If there's one thing that sets people off upon purchasing or downloading an app (games in particular), it's opening it up and finding it has in-app purchases.
And this is, generally, a good instinct for consumers to have - hundreds, if not thousands of mobile games blatantly take advantage of people's willingness to nickel-and-dime themselves out of money they would have never otherwise spent buying a game in the first place. Basically, see 50% of Zynga's business model (the other 50% being stealing other developers' games).
In fact, it was Zynga that sparked one of the most notable in-app purchase hate campaigns from users when it added consumable cheats (essentially) to Words With Friends that allowed players to gain advantages over their opponents for a fee. The buggy app aside, I count myself among many that probably uninstalled Words With Friends because of this change. Of course, Zynga doesn't really care - millions of people still play the game every day, and many of them spend money on it. It doesn't take an Einstein to understand just how utterly illogical it is to spend real money to cheat at an online board game, but that certainly doesn't stop people from doing it, and Zynga understands this all too well.
This is the business model many game developer-publishers like Zynga, Gree, and others have come to rely on. Mainstream consumers, or "casual gamers" have never been indoctrinated with the practice of buying a $40-60 piece of software that has been worked on for upwards of a year (usually) by a major game studio. And mobile hardware, as quickly as it is advancing (and perhaps partly because of that pace), just doesn't fit with that model. Nobody wants to buy a $20 game for a phone, or even a tablet. But developers of some games are managing to extract that amount from users with the in-app purchase mechanic, patiently over the course of weeks and months, as opposed to right out of the gate.
Let me be perfectly and utterly clear about this practice: it is wrong. And companies like Zynga are jerks for doing it. They take advantage of people's impulsivity in the same way a slot machine does: "just one more time - just another dollar."
And this is why so many enthusiasts and gamers absolutely despise in-app purchases of any kind. The vast majority of games that do it are using it in a way that is, frankly, immoral. Japan has gone as far as to ban one particular in-game purchase mechanic called "gacha," where players are goaded into giving up small amounts of money for the random chance to win a special item, over and over.
The Witch Hunt
But this has led to an unwavering, absolutist sentiment among many people that all in-app purchases in games are equally guilty of the same offense. And I don't think that's true. The most recent focal point for this anger has been Madfinger Games' new title Dead Trigger. While it has maintained a 4.0 rating on the Play Store and a 4.5 on Apple's App Store, the top three reviews (all one star) on the iOS version say it more succinctly than I ever could:
"This is a pretty good game with good graphics and variety, but the in app purchases ruin EVERYTHING." 1 star, 158 out of 169 found this helpful.
"The biggest problem is the in app game purchases. Are people really that cheap or broke that they cannot afford 2.99 or 6.99 for an entire game like the good days of old?" 1 star, 98 out of 104 found this helpful.
"For the 99 cent asking price the game is basically unplayable unless you pony up additional for just the first weapon. It's take hours of grinding just to get past the first main mission after the introduction. I feel cheated. They should have just asked for 6.99 upfront, instead of this scam." 1 star, 70 out of 77 found this helpful.
I'm not sure what people were expecting, though. Did anyone honestly believe that Madfinger was selling a cutting-edge, highly polished mobile game in its entirety for just a dollar? This isn't Angry Birds. If you're a more casual consumer, maybe I can see a slight bit of surprise here. But making games isn't cheap, and anyone who follows mobile gaming knows that a title of this quality could easily justify a price upwards of $5. When I saw that it was just a buck, I knew what I was getting into by purchasing it, and as the person reviewing it, my thought was "Well, let's see just how bad this is."
So I played it. And I decided not to use any of the in-app purchases as long as I possibly could. With 4 hours 28 minutes spent in-game actually on missions now (see screenshot), I still have yet to spend a dime past my initial dollar. I have the best cash-purchasable weapon in the game.
I find any review claiming that the game is "unplayable" or "too difficult" without in-app purchases rather hard to take seriously. Yes, it takes more than 20 minutes to get enough money to unlock the gun that's above the god-awful pistol you start with. But last time I checked, isn't the entire purpose of a game to entertain you by challenging you? It seems a little backwards to me that some people consider the key to making this game more "fun" to be making it easier. Are we so impatient that the notion of a game requiring more than 15 minutes of our time to advance without paying real money is somehow offensive?
These App Store reviewers must never have played the Sega Genesis version of Ghouls'n Ghosts.
It's All About Balance
In-app purchases can be done right, and I'd argue that's what Madfinger has done here. I'd also say they're the exception, not the rule, and that more developers should follow their lead and use the IAP system in a fair way. And the key to using in-app purchases in games fairly is to provide the proper balance between:
- The quality / length of content available out of the box (eg, without IAPs),
- The difficulty / ability / level of repetitiveness to advance without purchasing additional content - is the game reasonably beatable?
