App downloads at any cost

Amazon’s Peter Heinrich warns devs against the sneaky tactics studios use to drive their mobile games
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It’s a golden age for app development. There are a bajillion active mobile devices out there, and a potential customer is using each one.

A small number of target platforms makes fragmentation manageable. Hardware is powerful and development tools are mature. Successful business models? Take your pick; there are several to choose from. It has never been easier – or cheaper – to publish software to a global audience.

Still, there are challenges. Ask a mobile developer to name the most significant obstacles to success and “discovery” will likely top the list. Selection is overwhelming. Building a successful app isn’t the hard part; it is simply making customers aware of it that is difficult. If you succeed in this, you must still convince them to download your app instead of innumerable competitors.

Whatever it takes

At first, an overflowing app catalogue would seem to benefit customers – after all, there is more to choose from and prices are likely to be competitive. But if content isn’t structured, customers get frustrated quickly, so app stores organise their content into lists by category, genre, user rating, and popularity, among other aspects. These lists provide so much exposure that often just appearing on one is enough to ensure that an app does well.

Some developers believe that listing is not only sufficient, but also actually necessary for success (it’s not, by the way). They will do anything to get there, from posting bogus reviews by hand, to using scripts and bots that inflate positive ratings, to offering payment or in-app rewards in exchange for favorable customer feedback. There is nothing unethical in asking your users to give your app five stars, but it crosses an ethical line when you offer to pay those who do.

Whatever the justification, using the IP of others without permission is never acceptable. Lookalike apps and clones will always spring up around a theme, feature, or mechanic that has proven successful, but many push the limits of the grey area between merely appearing similar and plagiarism.

The fact is, apps developed “in the style of” someone else’s original work draw more scrutiny from app stores that review submissions. They can even be flagged programmatically by automated systems, based on brand names, trademarks, and associated keywords.

Despite this, some developers insist on submitting apps whose title or description duplicates verbatim the work of another. Often the app icon will be virtually indistinguishable from the original, or feature changes so trivial that they are difficult to discern even when comparing the images side by side.

App stores that screen submissions expend a lot of effort to detect and exclude apps that are misleading or infringe copyrights, so it’s best to over-communicate if there is any possibility for confusion around your app.

Reputable app stores prohibit manipulation of reviews or ratings, and may even log attempts. Build your fanbase the old-fashioned way; the alternatives are not worth the risk to your livelihood and reputation.

The surest path to success for any app is marked by the value it creates for customers through its inventiveness, originality, humour, depth, performance, specialisation, or other special something it has to offer. Concentrate on these and the downloads will follow.

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