Pricing premium mobile games
Posted at 22:33 on 18th August 2015 - permalink

Contrary to some reports, there is still some room (albeit a scattering of hard to reach footholds) in the market for premium mobile games. Developing and publishing a game in this category carries a significant amount of risk, and mitigating that risk requires a thorough understanding of customer behaviour and a credible plan for addressing its specific challenges from the outset. Hope is indeed not a strategy.

Convincing customers to part with their money upfront for a mobile game requires clearing four distinct hurdles1 (in addition to producing a high quality game):

1. The game should be sufficiently notable to recruit prospective players and generate buzz in the run-up to launch.

Typically this involves campaigning for media coverage, although in a few cases established developers can promote games directly to their fans. It’s much harder to get traction with a game that nobody has heard of. The object of this exercise is to maximise sales during the launch period resulting in chart visibility, as well as strengthening the game’s case for the second step:

2. The game must appeal to the platform holders. It often helps if a game can be described in the context of previous successful games.2 Games that are technical showcases and which have proven appeal among mainstream users are also favoured. Securing editorial featuring is critical for a premium mobile game to succeed outside of a specialised niche.

Clearing this hurdle (while no guarantee of success in itself) can result in an incalculable level of marketing support over the lifetime of a game. Once you’re in, the game is yours to lose (see point 4 and indeed the rest of this article).

3. The game’s ‘packaging’ (icon, title, screenshot, etc.) must communicate an obvious benefit to users browsing the store who have never previously heard of your game.

There are obvious examples where the iconography used is widely known already (Angry Birds, sports, Pac-Man, Star Wars, etc.), but games based on original IP can succeed here too – my favourite example of this is Mr. Crab, the original icon for which made me laugh out loud (and instantly hit ‘BUY’) when I first saw it on the store. (I have a very stupid sense of humour.) If you can get that kind of response the customer’s defences are down.

Assuming editorial featuring has been secured, the perceived ‘seal of approval’ by the platform holder will dispel some concerns about product quality – all that now has to be done is to convince the prospective purchaser that this particular game appeals to their tastes.

4. The game’s price must be in line with the average user’s expectations for products in the store. STICKER SHOCK(!) will instantly undo all the hard work put into the three previous stages.

Let’s make it absolutely clear: Successful, high profile premium mobile games3 have established a ‘de facto’ accepted price range, and pricing a game outside of this sweet spot has zero effect on customers’ perceptions of what mobile games are ‘worth’. Furthermore it usually results in the mispriced game dramatically curtailing its commercial prospects.

Most of the premium mobile games in the modern era4 that have been majorly successful have been priced around the $5 mark (give or take a couple of bucks), irrespective of their budget, complexity, amount of content or any other factor.

The number of mobile games that can sustain a price point higher than $9.99 USD is vanishingly small, and most of the members of this exclusive group are games that can be classified as hobbies in themselves: Football Manager, Monster Hunter, XCOM, Desktop Dungeons, FTL, and further out into the wilds of beardy-weirdy tabletop strategy/wargames. (Square Enix also manage to buck the trend as Final Fantasy is still the nearest thing that games has to a designer label outside of Nintendo.)

It’s frustrating to keep seeing mobile developers making terrible pricing decisions and then blaming the market. Let’s look at the typical justifications given for inflated prices, in the hope that a developer somewhere might reconsider before they waste their moment in the limelight.

“We want to maintain the same price on all platforms.”

This seems reasonable on the surface, but falls to scrutiny on at least two counts.

Firstly, customers browsing their mobile device’s app store are not weighing up the prices against Steam or PSN. If a game is cheaper on a format I don’t have or don’t want to use in this instance, that’s irrelevant as long as the price on my platform of choice seems fair for the platform. Price discrimination is pretty widely understood as a strategy at this point.

Secondly, the price that you can request is different because the product itself is different. It’s like tapes and CDs, or Blu-Ray and Netflix – in each case you’re buying a license for the same source content, but the characteristics of the delivery method influence the pricing.

If a game was designed with the assumption of real time physical controls, its interface will usually be compromised on a touchscreen. (That gamepad peripherals exist for mobile devices is irrelevant – mobile joypads are the in-car record players of the interface world, the exclusive domain of people who will pay over the odds for an inelegant, unsatisfactory solution instead of just accepting that they should have picked a more appropriate format in the first place.)

There are a whole raft of other factors in play (some highly subjective) that affect users’ perception of games as discrete products on different formats. Games on PC support modding and fine-grained customisation. PC and console games (aside from purely online ones) are generally perceived as being more durable, whereas it’s not unknown for mobile games to be withdrawn from sale or stop working as hardware and operating systems evolve. Even storage space is a factor – a few large premium games will quickly fill up a typical device and users infrequently dive through their archives to revisit games they’ve deleted to save space.

“We think this is a fair price for X hours of entertainment.”

This is a holdover from the gold rush days when $0.99 USD or free mobile games were characterised as shallow, casual affairs. While it’s true that the F2P model is a non-starter for certain genres, F2P developers have found spaces within the model’s limitations to design games offering months of engaging gameplay. For example, I played Puzzle & Dragons every day for over a year without handing over any money. (Puzzle & Dragons is a game which offers a great deal of strategic depth that the player can’t bypass by pumping money into it.) Furthermore, Monument Valley has maintained a $3.99 price point for most of its life and that’s a game that can be clocked in under an hour.

