Free to play = Pay to win: A look at the mobile gaming industry

Up until now, we had been looking at in game micro transactions that are mostly cosmetic such as in Apex Legends, and some “pay to win” formats like NBA 2K with their virtual currency business model. Now, we will be taking a look at the mobile gaming world and how micro transactions differ here as opposed to console/pc gaming.

            If we looked at some of the top games in the App Store, most, if not all are free. Why is that?  Well that’s because these games are following the “free to play” model in which the game is free to download and play but would be naturally flooded with multiple in game transactions, most of the times, are pay to win. To some extent, charging money for in game items is fine if the game is free to download and play, because there is no other way for the company to make money from. However, the question is to what extent do these developers force consumers to pay for these items? I will analyze two different free to play games, which I have played, and compare the in-game micro transactions to illustrate the business model approach they take.

Pokémon Go

            Pokémon Go was initially released back in 2016 by Niantic and has since garnered a big fan base despite its rough start. The in-game transactions for the game include items that help players get closer to their goals, which in the game are to capture as many Pokémon as possible and or defeating gyms. The currency used for these transactions are known as “Poke coins” and are purchasable, of course, but are also obtainable at a reasonable pace if you play the game and battle a lot too. The way to obtain these are to defend gyms with your own Pokémon once you defeat that gym. If you hold the gym for 8 hours, you will get 100 Poke coins, which is the maximum you can earn in a day.

            Now, what can you purchase with your Poke coins? There are a lot of different categories of items you can purchase, all of which are at fairly reasonable prices given the amount of Poke coins you can earn in a day. You can buy battle items like a “raid pass”, which you get one a day already for free, to use to capture legendary Pokémon’s like Mewtwo. The raid pass doesn’t guarantee the capture of the legendary Pokémon, but rather, it’s a pass for you to battle it with your friends and to then have the chance to capture it. Sometimes, you won’t be able to catch it, and will therefore need more than one raid pass to try again. Medicinal items for your Pokémon’s, such as potions and revives, can be purchased too and will be needed to heal your Pokémon’s from battling gyms and in raids. Additionally, items that aid in capturing Pokémon, such as Poke balls, lure modules, and incenses can are available too. If you want a bundle of these items, then you can even opt for the boxes, which vary in price, but are a great bang for your buck despite the minor premium it requires to obtain. Usually, it will stock you up on medicinal items and items that aid in capturing more Pokémon. Also, since you have your own character in the game, you can buy cosmetic items too if you want to customize the look of your character. There are a plethora of great designs to choose from. Lastly, the more important items are the storage item upgrades, like for your Pokémon’s and items so that you can carry more of each. As you can see, while there are many options, meaning many avenues of revenue to be made for Niantic, the prices are reasonable. Even if you don’t want to battle and defend gyms for your Poke coins, which are earned at a reasonable rate if you normally play the game, you can spend $7 CAD and basically get at least one of any item you want in to store for the most part to boost your player.

            What separates Niantic’s way of doing business from other companies, apart from making the grind for Poke coins reasonable, is that Niantic has helped further alleviate some of the stress of obtaining some of these items is by adding a couple of features. The first feature is the implementation of Poke stops throughout the city. At various landmarks, a Poke stop will be present, where the player has to spin in the game to get some free poke balls and potions. Sometimes, the trainer can get better poke balls and stronger potions too if they’re lucky. Additionally, you can also receive gifts when you spin Poke stops, which can be sent to your friends. These gifts often have a higher chance of carrying rarer items, such as stardust, something you accumulate rather slowly when playing the game and is needed to upgrade your Pokémon’s strength, further valuing the need for gifts. Lastly, there are these trainer battles you can do as well with the AI, and if you beat them, you can earn items, stardust, and certain stones that are needed to evolve your Pokemon.

            In my opinion, Niantic has implemented their in game transactions in a proper and ethical manner. They don’t put you in a position where you would feel obligated to purchase anything because there are many methods to obtain core items, nor do they charge a ludicrous amount of money for cosmetic items. One could make the argument that should you expense a lot of money for in game items, that a pay to win meta is present. However, it doesn’t give a clear cut advantage to obtain better and stronger Pokémon, rather, it may speed up the process, but everyone that doesn’t spend real money can still obtain the same Pokémon over time.