- The advantage conferred to IAP'ers in multiplayer modes (not relevant here)
The first one is sort of self-explanatory. If the game costs money before IAPs, is it worth the money you paid for it without considering that additional content? Dead Trigger answers that question, in my mind, with a resounding "yes." I'd say it's probably worth even more than a buck out of the box. The way I think of it is this - if all of the extra purchasable content was gone, would I feel like my dollar was well-spent? And I think that if your answer to that question is no, you're just being contrarian. This is a highly polished, cutting-edge title with visuals unmatched by any other game on Android that I'm aware of. It's also just a lot of fun.
The length of content available is very respectable, too - I have 4h30m of in-game time, plus probably an hour or so in the map UI. This is almost the amount of time it took me to beat Shadowgun, and that game costs $5. Dead Trigger is definitely a good value even before IAPs are considered.
Next, we look at the difficulty of advancing in the game without making any purchases. This is where most people seemingly become upset. They're basically saying Madfinger made the game too difficult to play without spending money, and that this is the reason they feel cheated. It's funny, I've found that "feeling cheated" and "not spending much time with the game" are rather synonymous. Having ground my way through 74 successful missions on my Nexus 7, I can say with authority that the game is not "too hard" to advance in without spending money. In fact, it's actually pretty easy - I've only ever died 5 times. If you can't make it past the first few levels with the pistol, I'd say either your phone's screen is too small to make this game worthwhile in the first place, or you're just not trying.
But is it too repetitive without making IAPs? Again, I'd argue no. Even if you make IAPs, I think the game would actually be a lot more boring. You'd have one goal to work towards (increasing rank), and that still means grinding through a bunch of missions to gain experience. You have to be a certain rank to go on main quests, too, meaning you'll finish the game only marginally faster. It'll be easier, but also way less satisfying - games stop being fun when the only thing you're focused on is blasting through them as quickly as possible. There's not exactly a compelling story to look forward to, either.
The entire fun of the IAPs in Dead Trigger is getting the weapons you can only attain by paying money. And why do you want them? Because you can't have them. They're exclusive. And just because you want them doesn't mean you're entitled to them for free. Seriously, you don't hear people getting so worked up when Valve releases special hats and weapon packs for Team Fortress 2 that are basically only attainable through psychotic levels of devotion without coughing up the bucks (and usually a lot more than we're talking here).
On the note of multiplayer, obviously don't pull a Words With Friends and encourage people to "out-cheat" one another. Conferring major advantages in online play for money is despicable (I'm looking at you, Zynga). Team Fortress 2 manages to have purchasable content that people will want to buy without giving those who do buy it a real unfair advantage. But since Dead Trigger isn't a multiplayer game, that doesn't really apply here.
This isn't a game where purchasable items make up a major part of the core content, or where ridiculous challenges that can only be beaten if you cough up another $0.99 are thrown at you left and right. It's a game with extra stuff that you can buy should you choose to, and that extra stuff can make the game easier, and speed up the pace at which you complete it. That's it. I fail to see what is wrong with that.
Why Not Price It As The "Full Game"?
This is probably the most common thing I hear about games with IAPs. "Why not just price it at $5, or $6, or $7? I'd buy it." And I believe many of those people - they probably would. I would, too. But a lot of other people wouldn't. And if you're going to spend the time, money, and labor making a really great game, one of the worst mistakes you can make is pricing yourself out of the market.
An example of a game that did just that is Metal Slug 3, a port of the popular console franchise. It has only been out for a little over 24 hours, but after receiving a barrage of media coverage, it still has under 500 downloads. And this is a game with a highly recognizable brand, retro appeal, and generally positive reviews. Unfortunately, it seems to have simply outpriced itself - I doubt anyone unfamiliar with Metal Slug would be willing to pony up $7 to play it.
There are exceptions to the rule - like Final Fantasy 3, which Square Enix recently ported to Android. In 10 days it has amassed over 50,000 downloads - with a $16 price tag. That means Square Enix has made probably over a million dollars on this port of a 2006 remake of a game that was originally released in 1990. Those guys know what they're doing. Of course, Final Fantasy is also the single most valuable brand in the RPG business, and has been around for 25 years.
But let's go back to one of Madfinger's titles, the very successful Shadowgun. Shadowgun has been available on the Play Store since late last year, and has even received the coveted Editors' Choice award from Google. It costs $5, and has been on sale in promotions previously. While it's listed at 100,000-500,000 total downloads, that's a really large range. Instead, let's look at the number of ratings, it's probably a somewhat more reliable metric in terms of comparing the popularity of titles.
Shadowgun comes in at around 8000 ratings (counting both the standard and THD versions) after well over 6 months on the Play Store. Dead Trigger has 4000 ratings. In 10 days. And for those who would suggest there may be skewing due to the number of 1-star reviews related to IAPs (angry people are more likely to review than satisfied customers) - there isn't. Both games have a similar proportion of 1-star reviews. It's worth noting that many new games receive a disproportional number of such reviews because of compatibility issues, crashes, and bugs that are later fixed - Dead Trigger's overall rating will likely go up once the first update is released.
