Players are spending real money on digital items they don’t keep

Aug 16, 2011
Games

Last month, an analysis came out that showed that many mobile gamers are willing to drop quite a lot of money –  $14 on average – on virtual items in their games. That information came from Flurry Analytics, which studies the mobile sphere and came up with quite a bit of information, including that buyers […]

Last month, an analysis came out that showed that many mobile gamers are willing to drop quite a lot of money –  $14 on average – on virtual items in their games.

That information came from Flurry Analytics, which studies the mobile sphere and came up with quite a bit of information, including that buyers in “freemium” games (free games with purchasable content within them) tend to be male and to spend a lot of cash. Now it’s analyzing players again, and finding that the things people actually spend their money on in mobile games aren’t at all permanent.

Flurry broke up the kinds of in-app content that can be purchased in most freemium games into three categories: “durable” things, like in-game items that offer a permanent boost to a player; “consumable” things, or things that get used up when they’re used; and “personalization” things, like character costumes. Of the three categories, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of the items people were buying fell into the “consumable” category, meaning players are buying things that will only temporarily affect their game.

Another 30 percent of purchases were “durable,” or more permanent, items. Only 2 percent of purchases were personalization items, which suggests that many of the in-game items available in freemium games (that let players customize how their farms look or dress up their characters in special clothes, for example) are getting passed over.

The finding makes sense in the larger context of freemium games, however. Earlier this year, there was some controversy over in-app purchases being made by children in the Capcom game Smurfs’ Village, in which players were buying huge amounts of an item called Smurf Berries at high prices, about $100 a pop for one item. But when you buy Smurf Berries in the game, you don’t keep them, you spend them like money. Using Smurf Berries advances the game forward and lets you cut out time you’d normally spend waiting for a house to be built or a plant to grow.

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Flurry found that most of these “consumable” items being bought in freemium games were “premium currency.” In essence, other games’ Smurf Berries. Mostly what players are buying, it seems, is the ability to get to the game content they want without having to do the work or the waiting to get there. And that’s exactly the strategy of freemium game development.

But it’s interesting that “durable” items make up such a huge chunk of the pie, too. Players don’t just want to be able to skip the portions of a game that require work on their part to advance, they also like the ability of having special items and objects as players, as well. This suggests that freemium games would do well  not just to sell premium currency, as many do, but also to just cut out the middle man and provide players with an avenue to purchase whatever it is they want.

It also appears that while some players want to customize their games, as Flurry puts it, “consumers don’t tend to decorate, and then re-decorate, in most games.” It likens the effect to how often most people alter their Facebook or LinkedIn profiles; that is to say, not often.

The information is interesting from a design perspective, and it sheds some light on the ways that freemium games are successful. We’ve seen freemium increasing in popularity and in success, but Flurry points out that the model is doing extremely well, with the top five highest-grossing apps in the iTunes App Store being freemium games. Of the 25 top-grossing apps in the App Store, 22 of them are games.

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Games have always been big winners in the App Store, and it appears that freemium is working better than most developers expected. It’s here to stay, and more games will adopt the model as long as players keep spending.

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Phil Hornshaw

Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer, editor and author living in Los Angeles, dividing his time between playing video games, playing video games on his cell phone, and writing about playing video games. He’s also the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel, which attempts to mix time travel pop culture with some semblance of science, as well as tips on the appropriate means of riding dinosaurs. Check out his profile.

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