Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The dirty tricks of "Free to Play" / "Pay to Win" games

A couple of weeks ago my brother showed me a game he was playing on his Android device. He said it was kind of addicting. A few days later I found the same game on the iOS App Store in the top grossing category on rank 1. The game is free. So I wondered how this game makes this shit load of money.

I downloaded the app and played it for a few days during breaks just to see how the developers of this app made it so profitable.

So the app I am talking about is called Candy Crush Saga.

The basic idea behind this game is pretty simple: On a 2 dimensional plane there are a couple of candies of different color and by dragging one candy at a time to a neighbouring location you can bring candies of the same color together. If you combine three or more candies of the same color together they disappear and you get points.

Here is a screenshot of an early level of Candy Crush Saga:

So the game is nothing special or new. There are thousands of games similar in gameplay to Candy Crush Saga on the App Store. But how are they making so much money? I tried to find out by playing the game. Here is what I found out. Those things might seem trivial to you but I was really shocked after playing this game for a few days. By the way: Not all of the things I mention about this game are bad.

1. The game is very polished

This is certainly a very important "feature" of Candy Crush Saga: The game is very polished. It does not crash. It looks kinda cool. The animations are fluid and good looking. It feels just right. I think that this is also reflected in the ratings this game got: 4.5 of 5 stars for a free game is insanely good.

2. Easy start + early rewards

The first few levels of Candy Crush Saga are very easy. You have to try very hard to make anything bad happening to you in the first 5 levels or so. Each of the early levels begins with a very short tipp showing you the first move you should make. If you follow the instructions you are rewarded by more than average points and really nice animations. An early start is important to keep you playing and to keep you invest your time in this game.

3. Switch between hard and easy levels

After the first few levels the difficulty of the game increases. It increases to a level where you will lose quite a couple of times. I don't think that a 'normal' player will notice the switch between hard and easy. This is perceived unconsciously in my opinion. After a couple of hard and easy levels the player will be less frustrated by the hard levels because he knows unconsciously that it will become easier again.

4. Offer in App purchases at the right time

When you have lost a level of Candy Crush Saga you are presented with the following UI:

If you click on "Play On" you will get the option to pay 5 additional moves for just $0.99. That being said: In a typical Candy Crush Saga level a player makes about 40 moves in total. So 5 moves gives you only the chance the finish the level with the next 5 moves. Making 5 moves takes about 1 minute or so.

5. Be a pain in the ass

So offering questionable in app purchases is nothing really new but Candy Crush Saga is really a pain in the ass. The screenshot mentioned above has two buttons: "Play On" and "End Game". There is no option "Try Again". This is confusing and inconvenient. Do I lose my progress when I end the game now? When you click on "End Game" you can indeed continue where you left off but you have to make a couple of extra taps to do so. Every time you lose (which happens a lot in higher levels) you have to tap - tap then tap and then tap again. This will drive you crazy!

There was a point in the game when I decided to end the experiment because I was so frustrated by the game:

6. Be a pain in the ass: Always

At some point in time the game decided that I had lost all my lives. The game never told me that I have a limited amount of lives. It taught me things like how to move a candy from one position to another position and how to use those costly "Lollypop Hammers" (which I have not yet mentioned) but it did not mention that I only had a limited amount of lives. The number of lives left is not shown in the UI itself. So when the game decided that I had no more lives left I saw this:

 A timer counting down from 7 minutes. Until then the game was locked. Of course I could buy more lives. At this point I stopped playing. I think that the number of lives left is not shown in the UI to not give you a bad feeling about your current state. Many people don't like to look at their bank account balance for similar reasons.


So the game was very relaxing, rewarding and fun up to a certain point. Then it suddenly wanted to have all my money. I don't like that. The fact that games like this make so much money makes me to identify less with the App Store and the fact that I am a software developer.