Badland, the new iOS game by Frogmind, has all the traits of a breakthrough indie hit. Like Angry Birds and Tiny Wings, it is based around one simple, satisfying mechanic. Like those games and 2010's Limbo, it has an impressive and unique visual style. Like those games, it can be played for 30 seconds or 30 minutes. And like Limbo, last year's smash Hotline: Miami, and the mighty Minecraft, Badland comes out of the endlessly fertile Scandinavian indie game scene.
A big indie game is big business. Last year Rovio, which makes Angry Birds, made $200 million; so did Minecraft maker Mojang. Even at a smaller scale, a game like Hotline: Miami (which was made, really, by one person) can turn a huge profit. The game sells for $10 on Steam and has been downloaded more than 300,000 times.
But Badlands, which was released last Thursday, enters a far different market than its predecessors. The iOS game market is glutted with more than 100,000 titles, which fight for precious promotional space in the Apple app store (when Angry Birds came out, in January 2010, there were only 140,000 apps in the app store. Today there are three quarters of a million). Big voices in the game world have predicted the end of the mobile gaming moment. The iOS game market itself is highly stratified. A survey of hundreds of iOS game developers found that the middle 50% of all iOS games make between $200 and $30,000; as you can see from the graph below, it is a very tiny group of games that make more than a few hundred thousand dollars.
Given that game budgets for polished mobile titles easily reach into the hundreds of thousands, it's obvious, and has been for some time, that mobile game development is a tough racket.
None of which is to say that a truly extraordinary mobile game can't succeed; last month's Ridiculous Fishing, Vlambeer's extremely weird and extremely fun $2.99 title, is currently among the top 60 paid apps for iOS.
And Badland is extraordinary. The game, which asks you to help a race of flying, coal-black fuzzbubbles escape from the chains, pulleys, spikes, and cogs encroaching on their forest paradise, pulls the player in with its incredible look, silhouettes layered on top of storybook backgrounds. And it keeps the player engaged through an increasingly difficult and ingenious floating and flapping mechanic. It's at least as interesting as Tiny Wings, if more stressful. It deserves to succeed. Now, we'll see if it can.