Android devices are getting more powerful by the month. In just a short period of time, mobile gamers are no longer content to fill their time with ports of desktop flash games, or even decade-old Grand Theft Auto titles, and have come to expect 3D spin-offs that look somewhat convincingly like their PC equivalents. This is great, but there's a catch - it won't come free. If gamers want better games to come to mobile platforms, they're going to have to stop their moaning and buy the games as they come out. They can't all be free, and here's why.
Ads Are A Double-Edged Sword
Many gamers are perfectly content to download free games that are laden with ads. I don't understand this. Perhaps I've grown old and crotchety, but ads offend me. In nearly two decades of dedicated console and occasional PC gaming, I never had ads displayed inside my game window. Seeing them pop up anywhere near a gaming experience, even if it's just the title screen, is akin to opening up a novel and finding the first few pages lined with coupons. I wouldn't want to open up Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to see adverts for black robes, and I feel the same about games.
I was going to buy one afterwards anyway, with or without ads.
That said, many of you don't mind ads in your games. That's fine, but indulging in ad-funded gaming just encourages the worst type of behavior from developers. While a developer could make a paid game, sell 10,000 copies, and bring in a halfway decent haul, ad-based games have to move shipments by the millions to bring in revenue. Since enticing millions of people to play your game is easier said than done, they're tempted to flood their games with even more obnoxious ads, and worse, in-app purchases. They want you to pay real money for fake money, so you can buy the uber-weapon that will defeat the mega-troll blocking the path to the ultra-castle, which will require you to spend more real money on more fake money in order to finish. While I'm okay with games throwing in unreasonable difficulty spikes (play any JRPG made in the 90s), expecting additional money from me as a reward for this behavior is a sham. We've fleshed out why IAPs are awful before, so I'm not going to spend too much time wailing on them now. That said...
IAPs Are Not Inherently Evil
While some apps completely abuse IAPs, that shouldn't be an indictment of the entire method of distribution. Some games, especially those that ship episodic releases, would benefit from transitioning to distributing content via IAPs instead. I don't need many icons in my app drawer all leading me to what is essentially one long game. If a developer decides they want to release a game with four sets of levels and charge 99 cents for all but the first set, then they've essentially distributed their game for $3 with installments paid for at your own pace. If buying levels after downloading a game upsets you, then buy them all as soon as you download the game and pretend it was one lump sum. You will still spend $3 either way. IAPs in paid games also aren't the end of the world. As long as the developer is upfront, and the content is reasonable, such IAPs aren't all that different from buying downloadable content on a console or PC.
And it could all be yours for just three payments of 99 cents! (Shipping and handling not included)
Unfortunately, casual mobile gamers have a difficult time conceptualizing paying for a game. This is the same problem PC game developers had when the market was young, as they were shipping content at a time when people generally viewed PCs as tools and video games as toys. People who buy video game consoles go into the purchase planning to pay upfront for games later on, and game developers can measure the size of their potential market just by looking at console sales. The same isn't true for smartphones. The majority of people who buy one don't view it as a gaming device, and many of those that do tend to view it as a way of flinging a couple birds at some pigs while they wait for the bus. A game developer looking to release a graphically intensive role-playing game isn't going to reach these people regardless of how awesome their game turns out. And while tablets may be more likely to entice buyers to install a game or two, they don't ship nearly as many units as smartphones do.
I don't have to spend $3 to go play chess. I'm not about to spend that much to fling some birds!
IAPs, done right, serve as a potential solution to this problem. A developer can offer some content for free, and as long as they are transparent about it, dedicated gamers know to buy the complete game afterwards. This isn't too different from the shareware model that used to be quite common on PCs. It enticed enough people into playing games on their PCs until the idea of gaming on a computer wasn't that weird anymore (it never was that weird, really, as any older nerd from that time would tell you). Android devices are at the stage now where they can serve as our primary gaming devices, but only if we show developers that it is worth their time to invest in creating games that genuinely take advantage of the hardware. How do we do that? Well, we're going to have to accept some hard truths.
$4.99 Is Not Too High A Price
Sega just ported Crazy Taxi to Android and only wants less than the cost of cab fare for their effort. This is a full-blown port of a rather complex game, one that would have eaten all of your quarters at an arcade
or set you back $50 on a console (it has been brought to my attention that Crazy Taxi didn't actually launch at $50 like most first-party titles, but you get the idea). That Sega invested the time it takes to make it a touch-friendly experience that works across a wide number of Android devices and only wants a fiver for it is an absolute steal.
Likewise, Rovio Stars just released Tiny Thief, a gorgeous 2D stealth-based adventure game that bleeds personality. No, it's not a console-style game, but there is nothing lazy about its presentation. This is a quality game available for $2.99. There's no free version, nor is there a demo. And you know what? That's fine. On any other platform, gamers would accept this and buy the game anyway, especially at such a low price.
Smartphones may be small, but that doesn't mean they're cheap to develop for. These things are mobile computers, and for some of us, they're more powerful than the laptops sitting on our desks. Tablets are capable of packing even more power. If people want games with console-quality graphics, and they want them to be both ad and IAP-free, then they're going to have to pay for them, and they're going to have to pay more. 2k Games ported XCOM to iOS and wanted $19.99 for their trouble. The game's not as attractive as the console and PC versions, but it contains the majority of the same gameplay at a fraction of the cost. All thing's considered, it's pretty cheap.
Square Enix also charges up to the same amount for many of its Android titles. Still, even if we don't see a massive influx of $20 ports in the immediate future, we shouldn't complain as more intensive mobile games gradually start costing $4.99, $6.99, and $9.99. Take a moment to look at the gorgeous Bounty Arms, now available for $4.99.
This is the kind of content we want to see more of (actually, no, the game turned out to be quite the disappointment). If we want developers to start taking Android seriously as a gaming platform, we have to make it worth their while. Otherwise we can't complain when Rovio releases another freemium title loaded with ads and IAP. It pays the bills after we've proven that we refuse to do the same.
So What Are You Waiting For?
Go buy a game or two. No, it doesn't have to be right now. Save up and drop ten bucks on that "expensive" Android game that you would have considered an impulse buy on any other console. And if you're really committed, consider giving the NVIDIA Shield, a M.O.J.O., or even the Ouya a go. Picking any of those up is comparable to buying a traditional console, and it gives developers a slight idea of what their installed base of dedicated players is. That will then benefit all Android gamers as more titles are released for the platform, and people will have the choice to play them in the manner they find most comfortable - whether that's using touch controls on a tiny screen or a Bluetooth controller synched to a tablet that's plugged into an HDTV. The future looks bright, but we have to open our wallets to make it happen.