The Flawed Ethos of In-App Purchases in Mobile Games

An inforgraphic from EEDAR's latest report. Image: EEDAR
An inforgraphic from EEDAR’s latest report. Image: EEDAR

The GeekMoms were chatting about how much we hate in-app purchases when this wonderful infographic from EEDAR, a video game research firm, showed up in my inbox.

Apparently, while women represent nearly 50% of the video game consumers, we’re not the most spendthrift bunch. We make up 65% of non-paying gamers, 47% of paying gamers, and only 34% of “whales” (the top 5% spenders).

Amongst non-paying gamers, mobile devices were the predominant platform with 57% split between phones and tablets. Amongst paying gamers, that number goes down to 50%, with consoles being the next most popular choice.

With mobile devices representing such a big—and novel—piece of the gaming market pie, I imagine the number of non-paying gamers far exceeds what we might have seen just ten years ago. While not the first of the smartphones, the immense success of the first generation iPhone in summer of 2007 forever changed the face of the video games industry. Gone were the days of gaming being exclusive to those dedicated enough to spend $400 on a console and $50 per game cartridge. Nowadays, everyone walks around with a potently powerful gaming platform in their pocket and a staggering choice of free-to-play games.

One year ago I joined a wonderful group of writers launching a new website dedicated to mobile free-to-play game news and reviews. I’m sorry to report our endeavor met an untimely end, but I can honestly say I spent my few short months as a video game journalist thinking a lot about the concept of free-to-play games.

There are three ways to finance a free-to-play game:

  • The “lite” version: The game equivalent of a free sample.
  • The ad-laden game: Seek financing from ads rather than users.
  • The in-app purchases: Sure, the game is free! As long as you don’t want to make any kind of progress in the game.

Video game developers need to make money; that’s just good business. However, in-app purchases in mobile games are getting downright despicable. The problem goes beyond casual gamers being stingy cheapskates. It also goes way beyond parents having to listen to their kids whining over permissions to purchase this special weapon and that extra power boost.

Ultimately, the real problem with in-app purchases lies with the flawed message they promote: Money can replace skill as a means of progression. In-app purchases are no longer a tip jar for games you enjoy and want to support through the occasional “yeah sure, I’ll spend $5 for a snazzy bonus.” Now the gameplay itself is designed to handicap the experience to a point where in-app purchases become necessary to progress. Gatekeepers, so to speak.

Today’s parents, such as myself, grew up on Super Mario. Back then we couldn’t fork up $5 to buy an extra life, we didn’t even have frequent save points for goodness’ sake! Sure, cheat codes existed, but at least they were appropriately labeled. Cheat codes. If you use them, you know exactly what you’re doing: cheating.

We have been conditioned since early childhood to believe that only practice, time, and dedication can help us progress in a game. Now, some twenty years later, we’re faced with a plague in the mobile games industry: the in-app purchases. They’re not called cheat codes anymore, they’re upgrades! Even the terminology makes it sound positive.

However, we’re not so easily fooled. This goes against everything we’ve been taught. It goes against a deeply-rooted intrinsic belief that transcends race and nationality: buying your way out of a challenge is proof of weak moral values and poor work ethics.

So, my message to in-app purchases is this: I’m sorry, but I won’t spend a penny on you. It’s not because I’m a woman. It’s not because I’m a casual gamer. It’s not because I’m cheap. It’s because I refuse to let the future of gaming be built upon the flawed ethos of the current mobile gaming industry.

An inforgraphic from EEDAR's latest report. Image: EEDAR
An inforgraphic from EEDAR’s latest report. Image: EEDAR

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Ariane is a programmer married to another programmer. Together they have two little girls who don't stand a chance against their nerdy lineage. Ariane can also be found writing about STEM travel at Geekling's Guide to the Galaxy.