Monday, November 04, 2013

Games with in-app purchases are not fun

I dislike computer games that allow you to purchase additional content inside the game. Read on if you'd like to find why.

Many years ago, computer games started out in arcade machines: their purpose was to keep you feeding all your coins to them. Some of the games were devilishly hard. You couldn't save your progress, and perfection required a lot of money. Many children got good at them after hours of practice and having squandered a great deal of cash. I never got to play many coin-operated games: the games were frustrating, my patience and skill never improved, and my parents saw that it was a waste of cash.

Then, computers and game consoles became cheap enough for families to own. Games that exclusively ran on computers or game consoles didn't need to prod you to put more cash in the machine. You bought the game in a store for a reasonable sum of money. You could play it as frequently as you wanted. You could save your game and resume from a level. If you took good care of the game media, it lasted you many years. So a single floppy, CD, or cartridge could be used for many hours of gaming. Sometimes you loved the game, played it till your fingers were sore, and got really good at the game. Then you told all your friends about it. Or you got bored, got frustrated, tossed the game in the closet and forgot all about it.  Companies that made boring games couldn't sell their second game. In this model, the interests of the consumer were aligned with that of the game developers: fun games produced more enjoyment for users and that rewarded the game developers.

The best games from this generation were fun to play. Adventure games like Monkey Island were funny, and you identified with the quirky personalities of the characters.  Car racing games like Need for Speed were challenging, you believed that you were driving a Lamborghini. You could drive a police car and chase down speeding racers. I was blown away when I saw Indycar Racing on a friend's computer. I didn't expect games to be this good: you could record the race, and view it from different angles. Game developers had fresh ideas, and they focused on improving the game experience. People remembered which companies made fun games: ID software, Broderbund, Lucas Arts, ... Just the Broderbund logo on the screen would make me smile: they knew how to make fun games! Just seeing that logo for a new game was a promising start: it was probably going to be fun.

The latest trend is mobile gaming. Games are very cheap: sometimes even free. You can download the game and play the first level or the first few levels. It all sounds great! So you download a new car racing game for the low price of $3. The first level is gorgeous: it has stunning graphics, and you are given a slow car. But hey, who cares, right? This game is cheap! You play the tutorial race, and it is so much fun! You come in dead last. No problem, you just got this game. So you play a bit more, and you keep doing a little better.  You might even win a race or two. Then, you hit a wall. No matter how hard you try, you can't unlock good cars anymore. You cannot get additional levels unlocked unless you put in hours of repetitive grind playing the old levels. Why can't you just drive the Lamborghini that is shown on the screenshot? Because it requires 65,000 credits, and wining races only gets you 300 credits. You need to win hundreds of races to get a half-decent car. Or you could play the same five levels again and again. Suddenly, it isn't fun anymore.

The fundamental problem with in-app purchases is that fun takes a back seat to selling content. The game isn't about fun: it is about providing just enough enjoyment to keep you paying more. The game is all about giving you incentives to buy extra credits: just for this car, for that track, for an upgrade on your current car, ... You aren't enjoying yourself anymore: you are constantly chasing the next target. Games are always designed to be profitable. But now, the incentives for the user aren't aligned with the game developer anymore. In order to have fun, the user must pay large sums of money to the game developer. In a popular car racing game, there is an option to purchase all the cars in the game for $99. That is ninety-nine real American dollars. By comparison, my copy of Need for Speed 3 was purchased for $15, and it included all the cars and all the race tracks. Sure, it only had five cars, but I bought it to drive a Lamborghini, not a Ford Focus. On many new racing games, I start off with a car worse than the old family car in my garage! How is that any fun? Much like coin-operated games of my childhood, these games are designed to eat cash at the expense of player frustration.

In theory, you can get all the content if you play the game enough. But the amount of time required to unlock the content is immense: many hundreds of hours at the least. These mobile games are misleading customers in their advertising. Most users get to choose from a small set of slow cars, and three or four race tracks. The fancy cars and fancy racetracks in the screenshots are a mirage.

Now I follow a simple rule: I don't buy games with in-app purchases.

(Image, courtesy Wikipedia)