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The saddest game of the year proves $2 apps can still be blockbusters

Published Jul 15th, 2014 4:19PM EDT
Best Paid iPhone Apps Monument Valley

Yes, all but two of the top 80 highest grossing iPhone apps in America are now free downloads. The freemium beast has eaten the entire app industry. But there are still a couple of rare exceptions out there — paid downloads that generate millions of dollars of revenue.

The most well-known is Minecraft, the Swedish blockbuster game that enablers players to create rich, if pixelated, environments. Minecraft remains a top 20 grosser on both the U.S. iPhone and iPad app charts despite its shockingly high download price of $7.

Fascinatingly, another paid title with blocky landscapes that has been able to break into mainstream success in 2014 is Monument Valley — a minimalistic, elegiac game about a princess traversing a bleak landscape to place a flower on the grave of her dead mother. The game has episodes with downer titles like “Chapter 9: The Descent: In which there is nobody left to forgive us.”

Monument Valley achieved instant fame when it debuted last spring. The game has a few monsters, but they are clockwork creatures walking slowly back and forth, blocking instead of attacking. There is no action per se, just a 3D puzzle to figure out. The terrain the main character walks on is the puzzle. The core gameplay consists of pulling, twisting, and timing the movements of the palaces and jewel boxes the princess walks on. The color palette, music and character design are all melancholy. There is nothing more to be gained than brief solace of discovering the location of an anonymous grave.

This is pretty much the furthest thing you could find from garish, vulgar appeal of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, Weed Firm, Don’t Tap The White Tile and other recent freemium hits. And that is the core of Monument Valley’s appeal — it’s a piece of insightful and intuitive counter-programming. And that may be why its appeal is so universal.

Freemium games tend to burn out fast, often generating 50% of their lifetime revenue during the first week of launch. But more than three months after its debut, Monument Valley has now returned to the No. 3 position on the U.S. iPhone paid download chart and has edged back into the top 100 revenue chart as well.

Even more impressively, the game is No. 1 in China and France, No. 2 in Germany and No. 4 in Japan. Cracking the top 5 simultaneously in the U.S., Europe, China and Japan is fiendishly hard and only a handful of games have ever achieved that feat. Doing so 3 months into lifespan of the app is even more impressive.

The success of Monument Valley may not mean that the reign of freemium games is ever going to end. But it might mean that there is room in the app market for a handful of carefully crafted games that can generate millions of dollars of revenue as paid downloads. They cannot reach the billion dollar stratosphere of Candy Crush Saga or Clash of Clans, but they can find a profitable niche to live in. And that’s very nice.

After launching mobile game company SpringToys tragically early in 2000, Tero Kuittinen spent eight years doing equity research at firms including Alliance Capital and Opstock. He is currently an analyst and VP of North American sales at mobile diagnostics and expense management Alekstra, and has contributed to, Forbes and Business 2.0 Magazine in addition to BGR.