I've met with Nitzan Wilnai at the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) several times. His Engineous Games has grown over the years. The group recently released Sketch Nation Shooter to great success. It lets you build a shooter title by uploading or drawing your own art. As of this writing, it has been download over 800,000 times, generating a significant user base.
Wilnai's next project, Sketch Nation Studio, has been in development for a while, and I suspect it could threaten how the App Store itself works. While Sketch Nation Shooter lets you build a shooting game, Sketch Nation Studio will allow users to assemble games in any one of five iPhone-familiar genres. Here's the kicker: Sketch Nation Studio offers the chance to release those games to the App Store and earn real money.
The app is currently testing in Canada, and it works much like Sketch Nation Shooter did. You start by choosing a genre: Up Jumping (as in Doodle Jump), Side Running (like Canabalt), Side Flying (like Jetpack Joyride), Down Jumping (a reverse Doodle Jump style), and Side Jumping (basically an endless platformer). Next, add the art for your player character, obstacles, and rules for power-ups and other information. Sketch Nation Studio adds your art, creates the necessary objects and controls and manages animation. Your game is ready to play.
There are three modes to choose from. Simple mode is the easiest, and runs user-created art around a set of existing rules. Wilnai showed me how to create a custom game quickly, using the app's built-in drawing tools to create simple graphics in about two minutes. The result won't win any awards for originality (it was a one-button flyer featuring a bee who had to dodge flowers), but it worked, and tracked the score, and had a losing condition, which is really all you need for a simple iPhone game.
Advanced Mode is more complicated. It lets you use your own art and set your own rules. Maybe, for example, hitting certain enemies increases your strength. Perhaps the player character has lives or collects various score items. The Advanced mode is pretty powerful, offering several control schemes (including tilting the iOS device, which can make for some interesting custom games) and "special effects," which let you use your art to create particles and animations. The interface is easy to use, but again, quite powerful for what it is.
And finally, "Standalone App" mode uses the Advanced Mode's rules and uploads your finished game to the Engineous servers, where it will then go into a queue for the company to review. Every game that meets its criteria for quality, originality, and fun could become a full, standalone App Store app. In fact, there are already apps like this on the App Store Turkey Run is one example.
Wilnai didn't have specifics on how profit sharing would work, but he did confirm that the company plans to split proceeds from these apps 50/50 with their creators. This means that you could potentially create a game in Sketch Nation, upload it, receive approval from Engineous and have them release it to the App Store for US$0.99. You'd then earn 35 cents of real money for every copy sold (half of the 99 cents minus Apple's 30% cut).
That sounds crazy, and it probably is. Wilnai says that Apple is in favor of the idea (in theory, at least), and the app is being tested on the Canadian store before being released in the US. "At first we won't release too many games," says Wilnai, just because Engineous will have to figure out what best to put out there and how it would work.
But if the plan turns out to be as solid as he expects, Wilnai could basically create a platform-within-a-platform, releasing games users have made with his own app, and filtering the income right through Apple's store.
One potential hole in the plan is the users themselves. Sketch Nation Shooter, for example, has 800,000 users, but only 100,000 games have been created with it. That suggests that 1 in every 8 users are actually creating games with it. Additionally, only 10,000 of those games have been shared. While it's easy to make and share a game with Sketch Nation Shooter, not many users actually do so.
But Wilnai has a solution for that, too. In addition to the draw of real money, Sketch Nation Studio will also have a virtual currency market. Users will earn SketchBucks (SB) from uploading games, which can be used to download and play shared games. Hopefully, this won't prevent people from just logging in to check the games out (everyone who plays the title will automatically start with 1000 SB), but it should provide incentive to create and share. Art will also be shared in this way, so even if you're not an artist but want to pick up some art for your game with virtual currency, you'll be able to do that as well.
The whole idea is fascinating, and it's an example not only of Wilnai's drive to make game development as easy and accessible as possible, but also the power of user-created content, and in this case, its potential to really drive and build up a brand new marketplace. Sketch Nation Shooter should be out in America very soon, and we'll have to see what happens when it finally arrives.