Update: It appears as if the app was not long for the App Store as it is now removed. Was this perhaps just a miscommunication, or did Apple brass re-evaluate the merits of game subscriptions on the App Store only after public reaction?
Big Fish Studios is experimenting with a new way to generate revenue from their iOS games, by going to a business model that was used in previous incarnations of the mobile gaming market. Their new iPad app, Play Insantly, allows users to access a variety of games on their iPad from within the app. Play Instantly utilizes the new App Store in-app subscription service to allow users to pay $4.99 per month for unlimited access to the games in the app. As well, all users will be able to play for free for 30 minutes daily. The service is still in testing, but the Play Instantly app is now available from the App Store. According to Bloomberg, Big Fish had to work with Apple to get approval for their app and service. As well, the subscription cost will increase to $6.99 when more games are added to the service.
I asked one experienced mobile developer, Ryan Evans of Mirror Match Games, for his take. Ryan has worked in mobile gaming since the days of BREW and J2ME, helped develop Topple 2 and MazeFinger for Ngmoco, and is now working on titles such as the upcoming Let's Play Reversi. Ryan expressed some skepticism as to the viability of the subscription model, noting how games like DC Universe Online on console and PC shifted from subscriptions to free to play, and saw dramatic increases in revenue. As well, he noted that games were offered on subscription plans in the days before the App Store, like how "a game like Prince of Persia would be $5.99 [to purchase outright] or $1.99 [per month]. Many users would pick the subscription price because it was lower, and the publishers would bank on users keeping the game on their phone for more than a few months and not noticing the recurring fees on their bill." He also says that he thinks that "anything that causes users to be wary of downloading and trying products in the market, like a fear of incurring a subscription fee, is a negative for the industry."
It will be interesting to follow if this is viable for any other publisher to follow as a business model. Publishers like Gameloft and EA have the kinds of back catalogs that could help provide a wealth of content for a similar service of their own. Will they? Time will tell.