Mobile games usually aren’t the ones winning awards for best gameplay or anything like that, but it’s no wonder why there’s so many of them to choose from. Mobile games make money, and a lot of it. While it may seem odd that most mobile games make more than any regular AAA title, it’s not hard to accept when you figure out how these things work.

There’s a few key concepts here, and we’ll look at a few of them to fully understand how mobile games work. Whether it be the most simple of freemium games, lots of micro-transactions, or a herd of whales, there’s plenty of ways for mobile companies to make bank.

To begin, we’ll look at micro-transactions, as unfortunately, they’re not exclusive to mobile games any more. The days of simply releasing a game for $60 and expecting a perfect product are long behind us now. Many-a-game, especially those that primarily focus on online multiplayer, feature additional weapons, skins or other neat little gimmicks that can be purchased for small amounts of money. It’s an extension of Downloadable Content, which allowed players to buy new levels or characters. Essentially, it’s a smaller version of this that lets players buy anything from new hats for their characters, or in some cases, extra in game currency or experience.

This leads in excellently to the “Freemium” game model. In November of 2014, an episode of South Park entitled “Freemium isn’t Free” aired and brought a degree of notoriety to the freemium model. While the episode summarizes the whole model eloquently, I recognize that not everyone has 30 minutes to spare, so I’ll provide the reader’s digest version the best that I can. To begin the explanation, think of the most standard JRPG you can think of. In standard JRPGs, you battle enemies to acquire some form of experience points and gold. There’s a sense of accomplishment when you win enough battles to level up or get enough money to buy an expensive piece of armor, or something similar. However, this is the kind of satisfaction that takes time. You generally have to go out of your way to rake up enough XP or gold to level up or buy a new sword.

Now, imagine you could have that sense of accomplishment, instantly, as many times as you wanted. This is where the freemium model comes in. Traditional freemium models follow the JRPG formula, but rather than grinding or dungeon crawling, the best way to obtain gold or XP to reach that sweet sense of satisfaction is through micro-transactions! Why work hard and waste time trying to reach that sense of satisfaction when you could simply buy it? That same sense of satisfaction that you once achieved from a few hours of grinding in Dragon Warrior can now be immediately purchased in Clash of Clans or Game of War.

These microtransactions are a bit deceiving though. While the majority of players spend no money at all, or maybe a few bucks here or there in popular mobile games, there’s a select few, (around .15% to be exact) that spend hundreds, of thousands, of millions of dollars in these games. This seems outlandish to some, but this is how these mobile game companies can afford those crazy commercials.

This .15% of players (No, not 15% of players, 0.15%) are commonly referred to as “Whales.” As this has become a trend in mobile games, many companies are looking for ways to target whales as their primary profit source. Even certain aspects of gameplay can be oriented towards them. Games like the aforementioned Clash of Clans appears casual, but it’s incredibly easy to buy new building and units, and if you’ve got enough money and are a compulsive spender, it’s incredibly easy to become incredibly powerful for a chunk of change. Another more recent example can be found in Nintendo’s Fire Emblem Heroes mobile game. A feature in the game allows you to purchase some of your favorite Fire Emblem characters. That sounds all well and good, right? Why not open up the shop, find the character you want, and buy them for a flat rate, right? Well, there is no shop, and you can’t pick which character you want to buy. Players pay a flat rate and get a random character. As such, it’s very easy to spend mass amounts of money trying to get the character you want. I can only imagine Fire Emblem fans spending excessive amounts of money trying to get the character they want, only to receive 15 different versions of Lucina.

As mobile games continue to rake in the cash, it’ll be interesting to see if new methods of “whale-hunting” emerge. Or perhaps mobile game whales will go extinct, and people will just get tired of spending money on mobile games. It’s very clear that mobile games and devices are incredibly temperamental, so it’s hard to predict where we’ll be in the next few months.

 

Sources used for this article:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2014/03/01/why-its-scary-when-0-15-mobile-gamers-bring-in-50-of-the-revenue/#6a2a459b1ad8

https://www.wsj.com/articles/mobile-game-makers-try-to-catch-more-whales-who-pay-for-free-games-1431306115

http://www.adweek.com/digital/infographic-whales-account-for-70-of-in-app-purchase-revenue/

http://www.recode.net/2014/2/26/11623998/a-long-tail-of-whales-half-of-mobile-games-money-comes-from-0-15

http://landingpage.swrve.com/0114-monetization-report.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freemium_Isn’t_Free