The Problems With Free Mobile Games

Free mobile games are more popular than ever, so why do gamers dislike them so much? Here are your answers.

A phone screen displaying the main menu of Candy Crush Saga.
Photo by Author.

I'll admit to having tried mobile gaming, and I can absolutely say I'd prefer literally anything else for my gaming experiences. From Candy Crush and Fruit Ninja to Dark Legends and OSRS, mobile has had a wide variety of successful titles. Pokémon Go took the whole world by storm. There are mobile games to suit everybody.

Cell phones are popular devices. Most people own one, and many of those people have it with them everywhere they go. Everyone is on the go these days, and everyone loves to have that quick distraction to get them through the slower moments.

People are so used to having something to focus on; like a screen to look at, or something to do in general. They get bored easily, and games help to pass the time. Gameboys and Nintendo DS were both a big success in this, so why would another portable console that serves more than one purpose NOT be successful?

Well, it is successful, but not for the reason you'd think.

People who would typically be categorized as "gamers" tend to stay away from mobile gaming due to the presumed lack of quality. There are many mobile games saturating the market that cater to more casual audiences, and the most well-known are the ones that prioritize monetization on the player's limited time to play. Many of these games require no skill from the player themselves and wind up falling flat for them. Gamers generally prefer more in-depth experiences over the bite-sized ones that are often provided on mobile. On top of this, the mobile game market is so saturated with the same games over and over again that they may only have a different face or title, not to mention all the ads. It's just not the experience some of us are looking for.

Let’s delve deeper into all of this, though.

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Subway = Mobile gaming opportunity. Photo by Viktor Forgacs / Unsplash.

People are busy

Mobile games service busier lifestyles. It's easy to pull out a pocket game on a break at work, as a passenger in a car or bus, or any time you're away from home. It's a quick fix for people to find the short-term distraction they're looking for. It makes that bit of slow time in their day go by a little faster. It keeps that busy mind in that busy life boredom-free for that 10 minutes of downtime, or it keeps you from having to talk to so-and-so while they’re on lunch break with you.

This all goes double for games that require some kind of wait time for any desired progress. For example, the time it takes to grow a plant in one of those who-knows-how-many farming games out there. Those games are great for those types of people with those sorts of lives. They pull the game back out when they need a distraction later on and, presto! Progress! Easy satisfaction without having to do any extra work for it. The only problem is…

The vast majority of people with a cellphone are not gamers.

Traditional, or portable console games in general, while simpler in overall design, are designed for games you have the option to play for hours. Games with controls outside of touch (mostly) and games that require some form of a skillset, perhaps not so much in the realm of reaction time, but certainly requiring some strategy when playing. On a full console or PC, the available games go into much more depth, story, and skill requirements from the player themselves, and need much more attention than a momentary glance and a couple of screen taps.

These differences lead gamers to shy away from, or even ‘look down upon’ mobile games as a waste of their time. It has the potential to turn actual gamers away from the mobile gaming industry altogether, leaving many who won’t even bother searching for a game worth their time and money. On the flip side, people that frequently play mobile games may steer clear of games outside of their cellphones because the controls are too complicated for them, or they just plain don’t have the time to play them.

Casual audiences don't care about storylines, immersion, or actual overall quality. They play free games for a quick bit of entertainment, and the only question you might hear them ask is, "Why would I spend $10 on a mobile game when most of them are free?"

And there's the first problem.

Sample of an in-game ad for a mobile game. Source: Medium.

People are accustomed to ads

62% of all smartphone owners download at least one game within the first week of purchasing their device. Many on the hunt for those mobile games default to the free games in the top 20 list because it's easy, free, and popular games are popular for a reason, right?

But what about ads in other apps?

Facebook and Instagram are the two biggest attention-grabbers for new mobile games out there. 52% of the new mobile game discoveries are on one of the Facebook apps, be it Facebook itself, Instagram, or Messenger. 55% of people that come across one of these game ads don't do any research – if it looks interesting, they simply tap the download button to try it. You can read all about those statistics right over here.

Because most of these games are free, the devs have to make their money somehow. They won’t make anything from people downloading their app for free. Thus, these free games are loaded up with the ads and microtransactions that people have become so accustomed to, that encourage people to spend money on power-ups, extra lives/tries, hints, things that speed time up, you name it.

