How did we get here?

It was nearly a decade ago that we were introduced to the first all-touch-screen mobile phone, a masterpiece of ingenuity that brought emerging technology to the mainstream and set the stage for a bold new future. Before you knew it, smart phones were everywhere. We were using them to check our email, browse zoomed-out versions of web sites, and of course, play games.

For the iPhone, the first native game was a little puzzle called “Lights Off” by Lucas Newman and Adam Betts. It wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it was the first to start taking advantage of revolutionary technology that was already taking the world by storm.

The dawn of the smart phone brought with it a sense of limitless potential, for gaming and beyond.

Not quite the future we expected.

Fast forward to today. For many of us, our phone is more powerful than our laptop. We no longer see pixels. The future is bright, with nearly perfect contrast ratios. And while virtual joystick controls are still no match for the real thing, there are games you can play on your phone that look better than the previous generation of consoles.

It’s all so incredible, but there’s something that’s changed. Something that is difficult to trace, but somehow weaseled its way onto every platform where games can be played. Something that owes much of its current dominance to the smart phone industry.

The in-app purchase.

Let’s be clear. There isn’t anything inherently wrong about being able to purchase something within a game. In its earliest forms, this simply meant a unique skin or item for a character. Then somewhere along the way, it turned into DLC : Downloadable Content. So game companies could charge you full price for a game, but get more money from you later by releasing new areas or quest lines as separate content. Plenty of gamers were and have continued to be vocal about their dislike for DLC. And for good reason. It’s a shameless scheme to make more money while putting in less effort.

Enough of us are handing out cash to gain advantages in games we play that we don’t even notice we’re the ones being taken advantage of.

It wasn’t until mobile gaming started gaining traction that this whole concept went off the rails. In-game currency heralded the dawn of a new era of video game profiteering. Greedy game publishers started realizing that by blurring the perception of true cost for in-game items, people would be less likely to overthink an in-app purchase. They started setting things up in games to make the player feel that they needed to at least “top off” their supply of gems or gold by buying a “chest” of them. Often, you’ll see the prices for these strategically set so that you’ll feel like you’ll be getting a better deal if you buy the more expensive one ($14.99 for 125 gems, 15% extra!).

But the most diabolical tactic we’ve noticed is where in game items that can only be bought with in-game currency are set at prices offset from the amounts of in-game currency you can purchase. For example, consider a game where the cheapest item you can purchase costs 1200G. When you shop the in-game currency, you only have the options of buying 1000G for $10 or 5000G for $30. So you’ll have to either pay $20 and purchase two sets of 1000G or pay $10 more for a full 5000G. This…is madness.

We’re being played.

Let’s face it. This wouldn’t be happening if it didn’t work. Enough of us are handing out cash to gain advantages in games we play that we don’t even notice we’re the ones being taken advantage of. And its not just on your phone either. Console and PC gamers know the struggle too.

These games are nothing but systems designed to create a disease, then sell you the cure…

These days, even reputable franchises are releasing games with mechanics specifically engineered for the purpose of what we’re calling “mobile game profiteering”.  It seems that greed has launched an assault on good gaming and laughs mockingly in the face of technological opportunity. Instead of focusing on creating beautiful experiences for a fair price, game developers are crafting elaborate cash traps at the expense of the games themselves.

These games are nothing but systems designed to create a disease, then sell you the cure; all wrapped up in pretty packages to create the illusion of something genuine.

There are still heroes out there.

How do we fix this?

Easy. We all must collectively decide to never again purchase another gem, crown, diamond, or gold piece from any app that is tempting us to.

It’s hopeless, isn’t it….

Don’t worry. Not every game developer is out to take advantage of your desire to have fun. Sure, everyone needs to make money. But there will always be some who do it the right way: with dignity.

Some masterful artists are still out there creating labors of love for your enjoyment. Some still feature purchasable items, but they aren’t built around the same vicious cycle we’ve talked about in this article. There are treasures waiting among the rubble. Games like Hearthstone, The Room, Vignettes, Transistor, and many more.

While the bad games outnumber the good by a wide margin, that almost makes the good games that much better. Like any work worth any merit, the best are far and few between. And absolutely worth the wait.

As a closing thought: Don’t buy into cheap tactics meant to drain your wallet while you aren’t paying attention. Support the games that were created with love, not greed.

What are your favorite games that aren’t trying to play you?

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Posted: November 10, 2017