Are people getting bored of free-to-play mobiles games?

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michaelenger

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Edited By michaelenger

A post on the Yahoo! developer Tumblr has analysed the time spent on mobile devices (in the US). Their takeaway is that people are spending more time with their mobile devices, which is hardly a surprise, and they are prioritising apps rather than browsing the web. Another, a bit more interesting, observation is that the amount of time spent on games is decreasing from the year before, from 52 minutes down to 33 minutes per day. This is in stark contrast to the time spent in social and entertainment apps (the likes of Facebook and YouTube respectively), which have both increased.

They go on to speculate as to why this happens:

  1. There aren't any good hits coming out.
  2. Users prefer to watch gamers play than play themselves (oh you darned kids with your twitching streams).
  3. The surge of pay-to-win games are causing gamers to prefer paying for shorter and more intense gaming sessions rather than "grinding their way through them."

That last point is a very interesting one, especially if taken together with the AppShopper list of the top grossing games on the iOS App Store. As of September 2015, the list is completely dominated by freemium games and sitting comfortably on the top are the biggest names in free-to-play right now, Game of War, Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga. There are a handful of paid games on the list, with the highest one being Minecraft: Pocket Edition, although it resides on the 38th place and is gradually moving downwards.

The list is very telling of the trends within mobile gaming. In-app purchasing is now the main way to make money in the App Store which explains why developers are seeing it as the only monetisation strategy to pursue. This lends some credence to the third theory from the Yahoo! developers seeing as there is a ton of free-to-play games and they are seemingly making all the money. However, despite this boom in free games the stats say that people aren't playing more, but are spending less of their time gaming. This is somewhat strange, as an argument for free-to-play games is that they remove any risk in trying new games, allowing you to play without having to pay anything. So we have a slew of freeminum games available with the press of a button, but why are people playing less?

Perhaps they're just bored. Perhaps we are no longer enamoured with our mobile devices and the novelty of having a phone which can (competently) play games has faded. Or maybe the surge of free-to-play games have saturated the market to the point where people are no longer interested, and their view of games has been soured by inexperienced developers shovelling out terrible free-to-play time sinks in a desperate bid to get at the fabled whales everyone's talking about.

This cycle seems familiar, with a gold mine sprouting seemingly out of thin air and the vultures swooping down to fight over whatever they can get. I don't want to claim that this is another video game crash, but I think that the attitudes of a lot of developers/publishers is more damaging than anything else. The concept that anyone can make money on the App Store with a half-assed game idea and some free-to-play trappings is unhealthy in the long run and maybe now, years after this trend started picking up speed, we're finally seeing people get sick of the bullshit and just watching game streams on YouTube instead of gaming on their phones.

It's all speculation, of course. I don't want to come down on the side of "microtransactions is the cancer that is killing gaming", but it's an interesting trend to observe considering the complete shift the mobile gaming market has made, essentially pushing itself towards free-to-play games with no room for anything else. Gaming on mobiles isn't exactly the right place for engaging, long-form experiences, so games have to compensate by being short, intense and trying to squeeze some money out of you before you get off the bus/toilet and get on with your life.

What do you guys think? Am I reading too much into this throwaway market analysis or is the beginning of a post-apocalyptic mobile market where freemium games fight each other over the last remaining whales?

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MexiSushi

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It's an interesting read, but I think it's a bit premature to say freemium mobile gaming is on the decline.

While I don't want to force correlation and causation here, I think one of the following is happening.

1. People who go already were playing games on mobile device now prefer spending more time on other mobile content like Twitch.

2. People who are joining the mobile space are doing it ONLY to find online mobile content like Twich and SNS, therefor deflating the number of mobile gamers as a whole.

I want to be the optimist and say that the latter is more likely. If it was true, we should be MORE excited that there are more people who have the potential to become mobile gamers and give top developers better reason to make higher quality games. (Freemium or Premium)

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Sinusoidal

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#2  Edited By Sinusoidal

This is only the US. Based on my highly accurate observations of what I saw yesterday on the subway in Seoul, people are spending more time than ever playing games on their mobiles in Korea. The walls of every car I was in were plastered with game ads. (Ridiculous ones at that, CG boobies everywhere!) The screens that tell you the stops were showing game ads (Dancing CG boobies. The lowest common denominator is depressing. Seriously, some of these games look like porn, but they're weird finance simulators or something.) So many people glued to their phones matching three things in a row or doing whatever it is that people do in CoC or staring at CG boobies while deciding whether to trade or attack the neighboring tribe in their weird, toned down Civ ripoffs.

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generic_username

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Completely anecdotally, my mother and I are both horribly addicted to (and have been for months now) the iOS freemium Puzzle and Dragons game. And we both spend money on it.

