It's easy to see why some would assume there's a sexual intent in these applications when one features a mode to enable Xbox Live users to rumble each other's controllers remotely. Such a mode is the stand-out feature in Remote Masseuse, the product of a 28-year-old developer who would provide only his or her Xbox Live username, Entrager. His was the second of the massage programs, developed before Rumble Massage and released just prior to Valentine's day. He said he's received "a surprising amount of positive feedback, with several couples e-mailing me to thank me for creating it."

Asked what me makes of the sex toy comments, he wrote to Kotaku, "I developed Remote Masseuse to be used however people wanted to use it. I think it makes a great cat toy. You set one controller next to your cat and make it vibrate with the other." Entrager said Remote Masseuse has netted him $15,000. He's made it for the iPhone as well.

Le Clair, the starter of this trend, said a sexual use of Rumble Massage was not intended back when he hatched the idea. "I didn't want to pander to that," he said. But he attributes the success of his program, downloaded as a free demo 300,000 times so far, to two things: 1) His decision to give almost all of its contents except for its highest vibration setting away for free and 2) "Obviously it has to be because of the whole vibrator thing."

Rumble Massage

Whatever made the massage apps popular fueled some of the later entries in the field. French Indie Game creator Pascal Ginda admits he simply needed the money he thought a massage app could provide. Petank Party, the first Indie game from his team at UFO Games, didn't make enough money to keep his group going, he said in an e-mail to Kotaku. "So we looked at the best selling apps and two massage games were in the top 10. After downloading them, we thought we could do better." He made and released one called A Perfect Massage (pictured at the top of this post). It has sold well enough to both enable his team to test a new engine and, Ginda said, to "take a big risk and make a bigger game." Ginda's honesty about cashing in has rankled some XNA Indie Game developers.

The massage makers, however, are not completely at odds with the game creators. Entrager, the Remote Masseuse developer, agrees with the likes of Nick Gravelyn that the apps have been too much of a distraction from real games. "I think Microsoft should provide a clear separation of the two so that people that want games can find only games and people that want apps can find apps," he said. Within the Indie Games section, the massage programs are included in an "other" section, along with virtual fish tanks and birthday-card-makers. That makes them still a sub-set of "games."

Gravelyn, the one non-massage developer interviewed for this story, admits the confusion has provided some motivation. He said he'd come to think that he'd either have to wait out the trend or "have something so cool that it beat out the massage game fad." His Pixel Man game has already sold well enough to make it into a Major Nelson top 10 list of weekly Indie Games sales and it's netted him more than $1,000, motivating the daytime contract developer with a decent profit and level of awareness for a game that took about a dozen hours to make.

So much for separation of massage app and games, though. The massage trend has spawned a new phenomenon: Developers are now including massage modes in games that might not appear to need them. Minneapolis-area stand-up comedian Pat Susmilch got together with friends this year to develop Cold War Commander, a simple side-scrolling action game requiring players to collect jellybeans and avoid Communists. "Towards the beginning of production for Cold War Commander, during a 'creativity session,' I jokingly said that our next game should just be something that maxes out the rumble so you can put it on yourself," he told Kotaku. "We all had a good laugh, because that was the dumbest thing ever … A month later Rumble Massage was released and we learned that lots of people were stupid enough to buy that. We included it in the game to both garner more sales and lift a middle finger to everyone who already bought Rumble Massage."

The ploy failed, and the game has sold just 120 copies so far. Public reaction has been muted. "I usually just get messages on my Live account saying that the game sucks and I should be ashamed of myself," Susmilch said, "Without any mention of the massager."

Pixel Man

The 2009 surge in massage games may be subsiding, not just for those sticking the mode in a Cold War platformer.

The massage programs don't chart as highly as they did earlier this year, when they regularly clustered near the top of the best-sellers list for Indie Games. Pow Studios' Spectra Musical Massage, released in August, has been downloaded only 3,765 times and purchased 117 times — 83 times in the U.S., three times in Japan, once in Italy — according to its developer. That has profited Pow $200.

Thomas said his team didn't sign up for Indie Games to make massage apps, "but we felt it could help us gain some exposure." He said the app was "de-evolved" from a music-gaming project Pow still hopes to create. "Like everyone else, we were ... trying to figure out how to be successful in this environment." Pow's true focus is on a musical-based shooter the team is developing called Muzikaze.

That original massage-maker Le Clair is also looking forward to life beyond the trend. He promises he's done with the genre. In fact, he's using his earnings to pursue his dream. He and a couple of friends are moving to New York to set up a company called ZXB Games. He wants to make a modern-day pirate-hunting game and the cushion of cash made more comfortable by that well-massaged $60,000 means something important to Le Clair. "We can bootstrap it," he said.

To borrow a term from the massage world, that's one way to get a happy ending.