Karmic Shift Studios Blog

A random scattering of thoughts sometimes related to the challenging task of creating engaging and interesting mobile games.

Pricing Mobile Games

It's tough to work out the best way to monetize mobile games. It's a subject that I have spent far longer thinking about that I would prefer to. There are a number of common approaches, which mostly boil down to one of:

  • Charge a fixed price upfront
  • Ads, glorious ads
  • Micro-transaction paradise
  • There is a growing zeitgeist that the first of these options is going the way of the dinosaurs. That is to say, what was previously the norm is no longer a profitable method for earning money from your games. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's try put these techniques into the perspective of the Horror in the Darkness series.

    In the beginning, the first version of Horror in the Darkness had no advertisements. And then (IIRC, after getting annoyed at a negative review) I added advertising. At first just a banner, but in later games there was also what is called an interstitial full-screen advertisment when transitioning between chapters (or dying, which, I suppose is just another of life's transitions?).

    The amount of time I spent integrating advertising libraries into the applications, and dealing with the various problems they caused, quickly eroded any of the small ad revenue that was received. Ironically, if I valued my time, adding advertising to the games actually probably lost me money.

    So, micro-transactions. I don't feel like these really fit well into the interactive fiction style of game play. I can see how if you are simulating some form of table-top trading card game system then micro-purchases make a lot of sense. People could buy booster packs until their credit card companies say no more. But for HitD - it just doesn't really translate. The best I could come up with is adding features when upgrading, sort of a "try before you buy, but please do buy" approach. And people do upgrade, bless them.

    But, sadly, when I look at the revenue from across all my games, one thing stands out more than anything else. Horror at Innsport consistently ranks as my highest earning game. Consistently. The one game that is paid-only, that follows what some think is an outdated business model, almost always outearns the later episodes in the series.

    The innocent explaination to this might be: Well, people played and liked the first episode, then bought and played the second but didn't like it so they didn't move on to the later episodes. Except the numbers suggest otherwise. The ratings are higher on Innsport than my other games (to be honest, it's still probably my personal favourite in the series too). The player numbers for the later episodes are very high by comparison. Which leads me to think, there are people who were willing to pay to play Innsport, but weren't willing to pay to upgrade the later episodes. Which is totally OK - I would never judge people's decisions when it comes to spending their hard-earned money.

    Although lately we have reached an unfortunate milestone:

    Yes, for the first time ever, Horror in the Pacific hasn't had a single sale in almost two weeks. By contrast, Horror at Innsport continues to earn revenue as steadily as usual.

    In light of this, I'm currently rethinking the business model. I want to write more games. I think people who like my games would like me to write more. But it needs to be sustainable too. After all, I can't pay my electricity bill with positive Google Play ratings. Although positive Google Play ratings do cheer me up, so don't think you can stop (honestly) reviewing my games.

    So, given the declining download numbers (see my last post) and the problem with the in-app upgrade business model that I am currently having, it is likely that the next episode will be released in paid-only format, similar to Horror at Innsport. But it isn't the way I wanted this to go, but I do need to be realistic about these things.

    Retention and App Rankings

    Disclaimer: Sometimes Google can seem like the embodiment of a Lovecraftian Eldar God - its designs and purposes inscrutable to us mere mortals. I have no official insight into what they do nor why, and this post is mostly conjecture and speculation, partly based on experience and partly based on personal research.

    Fake reviews suck! It had to be said, and it had to be said first. To explain why, we need to step back a couple of years. Historically, user reviews were the sole factor in determining where a mobile app sat in the rankings in the category in which it was placed. The higher you placed, the earlier you would be found in the search results and if you made it to the Top 100, the more downloads your app would get. So, it used to be possible for unscrupulous individuals to throw together any sort of sub-standard app and then use the rest of their budget to pay for fake reviews to pump it up to the top where legitimate users were more likely to download it.

    The end result of all this is people start to lose confidence in the app store. They lose trust that the Top 100 are in fact any good at all. Something had to be done. And something was done - the algorithm that determines your app ranking was adjusted to take into consideration retention. That is, the length of time that your users have the game installed, and how often they use it. Great, problem solved.

    Well, kind of. I can see why they did it, and it did make sense. But the unintended consequence of this new system is that an entire genre of game drops off the radar. I'm talking about games that tell a story that take a finite amount of time to play through. Games that users are perfectly happy with the idea of playing the story knowing that it will eventually end and then get taken up in a future episode. And in the end, the fake review industry just worked around the change by offering fake reviews from people who will keep pretending to use the app for a minimum period of time.

    Judging a game by the length of install time is like judging a book by the number of its pages.