Would you like to buy some blue crystals? The game industry is breaking bad

    Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Elias Pietilä

    It’s rather scary to think that the most expensive piece of commercial software ever – to a single user – is likely a mobile game. After having a peek at the villages at the top of the leaderboards my guess would have to be Clash of Clans. Just wow. I may be mistaken, but I can’t see many software products costing in the hundred thousand dollar range per user.

    I’ve yet to spend money on Clash of Clans, but I haven’t been impervious to splurging on free-to-play (F2P) games. The most I’ve ever spent on a game during my twenty years of gaming is also on my iPhone. Though the roughly $150 I used on Bejeweled Blitz is meager compared to the sums spent by some, it’s still startling to realize I did that on something I enjoyed only for a brief blip of time. Did I spend the money in search of entertainment or fun? Looking back on it, I’d say no. It was something else – addiction.

    The imaginary Gordon Gekko is often quoted as saying ”[…] greed is good. Greed is right, greed works”. And in most cases I tend to agree. Greed drives progress and makes us build better things faster. But we as humans have always struggled with one underlying quality – our weakness for addiction. This has led us to control some substances, be it alcohol, nicotine or even crystal meth and activities such as gambling. Things where greed will drive us from the path of progress.

    Games are not that different – I’ve been addicted to them all my life. When I was a child, I offered my remote controlled car to my brother if he only played another round of Monopoly with me. I’ve spent more hours playing Myth 2 and Escape Velocity than I’d ever care to admit. But luckily neither of the games knew how to charge me accordingly. Alas, we’ve gotten better as an industry.

    Addiction trumps reason
    With free-to-play business model we’ve finally cracked it. The majority will not pay a dime, but with this sacrifice in demographic breadth we tap into the audience who can be charged more than we’d ever dare to find feasible. That is, while only a small portion will participate, the force of addiction is orders of magnitude stronger than purchase behavior dictated by reasoning. Spending $1000+ a month on a F2P game sounds ridiculous – and even the industry itself was dumbfounded by the phenomenon – but these big spending ”whales” solved App Store’s problem with falling price points.

    And we are getting better and better at F2P. It’s intriguing to see the depth of psychology that goes into building the optimal monetization schemes. Abstracting money out of the transactions through multilevel currencies, allowing people to purchase the only thing that is universally scarce – time – and threatening to remove something you already gained unless you are willing to loosen your purse strings. Simply put, a new area of expertise – a craft – is being born around games. We are not only optimizing entertainment value but spending an equal amount of care into building the monetization hooks.

    As an entrepreneur in mobile software consulting – and as a hobbyist game developer – I cannot but feel torn. We all know the money is in F2P. There are currently only three paid games in top 50 grossing – even the #1 paid game which costs a ”hefty” $6.99 is only placed #7. It’s self-evident the system works – you’d be foolish not to part-take. Where’s my Water, Plants vs Zombies, Real Racing and lately even Angry Birds have shifted their business model. All of these major franchises were quite successful before this move, but no one can resist the lucrativeness of F2P. I even tell my clients to go this way!

    Why should I really be concerned at all? If anything I’m on the receiving end, as better monetization leads to more investments into mobile apps and thus more business for my company. Well, I was a gamer long before I was a software entrepreneur and I think this trend is killing games for me.

    My money is not welcome
    F2P games only work if there is someone who is willing to offset the cost of offering the initial experience for free. Namely the minority who is spending more money out of addiction than they would on a traditional game. This inevitably means that the games are built to fit the needs of the bigger spenders – they are simply not that fun for the rest. I payed $4.99 for LIMBO and was treated to an emotional and technically mind-blowing game. With the same amount of money I can cut down an hour of grinding in Angry Birds Go by purchasing some blue crystals. With the new model, I’d need to spend hundreds if not thousands to get the same level of enjoyment I got from traditionally priced games. I don’t even want to know how much my 10-year-long relationship with Myth 2 would run me in this brave new world of gaming.

    For F2P games I’m no longer in the desired demographic. The paltry $4.99 I’m willing to part with is ranking me – and the great majority – as a second class citizen. One who exists only to grind endlessly, wait for timers and boost app’s ranking through free downloads – just so the real customers can find the app. And the strange thing is, the games aren’t necessarily as fun for the paying customers either. Too much spending can strip away challenge and the sense of accomplishment in the same way cheat codes do. The pacing in F2P games is often broken at both extremes.

    It took decades to get ”causes addiction” stickers onto cigarette packs. Luckily games are at least posting it onto their descriptions themselves. And I’m not saying addictive games are bad – I’ve loved playing many of them! I just wish the business model didn’t so blatantly exploit one of the more sinister traits of being human.

    Perhaps a way of approaching the matter is what we’ve done successfully in EU before – force listing prices in a way that allows us to see what we are really paying. A note describing that a game will cost you on average $100 dollars a month – should you start paying for it – might allow people to make more of an informed decision. Calling the most expensive pieces of software ”free” is quite misleading.

    I may be selfish and naive, but I wish these highly talented game makers once again concentrated on progressing games as a form of entertainment – even art. I wish they created games for me! I’ve got $4.99 to spare – any takers?

    Elias Pietilä is one of the cofounders and the chief design officer of Qvik, Finland’s leading mobile agency, and an award-winning game developer. He’s especially passionate about designing and developing the best mobile experiences. He also loves Finnish mobile games.