A Theory On Monetisation

The first thing to note about this is that it contains both the word 'A' and 'Theory'. That means it's just one theory and, as such, may be wildly off base. YMMV.

Monetisation is still seen as a dirty word in game design. I myself am not fond of it. But that's only because it has dragged along so many negative connotations with it. Primarily, these manifest themselves as the phrase “How do we get people to give us money?” which, for the majority, simply translates into “How do we trick people into giving us money?”

I put it to you that, if you start with that premise, you're doing it wrong - subjectively. Note that this comes from a purely moral and ethical high-ground rather than something that makes economic sense – all of the evidence would suggest that if you're doing it 'wrong' you stand to make so much more money than doing it 'right'. Then again, the fact that we all need to feed our families and stuff would suggest that maybe your definition of 'right' is the correct one after all.

The way I see it is that there are two main problems.

Does this need a caption or are we good?
The first is that people are dicks.

People will begrudge having to pay anything for their entertainment and, wherever possible, try getting it for free. Obviously, there are exceptions to this but I think this holds true for the vast majority. It's why F2P exists – I put it to you that, were people not dicks – tight-fisted dicks no less – then the standard retail model would still work perfectly and we wouldn't have to have invented F2P.

Secondly, people are dicks.

Not those first people, but the people in charge of the apps themselves. The ones coming up with ever more devious and lucrative ways to scam money out of Joe Public. The ones for whom making games is merely a device for producing money rather than something they love doing. The ones for whom enough money is never enough money.


I think this is what it's all about.

Developers and Publishers don't trust Joe Public. They have seen how JP would rather burn a box of puppies than cough up 99c for an app. They can't be trusted to pay fair value for this entertainment that costs a lot more than they think to produce. So alternate methods of reimbursement must be sought to keep the Developers and Publishers in business. But it's okay – I, as a developer, have come up with a new, completely insidious method of getting paid. Now, what are your bank account details?

No gas? That's a shame.
Joe Public don't trust the Developers and Publishers. They have seen how D&P make loads of money from coming up with ever more devious methods of extracting money then brag about it down the pub. They are annoyed by energy systems, worried by seemingly random difficulty spikes and requests to bug our friends. But don't worry – I, as a gamer, will never fall for these tricks. In fact, I will go out of my way to not spend any money on you because you don't deserve it you filthy tricksters. Now, where's that next set of bonus levels?

Each of these things feeds back into the other – a desperate arms race, if you will.

Of course, those assertions can be wrong. Very wrong.

Did your game not make any money? There are many reasons why this is the case. It might not be that people didn't want to pay your asking price or buy any of your IAPs. It might just be that, with the marketplace as crowded as it is, they just don't even know you exist. It might even be that – and this might be hard to hear – your game just isn't very good.

It's at times like these I'd really like to be able to give JP a little credit. I'd like to think they can recognise a cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers, lazy implementation of a formulaic experience designed solely as a revenue stream and simply not fall for it.

Maybe it's just me, but I'd like to see new things – not just re-hashed versions of something I've already played. It's true that sometimes all this means is to take that existing thing and raise it's production values through the roof, but even that is getting a bit stale.

Alongside the word 'trust' I'd like to offer up the word 'fair' as well. It's pretty obvious to me, but games should always be fair. They can be difficult, sure, but they should always be fair. The player should never feel cheated. They should enter into each and every play session with the feeling that their destiny is in their own hands and they're not about to arbitrarily suffer at the hands of unseen forces. Only by repeatedly presenting things in this fair way do I believe developers will be able to allay any suspicions and convince players to offer up fair payment for their services*. Quid pro quo and all that.

Public Opinion

Frustratingly, it's very hard to gauge public opinion. It's very easy to find a lot of folks on online forums who decry the very nature of IAPs and clamour for a return to the 'good old days' where they could just pay a fixed amount up front and never be bugged for money again. Likewise in app reviews – they're either asking for premium or a flat payment to disable ads or the energy mechanic.

The problem is that this support for premium simply doesn't manifest itself in the sales numbers themselves. As soon as you stick a premium price tag on an app, your downloads will suffer enormously, yet the only people who seem to champion the F2P approach are Developers & Publishers who have already reaped the benefits of said approach. Given that these people are by no means in the majority, I'm finding it hard to see where this discrepancy is. I wonder if it's partly due to the stigma that's still attached to F2P in general? If you voice support for it, you're seen as money grabbing or not a 'true' gamer perhaps? Possibly even that you're less potent as a lover...

Either way, what it boils down to is that tricksy F2P is the dominant approach whilst Premium is dead in the water.
Nothing uncanny about this valley.