Left: Dead Trigger at 10 days, Right: Shadowgun (non-THD) at 6+ months
I think the numbers here speak for themselves. Pricing a game at $5 as an indie developer on Android, even as a fairly well-known one, just isn't going to rake in the downloads that the magical $0.99 mark does. And let's be real - it's not like Madfinger isn't taking a risk by doing this. If people buy the game, decide it isn't any good, and therefore don't purchase anything afterwards, Madfinger probably isn't going to turn a profit. And that's why it isn't free, either. The developers put a lot of time and effort into this game, and considering the hours of enjoyment that can be had without buying anything beyond the game itself, they're earning a very well-deserved dollar. And make no mistake, that $0.99 price point is quite magical, just look at the Google Play Store's 20 most popular paid games:
I've highlighted the five of the bunch that cost more than a few bucks. One is a movie game, which I'm not even going to start discussing the non-merits of. Another is Final Fantasy, a franchise known round-the-world. Minecraft is an absurdly popular game for PC, Grand Theft Auto III was one of the best-selling games of all time, and Shadowgun rounds out the list. A full 12 of those 20 cost $0.99, with a few like Osmos HD and Fruit Ninja costing a bit more. You can see why a developer might want to sell a game for a dollar on the Play Store - it's pretty obvious people generally don't find the idea of paying more than that very appealing.
A freemium game, by comparison, is to me generally rather offensive. Any well-polished game that's free is going to necessitate spending money to advance throughout, and often multiple times. There's a reason it's free: they aren't giving you much of anything out of the box. You're going to reach a "wall" point, whether explicit or implied as a practical impossibility of further advancement. Madfinger, on the other hand, said "hey, we're going to give you a lot of content for a dollar, including the ability to beat the game if you work at it, but if you want to spend more, you can get more stuff and make the game easier."
But what about the way they did it?
In-Game Currency Is Still Basically A Bad System
This is one point I'll concede: in-game currency is stupid. I don't want to buy a lump of arbitrary funny money, I want to buy the content. It can be made less stupid, though, and in Dead Trigger, it isn't exactly horrible.
In most games with buyable currency, you're not really sure how far that "money" is going to go. Some items or levels aren't unlocked yet, or you're constantly using that money to buy consumable items that you burn through quickly. This is especially true in multiplayer titles (... Zynga).
In Dead Trigger, most of the things you buy A.) stay in the game forever, and B.) have their costs well-defined. You know from the moment you unlock the shop area how much every gun in the game costs, and how much every item and character upgrade costs, too. It at least tries to be transparent. And the consumable items really aren't worth buying in the first place, typically.
Still, currency holds a stigma for a reason - you're buying something you don't fully understand the value of, and you're at the mercy of the developer to decide how much is "enough." The model Valve has used in Team Fortress 2, by contrast, is much better: make items cost money directly.
For example, if you want to buy a new gun, you can purchase it for a dollar amount - usually a few bucks (Team Fortress 2 is, after all, a much higher-end, more popular, content-rich game - it's also free).
Team Fortress 2
But considering how much game time you can get without buying any of those monopoly dollars in Dead Trigger, Madfinger's implementation of in-game currency just bugs me a lot less than most. I'd also say they could fix it, too - I'm not here to preach for them. There's no reason you can't have a secondary option, such as a "unlock all weapons" or "unlock all character upgrades" in-app purchase. Many games on iOS do this, and it's quite lucrative. Instead of coughing up $13 for 4000 Gold (basically, more than can be used on all the content in the game by a fair margin), why not just charge $5 for the Weapon Pack, and $3 for the Upgrade Pack?
Not only will players like it more, it's much simpler. That said, some people then wouldn't go for this, and would want to be able to buy things piecemeal, which would be difficult to implement without eliminating the currency system - it'd just get too complicated.
And if you really just want the gold-only guns, the $2.99 650 Gold option gives you enough to buy all of them and then some. God forbid you throw the developer a bone for making an awesome game, even if the in-app purchase system is imperfect.
To wrap things up, the point I'm trying to convey in this really long editorial is pretty simple: not all in-app purchase systems are bad.
By pricing Dead Trigger at just a dollar, Madfinger is going to get a ton of people to buy it. And the vast majority of those people (I know I can't convince everyone here) will like it, and many of them will spend money on those in-app purchases. And what's so wrong with that? That money goes into development, making more content, and generally helping an indie developer keep doing what they love: making great games.
And if they can't make a profit doing it, they can never take it to the next level and bring us something truly amazing. So cut developers some slack - they're just trying to get as many people to play their games as possible while still remaining successful, and it's clear that in this day and age, that means doing things a little differently. Some developers are doing it in a sleazy, conniving way - and they need to be called out. But some aren't, and they aren't deserving of such generalized ire. In fact, they should get our praise - I might even buy some of that gold just to say "thanks" for a great game.