Mobile games can make a crazy amount of money. Puzzles and Dragons at its peak was said to be earning $100 million per month! Why do people spend so much?

What are you paying for?

Compared to more traditional games, mobile games at first glance don’t seem to be as fun. The storyline, if one exists, is usually kept simple. Skill is rarely a factor, and user interaction is limited; in many games, you just need to tap the screen repeatedly to progress.

If you buy a traditional console game, you are paying for an engaging experience. You become a part of the world that the game makers have created for you. You directly control what happens in that world, and through some combination of time, effort, and skill, you can eventually “win” - which feels great.

But a lot of people can’t invest much time and effort into games. Maybe they can only play for 5 minutes every morning while they wait for their bus, but they still want to have fun. And what’s more fun than winning? So games - especially the ones on your phone - started letting people pay money to skip all that time and effort, and start winning right away. They are paying for the experience of winning because winning is fun.

Somebody who isn’t used to this idea might think that winning won’t feel good if you spend no time and effort. As it turns out though, many people are willing to spend a lot of money to win, and they feel good doing it. I think this is because people are able to think of time, effort, and money as resources that have comparative value. Time is money, as they say, and if you have some money but no time, then you spend what you can to have a good time.

Games built for players who pay to win

The best kind of winning is against real people who are also trying to win, so games that let people battle other players quickly became the most profitable. But if you have winners you need to have losers, too. If everybody started paying to win, some of those people would lose to others who paid more, and they would have reason to complain that they weren’t getting what they paid for. So these games needed to collect a population of players who were there to always lose, to keep the winners winning. This meant that the games needed to be fun to play even if you never won.

Many games became entirely free to play and featured a progression system that rewards you for every minute you spend playing. Even you if you only have a few minutes to play, you can make immediate progress which continues to add up over time. Because everything you do leads to you advancing in the game, there is the dream that after enough time you might be able to start winning too. Of course, you would only be able to win against those who aren’t paying money. The players who are paying to win are untouchable, and people generally understood and accepted this.

This progression system by itself can feel rewarding enough that people are willing to spend small amounts of money to skip some of the required time. An example of this would be a city-building game where you can wait an hour for your building to finish, or spend a few coins to finish it right away. Again, money is used as a substitute for time and effort, and people are OK with it. Competition stops being a factor in these cases, so the game essentially becomes a single player game.

Paying to win in console games: the worst of both worlds

Because these pay-to-win mechanics have been making so much money, larger game companies are starting to add similar features to their console games. Star Wars Battlefront 2 is a recent example that has received a lot of backlash for its payment mechanics. Some of the points that have caused the most trouble are:

  • The game costs $60 to play but tries to make you spend even more money within the game
  • To unlock key characters, you need to spend either money or a lot of time and effort
  • To upgrade your characters, you need to spend either money or a lot of time and effort
  • If you don’t have strong characters or strong upgrades, it’s almost impossible to win in multiplayer mode

(The game also features lootboxes, which give a random item in exchange for currency. There is also a lot of backlash about the lootbox system in general since you can spend a lot of money and still not get what you want, but that’s a separate big topic that I won’t get into here)

I actually think that the first 3 points aren’t a big problem by themselves. Just like with mobile games, it’s fine if people choose to spend money instead of time and effort. Of course, the game might be making time requirements extremely long on purpose to make people want to spend money instead, and that would be unfortunate. In general though, the money vs time/effort tradeoff is a fair one to make. But this only works in single-player games.

Competitive multiplayer games offer something very different to the player. $60 buys you entry to a playing field with fixed rules. How much you win, which is connected to how much fun you have, depends on your skill and effort. It’s understood that not everybody will win, but you’re at least promised a fair chance. If you’re not winning then the fault is yours.

When players can pay to win it breaks that trust. It negates what you bought with that $60 package. Now it’s impossible to win against a group of users, regardless of your skill and effort. Even a progression system that improves your character over time is controversial. It’s fine to reward people for the time they spend, but there is a fine line between that and creating artificial barriers to punish people who don’t.

Paying extra money to unlock Darth Vader quickly is fine. Making it extremely hard to win without Darth Vader is not. People are buying this game to test their skill again other players. When the game starts rewarding money spent over skill, these people are not getting what they paid for, and they have every right to complain.