That pocket change people spend on these things really starts to add up, especially if the game is played by millions of people. $1 for a power-up? No big deal. Now if 1,000,000 of the 10,000,000 people playing that game spend $1 on a few power-ups each? Think about it. If they are offered a competitive advantage they have to pay for as well, they begin to welcome it. People are competitive, and "Pay-to-Win" is successful for a reason. Consumers are over twice as likely to make an in-game purchase if it gives them an edge over other players or friends.

One example of an in-game ad type. Source: Axios.

The games are designed to encourage more spending. The players expect these ads, and they don't bat an eye when they pop up on the screen. Those same games will have ads pop up with things like, "Want to go ad free? Subscribe for $5 a month!"

Wait. So instead of simply buying a game with no ads, no microtransactions, just the full game, you're going to sign up for a subscription that will end up costing you more in the long run?

Unfortunately, yes. In their minds they’ve already invested time into these games, they’ve likely already considered purchasing – or have purchased - some power-ups for themselves, and a lot of those subscriptions generally come with competitive advantages as well.

Even if they don’t pay the subscription or buy anything in-app, it’s still just some free game they downloaded from their App/Play Store. Ads are expected. They are the norm. Sometimes watching a full ad will even offer benefits in-game as well.

Why not just avoid the whole problem and purchase an ad-free game, you ask? Well, to put it simply, we have all been trained to either pay very little upfront for an app, or nothing at all. Due to this, mobile games are limited in what they can offer. If the price of the game needs to remain low, so does the cost of production. It's risky to make a high-budget mobile game because you may never break even. Even Apple Arcade's $5 per month subscription for access to over 180 games is struggling. It is very difficult to compete with stuff that's free.

The average consumers are more apt to pay for microtransactions or a subscription to something they have already invested their time into. A purchased mobile game has no prior investment or draw. Those busy people with those busy lives we mentioned? They don’t want to pay for a game they plan on using for their 10-minute distractions. They are accustomed to the simple, so seek out the simple.

A paid mobile game generally won’t come up in the "Popular Games" section that the app stores put in front of users when they first open the app, and most users are not about to search for them.

Despite the perception, mobile games can be technologically advanced. Source: TheGamer.

Is Technology Limited?

Often, people suspect that the tech available for mobile games just isn’t that advanced yet. It is expected for games to be kept simple in terms of graphics, controls, concept, and difficulty.

Some of those expected limitations are present, like the inescapable restrictions of the phone’s screen and touch controls. The games are also kept very simple in their overall design because the most popular among them are typically free. The cheaper to produce, the better. The simplicity of mobile games is a limitation, but mainly for the purpose of making them profitable.

In truth, the technology available isn't limited in the slightest. The cut and dry: low-quality development is easier than ever, and a lot of mobile games are just copycat cardboard cutouts, oftentimes just copying and pasting to the last asset available for it. It's remarkably easy, and there's a whole slew of information on how to do it. It's become a simple way for some people or companies to make money.

The problem is that the GOOD games that cross the market get buried under the onslaught of simple, free games. The ones full of depth, story, and greater effort never see the light of day simply because there is an upfront charge on them. These low-quality games being so easy to make mean that anybody can do it, and thousands are added to the market every single day. This continued growth now makes up over 90% of the market. The free games, accompanied by copycat games and glitchy, rushed releases have become the norm that everyone expects, to the point that quality work or well-made games are suspicious or even avoided. Ad-ridden and free is what the vast majority will go for and expect because it is what they know.

The whole industry is backward. Unless you're a large company with a huge marketing budget, exposure is nearly impossible. Even for big companies, creating a mobile game is financially risky.

The expectation for all mobile games is low. People don't want to pay for low expectations, and those well-made mobile games out there are suffering in the long run.

Gamer Perspective

When gaming means more to someone than a simple distraction, the mobile game industry is not of much interest (save for a very scant number of individuals).

