In just the span of a few days last month, Real Racing 3 went from being one of the most-anticipated iOS games of the year to arguably one of the most frustrating.
The latest edition of the hugely popular Real Racing franchise was the first launched since Electronic Arts bought out the game's original developer, Firemint, in 2011. While its predecessor originally cost $10 to download, Real Racing 3 runs on a "freemium" model--no cost to download, but packed with in-game "micropayment" options to upgrade the gaming experience, with payment options ranging from $2.60 for small upgrades to $25 for a "Silver Card" good for $700,000 of credit in the game's universe.
Two things happened: First, the game rocketed to the top of the charts, racking up "significantly more" downloads in its first week (according to EA) than the first two Real Racing games combined. But even as those downloads were accumulating, users began complaining that the game was difficult to play without purchasing enhancements. For example, "time outs" force free-playing users to wait for virtual car repairs. Want to skip those breaks? Make a micropayment.
"The more you enjoy the game the more often you'll run into these enforced breaks," TechHive's Nate Ralph wrote in his review, "forcing you to choose between racing conservatively, cracking open your wallet, or simply finding something else to do."
The balancing act between payment and, well, playment is here to stay: iOS game developers and industry analysts say game-makers are expected to rely on the freemium model for the foreseeable future. And Electronic Arts certainly isn't the only game maker to experiment with using in-app purchases to unlock gameplay. Rival Gameloft, for example, uses in-game currency in both its NFL Pro and Real Soccer offerings. In the latter game, for example, to rest players or heal injuries, you can either wait for a specified amount of time or use in-game currency to speed up the process; you can always augment the in-game currency you slowly accrue through gameplay by spending real dollars to build up your bankroll.
Players need to rest in Gameloft's Real Soccer 2013, and that takes time--or you can speed things up with in-game currency, available as an in-app purchase option.
And while EA says it is constantly working to refine that balance in its games--and will continue to do so--it also says that Real Racing 3 has already been a success.
"We think the market has spoken," said Nick Earl, EA's senior vice president.
"This game is as free-flowing as you want it to be," he said, but added: "The easiest way to do it is to spend money as you go."
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