Why are Free-to-play Games so Expensive?

It sounds contradictory, but games advertised as free-to-play are dominating the gaming industry, and almost all of them include a certain phrase that earns billions in revenue — Includes in app purchases.

Carissa Saul
Jun 7, 2019 · 6 min read
Is it really free?

Behold, the top “free” game on the iOS App Store, that is if free meant “We will show you enough ads that you have to spend money to make the game playable.” This seems to be common in free to play games, particularly in mobile apps. While not being limited to mobile apps, microtransactions are how game companies are making bank. Long gone are the days where you can expect to receive all the content of a game in one easy purchase.

What are microtransactions? This is how they are described in the Oxford dictionary.

Even the Oxford dictionary knows this is how to make money from games.

Doesn’t sound too bad right? That’s because it isn’t. Microtransactions aren’t some big nasty monster, but the way game companies are using them takes away from the quality of the game, and can surround the company with a negative image.

Microtransactions can be placed into several categories:

  • Remove ads
  • Premium currency
  • Extra content
  • Subscription, eg. World of Warcraft
  • Or “Actually, that was a demo. You can buy the real game now for $30” This one in particular annoys me.

The iOS app store mostly consists of the first two, while traditional video games for PC and console prefer to opt for extra content or subscriptions. This could be due to the casual nature of mobile gaming, where games are generally played to pass time, while in public on transport or if you’re just bored. This makes removing ads more appealing, so you don’t have to waste time watching an ad every two seconds. Similarly, the premium currency in mobile apps is generally spent to speed up things you would otherwise have to wait for, like to perform a certain action in games or purchase another life instead of waiting 15 minutes.

In the case of aquapark.io, the apparent number one free game, it contains the usual ad-littered mobile app layout; banner ad at the bottom of the screen, an ad after you complete a level, and the option to double your winnings by watching another ad. Unfortunately, the last option is seemingly unnecessary as you still have to watch an ad after the level is completed anyway.

This water slide game is one of the lucky few, where the in-app purchases don’t exceed $5, but many allow you to spend ridiculous amounts in one purchase, exceeding what I believe should be classified as a microtransaction. This is where premium currency comes in, where you exchange money for in game currency to spend on items. Take Pokémon GO for example, where you can spend $160 at a time on their premium currency, Pokécoins.

100 coins = $1, unless you’re buying more coins.

Not only can you earn this currency by playing the game and placing your Pokémon in gyms, but anyone purchasing the $160 option is also being ripped off by $15. This amazes me and it also poses a question. Who is actually spending this much money on in-game currency?

Out of curiosity, I decided to create a poll in a local Pokémon GO Facebook group to see if anyone was actually spending large amounts on Pokémon’s premium currency. For the most part, the results were as I expected.

The poll received over 530 responses.

Out of the 500+ responses received, most people answered that they had only bought 100 Pokécoins at once, closely followed by people who haven’t spent any money at all on the premium currency. As I explained earlier, you can earn this currency by defending gyms and the more coins you buy at once, the more you end up spending, so the fact that those two options are first is unsurprising, but what does surprise me is that numerous people admitted to spending money on the much more expensive options. While I can’t verify how honest each answer is, the large numbers lead me to believe there are at least some people who are being honest in saying they’ve spent this much money on in-game currency.

I also received many comments that justified only purchasing 100 coins at a time, due to the loss of coins by purchasing any other bundle, although they admitted to spending large amounts in the $1 purchases. I have to admit, I bought the 100 coin package myself when I was desperate, but to me the other packages don’t seem justified. The purchases above the $15 range don’t particularly feel like they fit in the category of microtransactions, where you can buy whole new games for the same price.

This was a common response to the poll.

Then there are the “extra content” microtransactions. Downloadable content, or DLC, are packages you purchase to add more content to your game. These can range from adding whole new gameplay to new skins or outfits for your characters. DLC generally is a great way for companies to continue making money off a game, where developers can keep producing more content and afford to continue making more, and it works.

The Sims is a great example of a game that continues to produce DLC, and fans of the franchise keep buying their content. I’m almost ashamed to admit how much I’ve spent on The Sims 4, despite mostly buying packs during sales.

Currently, there are 29 DLC items for The Sims 4. I have 26 of them.

I justify this by saying my sister and I share an account and we buy things on sale, but considering the original game was $80, and each pack costs either $50, $30 or $15.

Yeah. It’s a lot.

Electronic Arts got into a bit of trouble when they released the infamous Sims 4 pack “My First Pet Stuff” for $15. Most of the content for this pack relied on already owning the expansion “Cats and Dogs”, which is $50. The pack was essentially “DLC for DLC”, and received a lot of negative feedback. The pack itself isn’t terrible, but because a lot of it relied on already having another pack, many people argued it should have been released as a free update instead. This, and a few similar decisions, create a negative image for EA. While I still love the games, and fish out a lot of money to the company, they do seem money hungry when they make these decisions.

Despite this, by far the best example of “what not to do” in creating DLC comes from Train Simulator. The original game is $43, but if you felt like getting all 516 DLC items, it would cost you a whopping $12,949.95.

Imagine spending this much on a $40 game.

RIP the bank accounts of train enthusiasts.

Game companies, do yourselves a favour and keep microtransactions micro.

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