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Hey Vlambeer: you CAN sell IAPS without selling your soul

By on March 26, 2013

In this post, Deputy Editor Zoya Street shares an opinion on free-to-play in indie games.

I love Ridiculous Fishing. It’s a charismatic, unpretentious game with a beautiful aesthetic and a core loop that can’t fail to put a smile on your face.

Within five minutes of buying it, I was ready to spend more money. After receiving a prompt from the game’s messaging, I went into the shop to buy fishing line, and noticed other things were available too. I browsed through greyed-out guns and buffs, and decided I wanted to spend extra money to unlock a couple of them them so that I could see what they do. I tapped a greyed-out store item and prepared to enter my password.

Nothing happened.

Confused, I tapped the bit of the screen showing my available balance. Nothing happened. I scoured the mostly-empty lower portion of the screen for a ‘buy’ button. There is nothing there.

Vlambeer doesn’t want any more of my money.

This isn’t a case of a paid game theoretically having the right core loops to probably make it not terribly hard to adapt into a free-to-play or paymium format. Ridiculous Fishing is already designed just like a free-to-play game. The entire meta-game is about racking up money and spending that money on virtual goods. Ridiculous Fishing is not an artifact of pure spiritual insight, divorced from the mucky world of commerce. It’s a game about making money by shooting fish.

Vlambeer thinks that by refusing to take any more of my money after the first $3, they are occupying a moral high ground that F2P developers have, for the most part, abandoned in pursuit of profit. I think that this is nonsense. And I’ve just been to a GDC talk that demonstrates exactly why.


Shellrazer makes 30% of its revenue from IAPs. It normally costs $2.99 to buy, though it’s free this week on iOS. It’s no Ridiculous Fishing, but it shares the same adapted RPG meta-game in which coins take the place of exp for character upgrades. Unlike Fishing, in this game you can choose to buy coins instead of earning them through grind.

As far as Shane Neville of Ninja Robot Dinosaur Entertainment is concerned, that extra 30% of revenue has allowed him to quit his day job and become a full-time indie. He hasn’t used skinner boxes. He doesn’t baffle the user into buying IAPs accidentally. He doesn’t even ask the user to consider spending money until and unless they try to unlock an item that they don’t have enough virtual currency for. All he has done is create one screen where users can spend real money to get more virtual money. The same virtual money that they could either grind or play very skilfully to earn without spending a penny.

This is the exact kind of interface that is conspicuously absent from Ridiculous Fishing. And it’s allowed him to support himself full-time as an indie developer.

Neville sees his players in three different groups. One group is willing to give up a lot of their time, and will grind to make money to upgrade their items. Another has an abundance of skill, and will make a great deal of money quickly by playing the game well. The third group is willing to give up some of their money to upgrade without grinding and play the way they want to. Shellrazer is optimised for the first two kinds of play, but makes it possible to spend money if the player wants to. 8% of them choose to do so.

In his GDC talk, Neville underscored the importance of respecting your players. To me, ‘grind or get out’ is just as disrespectful of your players’ time as paywalls are disrespectful of players’ money. Both should be absent from good game design. There is nothing that needs to be added to Ridiculous Fishing‘s core mechanics or meta-game to successfully integrate IAPs. IAPs will not make the game suddenly more evil. Ethical free-to-play is far from impossible.

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at and The Borderhouse.