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Hey, Kid, Got a Dollar?

Jeremy Monken | 13 May 2012 09:00
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Making a game that only serves as a trap for the 1% of people that will actually pay for your game, like Gameview's successful aquarium game Tap Fish, which draws purchases from less than 1% of players according to company founder Rizwan Virk , is predatory when targeted kids and harmful to the concept of in-app purchases and freemium game design.

Free players don't feel at a disadvantage playing in an environment with paid players. They just know they'll have to commit more time to the game.

It doesn't have to be like this. You can make a great game with in-app purchases and still make money from more than 1% of players.

Take Hero Academy.

This is a free-to-play fantasy tactical multiplayer game by Robot Entertainment. It comes with one of the available teams and you can buy the other teams for more options, but no less strength against other players.

Their turnover of free to paid players: 15%.

This is 5 to 15 times greater than the reported conversion rates of a majority of free-to-play mobile games, even the popular Tiny Tower, which only saw only 3.8% conversion over the first six weeks of the game.

I spoke with Community Manager Justin Korthof and CEO Patrick Hudson of Hero Academy developers Robot Entertainment about their strategy when it came to in-app purchases and the ethics of different mobile monetization strategies.

Korthof explained, "Robot tries to make DLC that expands your options in the game, but doesn't necessarily mean an automatic win. Our mantra with the teams in Hero Academy is that purchasing them gives you different strategic options, but that you should always be able to play and be competitive with the free Council team. We don't want to gate people out of any specific portions of the game or sell you super-weapons or other distinct advantages."
When asked if purchasable in-game currency is harmful to the game industry, Hudson said, "I don't think it's harmful to the industry. Unfortunately, 'free to play' has become a pejorative in our industry because certain publishers have created monetization schemes that often run in direct conflict with the game design. We've all played or tried free to play games that feel punitive in their monetization models. That does not have to be the case. At all."

Hudson said he and the team were fans of other free-to-play games such as League of Legends and World of Tanks. "The game design supports the business model and the business model supports the design. Free players don't feel at a disadvantage playing in an environment with paid players. They just know they'll have to commit more time to the game. And for those players that enjoy the experience but can't commit to the grind, why not offer them ways to buy in if it doesn't break the competitive balance?"

While we can't assure parents won't unwittingly hand these ask-for-money games over to their kids without trying them first to make sure they're something that will entertain and hopefully educate, we can ask that developers at least make an effort.

If you're going to make a game for kids, make a fun game for kids. Make a game that will both engage them (Unlike EA's Theme Park, which asks them to tap once to start building a ride and gives them no non-money options 'until the ride is done hours later) and educate them.

Asmussen suggests a number of things developers could do to make in-app purchases more rewarding for the player and less likely to spoil the marketplace for others that want to sell things in-game responsibly:

  • There should be some real game that exists outside the microtransaction system. (i.e. some point to the game besides spending money to unlock new art.)
  • The more of the game that the player can experience without having to spend real money, the better.
  • Transactions involving premium currency should be clear and obvious.
  • Don't build intentionally frustrating or tedious mechanics whose sole purpose is to make the player feel like they need to spend money.
  • Players should feel that they want to purchase an item, not that they need it. (i.e. the game mechanics should lead the player to value the item, allowing them to make a rational decision that they will get more enjoyment out of the game that is worth their real money.)
  • Minimize other psychological tactics (time-sensitive sales, social pressure, opportunity cost) that serve only to manipulate the player into spending premium game currency or actual currency.

As someone that was introduced to games at a very early age with games like The Oregon Trail, it makes me very sad to see a new mobile Oregon Trail offer in-app purchases for cash to make the game, whose ancestor was a fixture in classrooms, easier to play.
Free-to-play mobile games need to get better. They need to become worthy of the money they endlessly ask for and stop being so greedy and persistent. They need to get better soon.

Otherwise, app stores will be drowned in a sea of free-to-play deadbeats that want nothing more than a chance to ask you and your kids for a dollar.

Jeremy Monken is an occasional Escapist contributor and full-time game developer at Muzzy Lane Software, a serious/educational game studio. You can follow him on Twitter: @ZenMonken

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