There are some major differences between mobile gaming and console/PC gaming. Touch is the only real control for mobile games, because while the ability to plug in gaming controllers is on the rise, many devices and games don't support that feature yet. Being limited to touch controls can also cause cramping over time, and as such isn't suited to people that like to game for longer periods; plus, the tiny screen doesn’t make this easier, either. There is also a lack of player skill involved in this case, and most games focus on progression systems instead because of this.

The most popular sorts of games in both PC and console gaming require some kind of capability from the player. Reaction time, problem-solving, strategizing, creativity, and the list goes on. There’s also something to be said about the allure of those button-mashing moments.

Games like Clash of Clans are typical of the mobile market. Source: YouTube.

On top of all of this, many games elicit some kind of a response from the player emotionally. I could be a direct response to the depth of the story in a game or the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain when they finally beat a boss, hit 1st place in that intense battle royale, or finish a game that took hours and hours of their dedicated time. Maybe finishing that game is something they do again and again.

Now how does all this differ from mobile gaming exactly?

To start with, mobile games generally consist of tapping on a screen for a few minutes. Maybe longer for those people out there addicted to one of those puzzle games, who knows? The point is that the player doesn’t need to be very involved in playing these games.

While there is some thought process required in figuring things out, it just doesn’t offer the same amount of gratification. A lot of these games also require a lot of time between sessions for things to actually progress anywhere. Do you want to build a mill? Cool, let that sit for an hour before it’s done (unless you want to pay for something to speed it up). Do you want to grow some plants too? Great, that will take another 30 minutes. Oh, hey! You just ran out of plots. I guess you have to put the game away for at least 30 minutes to an hour if you want to do anything else on it!

Completing levels or progressing in some of these games may offer small, short bursts of those mentioned feel-good chemicals, but comparing it with PC or console games, it doesn’t even come close.

There was some attempt to expand this into the VR realm some time back, but it was a long-winded flop. Announced completely dead and done back in 2019, many didn't even know it existed, to begin with. It started out with some promise, and the options available sold millions of units. However, it wasn't something people continued to use. They'd try it out with a, "Oh this is interesting," then jump to a better option for VR on the market.

It didn’t succeed because the mobile versions didn’t offer anything more than plopping your phone into a piece of plastic on your head. The games drain the phone’s battery like no tomorrow, there is no actual movement because your phone has no way of tracking it, different and ever-changing phone sizes create different requirements in the headsets, and you are still only limited to the flat screen stuck directly in front of your eyes.

Compare that to a real VR headset, where you can look around like you’ve just been thrown into the middle of another world. You can look around in all directions and still see more in your peripherals, your hands are tracked, your movements, in general, are tracked, and you feel like you are really inside that game’s world. It’s incredible.

When you’re used to eating seasoned, spiced food full of nutrients that fill you up, eating something scanty and bland is going to be unappealing and won’t satiate your hunger the same. It’s this way with console/PC gaming and mobile gaming. Why would someone so accustomed to the full experience want to settle for something bare-bones? It’s why so many gamers don’t take mobile games, or mobile gamers, seriously.

Mobile Gaming is Not Taken Seriously

There ARE decent mobile games out there, but those games cost money. Games that cost money do not get as many downloads or reviews because low quality is expected and thus, we never hear about the good ones out there.

If a big company comes out and says, “Hey, you know this well-known game you all like so much? We’re releasing a new one. But it’s going to be mobile-only,” the fanbase goes off the wall and the game fails. Just take Diablo Immortal as an example here.

On that same note, do you think people would have fussed about this nearly as much if it was simply made as a cross-platform game with mobile as an option? People would have been ecstatic.

To have a game where your profile can be with you anywhere you go? Play it comfortably on your PC at home, but also have the option to do quick things on the go to keep up your account or game when you’re out and about? A great example of this is actually old-school RuneScape. Having that option to continue playing the game when you’re away from home inspired millions of downloads from gamers. If Diablo Immortal had been cross-platform this way, there never would have been complaints. Gamers would have been excited about it.

Don’t try to force us to play games on mobile by making it the only choice. Encourage us to play your games by giving us those sorts of options for the games we love and can’t get enough of. Otherwise, those games that took so much time and money to create in the hope of change will inevitably fall flat to those of us that actually care about the games we play.

Unless there is some drastic change to the industry like these, the hidden gems will remain hidden from the masses.


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