NBA Live Mobile:

            EA’s NBA Live Mobile is a game that has been carried through yearly since 2016, with each new update coming around the time a new NBA season commences. There are only two main mobile NBA games, one being NBA 2K’s own mobile version of their main franchise and NBA Live Mobile. Although, due to the lack of care and attention that 2K tends to put into their mobile games, EA essentially runs a monopoly when it comes to the mobile NBA game market.

            There are two forms of currencies in NBA Live Mobile, one is the regular coins you can obtain while playing the game, and the other one is cash, which although can be obtained throughout the game as well, is a lot harder to get. Nonetheless, the issue with EA’s implementation of in game transactions is that it promotes a true “pay to win” meta. To put it simply, as the year progresses, EA will release higher overall cards and better players through promos which we play through and try to meet the requirements for in order to obtain the new highest overall player. This is understandable because they want to keep the game interesting and fun, which is something that admittedly EA is good at when it comes to maintaining this game in particular. However, the issue is that when these promos are rolled out, EA will usually release a few players at a time with the promo. Of course, the best player is locked behind a “paywall”. To illustrate this, I will take a promo from this past year and explain it in greater detail.

            This reddit link is a whole breakdown of the “Rookies Promo + New Nickname Players + Labor day” promo that happened. Simply put, the idea behind these types of promos is that you have to play the promo enough to gain the points required to unlock the new players. Sounds easy, right? Not really. As like I previously said, there is a paywall implemented into each one of these promos, meaning that you can only get so far by not spending any money. Therefore, if you don’t spend money, you are penalized for it by being forced to settle with a worse player. Let us only focus on the rookie side of this promo (the first section of the reddit breakdown post). Here, Allen Iverson is the clear cut best out of the other two, Zion Williamson and Deandre Ayton, in terms of the player overall and stats. Below, I have provided a link to the math someone on reddit did for this promo. The math shows that it is possible to get Zion Williamson and Deandre Ayton as a free to play player, but this is making the big assumption that we are consistently playing the same events repeatedly and are redeeming the bonus packs every 4 hours which the math here assumes we stay up 24 hours around the clock. Just the probability of these two requirements being met are a struggle because we all have things to do in our lives, so it’s impossible for us to constantly be playing this game and remembering to redeem the bonus packs. So in hindsight, it is impossible to achieve Allen Iverson without paying. For people who choose to pay, they will be at a big advantage because that player at that time, was the best player for that position.

  So, what does EA do to help the player base out? They sell “player boost packs”, that will help boost the points you will get upon completing the events. If we refer back to the first link, we can see that the player boost packs for the rookies promo costs $72 USD to get a 108 overall Luca Doncic, which will be useless after the promo anyway because most people will have 109 overall players. This is actually on the cheap end. I’ve also attached a photo of the current store for the new promo to illustrate that these prices normally are well over $100 CAD. On top of this, players can opt to purchase the required points directly with their coins or cash, both of which are purchasable in the store as well, of course, which is a very kind and thoughtful gesture from EA. The only other way of making a substantial amount of coins in this game is by getting lucky when pulling player packs and getting a high overall player to sell at the auction house. Otherwise, you will have to spend a long time grinding out coins or pull out your wallet, a routine EA is used to seeing.In the end, EA ultimately provides many possibilities of routes for revenue, but provides few possibilities to the consumers for trying to get the desired player.

Would you pay $84.99?

Final Verdict:

            At this juncture, I hope that you, my audience, can see crystal clear that the business of gaming has evolved drastically over the past decade. Even though some companies are more ethical than others, the fact remains that in game micro transactions are present in many shapes and forms in games today. Gone are the days where if you paid for the game, you would get it in its entirety. Companies are getting smarter, and are willing to take on an ongoing subscription payment model as opposed to a one and done deal.

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