The lights are on
Mobile games are growing more sophisticated and engaging, but many developers need to alter their monetization approach if they want to appeal to dedicated gamers.
A few months back, my wife and I spent a weekend shopping for a new car. We’d already narrowed our selection down to a few choices, so it was time to go do some test driving and make a final decision. One of our top choices brought us into a local dealership, where we were greeted the moment we stepped through the big glass doors by Tom, the overly friendly salesman. For the next 20 minutes, Tom pulled out every sales trick in the book, up to and including the special deals that would be ending in the next 24 hours. He told us about all the nifty extras that could be ours for a limited time. We ended up leaving, frustrated, and confident that this car was not for us.
Mobile game developers have made great strides forward in design in recent years, crafting some of the most intriguing and addictive gaming experiences on any platform. A variation on the familiar adage has held; build great games, and gamers will come. Look around the Game Informer office in the last two years, and you’ll see a fundamental shift as players who once swore off mobile gaming are now embracing its many facets right alongside our love of big console and PC games. In this regard, I’m confident we’re a microcosm of the wider gaming community. However, even as this player base of dedicated gamers has begun to make the shift, one dilemma holds many of us back from truly falling in love with a lot of the available titles. Like my interactions with Tom at the car dealership, we’re tired of being sold to, manipulated, and disrupted so that we’ll spend money. My message to developers; if you want to attract longtime gamers like myself, then just let me buy your complete game, and let it speak for itself. When a game is good, I’m happy to pay money for it so I can experience it to its fullest extent. But pull me out of your game with constant appeals for money, and I’m going to play elsewhere.
I’m not railing against everything connected to free games or microtransactions; I love the way many free-to-play mobile games in recent years have drawn new players into the gaming fold, even if I have some significant problems about the way microtransactions are often implemented in games. Nor do I begrudge any hard working developer or publisher the choice to charge money for their game. Today, I’m speaking purely of my personal experience as a longtime gamer, and the frustration at the way many games try to manipulate me to spend more cash, only to ultimately alienate me and send me running back to my console.
For me to fully enjoy a game, I want to experience its full scope. I want to see the way the different systems interact with one another, and I want my game to be balanced and tailored for the best possible experience. I want access to the best weapons and upgrades that the game has to offer, and I want the developers to have taken the time to consider how long I should have to work to get those improvements. I want a natural arc of difficulty that keeps me engaged throughout the gaming experience, not an absurdly simple opening followed by a brutal difficulty spike a few hours in. These are all features I’m willing to pay for from the start. And yet, I can’t count the number of mobile games I’ve played in the last three years that throw all of those things out the window, instead demanding constant influxes of cash just so the game can remain fun – usually at the cost of good design structure.
Mobile gaming seminars have repeatedly articulated the way many games succeed financially with 95 percent of the audience never paying money, but high-spending “whales” purchasing hundreds of dollars of microtransactions, and thereby supporting the game. I believe the assertion that this is a model for short-term success. But I don’t think it’s a very good one, and I think other approaches engender greater trust and longer term commitment from players.
I’d like to see more developers give players the option to experience a full game at a reasonable price. Maybe some of those “whales” won’t spend hundreds in microtransactions, but you gain a whole new audience that appreciates your straightforward business model, and can fall in love with your game the way it was meant to be played. You can still get people in the door with a free-to-try model, but then present them with a clear choice – do you want to buy this game in full?
Balance, upgrades, experience point progression, cool cosmetic features – let us access these exciting features for a single flat, equitable price, and we’ll pay it. Are you worried about losing those users who are fine with occasional one and two dollar purchases? Fine! Keep the microtransactions for individual items and XP boosts. But give the rest of us the additional option to spend five or ten dollars to get the full package. Let us see how brilliant your game can be when it is experienced in full. Do that, and we’ll keep coming back for more.
Needless to say, plenty of mobile game developers are already implementing this exact strategy, and from every gamer like me out there, I’d like to thank them. I’m incredibly excited to see the coming generation of mobile titles, but nothing makes me shut down and delete an otherwise great app quite like constant interruptions to tell me how much more fun I’d be having if I just spent $1.99 more. Give me the option to skip all of that nonsense and just enjoy your game, and not only will I play this game – I’ll play your next one sight unseen.
Email the author Matt Miller, or follow on Game Informer.
Unfortunately there are several fatal flaws in your argument mostly arising from the adage, "build great games, and gamers will come". For one thing they aren't in the business of selling "great" games, or even good games for that matter. They are there to sell games. More often then not, bad games. Games, be they mobile, console or PC are not immune to Sturgeon's Law (95% of everything is crap) and the marketing department is well aware of this so their question is, "how do I make enough money off of this crap to make a profit before anyone notices it's a turd?" It's just like the used car salesman trying to sell you a car that he knows is just waiting for a reason to break down by offering you every deal he can think of to get it off the lot. Making something that is "great" is hit or miss as it relies on variables that are inherently impossible to quantify and often difficult to achieve. Mediocrity on the other hand is easy to achieve. Most who aspire to greatness fail, but everyone who aspires to mediocrity will succeed.
The second problem is the idea that mobile game developers actually want to attract, or really should want to attract, self identified "gamers". The Wii was often derided for the fact that it didn't appeal to gamers yet the Wii outsold both the XBox 360 and the PS3 proving that you really don't need to appeal to gamers if you can get everyone else. It's the everyone else that the mobile game developers are trying to get to. Not people chasing achievements on XBL or maxing out their kill streaks in MoH. They aim at people sitting in waiting rooms bored stiff looking for a way to while away the time or parents who want to keep their kids quiet on road trips whose natural distraction and inattentiveness may lead to foolishly purchasing something from their vast array of micro-transactions. And out of that vast pool of everyone else there are a few that are far more foolish with their money than the rest and those are the whales. Why would they want to just make a one off sale when they can just go on leaching them for as long as they can get away with it?
Unfortunately this means that all of the standards that you set out, though laudable, will never happen.