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Mobile gaming – A thriving industry or an out of control monster?

by Glenn Kisela (Dreamer IX)  Posted Thursday, February 20, 2014 10:21:00 AM


The mobile gaming industry, as with anything, had a humble beginning. Since the age old classic “Snake”, it has grown into a fully-fledged behemoth of an industry that produces global sensations such as “Candy Crush”, “Clash of Clans” and others. The creators of Clash of Clans make over R24 million daily and they only have two mobile games under their belt. Candy Crush on its own, makes a reported R10 million a day. The mobile gaming industry is doing well for itself and as the number of smartphone users grows, so too does the industry.

The curse of microtransactions

You would not be blamed for thinking everything is rosy, however that’s not the case. Despite its soaring success, there are some who are not impressed with the industry. Rewind to over a week ago, when Electronic Arts (EA) launched Dungeon Keeper for mobile. They took everything fans would have loved from the originally PC based game and brought it to smartphones with new and improved graphics and one other thing. Microtransactions. That word is at the core of why mobile gaming is a polarizing topic of discussion among gamers.

Dungeon Keeper.jpg  

In the case of Dungeon Keeper, the game was repeatedly given poor reviews due to how it incorporated microtransactions into the game. Metacritic has given the game a score of 46/100, based on 18 critics. The user review score for the game sits at a measly 0.3/10. To give an example of how forced microtransactions are in Dungeon Keeper, let me explain how digging works. One of the core aspects of the game is digging out blocks to expand your dungeon (much like Minecraft). Now without using money, digging out one block can take up to 4 hours. Let me just emphasize that. One of the most vital aspects of the game takes you up to 4 hours unless you pay money to make it instantaneous. Now you can begin to understand why the game has generated such a severe backlash.

EA should not be alone on the chopping block. Some of the most successful games in the mobile industry employ microtransactions and time constraints to entice you into spending money. Candy Crush, the top free game on the Play store, only gives you 5 lives and if you want to play more, you need to buy lives or wait half an hour per life. Similar to Dungeon Keeper, Clash of Clans makes you wait a length of time for buildings to be completed unless you choose to pay to shorten the time considerably.


The lack of creativity with which microtransactions have been employed in so many games lies at the heart of why the industry is perceived so negatively amongst gamers. Mobile games are perceived to be built, not for entertainment, but as tools to part the consumer with as much money as possible.

Microtransactions in other platforms

It’s important to look at where a lot of these critics of the mobile gaming industry are coming from. A lot of critics are avid gamers themselves who play primarily on a console or a computer. Games on these platforms generally come with an upfront fee for purchasing the game and thereafter everything is unlocked.  So if you compare these sorts of games to mobile games, you can understand why many walk away feeling unsatisfied.

Microtransactions are not exclusive to mobile games however. Many non-mobile games have employed it. Hugely successful games such as League of Legends & Dota 2 have microtransactions built into them. Players can buy cosmetics as well as unlock champions by paying money. The difference in how these games incorporate microtransactions is that the core aspects of the game are still enjoyable without spending money. There is so much value built into what is freely available that whether you spend money or not, you still enjoy the game as much as a consumer who spends money. It is this concept that many mobile games seem to have failed to grasp.

The success of the mobile gaming industry

I’ve gone over why so many dislike the mobile gaming industry, but I started off explaining how successful it is, so clearly they’re doing something right. You look at the download count of the top free games on Google’s Play store and so many games hit 100+ million. Why is that the case?

A large part of the success of mobile gaming is that the majority of its user base consists of casual gamers or even non-gamers in the sense that they don’t have much experience with console or PC based games. With regards to the casual gamers, they wouldn’t be playing the games very often and so when time constraints force them to stop playing a game without adding money, they’re okay with that. They didn’t need to play much in any case.

The reason why non-gamers would make the mobile industry a success is because they don’t know better. They’re simply used to needing to use money to carry on and so they consider this the norm. This type of user is most likely a huge factor as to why this trend of forcing microtransactions in mobile gaming won’t see a change any time soon. It’s become the norm and since games are still selling, companies see no reason to change.

The bottom line

If the majority of users are, by looking at sales and success of mobile games, okay with microtransactions being employed the way they are, is the negative perception some have of the mobile industry justified? The answer is absolutely.

Games should never inherently be about money. The design of games should never be about how it can most efficiently drive a wedge between the consumer and their wallet. Games should be about creating an experience for the consumer that will make them want to come back and in doing so, want to give the company money. League of Legends & Dota 2 do just that. You’re not obliged to pay money to go further in the game, but many do so simply because they love the game and the company behind it.

Another reason the negative perception is justified is due to the apparent lack of ethics shown by the mobile gaming industry. They will tell you one thing but then sell you another. For example, Free To Play, or F2P for short, is a label that is loosely thrown around because it’s such a hot buzzword. Dungeon Keeper, for example, is not F2P despite what EA might tell you. Sure you can choose not to spend any money on it but then you won’t be playing very much. Once every four hours really. A more accurate description of Dungeon Keeper would be Pay To Play. It is that sort of deception that leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth when you experience some of these games. You almost always feel cheated when you hit block after microtransactional block playing.

It doesn’t help matters when companies are being accused of manipulating ratings of their games. It’s no surprise that I bring up Dungeon Keeper again. If a user gave the game less than 5 stars, they would be asked to complete a feedback box as opposed to going to the Play store review screen. Of course, people were quick to voice their opinions and lambasted EA for trying to influence ratings. How did EA respond?

“We're always looking at new ways to gather player feedback so that we can continue to improve our games. The 'rate this app' feature in the Google Play version of ‘Dungeon Keeper’ was designed to help us collect valuable feedback from players who don't feel the game is worth a top rating. We wanted to make it easier for more players to send us feedback directly from the game if they weren't having the best experience. Players can always continue to leave any rating they want on the Google Play Store.”

If you’re looking for an apology in that statement, I suggest you stop. It’s not there. At the end of the day, they got away with it because the store rating of the game is 4.2/5 and doesn’t look in any danger of falling. And as I said before, EA aren’t the only ones guilty of these kinds of manipulations.

Will things change? It’s really up to consumers to take a stand against the bad practices and philosophies exhibited by the mobile gaming industry. Until consumers begin to talk with their wallets, nothing will change in the mobile industry. It’s still a maturing industry however and hopefully a breath of fresh air will come around and show companies that microtransactions are not needed to make a game profitable. Flappy Bird may be just what is needed for the mobile gaming industry to break free of the shackles of microtransaction and bring it back to the core principles of gaming. Making something fun.

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      Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not MWEB Connect (Pty) Ltd

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