Sunday, April 27, 2014

Mobile games are going bad

Apple was a true visionary when they developed their iPhone platform: Top-of-the-line smartphone with a huge-ass capacitive touchscreen almost the size of the entire phone, with a dynamic software-based keyboard that could be hidden and customized for each application type. Many people, including many other companies, expressed their doubts, but after the astonishing world-wide success of the idea, of course everybody else jumped onto the bandwagon.

The next smart move by Apple was to allow users to develop software for the phone and distribute it through a centralized app store. This also proved an enormous success, and some developers saw their applications selling literally millions of copies.

A curious phenomenon arose: The price of iPhone games were on the 1-2 dollar range, even when virtually the exact same game would cost at the very least 10 dollars on other platforms (and often even more.) I do not know why exactly this happened, but it did.

This became the de-facto standard. When basically every single game would cost 2 dollars or less, it became basically hopeless to try to sell anything at a higher price. Nobody is going to pay 10 dollars for one game when they can get ten games for that money. There are some exceptions, but they are exceedingly rare.

While this is great from the user's perspective, it already was a somewhat worrisome trend for game developers. The exact same game that would sell for something like 20 or 30 dollars on almost any other platform, would need to be sold at like 1 or 2 dollars on the Apple App Store (meaning that it would need to sell something like 20 times more than on those other platforms to give the same revenue, taking into account that Apple takes its own cut from it.) Trying to sell it for 20 dollars would be quite hopeless. (Not that some developers haven't tried, but it just doesn't work.)

At some point Apple had another... "great" idea: Hey, let's support in-app purchasing. This would allow an application to, for example, offer additional content to the user for a fee. For example an online magazine application could offer new content for a monthly fee, or for a per-product fee. Something like an online comic application could sell comic books from within the application itself. And of course games could offer additional content for a fee, or have monthly subscription fees, or the like.

That's all great and good... except for that last part. There's nothing wrong in selling magazines, newspapers, books and other such products, like a virtual newsstand. This is actually a great service. In gaming there are also good possibilities, mainly in the form of DLC's: Additional content (such as additional levels) that you can buy from within the game.

And this worked for a while. However, many game developers discovered a new form of marketing that both lured players into spending more money than they would normally spend, and ruined "normal" forms of game marketing: They would distribute the game for "free", but make the game essentially unplayable without making regular in-app purchases. (While the game is in theory fully playable without spending a dime, in practice it's so tedious that it's virtually impossible.)

This is a dirty tactic for many reasons. For one, it circumvents one of Apple's guidelines for applications: All applications must be fully functional. There can't be permanently disabled parts in the application (either for no apparent reason, or with some kind of "buy the full product to enable this" notification.) If there are parts that are not available in that particular version of the application, it has to be completely hidden or have some basic functionality, other than just being outright visible but disabled. These new games do not have anything disabled per se; they are just hindered beyond playability, unless you make in-app purchases to make them normal.

Secondly, it's a disservice to the user. One could even consider it borderline fraud. The user is offered a "free" game, which kind of works at first glance... but then it turns out that it's actually almost unplayable without buying resources for real money. And these resources are, of course, not of the buy-once-unlock-full-game kind. No, they are spendable resources which are used up. When you run out of them, the game becomes unplayable once again, and you need to buy more.

Ironically, many players will find themselves spending tens, sometimes even hundreds of dollars, on this "free" game. Even more ironically, these same players will still not buy a 10-dollar game (even if that game is fully functional from the get-go and has no in-app purchasing system of any kind.)

Thirdly, and most damningly, this is a disservice for the gaming community and game developers as a whole. If the trend continues, nobody will buy any mobile games anymore, instead just downloading all the "free" games that are available. Why would you actually buy games when you can get them for free? Of course you'll then spend ten times more money (or even more) in in-app purchases because you were lured into playing the game... and got essentially stuck because the game hinders your progress without those resources you need to buy...

If nobody will buy games anymore, this means that it makes no sense to make "honest" mobile games anymore. In other words, games that you just purchase and that's it: You get the whole game, with no need for further spending. This means that other game developers will be forced to make their games "free" as well... thus making this a vicious cycle.

The losers of this vicious cycle are the gamers themselves.

I really hope that this trend will die a quick and painful death. And I really hope that this sickness will not spread to the non-mobile platforms, ie. desktop PCs and consoles.

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