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How freemium is destroying the games industry

by Stephen McCallum on 08/18/16 04:25:00 am

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Today I thought I would address the elephant in the games industry, freemium mobile games.

In the past few years mobile games made a major shift, gone are the days where you would purchase a mobile game for £2.99, now game companies have introduced the “Freemium” game model. You download the game for free but embedded into the game are “Microtransaction” where the player can purchase in-game currency with real money. This form of revenue generation can be effective when handled correctly however it has become standard and exploited in the worst possible way. Companies cater to what we call “Whales” who happily spend more and more in the game to become better than all the other players. This causes other players who refuse to purchase the currency to become frustrated with the game and leave, meaning the “Whales” no longer have anyone to over-power with their “paid-to-win” gear causing them to leave the game.

This game model is very damaging for both the game itself and the entire mobile gaming industry. There are many exploitations that utilise a base understanding of human psychology to keep you playing and buying. Having an in-game currency like gemstones or coins creates a distance between spending real currency, similar to credit or debit card purchases the money you spend does not leave your hand directly so there is less impact from the purchase. Games also use poor exchange rates for the in-game currency having £3.99 buy you 650 gemstones while an in-game item costs 40 gemstones it becomes very difficult for anyone to know actually how much they are spending per item. Some games also use dynamic pricing meaning that some players pay more for items than others do, for example a “whale” may pay £3.99 for 650 gemstones while someone who very rarely plays the game may pay only £2.99 for 650 gemstones this both incentivises the rare player to keep coming back but also generates high revenue from the “whale” who happily pays the increased price without realising.

If you want to hear more about these exploitations watch this video from Vox guest starring Jamie Madigan from the Psychology of Video Games. There is a major focus on Pokemon Go during the video, while that game did initially handle the microtransactions very well the most recent update makes all pokemon harder to catch meaning more pokeballs are used forcing the player to either visit more pokestops in the hopes they can collect more or purchase more from the store.


Moving away from the exploitations of the freemium model, I will touch on incentives in games. Using Burrhus Frederic Skinner method of operant conditioning players can be incentivised to continue playing a game that long ago lost its meaning. Games like World of Warcraft or Farmville use in-game mechanics to keep the player engaged long past the point of enjoyment where the player finds themselves saying “just one more level” or “this plant is almost ready” only to realise later they wasted their time on a task that they didn’t find enjoyable at the time for some minor reward.

The Extra Credits video “The Skinner Box - How Games Condition People to Play More” lists other methods developers can use to keep players engaged in their games. Listed as; mystery, mastery, mental change, narrative, novelty and flow. These are only some of the methods developers can use to create a better player experience while keeping the player engaged.

So what was the point in this rant, was I just attacking the industry? Well no, actually it was something that we at Late Panda realised a long time ago before we started the development of Skorian Tales. We agreed that we couldn’t make these “freemium” or “skinner box” games because in the long term it really harms the industry. We can already see the damage and have first hand experienced these types of games on many occasions and like the vast majority of the players became too frustrated and left.

We want to create games that players can enjoy without feeling obligated to purchase microtransactions, or feel forced to continue playing so they can just get that one last level before they go to bed at 4 a.m.

We created Late Panda in the hope that we could show how a game company could make a title that is both fair for the players while financial profitable for the company itself. That is our dream, our goal.

Thank you all for reading,

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“A soulless husk of a title, a free to play cow clicking cash vampire that bears little to no resemblance to the original in anyway whatsoever.” - Totalbiscuit on Dungeon Keeper 3 Mobile


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