The Story Behind the Big Fish Games Subscription iOS App that Wasn’t

One of the best things about our Monday Morning Quarterback feature is that I can literally be a Monday Morning Quarterback. Meaning, the now-you-see-it, now you don’t subscription app by Big Fish Games on iTunes came and went away two weeks ago.

And now, Monday morning, two weeks later, I can give you my analysis.

So here it is. Just what happened in those 24 hours that Big Fish announced the first game subscription app on iTunes and Apple took it down.

To refresh everyone’s memory, Big Fish announced on November 23, that they were releasing the first subscription-based games app on the iTunes store. You can purchase newspaper and magazine subscriptions on the iPhone and iPad. Now, you were going to be able play any of Big Fish’s huge library of iOS games (which are, let’s face it, all hidden object games) for an initial price of $4.99/month and later $6.99/month (keeping it inline with pricing on the PC and Mac). Users would have to stream the content, which is no big deal, since this is the way that all content is going, and it’s no big deal (we can debate this opinion in the comments, but I’d rather stream from 100,000 games than afford to only own 10 that I’ll never play again once they are finished, at least, that is what I feel about music).

OK, back to story. In the words of Big Fish CEO Paul Thelen to Bloomberg News, “this is the first time the technology meets business model.”

The next day, however, Apple removed the app with no explanation. Big Fish had been working with someone at Apple to get approval, so they were confused that it was removed after it had been vetted and approved the day before.

So, what does this mean in the world of games?

1. On the face of it, Big Fish is a bit of a victim in this mess. They probably should have insisted on a joint release with Apple before doing press outreach for the app. Had they done so, someone high up the totem pole at Apple may have stopped it. But, Apple did approve the app after a multi-week process, so of course Big Fish assumed everything was fine.

2. The problem is that as far as I know, there still is no person in charge at Apple for Games. So, just because they got one person at Apple to approve it, did not mean that it was a change in Apple policy. When Apple noticed what they did (probably by reading it in the Bloomberg article), they realized how big a deal this was in terms of business strategy, as well as the fact that subscription-based game apps could eat into their game sales business (why buy one app when you can subscribe to thousands)? Apple removed the app to ponder it more, but it should never have been approved in the first place. And, it would never would had been if someone at Apple was actually in charge of games (if such a person does exist at Apple, write us, we’d love to interview you).

3. Apple did have what I would call a “HP” moment. That is when you screw up something really bad but in the process, learn there is a market opportunity that exist. In the case of HP, their release of the TouchPad at $500+ price point was a bitter failure; but when then announced they were canceling the tablet after only a month (ouch) and then sold it as a fire sale for $99, it sold out in days. So, due to complete ineptitude, HP discovered there is a huge market for Android devices for $199 or less (which Amazon is now capitilizing on with the $199 Kindle Fire).

In the case of Apple, by approving the first game subscription app on iTunes for a day, they learned there actually is a market for this. Both game companies and gamers were excited about this idea, both for the Big Fish app or subscription-based apps from other companies. Can you imagine a PopCap, Zynga, or Rovio subscription-based app? It would be really cool.

Apple’s problem is that they don’t know whether game subscriptions would grow their market or eat into their existing game revenues (app and in-app purchases). By screwing up, Apple has learned the market for subscription-base games exists. Now, they need to do something about this knowledge before Amazon or Google does with its Android devices.

4. Which brings us back to Big Fish Games. According to Appolicious (and I have no clue where they are getting their information from), Big Fish plans to release this app on Android early next year. Given that Big Fish has never released an Android game yet, that sounds unlikely. With Apple, you just need to design for one handset. For Android, it is many different sizes and it’s a completely different programming language.

Having said that, if I were Big Fish, I’d be so annoyed by this, I would work on an Android subscription-based app. Big Fish has the resources to do this, just not by early next year. The upside on Android is less since there already are apps like this that somewhat exists (e.g,. Exent and Wild Tangent, and OnLive is working on one) and people don’t pay yet for anything on Android (it’s all freemium or ad-based). But, Big Fish would create quite a splash if now launched an Android version of the app, and since they did it once before for iOS, they don’t have to entirely re-invent the wheel.

I do think that Big Fish would be smart to release such an app on the Kindle Fire first since it’s now the #2 selling tablet in the US (after the iPad) and you only need to make it work on one size dimension. And, I think they could work as a HTML5 version. HTML5 still sucks for games, but for hidden object games, it may work well.

5. The bummer for Big Fish is that launching the first game subscription app on iTunes (a) would have made them a lot of money (b) and built momentum for its upcoming IPO. AllThingsD reported recently that Big Fish could be planning to go IPO in early 2012, but its going to be a tumultous year for high tech IPOs given the volatile market conditions (that’s why Zynga, which its huge profits, is rushing an IPO in December, before it’s 4th quarter numbers are out).

Big Fish has a good IPO story today but this game subscription app would have been icing on the cake.

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