Sunday, October 12, 2014

Mobile games are going bad, redux

I already wrote a rant related to this in an earlier blog entry, but I have to write more about it.

Here's a fact: There is no such thing as a "free" mobile game. (The same is probably true for most consoles, and to some extent even digital distribution platforms like Steam, but it's most prominently true for mobiles.)

You might think that you are downloading a "free" game, but you are not. Granted, in some cases you might not end up spending actual money, but at the very least you will be spending your privacy (more about this later). In many cases you will actually end up spending money. In fact, a lot more money than with normal, honest "pay upfront, get whole game".

Ask any person which one they would prefer: Pay something like $5 for a full, unrestricted game with all content, playable forever, or use a "free-to-play" game that needs you to spend $50 and even more to be able to play unhindered and without restrictions. Any rational, sane person would of course choose the former. Why would anybody want to spend $50+ on a game instead of $5?

Yet people are insane. Look at the top games of, for example, the Apple App Store. For example last I checked, of the 25 top games, 24 were "free to play", and only one was a paid game.

One very popular iOS game was initially released as a paid game. It was downloaded about 200 thousand times, which is a moderate success. They then made it "free to play", and it was downloaded over 7 million times, making it one of the most popular games of all times in the App Store, and making record profits.

Hey, it's now free to play, so it's better, right? No, wrong. There is no such a thing as a "free" mobile game. Hammer that into your head. See all those top "free to play" games? The vast majority of them, if not even all of them use microtransactions, and the majority of them are almost unplayable without such in-app purchases. And people are spending tens of dollars on such games, sometimes even hundreds of dollars.

Yes, that's right. Some people are spending even hundreds of dollars on these "free" games. Games that would normally cost somewhere between 1 and 5 dollars.

This is madness, yet the numbers don't lie: By far the vast majority of top games are "free", while paid games, which would actually be cheaper in the end, get shunned. This is insane, and it's killing the game industry from the inside.

That's right. If you are a game developer, if you want to succeed, you have to con your users. You have to offer them the game as "free to play", ie. just outright lie to them, and then coax them into paying you money to actually be able to play the game properly. If instead you would want to sell your game honestly, ie. "pay once, you get the full, unlocked game", you won't succeed. People won't buy your game, because people are insane.

And on the subject of conning your users, remember at the beginning when I said that even if you don't end up paying any actual money, you will be compromising your privacy?

Again remember: There is no such a thing as a "free" mobile game. Even if a game is apparently free, it will have ads. "Well, no big deal" you might think. "Some ad banners and splash screens don't bother me."

The thing is, it's more than that. You are not simply shown ads. Your every action is recorded and sent to third-party servers for analysis. Usually several such servers.

You might be thinking that I'm just being paranoid. I'm not. I am actually a mobile game developer, and I have actual experience, and not by my own choice.

"Free games" track user activity, and very often they have several such tracking libraries sending data to several third-party servers. The user never knows any of this, never knows how much their activities are being tracked, and by how many different entities.

But it's really the users that are to be blamed of this. Honest games simply don't sell on mobile platforms. Games that lie to the users do. And who has made this a viable business model? The users themselves, by their buying decisions.

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