kottke.org posts about iPhone games
In a short video, Joss Fong and Dion Lee of Vox explore how free mobile games are engineered to make money using behavioral psychology.
By collecting troves of data on how users play their games, developers have mastered the science of applied addiction. And with the rise of “freemium” games that rely on micro-transactions, they have good reason to deploy the tools of behavioral psychology to inspire purchases.
Back in 2013, Ramin Shokrizade explained The Top F2P Monetization Tricks:
To maximize the efficacy of a coercive monetization model, you must use a premium currency, ideally with the ability to purchase said currency in-app. Making the consumer exit the game to make a purchase gives the target’s brain more time to figure out what you are up to, lowering your chances of a sale. If you can set up your game to allow “one button conversion”, such as in many iOS games, then obviously this is ideal. The same effect is seen in real world retail stores where people buying goods with cash tend to spend less than those buying with credit cards, due to the layering effect.
Purchasing in-app premium currency also allows the use of discounting, such that premium currency can be sold for less per unit if it is purchased in bulk. Thus a user that is capable of doing basic math (handled in a different part of the brain that develops earlier) can feel the urge to “save money” by buying more. The younger the consumer, the more effective this technique is, assuming they are able to do the math. Thus you want to make the numbers on the purchase options very simple, and you can also put banners on bigger purchases telling the user how much more they will “save” on big purchases to assist very young or otherwise math-impaired customers.
Having the user see their amount of premium currency in the interface is also much less anxiety generating, compared to seeing a real money balance. If real money was used (no successful game developer does this) then the consumer would see their money going down as they play and become apprehensive. This gives the consumer more opportunities to think and will reduce revenues.
Mike Rose also discussed the psychological aspect of freemium games in Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games:
On the topic of in-app purchases, Griffiths says, “The introduction of in-game virtual goods and accessories (that people pay real money for) was a psychological masterstroke.”
“It becomes more akin to gambling, as social gamers know that they are spending money as they play with little or no financial return,” he continues. “The one question I am constantly asked is why people pay real money for virtual items in games like FarmVille. As someone who has studied slot machine players for over 25 years, the similarities are striking.”
Griffiths argues that the real difference between pure gambling games and some free-to-play games is the fact that gambling games allow you to win your money back, adding an extra dimension that can potentially drive revenues even further.
Update: In 2009, Chris Anderson wrote a book called Free: The Future of a Radical Price in which he argued that freemium was going to be an important business model.
The online economy offers challenges to traditional businesses as well as incredible opportunities. Chris Anderson makes the compelling case that in many instances businesses can succeed best by giving away more than they charge for. Known as “Freemium,” this combination of free and paid is emerging as one of the most powerful digital business models. In Free, Chris Anderson explores this radical idea for the new global economy and demonstrates how it can be harnessed for the benefit of consumers and businesses alike. In the twenty-first century, Free is more than just a promotional gimmick: It’s a business strategy that is essential to a company’s successful future.
From the developer of Crossy Road (aka Infinite Frogger) comes Pac-Man 256, a Pac-Man game with an infinite board that gets eaten from below by the kill screen glitch from the 256th level of the original game. I love riffs on old school video games like this, and the infinite board is a particularly clever one.1 Here’s what the gameplay looks like:
I’m sure everyone is used to this by now (which is sad) but be warned that Pac-Man 256 is one of those games that encourages you to watch ads to level up more quickly or to continue when you’re out of credits…and then to buy more credits as an IAP when you’re out of ads to watch. There’s an option to buy unlimited credits for $7.99, but still. I understand the economics of the situation and why they do it this way, but it just feels so hostile to the player. I want to wholeheartedly recommend this game because the gameplay is so fun, but it feels like you’re constantly wading through a little bit of raw sewage to play it. Which, apparently I don’t mind doing, wading through sewage. :(
Update: Echoing several similar comments on Twitter, John Gruber writes:
Unlike Kottke, I think the option to buy unlimited “credits” with a one-time $7.99 in-app purchase is a fair deal. Think of it as an $8 game that you can optionally play for free if you’re willing to watch ads. That’s a good price for a great game.
$8 is a more than fair price. But the option to buy unlimited credits is difficult to find in the game (you need to run out of credits first and then click the “Play” button anyway) and it doesn’t tell you exactly what you’re getting for your $8. What I want is never to see an ad ever in the game, but I don’t actually think that’s what it is. Paying full price for a game shouldn’t involve hide n’ seek.
But the bigger issue for me is how the game, and many many others in the App Store, feels: icky. Like used car salesman icky. Drug dealer icky. Depressing casino icky. The way the game presents itself, the developers seemingly want one thing: your money. Do they want me to have a good time playing the game? Eh, maybe? I don’t know, it just seems really cynical to me, like a game built by a bank instead of people that love gaming or Pac-Man.
I really *really* wish the App Store had a trial period option available for apps. 20 minutes into Pac-Man 256 and I would have ponied up $8-10, no problem. I suspect App Store users would love this feature but game developers would hate it because using ads and casino tactics to upsell in your app makes a lot more money than straight sales.
I don’t quite know how it happened, but I’m presently addicted to DaisyPop on my iPhone. The gameplay is pretty simple: various flowers and bugs float around the screen and you tap on things to pop them. Popping many things at once increases your score. Taps are limited but you get more the better you play. Unlike many other iOS games where frenetic tapping is rewarded, DaisyPop is a game of patience…waiting for several items to float close enough for the big scores can sometimes take a minute or two.
