The true cost of free-to-play games

The App Store has become dominated by free-to-play or "freemium" games. I started discussing this with some smart people on Twitter earlier today, but wanted to expand on it here, because I think it's important. What we don't acknowledge we can't change, and it feels like the current direction of iOS gaming needs to change. While some of the free-to-play games are brilliantly balanced and realized, providing value for both the makers and the players, most are not. Most suck. And a lot of that is our fault.

It's Apple's fault too. iOS has an interesting history when it comes to apps. When the iOS App Store launched in 2008, there were no trials or demos and no easy way to get refunds. There were, however, games like Super Monkey Ball, which cost $10 to buy. For a while that price-point held but over time we -- the collective we -- said we weren't willing to pay that much for a game.

Developers reacted by racing to the bottom in an effort to rise to the top of the best seller lists, held launch-day sales, or cut their prices at some point after launch. It's a common retail strategy because, in many cases, it works. It also trains a segment of the customer base -- us -- not to buy apps at full price but to wait for sales.

Over the years, instead of trials or demos or refunds, Apple proffered in-app purchases (IAPs). At first, free apps had to stay free, so if games wanted to use IAPs, they had to charge at least $1 up front. That restriction was later lifted, and free-as-in-IAP was born. The hope seems to have been that ads could be removed or additional levels could be purchased, helping game makers make money.

Yet once again, we told game makers we wouldn't pay to remove ads or to buy extra levels. We could tolerate ads, and limited levels were just fine.

Independent developers need to make money to feed their children. Large gaming houses need to make money to keep making big budget games.

So, given the rules of the App Store imposed by Apple, and the loud-and-clear message we've given them as customers, game makers have turned to free-to-play, or freemium models.

Most of us won't pay $1 for a great game, but will pay $99 in IAPs to have a better looking hut or farm or business or than our friends and fellow gamers.

Most of us won't pay $1 for a great game, but will pay $99 in IAPs to get back to racing or fighting or crushing candy as quickly as possible.

Ego and impatience, not ads or levels, are what most often monetize games on the App Store.

Developers certainly aren't blameless either. Enough of them caved in and raced to the bottom to validate the cheapest of our expectations. More egregiously, while some do a great, customer-friendly job, others are as manipulative and exploitive as the worst of casinos. They employ behavioral analytics and conduct the equivalent of psychological warfare to try and extract every penny they can, for as long as they can, from gamers. We reward them with Top Grossing status and so much business that more and more of them sprout up every week.

They build and tune games to be addictive in the most financially draining sense of the word, like the coin-ops of old. The only difference is, you couldn't stuff more quarters into an arcade cabinet to get further, faster, and better impress the people looking over your shoulder.

You can on the App Store.

And because free-to-play, or freemium, is proving so much more lucrative than the simple, one-time, up-front payment system of the early days of the App Store, even established gaming franchises and studios, unable to make money any other way, are switching to it, and sometimes to the less savory versions of it.

Top grossing app IAPs

In this regard, Apple is failing in their stewardship of the App Store, and allowing the value of their platform to falter. Not the overall value -- they're still making and passing along more money than ever -- but the value to well-intentioned developers and customers. And therein, as I've said before, lies the path to Atari-like irrelevance, and ET cartridges being buried in the desert.

Introducing real trial or demo modes, paid upgrades, and/or easy refunds -- things that exist on other platforms -- could go a long way towards influencing the App Store gaming economy away from the worst elements of free-to-play. Banning "games" with worthless IAPs, "games" akin to casinos if the player could never, ever win, would also help.

Most of all, we need to stop feeding the IAP machine, and stop rewarding that business model with our money. We need to pay a fair price for good games, for premium games, and reward those and that model instead.

We need to stop bitching that "it should be free" or "$1 is too much". We need to stop pretending that a game that provides hours of enjoyment is worth less than a movie ticket or a fancy cup of coffee. We need to support the the best and the brightest developers with real money, so that they keep making the kind of games we want to buy.

Sadly, that's unlikely to happen.

Apple created the system. Developers have learned to game it. And we -- the collective we -- have told them we're just fine with that.

We prefer it.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.