Drill, Baby, Drill! – Seedy Biz #1

NOTE: This post is part of an ongoing series looking at the seedier side of the game biz.

A few weeks ago, an app called “Dental Surgery” took a chomp out of the charts, reaching the top position and holding on (by its teeth!) as a top five game for nearly two weeks:

dnetal

The app was then promptly removed from the iTunes store (though several copies are still around on Google Play).

Here’s my best guess at piecing together what went down:

1) The app itself had assets stolen outright from a popular branded game (Glenn Martin, DDS) on Shockwave.com. The developer probably spent a day or three of engineering getting the basic gameplay working, but with tons of bugs and zero finesse.

2) Tens of thousands of accounts were orchestrated to download the app in a short period, boosting the game up the “Top Free” charts. Once the app broke the Top 10, it was exposed to hundreds of thousands of people and simple “WTF – a dental game?!” curiosity took over (leading to thousands of 1-star reviews).

3) The revenue came from a simple AdMob banner, gracelessly plastered over the game interface. But making a few tens-of-thousands from ad traffic may not have been the main motivation. The larger coup might have been in proving this can be done.

The biggest mystery, of course, is that it requires roughly 50,000 downloads per day to reach the top of the charts. Where did the tens of thousands of initial installs come from? Some possibilities:

  • Bots: Last year’s method of choice. Just write a script to create thousands of fake accounts then write another script to point all of those accounts towards one app. Doubtful that these bots are still prevalent, since Apple now explicitly sniffs for accounts with bot-like characteristics and it’s tough to create new accounts without a valid credit card (especially in the U.S.)
  • Crowdsourcing: Payola, baby. Give a small monetary or other reward to tons of legit users if they take the time to download and even rate an app.
  • Hacked Accounts: Simply put, thousands of old iTunes accounts with weak passwords may be under the control of zombie botnets, which have the ability to quietly download a free game — something the account owner would never notice or really care much about.

My guess is a clever new mix of Bots and Crowdsourcing: Combine a cheap and plentiful labor force (most likely in China), set up each employee with some macros, use VPN and spoofed IP addresses to have each person fake a few dozen U.S. accounts, and then let the download frenzy begin.

So, even though Dental Surgery’s triumph was short-lived, the next contender was Nose Surgery, which surfed the chart-top until January 1. Nose Surgery’s publisher info links to the profile of a 78-year-old woman. Maybe there’s a geriatric hit-game development genius out there. In truth, though, it seems that this party once again “borrowed” an identity as well as its assets — this time from a plastic surgery training site.

UPDATE: Apple kicked the app out on January 1. 
We'll see what comes next.

So in other words, the gentlemen (and/or women!) behind these escapades combined every naughty trick in the book:

  • Shameless cloning, down to outright IP theft
  • No-holds-barred, brute force growth hacking (perhaps combined with actual black hat hacking)
  • Egregious and intrusive ads

So as long as the iTunes charts continue to be the key method of app exposure and the algorithms remain easy to game, buckle on in and strap on the nitrous!

Continue to Part 2: The Zombie Tunnel O’ Money

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A Walk on the Wild Side

In today’s big-time game business, we’d like to think that user acquisition and monetization techniques are above-board, requiring terabytes of data, sharp-minded analysis, and serious financial modeling. The biggest hack isn’t a hack at all, says the Panelist X from Megacompany M: It all revolves around high quality entertainment experiences original and engaging enough to keep players excited.

But speaking as a natural-born hacker and peon indie developer trying to get discovered in an ever-crowded app store, one can’t blame me for letting my eyes wander to the dark side…

The dark side has always been here. Let’s look at the brief rise and fall of social games: Early Facebook apps hacked the feed by claiming in so many ways that your friends really truly wanted you, ultimately routing millions of users to offers for permanent toolbars or subscribe-by-accident-and-sell-me-your-first-born-to-unsubcribe-ware. It is from this primordial ooze that most of the top social gaming organizations evolved.

The seedy stuff makes for fascinating study. We all love the image of the down and dirty underdog who thinks outside the box… The Wire‘s Omar or, to be more literary, Oliver Twist‘s Fagan… the small-time crook worming his way up the ladder using nothing but cunning and chutzpah, unbound by trifles such as platform policies, common decency, or federal law.

But the black-hat toolkit is also important to understand because it foreshadows and informs many of the more legit and celebrated design, sales, and marketing practices. It’s similar to how many of the aspects of a glued-together milk-can carnie sideshow can be applied to the business of running a grand theme park. The differences are in sophistication, style, and scale.

That’s why I’m kicking off a series of blog entries exploring some of the shadier techniques out there today. I hope these essays serve as interesting reads and cautionary tales… not so much outright tutorials. 😉

Part 1: Drill Baby Drill!

Part 2: The Zombie Tunnel O’ Money

Part 3: Clone Home