Some thoughts on IAP for the Nook

Barnes and Noble announced this week that in-app purchasing was coming to the Nook, through a partnership with Fortumo. As a parent I have enjoyed fact that the Nook does NOT have  advertisements and in-game purchases.  But, I would expect that this will be a good move for the Nook, since tablet users expect to find a wide selection of high-quality free games on mobile devices and tablets, this move should bring the Nook more in line with its competitors markets.  And, while you may not think that the Nook needs games like Subway Surfer (which uses both IAP and interstitial advertisements), that is exactly the kind of game that is not on the Nook right now, and that kids (like my own) want to play!

As a developer, I also expect that the addition of IAP is going to have an impact on the Nook marketplace, though how quickly this will happen depends on how fast new free apps are added.  In general, this will development will hurt the visibility of my own games, and I would expect, those of other small, independent game studios.  Personally, I have found the Nook to be a great market: my strongest sales have been on the Nook, as have the vast majority of downloads of my free games (or of my paid games when on a temporary sale).

For example, in December I released a new game, Amnesia Island, on the Nook.  As with all of my games, Amnesia Island was part of a research study, and in this particular study I was looking to test some navigation tasks (based on classic animal tasks such as the Barnes maze, the Morris water maze, and the 8-arm radial maze).  These were tasks that I’ve been using for some time, and which I (and my colleagues) am hoping to bring to my research on mobile platforms that I’m hoping to use over the next few years.

As I was preparing Amnesia Island, I thought that the Nook would be a good market, as I was planning to release the game for free, and was willing to forgo ads (or any monetization).  In my past few releases, I’ve been working to combine research with games that are enjoyable.  But, I knew that Amnesia Island was going to be more “research” than it was “entertainment.”  Unlike some of my recent releases, Amnesia Island is not really a game: you get points as you complete trials in each task, and your high score is tracked for each task variant, but the game is not really intended to be entertaining, as I indicated in the product description.  It was intended to let people try out virtual versions of several rat tasks that are widely used in studies of memory, and which are regularly used in human memory studies.  So, I felt it was best to release the game for free, rather than charging even a nominal amount ($0.99).  And, since there are relatively few free games on the Nook, I thought this strategy could help me obtain enough downloads to help me develop a better version of these tasks for my research studies.

Now, if I had released Amnesia Island on Google Play, or iTunes or the Amazon Appstore, I expect it would have had a few downloads, but without investing a substantial amount of money in advertising, Amnesia Island probably would have yielded less than a 1,000 total downloads on any of those platforms (based on my experience with my previous releases).  And, that at that rate, it really would not be worth my time.  But, on the Nook, Amnesia Island did much, much better.

In the three months since the game was released (from December 20th, 2012 to March 25th 2013), Barnes and Noble’s sales reports indicate that Amnesia Island was downloaded by 55,230 Nook users.  Many of these downloads came in during the first week of sales, which included the Christmas holiday in the U.S. (and 18,957 downloads were reported for December 20th through the 31st).  But, even after the holiday rush, the game has been drawing in respectable numbers: so far in March, the game has had 7,521 installs.  For a small research study, this was wonderful performance: I was able to collect data from a large sample of users in a relatively short period of time (more on that in a future post).  That is not to say that the game was well received by the users, however.  Early  user ratings of the game(in late December and early January) were polarized (with most users either giving it 1 or 5 starts), but over time the average rating has slid to 2 stars, and currently 56 of the 102 ratings logged were 1-star.  That was to be expected, given that the game is, in the end, basically a research study.  I am encouraged, though, that currently the review rated as “Most Helpful” is a 5-star review acknowledging that the app is not a game, in the sense that we might usually expect, but that the game is an interesting adaptation of classic animal memory tasks.

So, what do I think will change with Barnes and Noble’s announcement?  Well, I think that only reason Amnesia Island (a game with weak user reviews) has been able to attract +50k installs is that there are relatively few free games for the Nook.  I expect that if I had tried to release the same game after IAP gets established in the Nook market, I would have seen very few downloads.  As IAP gets off the ground, visibility in the market will change quite a bit (though, I’m curious if the lack of advertising options will continue to hold the market back), as the number of high-quality, free apps (and games) increases.

And, for the long-term viability of the Nook, this is great news.  IAP would seem to be a critical part of an Android app store (or any app store) in the current market and without it, I would expect that the future prospects for the Nook look grim (not that some are not already worried!).  But for developers, especially independent developers, the erosion of visibility on the Nook market (which is already underway simply as the number of apps released increases) is going to be greatly accelerated by IAP.

So, the end is coming, and there is no need to wait until it’s too late.  Let’s come up with some creative strategies to maintain visibility, and I’d be happy to hear your ideas (What about a homemade cross-promotional campaigns across developers, if that would be allowed by B&N?) to help us get our games in front of eyeballs.