Mobile Games: The Good, The Bad, and the Worst

In the last few years mobile gaming has become a phenomena and it’s not hard to see why. With mobile giant Supercell – makers of Clash of Clans, Boom Beach, and HayDay – making over 1.55b in revenue in 2014, (Factoring in conversion rates!) most developers would have to be dummies not to want a slice of that juicy, juicy pie.

The reason for the success of mobile games is painfully simple. Almost EVERYONE on the planet has a mobile device at this point. That is an ENORMOUS potential customerbase. And with every device having one of two operating systems and the same basic specs, it is super easy to design simple games for such a small platform variety. Add into that the cost factor. If you make your game free with in app purchases, people are going to think, “FREE!” and go for it. On the other hand, if you set up a $1-2 price tag, most people are going to think, “That’s not too bad, it’s only a dollar.” and buy it. It seems small at first but when millions of people share that logic, suddenly you’re swimming in RIVERS OF MONEY. Flappybird is/was a really good example of this. In summary, the effort to reward ratio for mobile games is staggeringly good.

Nowadays it seems like most people are developing an app or mobile game. Programming or developing a game with as simple a mechanic as: “jump on a platform, now jump on a higher platform” as a hobby can potentially net someone a few extra dollars if 1,000 people download it a month. And honestly, outside of certain issues with the app store, mobile game development is probably one of the most fair and direct developer to consumer markets in the world. You don’t need an agent, you don’t need a CEO. You have an idea, you make it, you list it, you earn money. If you’re ridiculously lucky the game goes viral and you make enough money to fill a swimming pool with chocolate coins and swim around in it Scrooge McDuck style.

All that being said, I am what game marketers and developers refer to as “The Unicorn.” I am an adult with disposable income and a credit card that is willing to purchase whatever I want. I am not prone to the impulse purchases that cause other consumers to get frustrated and turn brand assassin – rather I space my purchases out over time and end up being a repeat customer. Through this I spend a lot of money in a sustained way. I do not have a specific genre of game, I will buy anything that catches my eye. If your game has an interesting hook, I will play it and I have bought currency in almost every free to play mobile game I have played for more than a month.

I realize that last line risks bringing the ire of people who think freemium games are the devil. I respectfully disagree. I think freemium games have their niche and are fine just the way they are. To me there is a difference between freemium and pay to win:

Freemium – The base game is free, and all components are accessible for free. You can spend real money for in game currency to get small advantages such as a shorter build time on a building or more pulls for a slot machine. But these are things all other players have access to as part of the base game. Examples of this would be Clash of Clans, Puzzle and Dragons, or even the dreaded…Farmville!

Pay to Win – MOST of the game is free. Accessing certain portions of it costs money. Acquiring gear, new characters, or items costs money. If you attempt to play the game without spending money, you will likely lag continually further behind and be stomped by other players that have spent money. Examples of this would likely be a metric fluffton of free to play grinder MMOs that sell weapon upgrades in their cash shops or mobile trivia games that charge you for extra turns to boost your worldwide score. I don’t consider these games worth my time and will uninstall them immediately when I get a whiff of something shifty.

Free to play mobile games also have three basic systems in common:

Stamina – Stamina is what it sounds like. You burn your stamina bar to do things like run dungeons or do gameplay. Stamina slowly returns over a set period of time, like 1 stamina every 2 to 3 minutes. Usually you can pay premium currency to have your stamina refilled immediately.

Gachapon/Slot System – The game has a slot system which is commonly referred to as a “gacha” which is short for “Gachapon.” In Japan, Gachapons are little slot vending machines where you put money in and get a capsule toy in exchange. The capsule toys usually come from a line of toys, like characters from a popular game or anime series. Certain toys in the pack are rarer than others, and you end up spinning the gacha more and more in hopes of getting the rare toy you want. This translates into almost exactly the same thing in games. You pull the slot, usually using premium currency, in the hopes of getting something rare to use. Gacha systems are primarily used in non-PVP games, which I find perfectly fair because you’re not screwing up someone else’s good time with your level 3940933492 super rare monster.

Time – It’s as basic as it sounds. “Time is money, friend.” isn’t just a silly quote. So now you’ve upgraded your base, but you have 2-3 hours before it’s done. You can certainly wait, but you want to play NOW! And for $5, you can! Other players, however, are fine with that upgrade taking 2 hours because they can go do other stuff in the meantime.

