Apple is ending its affiliate program for apps which could mean the end of review sites like TouchArcade that have relied on a cut from Apple to keep their mobile game review sites afloat. The tech giant made the announcement in its August newsletter saying that members of the program will stop receiving commissions starting October 1, a move the editor of TouchArcade, Eli Hodapp, called a “big middle finger” to his site and others like it.
“Moments ago, Apple announced that they’re killing the affiliate program, citing the improved discovery offered by the new App Store,” he wrote in a post that went up on the site late yesterday. “It’s hard to read this in any other way than ‘We went from seeing a microscopic amount of value in third party editorial to, we now see no value.’”
TouchArcade has been around since 2008, offering reviews and news about new mobile games worth paying attention to. Mobile gaming is huge, and Hodapp says a respectable couple million readers pass through TouchArcade each month. That traffic, however, doesn’t result in much money from ads. To keep the lights on, the site has long used affiliate links. Basically, every time you click through a TouchArcade link to a game on the App Store and buy it the site receives a small commission. “Each individual purchase was almost inconsequential, but when you put them all together it’s sort of in line with the plot of movies like Superman III or Office Space,” Hodapp wrote citing cinematic examples of small amounts of money adding up to huge sums. TouchArcade and other outlets covering iOS games and apps rely on the revenue brought in through the affiliate links to stay alive, but in May of 2017 Apple cut the commission rate from 7% to just 2.5%.
Hodapp told Kotaku in an email that revenue from affiliate links had also fallen due to the shift toward free-to-play games filled with microtransactions and supported by in-game ads. He said that because TouchArcade focuses mostly on premium games that people have to pay upfront to play, the affiliate links were still an important. “I’m not super sure just how big of a dent this is going to make in our bottom line, but it’s going to be significant,” he said.
In 2015 the site launched a Patreon to try and help with funding following drop-offs in ad buys. “Without financial support from developers buying advertising, some sites have closed,” Hodapp wrote at the time. “TouchArcade, being the largest site, is the farthest up the proverbial river, but the drought has reached us too and even our continued existence is in question.” Crowdfunding from Patreon currently brings in $4,045 of a $10,000 monthly goal, with other funding coming largely through Amazon and App Store affiliate links.
Apple’s relationship to gaming has been fraught ever since it launched the iOS App Store back in 2008. Apple’s desire to have tight control over its technology and platforms was a problem cited by Doom developer John Carmack in a Facebook post in May. “Apple has made this move because if you watch Apple as a company, everything they do is to gain more control over a market they’re in,” said Hodapp. This is just another step forward in that plan, as they clearly want the App Store to be the sole source of curation of iOS content.” Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
Last year’s App Store redesign included a more visible editorial team devoted to in-house curation of games on the platform as well as changes to how they were featured. In my experience the App Store is still incredibly hard to navigate, even when searching for popular games like Fortnite Battle Royale. With more obscure games, it can be even harder.
One of the most notable changes was the addition of the spotlight feature, a way for Apple to highlight a different game every day whether or not it was the most popular. Think stuff like Florence, the innovative romance game inspired partly by earlier mobile successes like Monument Valley. However, Hodapp argues that publicizing a few games off the beaten path doesn’t make up for the general state of the rest of the App Store’s gaming section.
“Third-party sites have always done a better job of highlighting great apps and deals,” tweeted Marianne Schultz, editor of AppShoper, another site that relies heavily on affiliate links. “I’d rather have a trusted third party recommend apps to me over Apple, who has a vested interest in selling you every single app in the App Store, regardless of quality or usefulness.”