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The Wall Street Journal reports that Apple and Google offers prominent placement in their app stores to developers who create games exclusive to their platforms. Apple is said to have made deals with the companies behind “Cut the Rope 2″ and “Plants vs. Zombies 2″ that gave the games free promotions in exchange for a few months of exclusivity.

Despite claiming its marketplace is strictly meritocratic, the report shows that Apple manipulates the App Store for personal gain.

Apple has a clear motive when promoting these games: it wants to show that its marketplace has more games than Google’s, and it stands to make some money off them; games can cost much more than most other applications and often feature in-app purchases. Giving them prominent placement in the App Store helps both Apple and developers.

But consumers might be harmed by deals like this. “Plants vs. Zombies 2″ was largely panned for its over reliance on in-app purchases, which make the game seem less like a creative work and more like an ATM from which its maker will never stop making withdrawals. Is it okay to promote games like that simply because they offered Apple a few months of exclusive sales?

Not if Apple wants to convince consumers that the App Store truly is a meritocracy where the best apps and games organically make their way to the top of the market. Promoting a game because it’s new or interesting is one thing — shoving a game-turned-ATM down consumers’ throats is another thing entirely.

Are these deals good business? Maybe. Are they helping Apple’s argument that the App Store is a meritocracy? Hardly. Are they good the App Store’s customers? Not in the slightest.

Reactions from around the Web

The Next Web considers this proof that Android has started to threaten iOS:

Neither Apple nor Google is said to offer money — instead they help companies market their games more efficiently — but the fact that Apple has upped its efforts shows the progress that Android has made as a platform, not to mention how lucrative mobile gaming is today.

Android Central notes that this kind of exclusivity deal doesn’t even come close to the lengths to which game console-makers are willing to go for exclusive games:

There’s apparently no money changing hands, but the massive marketing boost preferred placement in Google, Apple, or Amazon can provide in terms of downloads and purchases is just as good. Apple once-upon-a-time made a game of their own, Texas Hold ‘Em, but has long since removed it from sale. Google acquired and maintains Ingress, their own Android-exclusive game. None of them have gone to Mario, Sonic, or Halo levels yet when it comes to exclusive gaming, however. But is that just a matter of time?

Apple Insider writes that these deals undermine the independence of the App Store editorial team:

Still, the process infringes on Apple’s policy to promote apps through an editorial team, which in theory makes its decisions based content, not business agreements.

The publication said Apple’s editorial team now factors in exclusivity and input from developer-relations staff when considering a title for promotion.

Pando weighs in

I wrote about the “App Store as meritocracy” myth after Apple pulled a popular service that promoted different apps from the marketplace:

Considering the App Store as a meritocracy raises more than a few questions. Does Apple mean that the best apps will enter its Top Charts and be featured as Editor’s Choice or App of the Week picks, or simply that good apps will attract attention without paid services like AppGratis? And, more to the point, can something as vast as the App Store truly be meritocratic?

Assessing an app’s merit is at once a messy exercise. Some apps can be seen as “better” than others because they’re faster or crash less often than their competitors; others could be seen as “better” because they offer more features or an attractive design. Accounting for all of those factors in each of the nearly 1 million applications in the App Store would be next to impossible, automatically ruling out a true meritocracy.

This, in some ways, puts software on the same level as other types of content, such as films, albums, or books. Subjectivity, like the taste of the masses or a critic’s careful eye, can be combined with objective markers, such as sales numbers, to offer a rough estimation of a piece of content’s worth. It’s like reading an album review on Pitchfork and then checking the Billboard Top 100: Though they’re using different data and approaching the problem from varying viewpoints, both try to find the “best” albums of the moment.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]