What South Park Got Right About Freemium Games

In 17 years and 18 seasons, South Park has scathingly satirized dozens of organizations and cultural trends. This season, they’ve turned their attention to Silicon Valley. They’ve skewered everything from Apple’s culture of adoration to Uber’s rise over taxicabs to freemium, or free-to-play games.

In case you missed it, the recent episode “Freemium Isn’t Free,” opens with the four main characters introduction to a free game, based on a popular television series from the South Park universe (like so many actual mobile games). The app’s gameplay is simple: Harvest “Canadian coins” to build virtual hospitals and parks, or pay with real-world money to get more “Canadough.”

The game is revealed to be a product of the Canadian Department of Mobile Gaming, which happens to be in cahoots with the Canadian devil, Beelzaboot. Profits from the game fund massive infrastructure improvement projects in the northern nation.

When one of the main characters gets so addicted, he spends thousands of dollars in microtransactions, the actual Devil gets involved.

To us mobile geeks, what’s particularly fascinating about the episode is the explanation of how freemium games work (explained, of course, by the terribly unsubtle Beelzaboot), and how well the South Park writers hit the nail on the head.

In the “outdated” method of gaming, players pay a lot for a game upfront, and enjoy it for as long as they’d like, improving their character and circumstances through hard work and time spent in the game.

South Park: Previous RPG play model

Beelzaboot and the Prince of Canada then reveal their updated RPG loop made for freemium games, infused with microtransactions wherever possible, gleefully shouting, “Money! Money, money, money, money, money!”

South Park: New RPG play model

There is a grain of truth in the joke: In days past, a small, but highly-engaged group of gamers consistently bought consoles and games, and high-quality games were rewarded by large profits. However, that niche group has been expanding for over a decade, with games becoming more popular to a much wider group of consumers since the turn of the millennium.

Gaming no longer requires an investment in a console or a high-end computer: Ever since Snake, mobile phones are also gaming consoles. As mobile phones expand their reach, mobile gaming expands too. However, while users expect high-quality games on their game-specific consoles, they do not necessarily expect them on their mobile device. Plus, simple, casual games (and gamers) are on the rise.

The South Park animators nailed the issue on the head. It is a well-known fact that successful games are those that effectively balance time and pleasure. Users are allowed to “try before you buy,” but don’t ever have enough time with the game to get their fix, effectively “[keeping] them buying forever.” Candy Crush is the perfect example—users only get to play five games before they have to either quit or pay money, and five lives don’t always last long.

Short play periods fit right into the “distraction” periods in which casual gamers play. As the Canadian Department of Mobile Gaming so succinctly put it, funding freemium games means trying to find out “how to make people spend money on the toilet.”

South Park: Secrets in the background

Relying on microtransactions is fine. It’s a real, acceptable strategy. The problems come when games that are very good at getting players addicted, and converting them into microtransactions intersects with games that are low-quality time-fillers.

As the Devil says, “if something’s addictive because it’s fun, that’s one thing, but this is just blatant Skinner Box manipulation. […] Temptation has to be nuanced.” This is true: Quality, enjoyable games can turn over in-app purchases easily and not suffer. Monument Valley is a highly-acclaimed app that charges $3.99 for the initial download. When they asked their users to pay $1.99 for new levels, a whopping 10 percent were willing to pay—a conversion rate to make many app developers jealous. Users are willing to pay money to get quality content.

South Park is right to criticize the app industry for their questionable promotion methods. Random chance and limited opportunities make games more addictive, and these can have terrible consequences for players who, like young Stan Marsh of South Park, get caught in the web of microtransactions. Even the young get addicted to freemium games, and not all of them have the financial resources of John Lyndon of the Sex Pistols to support their habit.

Freemium app developers can say South Park is being a bit extreme in comparing them to Beelzaboot, and for the most part, freemium games aren’t evil. If games can convince their users to give them money—either up-front or throughout the game—because they enjoy the content and want to support the creators, then they’ve created something good.

Just remember: “When the Prince of Canada agreed to make a freemium game, he apparently signed a deal with the Canadian Devil.”

You can watch the entire episode for free on South Park’s Comedy Central website. For more analysis, check out what Pocket Gamer’s Mobile Mavens had to say aboot the whole issue.

Sara Kewin is an Account Executive at Appency who has spent too much time on her iPhone. She stands with Sheila Broflovski and blames Canada.

When I started Appency four years ago, we were truly breaking ground as the first full service marketing agency dedicated to app developers. As the market exploded, it is no surprise that many more agencies and marketing services have sprung up to help app developers compete in this highly competitive marketplace. Many of our competitors like Appular are great agencies in their own right, and while we are competitors we all know there is plenty of work to go around and many of us even refer business to each other when our plates are full.

The explosion of the market however has had a dark side. Unscrupulous “marketers” (and I use the word loosely) have seized on developers desperate to be competitive or that do not know better (being a good developer is a very different skill set than being a good marketer) and have not only put black hat tactics into the market place (remember Gtekna?) but are often simply deceptive to their potential clients.

Today a member of my account team was emailed by a site called “iGiveaway.us”. We are often approached by other app marketing tools to use their services for our clients. I try to review each potential partner as a way to see if it could be beneficial to help our developers succeed. I went to their site and red flags immediately started showing up. The first was the “package” approach. Purchase package A, B, C, D, and we will do X, Y and Z. I’m sure you have seen these yourself. There are a million types of apps out there in the app store – and each succeeds with different tactics. An in the box approach to app marketing will NEVER work. Still, while inefficient, there is nothing unethical about generic marketing.

