There’s come to be something of an expectation over the years that mobile games are free. While this sentiment certainly isn’t echoed by everyone, it’s nonetheless commonplace. We’ve come to accept the “costs” associated with such free-to-play models, whether we’re paying in our time by watching advertisements, or paying out of pocket to buy in-game content. It’s gotten to the point where some of the biggest and most profitable games don’t cost a cent out of the gate.
Overall, I think that this is completely fine. It gives game developers ways to make revenue, regardless of whether their game costs something up front. Sure, some methods of doing so are more egregious and/or questionable than others, but there are still plenty of mobile games out there that one can enjoy without ever feeling overwhelmed with ads or pressure to spend. Perhaps the best part is that several games use the free-to-play model as a sort of “trial version”; you can experience the whole game for free if you’re willing to put up with advertisements, or you can chuck the developers a few dollars to have a completely ad-free experience.
However, I think the mobile market’s focus on free has also managed to significantly damage its reputation. As controversies around loot boxes and microtransactions rise and many gamers become increasingly fed up with the “corporate side” of games, several developers have tried to distance themselves from all the backlash. The common method of doing so is to make the game cost money up front; players pay to play, but then (usually) don’t have to deal with any interruptions after the fact.
Unfortunately, unlike the “mainstream” console/PC market, mobile games didn’t become popularized in the public eye as paid commodities; a large part of why games like Angry Birds and Clash of Clans have seen so much success is because anyone with a smartphone or tablet can download and play them free of charge. The preconception that mobile games “should” be free means that plenty of gamers will utterly dismiss “premium-priced” titles, solely based on them having the gall to charge up front. Not only that, but premium titles end up looking instantly unattractive to the average user browsing an app store; seeing the waves of “FREE” broken up by “$4.99” has caused the same reaction in me many a time: “Why would I pay for this when I can get all this other stuff for free?”
Well, because those premium titles are more than worth your time. With how powerful phones and tablets are getting these days, developers have found ways of cramming everything from puzzle-platformers to lengthy RPGs into the palm of your hand. They are frequently incredibly entertaining, polished experiences that will have you addicted not because of some dastardly psychological manipulation, but because they’re just really fun games. Plus, the complete lack of advertisements means that enjoyment never has to be put on hold so you can be sold some new Bejeweled rip-off.
Obviously, I’m sure there are devs out there who are attempting to take this market and exploit it like many AAA companies are these days, throwing microtransactions and the like into the game you already paid for. However, with mobile’s penchant for smaller, more lightweight experiences, it’s far more likely that looking at premium titles will reward you with games that rival the engagement one can get from a big budget console game. There’s nothing wrong with mobile games being free, but expecting all mobile games to be only free-to-play will take you away from the best games you can take on the go.