Journal

Do F2P mobile games get better when you pay into them? Insight from a pseudo whale.


I suppose first off we should discuss what a whale is. When I first heard the terminology it was about my propensity for purchasing new magic cards almost every week. I adore deck building and it is a habit that can rack up a large bill each year. He was using it as an insult and suggesting I do it because I must win. While I disagree with his general observation, especially given that he said this while at the time having a deck with 4 200 dollar cards in it (more than the cost of any entire deck I own), it did introduce me to a new concept which I’m thankful for. I like learning new things and this rings true even when it comes from a mildly negative experience.

The discovery that less than two tenths of a percent make up fifty percent of all IAP sales (which in turn make up between eighty and ninety five percent of all mobile revenue) suggests that if it were not for whales the entire industry would collapse. Building an empire on a sand castle seems like a poor choice but it is one that most of the industry has embraced. Even now people are demanding that Nintendo enter into this ultimately doomed market.

I decided to check out what the experience of a whale was in mobile games. I checked out Tiny Tower Death Star, Sims Freeplay, Angry Birds Go, Angry Birds Star Wars II, Jetpack Joyride, and a handful of others. I won’t explain how it was done but I played these games with the equivalent premium currency of a whale. Free reign of the entire premium market, I wanted to see what the grass was like on the other side. I’ve had this sneaking suspicion for a long time that it was all an illusion. That the games were designed to give you the impression that happiness was just a purchase away. I never knew for sure but I had my sneaking suspicions. My experience after walking away from a couple dozen of the most popular mobile titles around brought me to a singular conclusion.

I was uncomfortably correct.

In each of these games I had thought before “man I can sense that urge in the back of my head to spend money.” I thought that maybe the experience would be better and that maybe, just maybe, I would finally get to experience the game I know this game can be. But in each case a new darkness was revealed. In the case of Tiny Tower there is a metagame that makes the game, personally, unpalatable. You control an elevator and must move it from floor to floor. Presumably this was to help build a habit in the user. Really F2P games are about gaming the user rather than the user gaming the game. You look for patterns in human activity and try to exploit those patterns.

In Tiny Tower you would think that given the cost of their elevators that the game would become more fun with each new elevator. I certainly thought that was the logical conclusion. But I found that as I upgraded the elevator the game became worse for me. By the final elevator I couldn’t even hit the right floors I was moving so fast. The proper solution would be adding an automatic elevator, but doing so would break habituation and endanger not getting the user hooked into an abusive purchase relationship.

What other options do you have for money? You can instantly finish buildings, finish production, and finish selling. In doing so you basically eliminate the only part of the game that exists. Spend enough and there is literally nothing left to play.

Oh, my apologies, did I say nothing? I meant there was still the VIP collection metagame. Except that that can be purchased as well. There is no aspect of this game that exists if you become a whale. Once you’ve spent a few hundred (or thousand) dollars you suddenly realize that you paid for the privilege to stop playing.

Next we move onto the Sims Freeplay. This game is insufferable for free. I thought that certainly they would have made it fun if you pay into it. That’s the name of the game after all? Not the literal name of this game but of the F2P genre. You trick people into picking up your game and then poke at every angle of their psyche until you find their weakness. Freeplay suffers from the same tropes as Tiny Tower however. The more you spend the less of a game there is until you realize that the only game is the spending game.

Unless you are paying there is no progress but with enough progress there is no game. Once again you are paying for the privilege to stop paying. Paying for them to stop tugging at your mind.

You might be thinking that duh, if you buy all the premium items, the game will be over. But my concern here is that this is even an option. I could spend thousands on League of Legends and the game would be no more “finished” by the end. Because the purchasing is not the game. I am paying to expand on an already fully featured experience. I’m not paying to remove barriers from a game that is literally nothing but barriers. Because once all those barriers are gone you’ve got no game left.

Angry Birds Go was a little more nefarious and it comes from a different group of Whale abusers. The trick here is that they scale the mobs with your purchasing habits. Did you just buy that fifty dollar vehicle? Jokes on you buddy, the AI now has much better vehicles that have greatly reduced the efficacy of your fifty dollar purchase. I had almost the exact same distance between me and the AI before I was a premium user and after. The thing here is that by the time you realize you’ve been swindled it is too late.

Angry Birds Star Wars II was weird because upon having all the powerups in the game I found myself still having a great difficulty reaching those illusive “3 stars”. You might be thinking “Holy crap this guy is terrible at Angry Birds” and you’d be correct! But the point here is that after putting in that kind of cash I should expect to see some change in my performance. But I didn’t, with the exception of the Jawas there was not a single powerup that changed my score in any appreciable way. They seemed to exist for me to just make a mistake in buying them once.

