About a week ago, I was poking around looking for a new game for my iPhone. I checked the EA Daily Deals site and they were featuring a game called Monopoly Hotels. I assumed, since they were advertising it as a “deal” that maybe it was a paid app game that had gone on sale. I’ve grown wary of the free games the app store has to offer, as I have downloaded so, so many terrible titles. Maybe this would be a fun hybrid of Monopoly and Sim Tower that would keep me occupied on the subway.

It’s no shocker that the good will fostered by the games industry is being manipulated and fed on by short-sighted, greedy monsters.

Not surprisingly, it was just another digital begging app that is designed around constantly asking the player for more and more money to do less and less stuff. But, like another EA title, Theme Park, and countless other apps, this one had another level of awful. It was designed for kids.

Little kids.

To anyone paying attention, it’s clearly no shocker that the good will fostered by the games industry is being manipulated and fed on by short-sighted, greedy monsters that want nothing more than to squeeze out the biggest profit as possible, as quickly as possible, no matter the cost. It’s reality TV. It’s fast food. It’s something that only thrives in a world where the consumer isn’t paying attention and is too preoccupied to care.

Which is terrible, but completely understandable. If you’re bored at work and you actually think it’s worth your money to drop a buck or two on Farmville or something, that’s your choice. But kids don’t have income or a strong grasp on the value of a dollar. To create a game for them where the value of things is purposely obfuscated and made to look fun and cartoony is reprehensible.

Erik Asmussen, who recently gave a lecture titled “The Gamer Brain” on using psychology to make games fun and profitable, explained, “Game companies will probably try and push this as far as they can, until it hits some tipping point where parents feel it’s no longer worth their investment. I don’t think we’re at this point yet, and that’s why you’re seeing more aggressive monetization games like Theme Park and Monopoly Hotels. We’re starting to see games that are ‘games in name only’, and are making minimal efforts to hide the levers they’re pulling to extract more money from players. I would say this feels a bit like a betrayal of the original purpose of the medium.”

Asmussen, who developed the iOS game New World Colony and other apps for his studio 82apps, believes there is a much more tasteful approach to using apps like these to try and make money through microtransactions.

“I think Tiny Tower is an example of in-app purchases done well,” Asmussen said. “You can play the game for a very long time (as in fact, I have) without spending a dime. I almost want to buy something in-app as a way to reward the developers. You can unlock new content all the the time, and waiting does not feel painful because you can generally find things to do in the app without feeling like you are barricaded by some cost barrier. DragonVale also seems to have a fairly ethical model. Sure, you can pay premium currency to speed things up or unlock new content, but most of that can be unlocked simply by waiting. Premium items are generally ancillary to the core game. And neither game is tacky about pushing premium items at you, the way that Theme Park and Monopoly Hotels do.”

As a game developer, I worry about the long-term impact games like these have on the industry. They’re not designed to earn money from the player based on the quality of the experience, they’re designed to wear down the player with their slow pace and inaccessibility of their content until the player’s will is broken and they spend money. When this tactic is aimed at kids, it makes parents worried about introducing their kids to games and disgusted with the medium.

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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