Not that two cases of people still obsessively playing F2P games is really a counterpoint, but my experience does make me feel that even if the model does decline at some point, it's certainly never going to go away, and will probably be a significant part of the gaming market for, well, forever now.

but that's little more than a gut feeling on my part.

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OurSin_360

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Well the way they make money is to frustrate the player's enough until they spend money. So of course 95% of players are going to stop playing, but that 5% will spend hundreds or thousands on the games. Seems like it's the same type of person who spends all their money on the slot machines, it's like they market to gambling addicts which is kinda morally bankrupt IMO.

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michaelenger

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@mexisushi: Very good point. The adoption rate for smartphones is somewhat unprecedented so there is a big chance that the metrics are skewed by an influx of new users rather than a change in habit amongst existing users.

Dancing CG boobies.

Heh, that sounds like those "Play Now My Lord" ads infecting the real world. The study was US-centered, so it's impossible to make predictions on gaming trends based solely on the market analysis in a single country, but it wouldn't surprise me if the situation is somewhat similar in most western european countries. In Norway I have seen a total of one commercial for a free-to-play game and it was a Norwegian clone of Plants vs. Zombies which had some backing from some public grant. However, the markets in Asian countries are in a world of their own seeing as they are large enough to be self-sustaining without having to hang of the US' coat tails.

@generic_username: Oh, for sure. Freemium is here to stay, no doubt about that. My question was more pertaining to the "gold rush" that was supposed to create a brave new world where free-to-play was the norm and everyone and their mothers were gamers (your exact situation notwithstanding). I'm inclined to believe the analysts who said that the future of mobile gaming was going to be freemium-centric, but my argument was more that this narrow view of what can be done in the mobile space has somewhat poised the well. Only a massive marketing budget can penetrate people's bullshit barrier since we've been burned on mobile games too often.

However, there is a big chance that I'm reading too much into it since I am personally not interested in games with energy bars or pay-to-win mechanics. Perhaps this shift in the market is because a large group of younger users, who prefer streaming than gaming themselves, are shifting the statistics in their favour since their 4-hour YouTube sessions dwarf the 5-10 minutes people play games on the bus.

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j4yk

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I got bored of them so I stopped playing.

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dudeglove

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I doubt we're heading for a crash, but over the years I've seen more than once a blogpost or article from some arse involved in "tech" basically saying things like "Hey! Money on the app store is real easy! Get this, reskin this thing (i.e. STEAL SOMEONE ELSE'S IDEA), do this, expect a return after x amount of time, boom! Rinse and repeat!" and overall conveys the notion that the app store is an enormous morass of several snakes eating their own tails and devoid of any creativity. It's really quite disgusting (it's this sort of thing that led to someone stealing Threes! and repackaging it as F2P), morally and creatively bankrupt, and a clear sign that these things aren't curated in the slightest. It's an appalling mess, and an enormously profitable one at that, so there's no real incentive to "fix" it.

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C2C

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Commenting from my own experience, yeah I kinda got bored with anything that gates gameplay behind "energy-points" or whatever they call it these days. I was messing around with Fallout shelter, but kinda got bored with that as well. Dunno if my experience is indicative of a trend or something.

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michaelenger

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@dudeglove: You may have hit the nail on the head there. I remember when the iPhone was initially opened up for app developers and I jumped on the bandwagon along with a friend of mine. It was a gold mine due to lack of competition, but then the tech blogs and *shudder* print publications got wind of this, started writing articles about this untapped source of money and the floodgates were open as people moved in to try to make a quick buck without too much effort.

When Flappy Bird came out it spawned a thousand copy cats. People saw the success and wanted a piece, but instead of learning from what the game did well (simple gameplay, hard as shit, quick restart) they instead just copied the game completely and the App Store suddenly had a slew of Fappy Birds and Flappy Toasters and Flap that Birds.

I think the same attitude is fuelling the sudden surge in Unity-based games that throw together pre-made assets and try to push it out to Steam without any real effort behind it. Unity (and Steam Greenlight) has made it stupidly easy to make and release a game and so people who have no business making games are flooding the market with unplayable turds in an effort to get at that sweet sweet gamer cash. And they're pulling everyone around with them, considering the bad reputation Unity is getting from all this bullshit. /rant

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Onemanarmyy

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i played a bit of Final Fantasy Record Keeper and Triple Triad. Those games want you to tinker with them every 30 minutes for 5-10 minutes, while doing the same stuff over and over. Eventually i just realized i don't want to have to do some meaningless tasks every 30 minutes. Why spend time on becoming better at something that you know you will abandon eventually?