If you’ve played Monument Valley, a game so purty it won an Apple Design Award, you know the music is one of the best features of the game. Well, the original soundtrack for the game is now available for streaming on Spotify.
The soundtrack is also available to own on Amazon or iTunes.
(Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s take a moment to witness how nutty app pricing is. Monument Valley costs $3.99. The soundtrack, which is a just a part of the overall game, costs $8.99 at Amazon. And that makes sense how?)
Update: The Forgotten Shores add-on to the game also has its own soundtrack.
Your addiction to various things digital might be wasting a lot of your time. But it’s paying off in a big way for companies like King Digital Entertainment, the folks behind the wildly popular Candy Crush Saga. King just announced plans for an IPO. Can a company with one very big hit really go public? On one hand, consider this: “Of the 5000 companies in NASDAQ, only 6 have as much revenue ($1.88b) and fat profit margins (30%) as King.” On the other hand, it’s tough to stay on top in the hit-driven game industry. Want to invest in this IPO? First, you need to consider how long King will wear the crown.
Candy Crush Saga really has created some incredible numbers.
100 years ago, Charlie Chaplin put on some floppy shoes, oversized trousers, a bowler, a mustache and became The Tramp. Within a year or two, he was internationally famous and in two years, he was making $670,000/year, an unprecedented figure in those days.
“It was amazingly fast,” says David Robinson, a film critic who has written a definitive biography of Chaplin (His Life and Art) and is giving an already sold-out talk titled “100 Years of the Tramp” at the festival. “By mid-1914 he was already popular. By 1915 he was international. The speed with which it happened, without the modern media, is astonishing.”
50 years ago, The Beatles were virtually unknown in the US and then, less than a year later, the largest TV audience in history watched them perform on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Consider the following: At the end of 1963, virtually no one in America had heard of the Beatles. Yet on Feb. 9, 1964, they drew the largest TV audience in history — 73 million viewers — when they appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” How could such a conquest have occurred so quickly? I once asked my friend Lenny Kaye that question, and he answered: “Everybody was ready for the ’60s to begin.” There’s some truth to that, but of course there’s much more to the story. The explosion of the Beatles in America was the result of combined forces — artistic, social and technological — as well as persistence, showbiz rivalries and more than a bit of luck. So how did it happen that the Beatles came out of nowhere to become the biggest cultural sensation ever, in six weeks?
This year, an iOS & Android game called Flappy Bird, that was originally released in 2013, suddenly rocketed to the top of the App Store bestseller list. (Seriously, look at how quickly it got popular.) The developer, Dong Nguyen, revealed in an interview with The Verge that the game was making $50,000 a day on ads. He’s since made the game unavailable for download.
On February 1st, reviews exploded to 800 in a single hour. 6,500 iTunes App Store reviews in a single day. February 1st is the day Dong Nguyen woke up, stretched, checked email, checked Twitter, checked iTunes, and witnessed millions of downloads happening.
You can only imagine what that must have felt like.
This is the same app no one cared about for more than half a year. Just one month prior, it was a great day if Flappy Bird got 20 total reviews on the App Store. Up until January 9th, there had never been an hour in which Flappy Bird received even 10 reviews (most of the time it was under 5).
Your addictive iOS game for the week: Hundreds. The concept and gameplay is super-simple…tap to expand circles until you reach a score of 100 without letting an expanding circle touch anything. And then it gets surprisingly difficult. Check out how the gameplay works:
Free idea for iOS game devs: for just about any iOS game I’ve played for the more than 60 minutes, I would pay dearly (like $10-15) for a God-mode option that let you play the game infinitely long without dying. The type of God mode would depend on the game. For Tiny Wings, it would be as simple as removing the sunset. For Ski Safari, ditch the avalanche. For Kingdom Rush, God mode might be something like starting any level with unlimited gold and unlimited enemies. (For KR, I would probably pay $30 for an unlimited mode.) And perhaps God mode purchase option only unlocks after a certain amount of gameplay. It wouldn’t work for any game…e.g. I can’t think of what God mode for Angry Birds would be like. But for a certain type of game, God mode would be a great way for experts to explore more of the games they love.
Update: Several people of Twitter mentioned The Mighty Eagle as Angry Birds’ God mode, which is close. A couple of others also suggested unlimited birds of your choosing on every level…good idea!
Uh oh, this is bad news for my productivity after this Thursday…Andreas Illiger is set to release the sequel to the mega-fun Tiny Wings on July 12th. In the meantime, watch the adorable handmade trailer:
In the amount of time I have spent playing Kingdom Rush on the iPad, I could have completed a second or even third college degree. So it is with some relutance that I have been made aware of the iPhone version of Kingdom Rush, out today. It’s the same game, optimized for the smaller screen on the iPhone and only 99 cents. Maybe the reason the whole “can’t use the iPad/iPhone for creation” thing persists is that everyone is using the damn things to play tower defense games instead.
Ski Safari is an iOS game that’s kind of a cross between Tiny Wings and CycloManiacs…which is to say that I love love love it. Here’s my high score, about which I’m very ashamed and proud at the same time: