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Mobile Game Piracy Isn't All Bad, Says Monument Valley Producer (Q&A)

Ustwo's Dan Gray talks about the good and the bad of having a paid premium game with lots of free-riding players.

ustwo

One of last year’s most stylish mobile games was Monument Valley, a puzzle title inspired by the works of M.C. Escher. And counter to industry trends favoring free-to-play, developer Ustwo charges $4 to download the game.

On Monday, Ustwo stirred up a hornets’ nest by tweeting that 95 percent of Monument Valley’s installs on Android, and 60 percent on iOS, were not paid for.

https://twitter.com/ustwogames/status/552136427904184320

The company later clarified that some of those unpaid installs were not game pirates (why? read on!), and said it was “not complaining,” just observing. In a Q&A with Re/code, Monument Valley producer Dan Gray said there’s more to the prevalence of free-riders in mobile games than meets the eye.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Re/code: First off, how was that 95 percent statistic determined?

Dan Gray: Five percent are paid downloads, so the ratio is 9.5 to 1, but a portion of those are people who have both a phone and a tablet, people who have more than one Android device with them. So a small portion of that 95 percent is going to be taken up by those installs.

Do you know how big that portion is?

Monument Valley producer Dan Gray
Monument Valley producer Dan Gray

It’s impossible for us to track that data. The only thing we can do is, two bits of data: One, how many purchases we have and, two, how many installs we’ve got. And we just leave people to draw conclusions from that as they wish, because we can’t clarify any further than that.

The same original tweet said 60 percent of iOS installs were unpaid. Is that the same thing — some portion are pirated, and some portion are people who have both an iPhone and an iPad?
Yeah. Same thing. I think it’s worth mentioning as well on the Android side of things, there was a “free day” that we did that I think gained us about 400,000 downloads or something on Amazon. But those values have been taken off that 95 percent already, so the free day is not included in that calculation.

How, as a studio, do you look at those numbers? Is there anything that you can do in response to them? Is that just a fact of the industry?
We’re not unique in this situation. Various developers have had a roughly similar ratio of Android piracy. We made a decision in the past — obviously, we’ve all made games in the past — not to implement piracy protection on Android. It usually gets cracked within a day or two anyway. We can’t respond to it in any way.

The best way I like to think about it is, the majority of those users probably wouldn’t have bought the game anyway. So it’s not like we’re losing revenue. And, of course, I’m sure some of those users have recommended the game to friends who maybe aren’t as tech-savvy as they are. It’s essentially free marketing. When I say we’re not complaining about that ratio, that kind of ratio was expected before we made the game and it’s not that surprising now that we’ve released the game. You just roll with the punches.

Why do you think there’s such a big difference between Android and iOS?
I’m not 100 percent sure, to be honest. I think it probably comes down to how tech-savvy the user actually is, and probably region, as well. When you compare the most affluent regions, obviously that kind of slants it toward developing markets and Android devices, where people are less inclined to spend $4 on a game. Let’s say you take U.S. only: Those paid rates for Android and iOS are actually considerably closer. They’re closer than five and 40 percent.

This may be a separate issue, but last year, there was a dustup over Ustwo’s decision to charge $2 for additional levels on iOS. What happened there?

We had just released our expansion, and were in a situation where in every interview, everything we released publicly always said it would be a piece of paid content. Obviously, we can’t always reach every user. Some users are going to hear about new content and just due to how the market works right now, they’re going to assume that it’s free. Lots of games do free updates. That seems to be the standard thing to do.

When we released our expansion, there were a small number of people who resented that it was a paid update. “I’ve already paid you guys once, how dare you ask me for more money.” I think we had about 100 one-star reviews in the U.S. on iTunes, and 100 five-star reviews, and not much in between. And most of the comments in the one-stars were about the fact that the new content was paid. We had an offhand tweet, and it blew up, and we became the catalyst to a larger conversation. That quickly changed, and we got thousands of five-star reviews and a few hundred one-star reviews. It’s what I like to call a storm in a teacup. People continued to talk about it when it was no longer an issue.

I had a lot of developers bring it up to me, saying it was indicative of a “race to zero” in what gamers would pay for. Do you agree? Do people expect free?
To a certain extent, yes. And the more popular free games are, the more they’re going to have that expectation. But I think we’ve had this for many years now, analysts saying free is the future and there’ll be no more paid games. And every year, there continue to be a number of premium games that do very well for themselves. That area of the marketplace is not dead yet. We’ve nowhere near made the amount of money that a lot of top free-to-play games would, but then again we have relatively low overhead. Monument Valley was made with only eight people. We had no advertising spend. We’re confident we can make premium games work in the future, and we’re confident we can outdo what we did with Monument Valley next year and the year after that.

Have you heard from Apple and Google throughout any of this? What do they think?
Those companies are really glad that we’ve managed to be successful with a premium game. Both companies really want premium games to be a success alongside free-to-play titles. We’re fortunate enough to have a good relationship with both, and they’ve supported us really well, in terms of featuring and marketing and mentioning us on things. We never thought the game would be a poster child for showcasing people’s hardware.

An earlier game that was featured in a similar way was Badland, which went from paid to free when it debuted on Android. Would Ustwo ever make a free game, knowing what you know now?
Obviously, we’ve had these conversations as we were talking about Monument Valley. The market statistics suggest that free-to-play titles do better than premium titles on the whole on Google Play. Are we crazy for releasing a premium game there? Our thoughts on that were that there’s lots of Android players that really resent being treated like second-class citizens, given a different game than what their Apple counterparts have been given. We made the decision to have parity across both platforms, which we stand by, and we’d like that to continue in the future.

As for the question, will Ustwo games ever release a free game? I don’t know. Could we do a free-to-play game in our style? Monument Valley would never work as a free game, probably. It’s a question for the future, and I guess we’ll take it on a game-by-game basis. We’d rather talk about what the best game is first and concentrate later on what the best delivery mechanism for that game is. So, who knows? Maybe.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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