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pontoon_yacht

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So here's my thoughts on this, which are completely tainted by the fact that I almost exclusively play video games on my iPad:

Some background. I grew up in a single-parent household, and we were generally on the rather low side of lower-middle-class. It wasn't quite getting-the-utilities-shut-off level, but there was little-to-no money on a monthly basis to spend on frivolous things. I didn't grow up with video game consoles, largely because of that. The systems themselves were too pricey, and even if that wasn't the issue, getting games for them was a cost my mom couldn't eat.

But, my grandparents did get me a Gameboy. The Gameboy was, at the time, only about $60 if you caught it on sale at the Service Merchandise. You could get games on sale in the $20-$40 range depending on the title. So for most of my childhood, what "video games" meant to me was the Gameboy I could carry around in my backpack. The idea that gaming should be something mobile, something you can do while waiting in line or with out-and-about downtime was planed in my brain.

Fast forward to now, I only own one console (A half-broken ol' 360 I bought off an ex) and a half-dozen games for it.

To me, the iPad (And to a lesser extent, my Android phone) have replaced the old grey brick that was my cherished Gameboy. It gratifies the need I have to play games in that manner.

I may not have any consoles, but what I do have is an iPad with dozens and dozens of games, all in meticulously sorted order in different folders: Puzzles, RPGs, Economy Sims, "Art shit," Strategy, etc. On a monthly basis I go through and download a ton of new releases and check them out. Also, before I go in and download new things, I'll go through and sweep out any old game I've not played much, am frustrated with, know it crashes too much, or just have not played since the last monthly sweep.

I also have a good number of "Free-to-Play" games that I keep around and play in a very regular rotation.

Yet I have never paid a dime to any of them. Which is probably telling. The ones I keep around are the ones where you CAN pay if you really want to, but you can enjoy it in nuggets even if you don't.

The one I think I have logged the most time one (I won't even go in and check how many hours because frankly it's embarrassing) is Pocket Planes. I love how it looks. I love how they treat cool-downs and expansion of the world. I love how they treat the economy. I love the little ding noises. I can, at any point in the day, open that game, assign all my planes flights, then put it away. That is the metric on which I am judging what goes wrong on other Free To Play styled games:

1) Repetition of Aesthetic
I think I could essentially just call this the "Super Bowl Ad Problem." A lot of the big-budget, big-stakes FtP games look the same. They're medieval. They involve swords and catapults and people in armor. The gameplay it self feels derivative. Almost even moreso than bad, obtrusive FtP begging to buy tokens or cheap forced lock-downs, if I feel like I'm playing the 150th clone of Build A Castle That Will Be Raided, I'm out. That's kind of why I like games that even play slightly different but take on a whole different map/look/tone while doing it, like European War and World Conquest. That hits on what you said originally, OP, about boredom. There's not a lot of originality or thought put into developing new ways to build short games that use the FtP scaling system well.

2) Non-Scaled Growth
The more you play, the more time you put into the game, no matter how much you've paid into it, the scale of what you are doing within the game itself needs to feel bigger. In Pocket Planes, for example, you continuously unlock better planes that can carry more cargo/people, new cities and airports to take stuff, and other perks. You expand the map, and with enough time, you can essentially mimic a huge national airline. I see similar things in games like Oil Man, Tiny Tower (Another NimbleBit joint), and some card-based games. But far too often, especially in "Castle Siege" style games, tap-tap fighters, restaurant sims, and a lot of card-based games, it feels like you're never really getting a bigger castle, a better menu, better cards. You don't feel rewarded over a long period of time. This is something that Fallout Shelter did well up to a point. If you play it long enough, you can visually see where you've improved. Your shelter is much bigger, you have more people, etc. But then, once you max out the available spaces, the game tends to hit a "Well, what now?" wall pretty hard. There's little else to do or shift to do in order to feel like you're progressing.

3) Obtrusive
I don't mean about begging for money. What I mean is that the gameplay itself is obtrusive, which is counter to the whole idea of being able to play at your own convenience. You have to check your farm every [TIME] or your radishes will go bad. You have to check your restaurant because customers will leave. You have to check your bunker or your citizens will run out of water and revolt. A FtP-structured mobile game should inherently craft its sense of time around you. If you want to play with constant checking, that should be OK, but to make it mandatory in order to succeed.

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dudeglove

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@michaelenger: Jim Sterling has covered a few obnoxious unity reskin slap-togethers day-z/minecraft-a-likes that come out on Steam. I'm sorta glad I follow Giant Bomb, even though GB can't/doesn't follow everything, because good grief sifting among all the garbage on Steam is nigh on impossible right now.