10 ways Pokémon Go does microtransactions right

Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm. People everywhere are talking about training strategies and team pride and that screwed up time that a kid accidentally found a dead body in a lake. But no one is talking about the game’s microtransactions, and that is peculiar to me.

Usually any mobile game with microtransactions gets dragged over the coals as an example of everything that’s wrong with gaming. But Pokémon Go’s microtransactions are barely noticed and immensely profitable. So what’s different here? Why are Pokémon Go’s microtransactions openly accepted by the gaming public?

Here are just a couple of reasons…

They Aren’t a Roadblock

Many mobile games block your progress until you spend real money. Candy Crush is a notorious example. You can only play so far until you have to spend money, invite Facebook friends, or wait a certain amount of time to proceed. These microtransactions feel like extortion; like the game is being held hostage until you fork over the dough.

Pokémon Go never forces you to stop playing. The app remains active as long as your battery does. Running out of Pokeballs may make it impossible to catch Pokémon, but it’s hard to run out unless you are particularly bad at aiming (or live in a Pokestop desert, which is a separate discussion altogether).

If you do find yourself totally out of Pokeballs you can refill them at the nearest Pokestop. Since Pokestops refresh every five minutes, all you need to do is chill near the cool statue in the center of your local park to restock and continue your Pokémon journey.

You Can’t Pay for Power

Another type of microtransaction that frustrates players with a competitive mindset is the ability to pay for power. Many free PVP mobile games include this type of microtransation. Perhaps the most popular is Clash of Clans, which takes an estimated $15,000-$18,000 to max out your base from game start. Sure, you can just spend time and eventually make the same progress, but that effectively locks you out of higher-level play.

Pokémon Go doesn’t let you spend money on power at all. The main resources that increase Pokémon power, stardust and candy, cannot be purchased. You HAVE to play the game to obtain them. That’s why you don’t see every gym filled with the same carbon copy Pokémon. Since you can’t buy a winning line-up, everyone’s Pokémon are going to differ slightly and are going to be the product of plain old-fashioned effort.

It also keeps people on a relatively even playing field. No one gets discouraged by going up against someone who had tons of money to blow on the game. Instead, they get discouraged by going up against trainers with vastly more free time.

Damn them…

Nothing Is Real Money Exclusive

You’ve probably heard gamers complain that they have to pay money for their favorite character costume, and I’ll admit that’s not great business practice. But at the very least, costumes are just aesthetic. There are some games that lock portions of the main game behind money walls! Everyone has played a game that wasn’t “complete” without the DLC.

Pokémon Go doesn’t make anything exclusive to real money purchases. Everything can be found in the game somehow. In fact, aside from the costumes, only inventory upgrades need to be purchased at all. Everything else can be found at your local Pokestop or by leveling up.

The Best Items Can’t Be Bought

I’ve already mentioned how stardust and candy can’t be purchased with real world money, but those aren’t the only items you’ll have to work for in Pokémon Go. While you can purchase Pokeballs, great balls and ultra-balls need to be found. The same goes for better potions and revives. These items are necessary to catch the strongest Pokémon and to do battle at the toughest gyms. By the time you each the endgame, real money will barely help at all, while early game players with a lot of money to spend will still find themselves jealous of higher level trainers who haven’t spent a cent.

Spending Money Has Disadvantages

Few games with microtransactions have the guts to make them have a drawback. After all, spending real world money should always be a benefit, right?

But Pokémon Go has some serious consequences for players who spend all of their real world money. The primary item to buy through microtransactions is the Lucky Egg, which doubles your XP for a half hour and allows you to level-up quicker. But using a lucky egg (especially if you use it before an evolution or egg hatching spree) means you will catch fewer Pokémon and thus acquire less stardust and candy by the time you hit endgame levels (about level 20 or so).

This is about the time you want to start powering up your Pokémon to take on gyms. However, players who never used a single Lucky Egg will actually be more powerful than players who dropped all their hard-earned cash on XP bonuses. Because of the extra stardust and candy, free-to-play players will have comparatively stronger Pokémon to paying players of an equal level. All that paying does is let you catch Pokémon and climb levels quicker.

Microtransactions Are Inexpensive Impulse Buys

You’ll note that many of the strategies that Niantic took in designing Pokémon Go’s  microtransactions revolved around two philosophies. 1) Don’t allow microtransactions to unbalance the game, and 2) Make players want to spend money, rather than needing to spend money. Balancing the game is just a numbers act, but balancing the perceived worth of a microtransaction is much trickier.

Pokémon Go manages this by keeping its most popular micro-transactions cheap. The cheapest amount of Pokecoins you can buy costs about a dollar, and it actually gives you more Pokecoins than you need to purchase the cheapest items you can buy, the aforementioned Lucky Egg or Incense. These cheap items actually have really powerful in-game effects that you almost always want to be using before a large scale hunt. It’s not uncommon for a Pokémon Go player to be invited to a big group Pokehunt and decide it’s worth it to spend some money on a Lucky Egg to increase the hunt’s XP total. What else was he going to spend that dollar on, gum?

