Finally, after years of drawing the short straw when it comes to the release date of music, movies and games, an internationally renowned title has launched in Australia before anywhere else in the world.
The new Plants Vs Zombies game – aptly named Plants Vs Zombies 2 – has been on the Australian App and Google Play stores for a couple of weeks now. And, unbelievably, it’s still not available in the US.
Officially, the developers say the early release in Australia and New Zealand is to gently test the game’s online services. But Electronic Arts (EA) may also be using this limited launch to do something far more interesting: fine tune the game’s ‘addiction loop’.
As you can probably gather, Plants Vs Zombies 2 is not like other mainstream games. In fact, it’s not even like its predecessor. Rather than ask for payment upfront, Plants Vs Zombies 2 is free to download and relies upon in-game purchases to turn a profit from its users.
Testing and fine-tuning the game's ‘addiction loop’ on Australian players to ensure that they keep playing - and therefore paying - will help EA maximise its profits when its released in larger overseas markets like the US or China.
As game strategy consultant and University of Swinburne senior lecturer, Rajesh Vasa explains these games are designed to “entice you to play”. Vasa didn’t consult for EA’s game, but he understands the strategy because its now commonly used across the industry.
“It's very close to the same psychology that's used on the pokies. They get you hooked, and then you want to go to the next level... and you want to finish it, and therefore you want to pay,” Vasa says.
In the context of Plants Vs Zombies 2, you can play the game for free, but additional items and power-ups are sold on the side. The game also gives you the option to pay to progress; instead of having to replay the same levels over and over to move through the game.
It’s a successful, albeit controversial, formula. Out of the top 30 grossing games on the Australian Apple apps store, only one of them - Minecraft - relies on a pay-before-you-play business model.
The top grossing game in Australia, CandyCrush, was recently revealed to be earning its creator King Games a staggering $633,000 in revenue per day. Given this, its no wonder EA has been keen on driving this kind of business model in its mobile games.
New lessons for old media
It’s interesting that the successful monetisation strategies of the game companies have really flown under the radar, especially when compared to the media industry’s very public struggle to turn content into a sustainable business.
The games industry has a long history of finding new and creative ways to coax payment from its consumers. Long before Fairfax and News Ltd even considered online subscriptions, Blizzard Entertainment was successfully charging users for between $15 to $20 per month access to its mass online multiplayer game, World Of Warcraft.
While services like Pandora and Spotify may be trying to entice users to pay via a freemium model, another Blizzard game, Diablo is turning a buck off its users through in-game micro-transactions. And in an added twist, a player can also create a real-life profit from selling in-game items.
So, can the media sector pick up anything from this engineered addiction trend sweeping the games sector?
At a glance, no. Games are more interactive than other mediums, and pose some kind of challenge and reward to the player. This is key driver in forming some kind of addiction.
However, Vasa contends otherwise. He says that forming an ‘addiction loop’ with other forms of media is possible. It’s not about turning people into news or music junkies, but rather enticing them to use and eventually pay for contented through harnessing addiction psychology.
“Someone could create a TV show, where you cannot wait for the next (episode), and you will gladly pay to get to the next bit,” Vasa speculated.
And it's not even about getting everyone to pay either. Vasa says that with games that harness these tactics, only 10 per cent of users actually pay. Around one per cent are what the industry calls “frequent fliers” in that they purchase everything that’s available.
His only concession with this approach is that whatever content is created needs to be “engineered” with this monetisation strategy in mind.
The ethics of turning this kind of psychology against the everyday consumer is questionable, particularly when you consider some of the cases seen with severe gaming addiction. But as seen with the ABC TV series, The Checkout, it seems that almost anything goes when it comes to bolstering marketing and sales.
We’ve seen the rise of addictive games, but will other ‘addictive’ media follow?