When Do Mobile Games Ditch Free-to-Play? When They’re Made to Babysit.
Across multiple genres, it’s fairly common for mobile games to start out as “premium” (as in, paid), and then become “free to play” once their audiences get big enough to sustain them through in-app purchases alone.
Here’s an exception that proves the rule: A made-for-kids tablet game called SuperFugu that’s doing the reverse, by going from free to paid. And the reasoning is the same — they’re changing business models precisely because in-app purchases are so potentially lucrative.
“The freemium model, which promotes marketing to children and creates an environment where kids are constantly asking for money for upgrades, actually isn’t the most ideal,” said Michelle Kim, a spokesperson for SuperFugu’s creators WemoLab.
The game is a hybrid of an educational aquarium and an underwater action/“running”-type game. The original conceit was that players could use virtual currency to buy new species of fish for the aquarium, and characters and power-ups for the action game. That virtual currency could either be collected in-game or bought in packs with real money.
As of this morning, the real-money purchases have been scrubbed from the game, and it now costs $2.99 to download from the iOS app store.
The risk of children spending their parents’ money on in-game purchases is a touchy subject in the mobile games industry, and even more so for games like SuperFugu that are explicitly designed with children in mind. In fact, one of the key points of WemoLab’s marketing for the game has been a “Parent Mode” that gives kids a spending allowance, limits playtime and emails parents a “report card” about what their kids have been doing in the game.
Those parental controls are still in place after the free-to-paid update.
Incidentally, the standard defense for games that aren’t only or mainly for children is usually, “We don’t target kids.” In 2011, the word “smurfing” entered developers’ vocabulary after a child accidentally racked up $1,400 in purchases inside the Capcom iPhone game Smurfs’ Village.