Uncanny Valley and Outliers

But, like all sweeping generalisations, that's wrong.

Just as there are, in fact, free games that don't using gouging wait timers or intrusive ad models out, there are also tales of breakout hits that have worked and made money using the premium model. Games like 10000000, Monument Valley and The Room series spring immediately to mind. These are games with a premium price tag** that were successful. As such they intrigued people enough to get featured and talked about for long enough so that they would rise above the detritus in the stores.

This is where I'd like to propose another theory. One that I am calling the Uncanny Valley of Premium Pricing. Actually that's too much of a mouthful.

From now on, it shall be known as the Uncanny Value. Boom.

Bear with me here and remember that I don't actually have any stats to back this up – I refer the honourable reader to the 'Theory' bit at the top of the article.

I shall assume that you are already familiar with the Uncanny Valley from which my theory takes its name. Well, what happens if we apply a similar principle to premium prices, albeit one rooted to the other end of the scale?

Firstly, we shall assume that your game looks really cool and reviews well because, you know what? - you made a good one. Yes, that's one hell of an assumption but those are the things that should be all under your control and it gives us a decent baseline to work from. We shall also assume that people can discover your app***, which is even more outrageous...

Next, the challenge is to get people to download it. Other than the stuff just mentioned - previews, screenshots, reviews, word of mouth, favourable theme / genre, etc. - this relies a lot on the price point.

At a price point of zero dollars, people don't tend to be put off. Sure, there are some – the vocal minority from earlier – who rail against anything F2P and refuse to download things that contain IAPs regardless of how they're implemented, but the keyword there is 'minority'. After all, what have they got to lose? That's right – nothing!

At any other price point, people have to ask themselves whether or not they will be getting value for money. This is, understandably, a very key decision.

Whilst steadfastly not backing any of this up with stats – 'theory' remember? - I put it to you that the most common price point is the lowest one – normally around the dollar mark. This is largely thanks to the race-to-the-bottom mentality of being cheaper than the competition to attract more customers. Then there are a few titles at the $1 - $2 mark, a few around $3 - $5 and fewer still braving it into double figures.

But here's what I'm thinking.

That $1 - $2 range represents the Uncanny Value. There's so much dross out there that anything in that price range stands a very good chance of being dross itself. At some point though, that perception changes. Where, exactly, I'm not sure – my theory-filled gut is saying somewhere around $4 - $5. If the developers are prepared to value their work higher than that, doesn't it stand to reason that it's of higher quality? Might it not, at least, look like they have some degree of faith or pride in it?

Sure, it would be a bold move to stick out a premium title with what amounts to a price tag 5 times greater than your competitors but given all of the problems you're faced with already, isn't it worth a shot? The optimistic approach is that you only have to sell 1/5th of the units to make the same money, which, with discoverability being as it is, might not be such a bad idea after all.

Are you ever going to hit #1 on the Top Grossing chart using this approach? No. Don't be silly. That shit is locked down for years to come by powers beyond your comprehension.

Might you make enough to feed your family and continue the kick-arse profession that is making games? Who knows? Maybe?

I certainly hope so.

* Sadly, the real world is unlikely to agree with me. After all, people are dicks.
** And, crucially, premium production values or premium gameplay.
*** Think Steve Ballmer but replace the word 'developers' with 'marketing' – for the love of God, nobody make that video...


  1. Premium can work at any price point if it's attached to a game with an established brand. I suspect if the Flappy bird guy put out a premium game it would of sold truck loads, equally obviously if Disney puts out a Star Wars game it will sell truck loads. The only other way it can work is if you are working on a very high quality game (maybe even innovative in some way), which you publicize during development, and then you get featured by the platform holder, that can also work.

    But that's the only way it will work. Everything else has to be F2P. I remember a conversation I had with someone a year ago, I asked if she played any games on her mobile phone to which she replied "yes", I then asked do you pay for any of those games? "God no, why would I pay for a game when a free version of it will be available if I look for it?"..to which I asked if that means she never spends any money on games, to which she replied "Oh I spend lots in games, I'm always buying extra lives!"

    Now is she being tricked by the developer into spending money? ironically of course, if she she paid for a premium game, she would probably end up spending far less than she does by paying for whatever IAP's are being offered, but she didn't see it that way. The only thing that mattered to her was that by download it for free she was given a choice as to whether to pay for the experience, and if once she knew she enjoyed the experience, then she was willing to pay.

    The idea that if you price your game at £2-3 then people will see the pride you have in your product and jump in to buy it is not going to work, people won't see it like that, other factors play a bigger role, such as like I say established brand or promoted by an authority figure (major media outlet, featured by platform holder etc).

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