The ethics of ‘free to play’ games in the mobile market – an opinion

A small caveat, this post is somewhat anecdotal and reflects my personal opinion and experience as designer about to enter the industry. Please take this with a grain of salt and as an opener to discussion rather than absolutes.


Free to play games are prolific. The current mobile market is saturated with titles that cost nothing to download initially but have been geared in someway to generate revenue after the fact. This design model has become well accepted likely due to the reach it gives developers and the consistently proven success of the major players in the free to play market. However the top 10 or 20 grossing games only have a handful of publishers. It seems that a few super developers have invested heavily in perfecting the free to play model and become mobile royalty, generating millions of dollars in daily revenue respectively.

Whilst acknowledging how effective the free to play design appears to be, I find myself raising questions around the ethics of these practices and implications of these highly successful games for the future of mobile development. The 3 most commonly seen methods to generate revenue are:

  • Freemium, where the game has content locked behind a purchase
  • Free with ad revenue, adverts can be implanted during gameplay or used as a vehicle to earn in game currency
  • In-app purchases, players are able to purchase in game currency, vanity items or various powerups to enhance their gameplay experience. This model seems to be the most dubious.

Each of these models has their own pros and cons when it comes to revenue per user, intrusion to game play and the investment required to implement them effectively. Freemium games are the most similar to the traditional ‘pay for a game and that’s it’ transaction but instead give the player a taste of the core game and keep the full experience behind a transaction. In my opinion this is the most fair way to treat a player and gains some of the exposure benefits of a free game but seems to lose traction with more casual users. Arcade games often utilise ad-based revenue as they can insert adverts at frequent gameloop intervals however the required user base and retention to sustain this is huge and is combatted by the negative impact that adverts inherently have by interrupting player flow. In-app purchases are prevalent in the top titles that pull in the big bucks however to do so requires absolute understanding of the target audience as often only the top 1-2% of users actually convert to purchases and then those that continue to make purchases in the long term are even fewer. This ultimate understanding translates to algorithm based designs and difficulty curves that steer players towards predefined purchase points and herein lies my criticism.

Whilst conducting some market research for a recent mobile game project, I looked into the systems in games such as Candy Crush and Clash Royal. These titles by King and Supercell differ greatly in their gameplay the former a single player match-4 and the latter a pvp strategy game. Personally I’ve invested many hours into both of these games and for the most part enjoyed the experience up until the difficulty curve made progress slow and IAP’s seem necessary, especially if I wanted to continue increasing my player rank in Clash Royal.

At their core both games are well polished and comfortably introduce you to their mechanics but it becomes glaringly obvious that in the end you are simply being manipulated by an extremely refined set of algorithms intent on extracting your dollars rather than delivering a balanced and engaging experience. As stated earlier these games are designed and engineered with the whales of the user base as the top priority, virtually ignoring the remaining user base.This priority of immediate profit over sustainability in the marketplace raises concerns for the future of mobile game development especially for new publishers who lack the multimillion dollar resources of the top tier free to play games.

Continuing on the topic of gearing and engineering a game to particular users, it didn’t shock me to find multiple articles that showcased comments and testimonies from ex-free-to-play-developers outlining some of the questionable practices that are widespread in the industry. TouchArcade published an article in 2015 that followed the experience of a developer that had worked at several companies and witnessed first hand the transition from game design to game engineering as user data become exponentially more accessible with the advent of analytics and social media such as Facebook. There seems to be no boundary to the information that developers in this area use to tune their games nor the means to obtain it, even to the extent of creating fake accounts to stalk users and create game content targeted at individual users based on their interests.

Another article from 2013 on Gamasutra collates a number of stories directly from some of the ‘whales’ of multiple free-to-play games that were modeled around in app purchases both cosmetic and functional. Reading over each story is a little heart breaking but the common theme becomes clear as most if not all the games have addictive qualities to them and facilitate addictive behaviour in the players. Many of the games are described as ‘pay to win’ a term that describes the impossible-to-continue progression curves built into these games. Paying a small fee is far easier than grinding for hours on end and this fact is abused more often than not.

So my opinion by this point regarding many of the current practices is pretty clear but this stems from a moral argument around the responsibilities game developers have to the end user, however I believe there are also implications and effects relating directly to the industry itself. What is currently deemed as ‘viable’ or to achieve success on the scale of the top 5 mobile games, requires a huge amount of capital to engineer and polish an app to that degree, this has the potential to create a virtual gate to new developers, especially those that don’t follow the same design principles. Due to the expectations of users it is difficult to diverge from the paradigm that has been set which is very evident if you were to take a glance at King’s library of re-themed match 4 games. On the other side the questionable practices and perfectly monetized designs of these games are not being unnoticed by our audiences. While it’s easy now to make a lot of money by engineering highly addictive and costly titles, people are noticing the nature of these games and how they are negatively affecting people. The damage to the industry’s reputation at large has the potential to further raise the bar for independent developers as even well balanced free to play games are perceived as money grabbing machines.

Combating some of these ethical issues is no small tasks as things are unlikely to change whole the practice is remains profitable and will be that way for some time. However until the one-trick-ponies phase out I believe it’s in the hands of smaller independent developers to veer the industry back towards a value of quality and pride over pure monetary efficiency. In the long run a we need to focus on innovation, sustainability and retention of our markets rather than driving them away to more stable and ‘kinder’ forms of entertainment.

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