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Real Racing 3 sparks debate over micropayment gameplay

Joel Mathis | March 13, 2013
The recent launch of Real Racing 3 has spawned a discussion on the use of micropayments in games. Is it a fad or the future we're destined for?

Micropayments are here to stay

The appeal of "freemium" micropayment games is obvious to iOS game developers: Releasing a game for free makes it possible for every single potential customer to at least try the product. (Developers also like the automatic community that can be created by a free download; the free-players add value to the game by making it more attractive to other players who will pay.) And unlike console games--which come with a high price tag, but also offer a one-time payment for the entire game experience--micropayments can become an ongoing source of income from a popular game.

"It's hard to get above the noise of the market," said Kevin Hogan, product strategy director at Mediatonic, a UK gamemaker who recently spoke at a European conference on the whys and hows of micropayment game production. "Increasingly, the best way to get in front of an audience is to release a product for free and hope it has enough value that people will pay for it."

That's also a boon for consumers.

"Consumers have come to like the in-app purchase model as it means they don't have to spend money unless they want to," said analyst Sian Rowlands, who documented the micropayments trend in mobile gaming in a recent report for Juniper Research.

The problem, of course, comes in giving players enough game that they don't feel they've been tricked by the promise of a free offer--while at the same time encouraging enthusiastic fans of a game to translate that passion into payment. Across the industry, it's generally considered poor practice to start demanding payments before a user has begun actually playing the game--or to make micropayment requests in games directed at small children, which has led to lawsuits.

After that, though, the consensus seems to be that micropayments should make a game better and easier to play--but the game should be playable without them. Developers say they watch gameplay closely, to see if micropayment demands drive players away instead of pulling them deeper into the experience.

Game makers "must of course think carefully about the amount of gameplay which they require users to make an in-app purchase to reach," Rowlands said, "as the app stores are fiercely competitive and offer consumers a vast number of alternatives when shopping for free games."

Success stories

One game that navigates the balance well, Rowlands said, is Clash of the Clans, a strategy game that routinely leads Apple's "top grossing" apps chart. Players can purchase "gems" in packs of $5 to $100 each, and use them to quickly build their armies and fortresses.

"The game is engaging for many users--not just casual gamers but also people who are keen strategy gamers," Rowlands said. "Users engage with it on an emotional level after investing time in raising their clan."


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