large pent up demand and built an app for them - wanna be dentists.
You want to be a dentist? Ok, here is your chance! Dozens of Dental Surgery are waiting for you!

In this COOL Virtual Dental Surgery game you will have lots of fun drilling teeth, filling cavities, and using your dental skills to solve lots of dental dilemmas. hit the road and travel cross-country to lots of destinations, meeting new people and their mouths . . .
Yes, that really is the game's description. Now don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against dentists. My grandfather was a dentist and so is one my favorite uncles. But this is the first time I ever saw the words COOL, dental surgery and game all collected into a single sentence. This could come off as sour grapes. The good Maura Thompson found success where so many others did not, but I like to think this rant was ignited by bigger issues in the app store. Success is determined by discoverability and Discoverability is broken. Developers are playing playing a game with unknown rules and outcomes doled out from a slot at the bottom of a very, very black box.

Dental Surgery was released on November 20 of this year and ascended to the number 1 position in the app store shortly thereafter. I first noticed it on the 30th. It was kind of funny at the time and I thought someone at Apple was awake enough to see the game's position and do something about it. While I could be completely mistaken, the 3960 1 star reviews relative to 898 1 stars could indicate something is amiss. If Maura Thompson figured out how to game the app store, moved the app to number 1 for days and no one at Apple cared, there is a problem - and I want to meet her. If Maura Thompson legitimately built an app thousands felt compelled to download, but a vast majority found it to be . . . in the words of Tiger75 "is a piece of crap!" there is a problem.  Either way [I am waiting in silence as I hold my microphone out over the audience]

Let's first take a look at gaming the system. Everyone respects the rogue who takes it to the man. The person who provides solace to everyone who is not Supercell and Rovio by climbing to the top of App Mountain and planting a flag for the independents. We rally around him - or in this case her - and celebrate the victory while defending her from Apple's attack for the game played on the system.
Then the attack is followed by what should by now be called a "Mitnick," the offer to join the company. "How about you trade in that thar black hat for a white one?" But if this is not happening.  Where is the Posse?  If the number one position is the result of impropriety and Apple fails to react, the chart may soon become as useful as results 3 through 42,000,000 on a google search. Arguably they are useful if you are interested in finding out how a "hot nude lesbians waiting to meet you" corresponds to the search you did for an LED light bulb, but they are hardly going to help you find the the light bulb. Just as Google continues a glacial paced shift from useful to useless, Apple's only source of discovery may be commencing a migration.

But let's redirect and give Apple the benefit of the doubt. This post was typed on a Macbook Air and there are three iPhones, four iPads and countless Macs and iPods in my home. I bought all this equipment because I trust Apple. I continue to buy because I like the ecosystem. It works, and it is quality. This post was inspired three years ago by the attacks on Apple's walled garden approach.
Contrary to [Jason] Calacanis’ opinion, Jobs is not a dictator. We elected him with our dollars and put him up for confidence votes regularly. If he doesn’t listen, we can vote him out. We’ve done it before. Throughout the nineties, with no Uncle Steve and no network of developers, Apple suffered. And even though Uncle Steve is not always right – the Cube launch – at least Uncle Steve 2.0 reacts quickly – the Cube death. He reacts to the market. When it comes to the iTunes and the app store, Uncle Steve is more Frederick Law Olmstead to New York’s Central Park, than Michelangelo to the Sistine Chapel. He built a garden and invited the world to plant seeds. Like Central Park the form is established but the content will change. Also like Central Park, some content just doesn’t fit and has to be rejected or pruned. So far, it seems Jobs is the guy to do it. Jobs 2.0’s decisions are driven by long-term concerns over viability and stability of the platform. Do you think it was easy for him to allow an investment from Microsoft when he got back to the company It was an important decision that supported the continued relevance of the platform. Do you really need more proof?
So, here is the dirty little secret. It’s not [Douglas] Rushkoff’s disclosure that Apple is really evil, it is Apple is out to make a profit. At the present time, a walled garden is the best thing for the company. It will continue to operate in the best interest of its consumers, and its long-term viability. If there is conflict between the two, it will favor the company. Some of these decisions may include keeping competitive products off the platform for purely competitive or strategic reasons, but right now and fortunately, consumers have alternatives. If Apple goes too far, it could be 1992 all over again. I won't wait for the thank you card to the game industry for telling them what to do.
I supported Apple's approach because those of us old enough to remember the first run of "Mork and Mindy" remember Atari's crash. The game industry exists today because platform owners, starting with Nintendo, make sure content released on the platform is good. Atari users had so many bad purchase experiences when choosing from a very crowded market, they simply stopped buying. We see a flavor of this in the Android market today which is only a fraction of iOS sales.   Before the stories of his ouster from Apple, the press covered Scott Forstall as the guy who told Steve Jobs the app store should be open.   Jobs originally wanted it closed because he knew he had to give all consumers an Apple experience on their Apple product.   It is not really clear which side originated the walled garden, but it worked. As Ronald Reagan said before me "trust, but verify."  

We see in cases like the recent maps issue where Apple decided their own maps were not ready for prime time and highlighted other map applications in the store.   Apple will intervene and provide guidance if an app is not up to snuff.  Apple's decision to select and monitor content suggests the consumer can be comfortable enough to download, but Dental Surgery indicates otherwise.

Wait dear reader, before you jump down my throat and tell me Apple should not make decisions based on content. First they ban the dentists, then it is morticians and taxidermists and where does the madness end? No one will be safe. Don't worry, I am on board with you.  If the App is just not my taste or subjectively weak in the game play department but the market likes it - let it live.  I can't figure out what is going on in Rage of Bahamut, but you will never see me call for it to be yanked from the store. Is anyone going to support the original Madden Football beating Deer Hunter as a paragon of quality game play? But Dental Surgery is not just subjectively bad. According to the one stars, it is riddled with freeze bugs and lacking instructions. So the consumers who download this game can't play because it doesn't work and even if it did work, they would not know how.  How does this stay on top?

Apple's undertaking is monstrously large. While Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo deal with hundreds of games a year, Apple must deal with hundreds of thousands. Too much diligence creates anger in developers and hunger in consumers. Not enough means bad apps fall in the hands of consumers. There is a happy medium. Apple responded immediately to complaints generated by Capcom's Smurf Village and called for revisions in the game and revisions in the app store to prevent abuse of unwary consumers. Just like Kotaku's description of Google's shoot first, ask questions later treatment of financial anomalies, If Apple hopes to maintain consumer trust, it must respond anomalies in the charts. Unlike initial review, it would not a herculean task to assign a single person the responsibility of downloading and using the top ten free apps - especially the ones remaining in the charts for a week.


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