If everyone of their millions of players makes that mistake even a single time they are rolling in some incredibly high revenue for very little effort.

Any F2P game that features a top down view and involves you gunning down waves and waves of enemies suffers from the pay to stop playing methodology. The highest tiered weapons will be between fifty and hundreds of dollars and they’ll literally play the game for you. You’ll realize within a half hour that you’ve paid hundreds of dollars to remove all playability from a game. Sure you could decide to stop using those god tier weapons but then you’ve just paid hundreds of dollars for literally nothing. You basically flipped a toggle on a single line of code from “0” to “1”.

All timer based games fall apart from purchasing. King’s Candy Crush and games like it are designed to on average leave you a single turn away from winning to help convince you that it was just bad luck and that “you’ll get it next time” or that if you just buy one hammer real quick you can get that last bit finished. When in reality if you just do the same thing over and over eventually you will win that level because of the nature of standard deviation.

My experience as a pseudo whale has taught me that I’d never want to pay for a F2P game. The inevitable conclusion each time is that I’m either paying to end the game or paying to experience no appreciable difference in my performance. It is ever so rarely about cosmetics and rarer still does the “speed up” impact of F2P purchases not completely remove the reason for playing.

This doesn’t even get into the problem with balancing a game that is built from the beginning with F2P in mind.

Plants Vs. Zombies was one of the best experiences I’ve had in gaming. I own it on nearly every piece of hardware I have and I’ve finished it to 100% on nearly all of them as well. It will always be fondly remembered in my heart and I consider it one of the finest examples of simple gameplay leading to an incredibly engaging and wonderful experience. The pacing from beginning to end is nearly perfect and you never feel like they’ve designed anything to frustrate you. At least I didn’t, perhaps your experience will vary (indeed I suspect it will).

Plants Vs. Zombies 2 was by contrast a vapid mess. From the get go you are getting poked and prodded to give them money from every angle. What does that money do for you exactly? Well it can potentially pick away at your nostalgia by unlocking plants from the original game (a ballsy move, locking away content you already made and just ported). Or it can, while making putting plants in the bottom right corner nearly impossible, make every level so trivial that you will never fail a single level from beginning to end. Heck if you need to skip anything you can do that as well.

Everything about the game seems like it was designed with premium purchases first in mind and gameplay second. Each level is paced awkwardly and often you’ll find yourself seeing waves that are unusually perfect for a particular power up that they sell. How convenient! It’s so strange that this wave is absolutely perfect for that powerup. Holy hell in this next level they’ve got two different waves designed perfectly for this powerup!

How serendipitous.

This is how you take something that was previously flawless and completely destroy it. Naturally you’ll find people who like it, probably even a lot of people, overall the expectations of mobile games have been quite low. People seem to be happy with just about anything and look at mobile devices as just a notch above atari in terms of what needs to be accomplished to be considered “acceptable.” If you tried to make any mobile experience on a console you would be universally panned.

You might think that this is fair because who could honestly expect console graphics on a mobile device. But that’s not what we are talking about here. I’m not expecting Crysis on my Nexus 7, I’m expecting a well written and well designed game. Do you know what kind of hardware you need to make a well designed game? 2KB of ram and a game no bigger than 1MB. My phone has a 32 GB card with 1GB of ram (might be two actually). Why is it that I’ve got orders of magnitude more processing power and space but my games have become more and more deficient in nearly every respect?

There is no excuse for the vapid nature of modern mobile gaming. If you are on the fence about paying for a game you are playing allow me to help you. Don’t do it, the odds that it will not improve your experience are about as goods as the odds that you won’t win the lottery. Some companies are putting out 200 games a year, that’s almost a game a day. Do you honestly think with that kind of generation you just happened to find the exception? There are hundreds of flappy bird clones. Hundreds upon hundreds.

The only way I believe this trend will ever stop is if people start building games without purchases in mind. A good example is Castle Doombad. That game does genuinely feel like they went through and developed each stage, each powerup, and each mob with the game itself in mind. Then once they were done they sat down and played it and thought “How can we make this more fun for impatient people?” You could spend a chunk of change in CD but you would still have a full featured game at your disposal. That is a rarity and something that I think can only exist if premium purchases come after the game is finished.

I think we’ll actually break off this train of thought into another post sometime this week. It’s good enough to be a post of its own.

Mobile gaming is not much more than a glorified whaling expedition. Once all the whales are drained it’ll collapse.