That’s where things start to get sketchy. The site starts talking about their Twitter reach like this:

“Every tweet to our network of more than 600,000 followers earns you at least 3,000 retweets; our tweets convert into retweets at a rate of 3-5%. That’s because we’ve got one of the most active networks of retweeters anywhere on Twitter, so your tweet goes viral right away. We can also reach out to our press and media contacts, with branded press releases, and conduct other reputation management efforts. Each retweet reaches an average of 1,000 more people. That’s 6,000,000 more eyes (everyone has two, of course.) on your product. A total of 3,000,000 individuals will see your product sponsorship tweet.”

Wow… that sound impressive right? 3 MILLION individuals will see your product sponsorship tweet! Time to sit back and watch those Apple checks role in.

So while I’m sure they have more than one Twitter account than their @iGiveaway Twitter account which is how they come up with 600,000 followers, its the only one they show off so I went and took a look at their Twitter account. About 125,000 followers on that one – not a bad showing at all for a Twitter account. I wouldn’t mind tweeting to 125k people about my app.

The thing is… there are these great little tools that can check how real your followers are. I happen to like http://fakers.statuspeople.com/ – it allows you to run a check on an account to see how many people on an account are inactive, or simply fake. A quick check of @iGiveaway gives some revealing results:

Percent of Fake Accounts: 75%
Percent of Inactive Accounts: 19%
Percent of Real Accounts: 6%

6%… yup. Out of 125,000 people, it looks like around 7,500 of them might be real.

Now – we all end up with fake followers if we have any sort of auto follow back on, but 75%? @Appency shows up at 2%, while my personal twitter @AppGuyAaron shows up at 3%. Yet people like this claim that you will be seen by millions of new potential users, and charge you good money for it. Frankly, it disgusts me.

They say be careful what you wish for. Well… be careful what you pay for.

Let me know in the comments: Are there any other black hat app services you have seen in the market that deserve public shaming? Let us know!

Have you been thinking about getting your app reviewed by a popular review site like 148apps.com or AppGirlReviews.com? I’ve had a few of my customers come to me concerned because there might be another app in iTunes that happens to be slightly better, done by a large company like EA Mobile or Digital Chocolate, or has more features. Reviews by their very nature are suppose to be unbiased, so – like every 14 year old acne faced boy, they ask themselves the same question:

“What if they don’t like me?”

The fear that a bad review will hurt sales can be justified, but as CNNMoney reports – even bad reviews can drive sales!

Take their example of a the product website AlpacaDirect.com, a purveyor of Alpaca products such as sweaters, socks and yarn, considered by many as an alternative to cashmere.  Recently, they hired PowerReviews, a company that provides the tools which allow consumers to leave ratings directly on your website – both good and bad.

Not all the reviews were good! Take for example this post from a customer in Santa Cruz about a pair of alpaca socks:

** (2 Stars)
Fit: Feels too small
Pros: Durable, Regulates Temperature Well, Wicks Away Moisture
Cons: Uncomfortable
Best Uses: Daily Use
Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

Comments: I’ve ordered and enjoyed the old version of this sock but it seems like they have changed and possibly the wool isn’t as “smart wool” as it used to be. Next time I’d order a man’s version, and will avoid these WOMEN’S LARGE. I went by the picture to identify the right sock to order but the product looks slightly different.

Before bringing in the PowerReviewer tool, Alpaca Direct had  a page that hand picked all the best comments they had recieved about products and displayed them for customers to see. Now – they are paying out of pocket – and sometimes to have bad reviews up on their site. So why keep it up?

First of all – no one believes you when you put up your hand-picked reviews. How many reviews did you have to get before you got a good one? Consumers want to know. Sites like Yelp and CNet thrive on direct from the consumer reports because people want unbiased opinions to help guild their spending, especially in a tight budget economy.

The most impressive part however, is that Alpaca Direct has seen sales increase… even on products with bad reviews!

“A month after installing the PowerReviews service, Hobart saw sales climb 23% on items that had customer reviews (even that cardigan, which garnered an average of four stars).”

So what does that mean for iPhone developers?

At Watkins Mobile (the parent company of The Appency Press), we devise reviews into two categories – external and engine. External reviews are done by professional journalists and bloggers and are posted either online or in a print publication, a few steps away from the actual purchase.

Engine reviews are those that consumers leave in the sales engine itself (read- in iTunes, Blackberry App World, Android Marketplace, etc). These are usually gated so that only consumers that have actually downloaded the app are able to rate it and leave comments. These review sites often have major traffic – and can expose your app to new users that would be willing to download and try your program – even if the review given was not the best. This is no excuse for shoddy programming – I in no way want to encourage developers to strive for anything but the highest quality work – but you cant please all of the people all of the time.

Okay... so maybe 2.5 stars isnt what you were hoping for...

Okay... so maybe 2.5 stars isnt what you were hoping for...

In iTunes specifically – when you delete an application from your phone, you are allowed to give it a star rating. The problem with this, is that its not a valid picture of your consumers. People that keep the application on their phones long term often do not go back to the app store to provide comment on an app they use. This leaves us with the majority of star ratings from the (hopefully) smaller portion of consumers that are uninstalling your app.

After an email  conversation with Jeff Scott, founder of 148apps.com and the O.A.T.S. group (Organization for App Testing Standards), we decided to come up with a way for developers to get reviews on their apps within the search engine that is both unbiased and inexpensive to the developers. We have put together a large app review focus group called RateMyApp, composed of consumers from all walks of life with only an iPhone as their common denominator, willing to download and leave their honest opinions of apps directly into the app store.

*please note – we DO pay the focus group back the cost of the apps – they are donating their time and we do not want them to be incurring costs*

Is it worth it? We think so. If you believe in your app, and have put in the time and energy to get it developed, it is important to get feedback from real consumers – even if sometimes its tough love.

To join our app rating panel, or to have your app rated, check out RateMyApp!