Do’s and Don’ts of In-App Purchases for Games

The words “free-to-play” aren’t seen with very high merit in the gaming community.

Many “gamers” feel like these types of games are only here to make money and have no worthy gameplay in them. Now — this might be the case with some games. While this was particularly true of the early free-to-play scene, it has changed for the better in recent years.

Many developers are realizing that they need only pepper their game with In App Purchases — or IAP for short — in order to make money on the app stores. The trick with IAP is to have them placed strategically. Including IAPs all over the game has diminishing returns; as most gamers are turned off by games that are filled with them. If you’ve been thinking of In-App Purchases or advertisements (ads) in your game, here are some of my “Do’s and Don’ts”.

Let’s start with the Don’ts:

  • DON’T include IAPs that unbalance gameplay. This becomes an even bigger issue if that game is multiplayer focused. If I am playing a match against someone, and they bought something from the store that improves their chances of beating me by a large amount, I am going to feel like the person is cheating. This might create a good feeling for the person that paid, but most of your users will be turned off by this, they might stop playing the game all together. When developers put these types of IAP in their game they think that everyone will start buying it after they see someone else use it, but in most cases people just feel cheated or that the system is broken.
  • DON’T use ads that interrupt flow. This throws the user off and takes them out of the game’s immersion. For example, having an ad cover up most of the gameplay screen is a poor implementation.
  • DON’T use IAPs that allow you to “win” if you spend enough money. You don’t see this often anymore, but it still that happens. Most people refer to these games as “Pay to Win”. If you have these types of IAP in your game, you are telling your customers that the game you have created in not interesting enough to keep playing and they should simply pay money to finish it.
  • DON’T use IAP simply for the sake of having them. This is the fall of many games on the app stores, they add IAPs because “everyone else does it”. If everyone else made a game about jumping off a bridge would you do it? Well I’m sure some developers that love making clones of games would, but i’m getting off topic. If you are creating a game, and a IAP wouldn’t increase game play experience, then don’t put any in, put your game up as a paid game. IAP and Free to Play is not always the answer to making money, so don’t force it into your game if it doesn’t need it.

Here are some things to Do:

  • DO reward users for watching an ad. Better yet; reward the user for watching one. For example, you could reward the user with a 2x score bonus for a few hours if they watch an ad. The user feels happy because they got something useful for free. On the other hand, you are not only gaining profit from the user watching the ad, but you now have them coming back to your game every few hours to make sure they get that bonus again. It’s a win-win.
  • DO have IAPs that allow users to scratch an itch. You want to have game play they creates the “itch” of wanting to buy something, but you can’t create a need so strong that users feel like they are required to buy something to keep playing the game. A user should always be able to finish the experience from start to finish without having to spend a dollar. Simply put: avoid using IAPs as the only way to complete the experience and you will lead some users into buying IAP anyway.
  • DO have IAPs that have zero impact on gameplay. In other words — include “cosmetic items”. These are items that just change the look of things and have no actual impact of the gameplay. You can find examples of this is most of the current big MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) games out there. These games make most of their money from selling different “character skins”. This type of IAP works great in multiplayer games. It allows users to show off, saying “Hey look at me, I look different from all of you!”

Of course, many similar lessons can be applied to building consumer or enterprise apps as well. In fact, the freemium approach to monetization is very common in most apps these days — meaning they benefit from many of the same best practices.

If you are looking for an example of a game that is free-to-play and handles IAP and advertisements well, take a look at AdVenture Capitalist.

Free-to-play doesn’t have to be a bad word anymore, as long as developers make smart design choices when creating their products.

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