Most games use one of these systems, or even a combination of two or three of them. It’s how they usually make the big bucks.

Now, here is my logic with freemium mobile games: If I have played and enjoyed your game for over two months without spending a dime and I can clearly see I am making progress, the door is open for me to spend real money. I find this logic has served me EXTREMELY well in avoiding impulse purchases and also allows me to reward myself with a treat from a game I clearly enjoy. The other added benefit is that it allows me to avoid the dreaded “buyer’s remorse” when it comes to my purchases. Anyone who has spontaneously dropped $30 on a game only to say, “That really wasn’t worth it.” knows what I am talking about and a lot of the time those people stop playing the game to avoid making the same mistake in the future.

As an example, I have played Clash of Clans since October of last year. I don’t usually enjoy PVP style games but Supercell sucked me in with the clan war mechanic and I really enjoy playing with my friends and coworkers, so I’ve stuck around. I’ve purchased their cash currency, gems, a couple of times. Once to add an extra builder for productivity, and a second time to get my barbarian king hero character. I could have gotten both of these things had I waited a bit, but I chose to bypass that and reward the developers with money while getting something for myself along the way.

I also play…or played…Puzzle and Dragons. It’s a monster collection game with RPG elements and a matching game as its base gameplay mechanic. I was SUPER into it for a while. This game has a gacha system, and the developers are EXTREMELY GENEROUS with handing out the premium currency required to pull the gacha. They also regularly adjust and increase drop rates during festivals, insuring players usually have a better experience. Again, I applied my mobile game purchase logic and eventually spent money to get some extra gacha spins. I wasn’t disappointed. Sometimes you don’t get what you want, but you still usually get something decent with the odds increased.

‘Well with systems like that, how could a company go wrong?”

I’m so glad you asked, imaginary person! I just happen to have an example!

Final Fantasy: Record Keeper is the new “it” game right now. And it deserves to be, it’s an amazing game. It hits on the key elements of fun gameplay and is a love letter to 20-30somes everywhere who grew up on the Final Fantasy series. All the nostalgia is there in the form of the characters, music, and dungeons. Sounds like a game I’ll be shelling tons of money out on, right?


The game uses a gacha system in the same way as Puzzle and Dragons. You spend currency (either mythril earned in game or premium paid gems) for a spin at their relic gacha. This awards you a potentially rare item. However, the developer team made the mistake of having most of the drop rates pretty baseline or even rarer. What this means is that unlike Puzzle and Dragons where I can pay to spin and the increased drop rates means I’m MORE likely to get something good, I can spend $30 for 11 relic pulls in FF:RK and end up with all mediocre items. There is always some luck involved with a gacha system, but setting the baseline to “good” stuff rather than “generic things you can get in the easy dungeons” tips the scales in the player’s favor and makes them likely to be repeat customers.

I admit, the idea of me spending money on these games is purely selfish. I want something good, and the plus is that the developers are rewarded with money. If you don’t offer your users something good, they’re not going to spend money anymore. There are tons of posts about FF:RK all over the net from people dissatisfied that they spent $30 and only got “meh” items. How much do you want to bet that those people aren’t going to be repeat customers? And it also encourages other customers like me to stay the heck away. Sure, the company is going to get that initial money boom from the impulse buyers, but the sustained model just isn’t there and eventually the profits will drop off a cliff.

So ultimately I think properly designed mobile games have their place in an ever-expanding market. As long as you have a good hook and don’t screw up your mechanics or cash shop, there is a good probability you will end up with some money. You don’t even necessarily need to be from a huge publisher to rake it in, either. And that’s fantastic. I LOVE this market because its scope is absolutely enormous and potentially infinite. I think this and indie games in general are the breath of fresh air the gaming subculture needs because it allows a lot of homegrown developers to take the reigns and create things that go directly into the hands of players without being bogged down by company politics. To those that think mobile games are a dumb or casual market, I’d say consider the benefits to indie gaming developers as a whole and don’t knock it til you’ve tried it.

***************Also something something Hearthstone something something.I know someone is going to ask me why it wasn’t mentioned so here you go. HEARTHSTONE HEARTHSTONE HEARTHY STONEY STONE! It’s free and has cards that MOVE sometimes!*****************