“Our game represents X months of work by a team of Y people.”

See above. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it’s a closed loop. The temptation is for the developer to massively inflate the value of the resources they’ve put into a project, massively overestimate the importance of each bullet point feature as a selling point (very few people care that your game has multiplayer, sorry), and massively feed their egos with intimations of how well they’d be paid if they took their giant analytical brains to work for an investment bank instead of slumming it in games.5 All those high profile F2P games are also the result of hard work by big teams, too.

“Our game won/was nominated for an award.”

To be fair, some of the most prestigious awards like IGF and BAFTA open up some more opportunities for promotion and publicity, but overall they are pretty much meaningless as a selling point.

“We want to change the way people think about value of mobile games.”

The only way to achieve this would be by price collusion on an historic scale. And it still wouldn’t work. And anyway, you don’t really. Electronic Arts spent about ten years telling everyone that they were going to raise the production values of mobile games to the point where AAA budgets and console-like price tags would be the order of the day. These days a large part of their mobile earnings comes from Simpsons Tapped Out, Sim City BuildIt and FIFA Ultimate Team (all F2P).

“We’re not chasing new fans, just serving our existing ones.”

I think there are situations where this is the best strategy to follow (such as the aforementioned beardy weirdy tabletop ports) where there’s already a (relatively) large, informed and invested core audience that can be mobilised to support a new game. In such cases trying to win over users outside of that sphere becomes a time consuming distraction.

However, I have seen cases where developers clearly don’t have a reliable picture of the sheer scale of the active iOS and Android user base, and underestimate how many people in the mainstream audience (who don’t read the games press or play on PC or console) are just missing the opportunity to find out that they’re interested.

“But our game costs less than a cup of coffee!”

Even when developers have wisely priced their game in the ~$5 sweet spot, you will still sometimes hear complaints about piracy or negative user reviews where customers have a different opinion of what a game is worth.

I always wince when I hear this, as it’s almost always coming from elite developers who can afford all the video games they could possibly have time to play without it making much of a dent in their disposable income.

If you’re a kid, $5 or $10 is not an impulse purchase. If you haven’t spent years studying games as a major hobby and developing your tastes, paying $5 is firing blind, with each miss rapidly depleting your determination to gamble again. If you live in one of the many territories served by the app stores where wages and living standards aren’t that great, or if you’re poor in a rich country without a good social safety net, $5 here and there quickly adds up.

I’m not excusing piracy, just pointing out that one person’s ‘throwaway’ price might not seem so reasonable to someone who doesn’t buy their coffee from Starbucks or who doesn’t consider games one of their main uses of leisure time.

“Less than the price of a coffee” is only a small step away from “they can’t be that poor if they have smartphones”. It’s quite thoughtless and I’d be happy to never hear it again.

I think that’s all the main arguments covered. If you’re planning on releasing a premium mobile game and you’re not prepared to research the market or consider that their might be valid reasons that the majority of successful games have gravitated to a certain consistent price band, you’re taking a needless risk.

Not every game needs to break into the mainstream, but don’t make retreating to an exclusive niche a foregone conclusion – conventional wisdom probably wouldn’t have pegged The Sims, Minecraft, Rollercoaster Tycoon, The Room or Monument Valley as being million-selling mainstream hits before they went on sale.

Price your game fairly and you’ll make more money and will help to grow the audience for premium mobile games.


[1.] This process is analogous to making a hit pop record (in the days when people bought music): Radio play, Shop display, Packaging, Price sticker. Which is probably why one or two ex-music industry people have been quite successful at it.

[2.] As of this writing the front page of the App Store routinely contains games which heavily reference the visual styles of Monument Valley and Crossy Road, as ‘isometric’ and ‘pastel colours’ are the current accepted shorthand for ‘popular game’. Earlier in the year the buzz was around over-produced Puzzle & Dragons / Marvel Puzzle Quest clones and endless runners, most of which have since sunk without trace.

[3.] Monument Valley, Spider, Threes, GTA, Race The Sun, Super Hexagon, Ridiculous Fishing, Legend of Grimrock, Machinarium, Her Story, Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, Worms, Framed, Mr. Crab, Goat Simulator, basically all Telltale, Simogo and Kairosoft games, etc. etc. – or just look at the paid games charts in any given week.

[4.] Please note the publication date. I’ve found that writing about mobile game marketing tends to have a limited shelf life.

[5.] I’ve heard of indie developers arguing that they should be able to charge £40 or more for a digital game on the basis that punters were willing to pay this back in the 1990s, when publishers had a captive audience and distribution was a hideously inefficient nightmare that trickled little if any royalties back to the developer rather than the 70% they can expect to net today.

Even in those days rather a lot of consumers didn’t think that forty quid was a reasonable price for a game (which is why piracy was rife and ultra-budget labels did brisk business), and judging by the popularity of Steam sales and the alarming speed with which non-Nintendo console games are discounted, many still don’t.

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