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The vicious cycle – How mobile game developers are forced to conform or be cast out.

How the mobile game industry forces developers to conform to standards or be cast out.

Aksel Junkkila, Blogger

February 17, 2015

8 Min Read

Gas Mask

I have been in the gaming industry for three years now and there is something I want to rant about. I will not spare anything either, so please cover yourself with protective masks as to not get my spit in your eyes.

My humble opinion is that the mobile gaming industry has shot itself in the leg and that it happened a long time ago. I can't blame the first party that decided to create a completely free game and monetize it with advertisement, it was a good decision and business wise very sound. The first ones reaped most of the benefits as their game soared up on the top lists (And why in the name of god are many of them still there? There is no way those games are so good that they actually deserve to be there year after year).

However, I do want to state that it was the beginning to a lose-lose situation where both the developers and the players now suffer in a situation, which I would like to call the “shitload of crap” situation. This is a situation where hard-core players have a lot of trouble finding anything likable on mobile, and where developers are forced to conform to the mobile casual gaming standard in an effort to survive.

Making money with a mobile game is extremely tough, as it should be since there are so many competitors these days, but the system is very skewed and favors only the ones which manage to achieve a top spot. The difference between a top spot and not is often a matter of life and death for most mobile gaming companies.

As for the customers. You customers, who understand that it is reasonable to ask for some money for a game I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for existing, without you my faith in humanity would have been lost a long time ago.

To the customers complaining and giving us 1 star ratings because we dared ask for money I want to tell you this: You are ignorant assholes, simply put. You played our game for free for hours, and even enjoyed it because why else would you play it that long. Now when you stop getting stuff for free you punish us in the most severe way you can, by giving us a 1 star rating which actually causes our game to drop in rankings and has an effect on our business. Shame on you.

I’m confident these people have no idea of what it takes to make a game, but what I can’t understand is the level of ignorancy they have. It is beyond understandable for me.

The vicious cycle

Let’s take a look at the big picture. Games found at the top charts are downloaded the most, leading people to play these games most of all. These games now become the standard for most mobile players, something to evaluate all other games against. These games are free and heavily designed to reward players constantly with psychological elements. Most of all they are free, that is important.

Players play the top games and they get bombarded with the same stuff, because the games are so similar in features and monetization models. Players get used to games being completely free with pay-to-win barriers and other in-app purchases.

If a developer deviates from the models these games are using and happens to achieve some discovery in the app store itself they are punished by angry players, who are confronted with a different model than what they are used to. Many players already feel completely entitled to have everything for free on mobile.

My point is that when a developer decides to create a game that deviates too much from the standard he is punished severely by it. He will receive far less discovery and far more complaints from the casual players. How dare he ask money for his game content, is money all he is after?

The vicious cycle is completed when the developer realizes his efforts to create a fairly monetized game and unique features are futile. In an effort to survive he conforms to the standards and starts creating games with the exact same features as the top chart games.

Let’s look at two of the main causes behind all of this:

The discovery system

The first cause I want to bring up is the discovery system that is used by the major mobile platforms. Top lists are determined by downloads, ratings, uninstall ratios and other elements. I would say the most important one is the amount of downloads a game receives, but the downloads are directly affected by ratings and uninstall ratios since the mobile platforms rank games also based by these. The better ranking a game has the more visibility it will get.

By deviating from the now standard model developers will make a lot of mobile players furious, and thus be affected in ratings, uninstall ratios and ultimately download counts by falling down in the rankings. The developer can now say goodbye to any decent download count, just because he decided to make a game with perhaps a monetization model where he let’s the player try before buying the FULL version of the game, meaning the player never has to pay again.

I am not saying the standard model does not receive complaints, but I argue that the games that deviate too much will receive severe punishment for it. It is extremely hard to market a mobile game outside of the platforms themselves, games that do it successfully are mostly games that can also be found on PC. This means that it is crucial to achieve a good ranking in the application store itself.

Let’s look at the second cause next.

Classical Conditioning

An issue that further strenghtens the problem is classical conditioning. So many popular free games use the same tricks regarding monetization. They also have the same kind of level system seen in such games as Candy Crush, Angry Birds etc. These games have many levels starting from the easiest ones and gradually becoming harder and harder.

Using this type of level system enables a lot of psychological reward mechanisms, not only from completing the challenge itself (Current level) but by also giving the player something for the effort (Usually unlocking the next level at a minimum). Of course getting the player hooked and in an endless state of reward zone is what these games want to achieve.

So what happens when you try something different? We have 5 episodes in our game, not levels but episodes. Each episode lasts 30-45 minutes and they are super hard, meaning players will have to start over often and try again. Here are some nice comments from some of our players, clearly showing that they think we have the same type of levels like all the top chart games have:

Looking further at the top ranking games they are also designed to be completely free to play and as rewarding as possible for the players, in a sense at least. Different barriers make sure that the game play will become either too hard or very tedious at points, luring the player to buy or suffer. They are pay-to-win.

The problem is that this model seems to fair better as far as the big mass is concerned, as long as they don’t have to pay to play they are more happier than with a game that stops them and asks for a small fee to unlock the whole game.

It is sad that these players do not understand that while they are playing a pay-to-win game for free, the whales are covering their game play by buying in-apps for large amounts of money. These games are designed around this, it’s one of the core elements of the games.

Now when a developer tries to use what I would call a more fair model, a “try before you buy and never have to pay again”, this happens:

So they want us to unlock the next episode for them as they complete the first one. Of course the third episode should be unlocked as they complete the second one and so on… At what point do we ask them for money? Oh right, never.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against companies that do free to play in a way that generates huge revenue, obviously players enjoy playing those games. I just want to shed some frustration on how the discoverability problem makes it almost impossible to try anything else. We have not yet given up, and even though it is tempting we are still sticking to our guns. The near future will tell if we will get the chance to continue working on the Battlestation series.

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