In recent years, most of the big E-Sports titles, whether its Counter-Strike GO, League of Legends, DOTA, or Overwatch, have one thing in common – cosmetics. All of these games operate under a payment model in which the game is free to play (or pretty damn close to free) and the main source of revenue from players are micro-transactions that provide some sort of cosmetic reward – whether its a fancy new glove to cover your cold bare hands or an entire re-skin of a character. Its a win-win situation for both the players and the publishers. The player-base is happy because they get to rock that fancy new hat they’ve always wanted and the company gets more money in addition to avoiding the stigma of being “pay to win.”
Now lets take a look at the most popular mobile titles such as Puzzle & Dragons, Mobile Strike, Clash of Clans, or even the latest Fire Emblem Heroes. What do these titles all have in common? None of their shops sell any cosmetics, but rather ways to give yourself an advantage over other players. This is the very essence of a pay to win game. Why is the cosmetics model that works so well on PC games never seen in any popular and successful mobile games? The key to this question lies in the amount of time people spend playing these games and the ease of access to them.
While there are many individuals who sink countless hours into mobile games (guilty as charged), the mass majority will most likely download a game, play it for a day or two, and forget about it the next week. For this population of players, cosmetics have zero draw.
Think back to when you were a kid and you wanted to learn how to play an instrument. Did you buy the most expensive instrument in the market or did you purchase a cheaper beginners version of the instrument or even rent one instead of dropping down the full price? I would assume that most people who read this went with the latter. Now put yourself in the shoes of a professional. Would you buy the cheap instrument or purchase a more expensive instrument that looks better and perhaps even plays better? If you think about it in this manner, it makes sense why players would not want to purchase cosmetics right out of the gate.
Put yourself back into the shoes your adolescent self trying to learn an instrument again. What if I offered you a slightly more expensive instrument that allowed you to learn how to play in 5 minutes as opposed to 2 weeks? Of course there will still be people who would not be interested in purchasing the more expensive version, but it is much more likely that they would buy this over the instrument that looked and sounded better.
Now, couple this with the fact that everybody and their moms have a smartphone and you will see why this payment model works so well on phone games. Think about your grandma who has a smartphone. She is bored and wants to see what is hip and in with the kids these days. She downloads the popular game Clash Royale and starts playing it. She starts to enjoy the game and it tells her that she can pay the low cost of 500 gems to get a LEGENDARY chest! “Honey! I can get this legendary chest for 500 gems and beat Stuart at his own game!” “SHUT UP MIRIAM! I’M BUSY! JUST BUY IT!” Boom, $5 into the pockets of Supercell. Now think about your 9-year-old nephew who has just downloaded Fire Emblem Fates because all of his friends just downloaded it and wants to get Roy so badly. “Mom! I wanna get Roy for Christmas. Can you help me buy him? Hes gonna make my team so much stronger!” There goes another $10-$50 (I’m assuming a somewhat reasonable mom won’t spend more than $50 on this “once in a life time purchase”). While these two examples are very much exaggerated in most cases, you see my point. There is such a wide range of people who can easily pick up the game and as a result you have a larger pool of players who may be willing to spend money on the game.
I am sure there are more factors out there that make the pay to win model much better on mobile compared to PC but these are the main two culprits that I would like to point out. Now if you will excuse me, I am going to buy a couple more orbs to get Hector in Fire Emblem Heroes.