Then there are the discounts. While 100 Pokecoins costs a dollar, 550 Pokecoins cost 5 dollars, and you only get better returns as you spend more and more money. Similarly, one lucky egg only costs 80 Pokecoins, but 8 lucky eggs cost 500. Buying in bulk makes items cheaper and cheaper, but “bulk” still never means much more than a few bucks. As a result, you’ll always find yourself with Pokecoins left over, which makes it feel like a small purchase goes a long way.

Currency Can Be Acquired Through Effort

The only way to spend real money in Pokémon Go is through the use of Pokecoins. Spending a certain amount of cash gives you a certain amount of coins, which you can then spend on in-game items. But you can actually obtain Pokecoins in the game while holding gyms. You can claim the bonus right after putting your Pokémon  in a gym, and after every 21 hours you get to redeem your gym bonus again, which amounts to 10 Pokecoins per gym you have a Pokémon in, up to a maximum of 100.

Literally everything you could buy with money can be purchased through gym victories, and since Pokecoins translate over to real life money, a high level gym leader holding 10 gyms per day is making approximately a dollar a day in microtransactions. That’s pretty neat!

If Niantic ever implements item trading, this might become an interesting way to make real world cash using your Poketraining skills. For now, it means that in-game currency is spent exactly the same as real world currency, which once again levels the playing field.

The Game Is Balanced Around Not Spending Money

This is perhaps the most important decision that Niantic made when integrating microtansactions into Pokémon Go. The game is meant to be played without spending any money. This means you can do everything, literally everything, without spending a cent, and without falling behind anyone who does.

This goes far beyond the concepts of preventing pay-to-win scenarios and allowing users to obtain currency using effort instead of cash. What this means is that the game is fun before money even enters the equation. The amount of time it takes to level up, the power of Pokémon you will encounter, the scarcity of items – everything was designed for the free-to-play experience. Most other mobile games with microtransactions are built to be a complete experience and then the experience is gated so that only people with lots of disposable income, or “whales” as they are affectionately called in mobile marketing, can shell out the money to play it all at once.

While this does create tons of profit, it also creates small player bases that burn out quickly. Pokémon Go is the exact opposite. Its focus on the free-to-play experience means just about everyone wants to give it a try. The fact that you don’t need to spend money to be good at the game means the people who try it keep playing and level up. The game spreads by word of mouth and more and more people start playing, and whenever there is a level gap between two friends the lower-level friend can always use microtransactions to catch up!

And there’s the subtle genius. It’s not the game that puts pressure on you spend money, trainers can always level up the old-fashioned way. Its social pressure that makes a trainer spend money. It’s the desire to not be left behind by their friends. It’s not the game that caused the level gap – it’s the trainer’s own late adoption of it. So it doesn’t feel like the game is unfairly charging the money to succeed, rather, that the player is electing to spend money so that they can experience the same game their friends are.

Spending Money Doesn’t Make the Game Any Less Interesting

Many other mobile games got this far. Their designers understood that microtransactions needed to be balanced, cheap, appealing, and fair. But then their game failed because they never realized that the microtransactions they set up effectively allowed their users to pay for the right to not play their game.

Examine how Pokémon Go’s items work. The Lucky Egg gives you an XP bonus for a half hour, but you still have to go out and earn XP. Imagine if the Lucky Egg just gave you XP when you used it. You could reach the level you want without ever getting out of your chair. The Incense works the same way. It draws Pokémon to you, but only if you are moving. If Pokémon showed up without activity, you could once again sit at home and not play the game while still leveling up.

No matter how much money you spend, you still have to actively play Pokémon Go to make that expenditure worthwhile, and that plays a huge role in keeping the player base active.

You Can Play the Whole Game without Ever Noticing the Shop

Finally, we have a simple idea that it seems only a few mobile games realize: being obnoxious does not make you money. So many mobile games interrupt their gameplay every three seconds to remind you that you can spend money in the store. Some sneak in pop-ups in the middle of gameplay in the hopes that you will accidentally tap on them. Still others have stores that don’t have confirm windows, leading you to spend lots of money accidentally.

Pokémon Go has none of this. No ads. No pop-ups. No reminders that there is a store waiting for you. In fact, it doesn’t tell you about its microtransactions in any way. You have to try and find them or have a friend tell you about them. Otherwise, you’ll probably just ignore that shop button in your menu because you have Pokémon catching to do.

And that’s the reason why Pokémon Go has made millions, because the best implementation of microtransactions is barely noticeable. If you don’t notice the shop, then you won’t get hung up on spending money there. Essentially, players are more likely to impulse buy microtransactions when it doesn’t feel like the game wants them to.