If you're not a cell phone game player, you've probably learned to avoid explanations of them. They're always written by someone describing their favorite game, trying to convince you to play it. What you want is this: an explanation from an outsider's point-of-view,
Most cell phone games are completely free, but with limits how much you can play. They make money by allowing you to temporarily lift those limits. For example a typical puzzle game, Candy Crush or Angry Birds, gives 5 tries every few hours. To play constantly over a lunch hour, you can buy an hour of fast-recharge. During your next lunch you have to either buy another, or else play more slowly. The amazing thing is there's no way to pay once for a version with no limits.
Another shocking thing is buying power-ups -- essentially cheats. In puzzle games you can pay for a few extra moves. In Words With Friends -- online Scrabble against real people -- you can buy extra tile swaps (if you don't play Scrabble, that's cheating). A great way to make money, but not very fair.
To muddy-up the unfairness, purchase prices are in "gems". Gems are bought for cash, but also slowly for free. You get a pile at the start, some for watching Adds, and more for playing every day. Using cash to buy extra gems is seen as merely speeding things along. Prices in gems makes players feel better about buying a cheat. You don't need a special reason to buy gems -- you know they'll be useful later. In fact, a 50%-off gem sale feels like a smart buy.
What and how you buy tends to be overly complicated, with lots of similar-seeming options. This is to capture everyone's spending levels, from a few bucks a month to a hundred or more. As an example, in our puzzler you could buy a single extra try, a free hour, or a big bag of continue tokens.
A popular limit is the Daily Task. Killing a certain monster or replaying a certain puzzle gives some free gems. But only once a day, and no make-ups. You gradually get more of these, which means more gems, but more time. The game quickly turns into a job. When someone has to joylessly play their game for 20 minutes, they're probably "doing their dailies" for the gem income they're counting on. Many games add Weekly tasks and lower the times. You may need to play the game before you go to bed, then when you awake, to keep your progress on schedule.
Some definitions: a game's plan to make money is known as monetization. Cell phone games are known as Mobile games, since they play on cell phones or tablets -- "mobile" devices. Gems are called Premium Currency. The idea is you might steal gold from monsters, collect friendship tokens from saving villagers, and so on. Those are currencies. But there's always one that the game limits to only so much per day, which can be bought with cash, and can be traded for the other types -- that's the Premium one. Very big spenders are sometimes called Whales -- that's a casino term for gamblers who lose a lot. Paying for a temporary bonus is known as a Micro-transaction. Daily tasks are called Quests -- it makes then seem more grand. Players who spend nothing, or nearly nothing, are Free Players. They're not a problem -- they watch Adds, provide someone for the paying players to feel superior to, and might spend something someday.
As far as watching Adds in a game, companies now sell that service. If you're a business, give them your Adds, a target audience and a budget. They'll later contact you with how many game-players watched them, and the bill. If you're a game-maker, install their API and run the "play an add" whenever you like. They pause your game, play a 15-second video Add, and you get a check every month. The end result is that most cell phone games have commercials, just like TV.
Most cell phone games are continuous -- a single long game. Puzzle games have 300+ levels. Farmville is purely about buying more and more barns and fields, ever expanding. Many others slowly unlock the full game. Clash of Clans starts with a small army and 1 type of soldier, slowly giving more of each. That's not a bad idea, but it will take years of play to unlock a full army with all 20 unit types.
In games like that, paying for progress is common, and seen as fair. If you find a newer version of Clash of Clans you can pay $50, or much more, to skip several months ahead. Strangely, that's not cheating. You'll be playing against everyone else with the same-sized army, however they got there. The amazing thing is how the game made paying $50, not even for the full game, seem so reasonable.
The most bizarre are the multi-player guild-based take over the world games. The Game of Thrones App is one of these. Up to 25-players can officially team up -- they all win or lose together -- and fight other groups of players on a world map. Since armies take time to recruit, and to march, and the world is big, it takes months or longer to have a winner (the makers of these games provide fresh world maps every so often, and have several running at once). The amazing thing is that these game allow nearly unlimited spending. A typical game has a few teams of 25 serious $100/month players, then others with a single $5,000/month player supporting 24 hard-working free players. These are huge money-makers if they catch on. Near the end of a close game, everyone will want to up their spending.
If you want to try one, cell phone games tend to start in two different ways. The first, which is no good, tries to make you feel powerful for the first few days. You win whatever it is without even trying and are showered with prizes and praise. Only rarely will there be an actually game later. You can tell those pretty quickly and skip them. But the second type is an actually fun game, right away. Not even any Adds or delays. They're hoping you'll like it enough to spend on it later. Games like that, you can play for an hour, be somewhat entertained, and fully understand what it's about.
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