Wallet Reaper

By Nick Kennedy

Before 2007, any mention of ‘mobile gaming’ would expect a response somewhere along the lines of “what? you mean like, Snake?”.

Preceding the release of the iPhone, and the subsequent conquest of the mobile and application undertaken by Apple, video-games were only just coming out of being a niche market. Only two years before, Microsoft released the Xbox 360, as one of the biggest pushes by the gaming industry to gain acceptance as a mainstream standard of entertainment.

However, the way Apple saw things, was ‘why bother forcing a new idea on slow-adopters, when you can sell them the idea of video games on a device they already own?’

Apple took an industry that almost no one even knew existed and created a multi-million dollar cash cow. Now, nearly every major game developer under the sun is struggling to get in on the action while they still can. As a result, the Apple iOS market share of portable gaming has exploded to 34% as of 2010, up from just 1% in 2008.

The morally ambiguous genius of the modern mobile gaming industry is also its biggest danger, at least as far as quality game development is concerned. As an industry centred around the concept of making as much profit in as little time, disturbing practices have become a standard for many developers, and consumer demand is negatively affecting developers who are just trying to make an honest living. The $1.99 price tag for many mobile games masks the true goal and long-term business model of many games like Candy Crush Saga, and the countless clones of the recently removed Flappy Bird.

It used to be that once a game was purchased, you received a finished product, complete with all content, ready for you to enjoy; and rightfully so, as you’d put down your hard earn cash, right?

In today’s market, this has become less and less the case, especially in the mobile games industry. Candy Crush Saga developers King Ltd. saw revenue of $1.88USD billion in 2013 as a result of the infamous in-app purchase, a method of extracting even more dollars from consumers with the promise of more points, coins, gems, or whatever arbitrary name has been assigned as the game’s currency.

Of course, it is entirely up to users to decide whether they choose to invest in order to progress faster, and in the case of games such as Candy Crush Saga, the separation between game and business model at least allows for the game to be enjoyed without having to drop any cash at all.

So leave it up to Electronic Arts, the publishing giant, to take the concept of in-app purchases, and completely obliterate any semblance of forgivability the practice may have had. With their recent release of the classic-come-reimagined-new-title Dungeon Keeper, EA has made it nigh on impossible to progress through the game without making further payments through the game’s built in store.

The game runs on a system of currency in order to accomplish certain tasks faster than normal; spend some gems and you can expand your dungeon, build more rooms, traps, and acquire different creatures to fill out your little army of evil, all in the space of a few minutes. The game starts you off with a set amount of gems, but as soon as those are spent? Well that’s when things get interesting.

Attempting to complete tasks that would have taken mere minutes with the help of gems can now take up to 24 hours to be completed. That’s right, in order to excavate a 4×4 room to expand your dungeon for free, you can be waiting anywhere beyond a week to see the construction through, and this is just to build your dungeon. Not even covering the costs of purchasing upgrades, new units, and essentially anything else that allows you to progress, anything that allows you to actually play.

However, in the opinion of Melbourne based mobile developer Daniel Visser, the business model which allows this kind of activity is a natural progression for the industry.

“I think it is the way of the future, it is there because of demand and I think demand will counter balance it also. It is clear that the free to play model is the best way for big games to return,” he said.

However, Visser also admits that, “The problem occurs when players are forced to pay, or pay often and pay very early on”.

Visser has been developing games since as early as 1999, and experienced the massive shift towards mobile gaming first hand. “It was hard to predict this [the mobile industry today] before the rise of mobile phones, however, after the first iPhones it was pretty obvious it had a big future.”

He takes a much more diplomatic standpoint on the nature of commercialised mobile gaming, and to an extent I understand his viewpoint. While games like Dungeon Keeper could at times be perceived as extorting their players, the marketplace as we see it now is a fantastic arena for new ideas and developers to flourish.

Independent studios such as Vlambeer, Half-brick, and Firemint have come to the fore of a generation ready to provide new and exciting games for the masses. While also being able to implement in-app purchases in a way that compliments the experience of a game, rather than hampering it in order to make a quick buck.

As is the case in most consumer scenarios, it falls to the buyers to decide where the industry heads, the paradigm shift and refocus that the gaming industry has undergone since 2000 means that while there is a bigger audience, it also means there are more ways to abuse loyal customers.

A bigger playground means more bullies, but it also gives cause for more inspired developers to come to the rescue, and sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between a sincere product, and a moneymaking ‘Extortiontron 3000’ (patent pending).

All I can say to close this out is buy carefully, and buy smart, and know that your spending habits can influence the future of an industry.

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