There's an ad for that

Inside the murky world of knockoff smartphone apps and the ads that fuel them

February 7, 2014
Obsession
Mobile Web
February 7, 2014

There are two things any app developers can do to improve their chances of scoring a hit: Make a mobile game. And give it away free. But building an original game is a lot of work and the app store is cluttered with games. So there is a third thing the developer can do—”flip” an existing app. Buy the source code for existing games, hire someone to give it a new look, cram it full of ads and, in the short term at least, profit. It’s not pretty. But it works.

Carter Thomas, a professional app-flipper lays it out in a blog post titled “How I Went From $1,000 to $200,000 With Apps.” Thomas recommends buying the license to the code of games such as endless runners (think Subway Surfers) and then “re-skinning,” or giving it a new look, several times over. The first three reasons he lists for choosing an “endless” game—one that has no ultimate goal, are:

  • More opportunities to advertise
  • More opportunities to advertise
  • More opportunities to advertise
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The source code for one endless runner game can be “re-skinned” as multiple different apps, each crammed with ads.(Carter Thomas/Bluecloud Solutions)

Indeed, the whole point of app-flipping is to churn out apps at as low a cost and high a volume as possible, with the sole purpose of using them as vehicles for advertisement. Thomas recommends multiple full-screen ads at the start of the game and at the end the end of each level. Moreover, he suggests displaying the score at the end of every round as a counter that ticks up rather than an instant number: “That way the user has to wait for 4-5 seconds while the scoreboard gets to their score…while they stare at the banner ad.” It’s all fantastically cynical but worth a read for its honesty.  

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According to Thomas, “the best place to place advertisements is at the beginning of the game. Use full screens and don’t be afraid to layer them.”(Carter Thomas/Bluecloud Solutions)

Thomas also suggests not spending too much on the game once it’s published. He gives it just over a month to double his investment before losing interest in pushing it any further. Of course, Thomas’s enthusiastic proselytizing may have something to do with the app-flipping kit he sells along with a partner. But the phenomenon is real, with several sites and forums dedicated to the practice, and designers and developers selling their services on freelance sites.

It’s not as if app-flippers are rolling in it. Joost van Dreunen, CEO of SuperData, a games and apps analytics firm, suggests that app-flipping accounts for less than 1% of total app revenues. A cleverly re-skinned app may yield about $1,000 in advertising revenue. That’s a big deal only for an individual developer who spent $500 producing it, but meaningless to a large development studio or publisher. Still, a surfeit of such apps “runs the risk of polluting the app stores, and exhausting and alienating the user base,” says  Van Dreunen, comparing apps specifically designed to make a little money in a short period of time to the late-night infomercials that air on cable television. 

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