The Grand Success of the Mobile Market Failure

Imagine if I told you that I had a product and that that product appealed to .15% of all people that tried it. Would you consider me a success? Likely not, I’m sure you would look at me and think I’m some kind of moron who doesn’t know what I’m doing. But this is not what is happening in the Mobile Games market. Half of all their sales come from .15% of the people that they reach with their games. You wouldn’t think this judging by all the bantering of investors and “experts”, you’d figure that these obscene sales that are coming from the industry are a sign that they know what they are doing and they are doing it well.

Clearly they are not and do not. What they’ve found is a previously untapped market of addicts. People willing to sell their home in order to fund a quick pleasure fix. Where we’ve previously placed laws to fight this kind of predation (which I don’t necessarily support, I’m more about education), we applaud these folks. So what are they doing wrong exactly? I’m not going to act like I know fully but I can at least speak anecdotally about what bothers me and suggest that this may be at least one avenue that they are failing.

Free to Play games are misleadingly named. They are not Free to Play, at best they are Free to Try or Free to Wait. These games punish you for not investing in them and most (if not all) of your investments are momentary fleeting positive results. This is similar to the drug model where you give people small free doses to help get them hooked and then jack up the price once they are addicted and rake in the profits. It’s a fairly nefarious abuse of our understanding of psychology and not something that I appreciate.

Once you are aware of how Free to Play games work you begin to find them very annoying. You end up seeing all that wasted talent on titles that have little to no merit to exist. It’s about mentality of design, at least as far as I’m concerned. When you build a game that will survive off of consistent and repeated monetary investments you are more likely to design the game to promote those activities. Once your primary focus is how to get money out of people you are not going to make a good game. If, in contrast, your goal is to make money by making good games then you are more likely to actually succeed.

It sounds a bit patronizing and obvious when I write it out but obviously it is not obvious to major game developers (or perhaps just the upper management of these places). If a game must have in app purchases I believe these should be designed after the fact. Games should be complete and enjoyable experiences when you release them to the public. Once you’ve done that then you can brainstorm (perhaps with your community) about what neat things they’d like you to keep making for them and then the community can pay your team to make that content by buying it.

A good example is League of Legends. The game on launch was a complete experience and I’d argue it still is a complete experience. There are no timers gating you from enjoying the game. For the most part there is no imbalance between you and paying users either. Most imbalances are accidental and they are fixed quickly and cleanly.

Another thing to consider is that not all games need in app purchases. If you design them smartly you should be able to release a game for a single fee and return ample profits to keep your company running. If you cannot this is a failure on your part and should not be passed on to the customer. It always is, but it shouldn’t be. Bravely Default is a beautiful example. Quite nearly a perfect game that hits all the right cords but then they randomly added in an in-app purchase.

Does it imbalance the game? Potentially but not necessarily. That’s something in its favor. Can you get it for free? Sure, you get one every time you go to bed (basically). Does it break immersion? Yes, desperately. When you use it your characters will hint that you can buy this item. That’s a very bad decision and it taints the entire experience. I see this nearly perfect snowflake but there is a lump of poop on the edge of it. An entirely unnecessary lump of poop as well.

It’s sad because as time goes on this game will always be remembered as that “nearly perfect game that had that icky in app purchase slapped on”. So tragic for something so beautiful to be so unnecessarily molested.

That’s where we stand. The industry is making the wrong decisions 99.85% of the time and yet everyone is trying to shift their design plan to fit that system. I can’t think of any other business where a 99.85% failure rate is considered wildly good and worth pursuing. To me this looks like an extremely frail bubble that is going to burst and burst hard. That .15% won’t have billions of dollars forever, once you milk them dry through deeper and deeper abuse they’ll be gone. Think of it like over fishing an ocean, if you are taking out quicker than they are breeding you will be left eventually with no fish.

We are on the precipice of a barren mobile gaming ocean and it will not be a clean break. What disappoints me is that the solution is not complicated. Fish smarter, fish friendlier, fish with honesty, and be patient. None of these things fit into the modern accepted model of capitalism however.

Should be interesting.

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