Mobile games: we could do better

August 05, 2015

I love video games. I always make some time to play the great releases. Since I started working a full-time job, I’ve noticed that although I have a lot of spare time, my free time is a little bit more precious to me. This is because I also have other things I want to spend time on (like working on side projects, and enjoying things that do not involve computer screens). Because of this, I don’t particularly want to spend time on bad games that have tons of microtransactions.

Unfortunately, on mobile (and I’m talking about smartphones and tablets here) it seems that microtransactions are more the norm, and less the exception. Remember those one-dollar games that would get you a great minigame with no extra in-game currencies to buy? That was six, seven years ago.1 Things have changed. Companies have experimented with and learned about the deceptive practices of virtual economies, and have found the perfect formula to have people spend tons of money on extra content for their mediocre games via the way of microtransactions2. (You could find way better games for far better prices, mind you, which is why I describe these games as mediocre.)

Unlike most games with in-game currencies and in-app purchases, Hearthstone actually has a reasonable system in place to unlock content. (It's also a card game, which gives them a few liberties they can take.) Frankly, I still find it too expensive if I want all the game has to offer...

From a psychological point of view, in-app purchases are a very interesting subject to think about, and to experiment with. But that is not exactly where I would like to go into more detail. I would like to point out that there are alternatives to these free games with tons of in-app purchases. Now, don’t get me wrong: in-app purchases are a great way to make your game accessible to many, yet still allowing you to earn money (if they like it, they’ll buy extra content or unlock things).

Even mobile applications that aren’t games have a far greater chance of being used if they are available without charging your customers. If you are going the route of in-app purchases, there are sensible ways of getting people to pay for your game. In fact, not every game that has in-app purchases is a bad game. (Hearthstone, for instance, is a game I enjoy playing casually. I still think it’s too expensive if I want to get all the game has to offer.)

This is not a new issue, however. People have been talking about this ever since companies started with the practice. Although there are some games I actually enjoy that have in-app purchases they usually end up being far more expensive than when you just buy the game in one go…

I just think we could do better, and find a good middle ground. Reasonably priced expansions or chunks of content. I guess we’re fortunate that not all games have a terrible business model. Of course, there’s still games for, say, a 3DS and a PS Vita3. Those exist still, but they are not quite as common as smartphones nowadays. (I barely see anyone with these.) More on these portable gaming handhelds later.

  1. The original Angry Birds comes to mind. Recently, Angry Birds 2 was released, but it seems like in-app purchases has made it a far worse deal than the original game, which was pay once, get it all. The original game has also been updated (which added in-app purchases) so many times that it isn’t funny. It’s a sad thing. 

  2. Some companies call their in-app purchases ‘microtransactions’, though some cynical people have dubbed these ‘macrotransactions’ because sometimes these in-app purchases can cost as much as up to a hundred dollars. 

  3. Or their precedessors. A ton of games are still available for the 3DS and the Vita that were games for the DS and the PSP. Backwards compatibility, yeah!