They are free to download, fun to play and fiendishly addictive: Mobile phone games like “Candy Crush Saga,” “Angry Birds” and “Clash of Clans” want to get users hooked, then take their money.
Whether one is are paying to obtain extra lives, buy “gems” to use as a virtual currency, or just to carry on playing without delay, the “freemium” games boom has been a money-spinner for the most successful developers.
In-app purchases helped drive up spending on mobile games by more than 60 percent to US$16.5 billion last year, research house IHS said.
“What we have done is bring the thought processes and skills of selling and marketing more clearly into the game,” said Nicholas Lovell, author of The Curve, a book about making money in a world of free digital content.
In any given month, only about one in 20 players of a given “freemium” game makes an in-app purchase, Lovell said, meaning that the most devoted end up paying the most, while others enjoy it for free.
“If you are heavily invested in a game world and you are putting your emotions and your friendships in that game world, then the psychology can become a lot more powerful,” he said ahead of the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona, Spain.
The congress began on Monday and runs through tomorrow.
Once a player has downloaded a free game, the holy grail of designers is to keep them playing, hopefully in various 10 to 20 minute bouts per day and a coupled of longer sessions in the evening.
The most committed players are the most likely to spend, said Lovell, who is also the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog that advises games developers on business strategy.
For example, a player may pay to avoid waiting 24 hours before advancing to a key goal.
Then there is the chance to avoid “the grind.” A player might need 10,000 gold coins to obtain a crucial object, requiring the completion of 1,000 quests that earn them 10 coins each. Within a “freemium” mobile game, a user can either devote weeks to completing the “grind,” or they can pay some money to avoid the task.
“That devalues it in some people’s eyes. It is not evil. It is bloody annoying if you are the kind of person who thinks like that,” Lovell said.
Brian Blau, analyst at technology research house Gartner Inc, said consumers were making in-app purchases simply because they wanted to play games.
“There is a certain amount of that addictive gambling type psychology about it, but for the most part people just want to play the game. They like it,” Blau said. “There is nothing tricky about it. The thing is that you want to play the game.”
Yet for a minority, the video gaming world can become addictive.
Video games use “operant conditioning” to reward players for certain behaviors, said Emil Hodzic, a psychologist who runs a clinic treating video game addiction in Sydney.
“For example, you get a reward every time you hit your enemy with a sword,” he said. “But as time goes on, those rewards get stretched further and further apart. The person ends up spending more time for less reward. In the meantime, it builds up higher levels of anticipation.”
Hodzic, whose clients are mostly aged 14 to 21, said children enjoy the reward of video games, but can struggle to self-regulate.
Parents need to ensure that their children keep their feet in the real world, Hodzic said, adding that: “In terms of things to look out for, you want to be sure that their face-to-face world is not shrinking as their online world is increasing.”