An avid gamer and strong believer of the positive effect of gaming on productivity, work morale and work-life balance, I am very happy to see emerge in my home country Vietnam a new breed of gamers and a new purchasing behavior that could permanently change the way the society views gaming and more importantly, how companies can monetize this industry.
Let’s first take a step back in time. Vietnam in the early 2000s was like South Korea in the 1990s. The console era has just ended, to be superseded by the LAN era. Everywhere in the country, Internet cafes sprawled uncontrollably, attracting hundreds of thousands of youths and children using addictive titles such as Counter Strike, Starcraft, and Quake. In these playgrounds, countless hours were wasted in virtual battlefields where university drop-outs and high school underperformers battled each other in repeated “rounds” of first-person shooting or real-time strategy games. Unsurprisingly, the public opinion was not favorable. Like console games in the previous decade, computer games were thought of as a major source of distraction from academic activities. Parents tightened their grip, and so did the authorities. Towards the end of the decade, the ministry of information and telecommunications issued several directives aimed at limiting gaming activities, including mandatory closure of online gaming services after 10:00pm and limits on daily gameplay hours for individual accounts.
What were the adults and the rich doing during this time? Well, the really rich ones would focus on getting a car, the well-offs an expensive motorbike, and the so-so a good phone, only that phones didn’t have many games at the time. In a way, adults also had their way of indulgence but it had nothing to do with online gaming. How could they in the first place? Work computers were tightly controlled, while home computers were often shared between two or three generations with little leeway for privacy.
All of this changed with the advent of smartphones and tablets. These little trinkets quickly became a symbol of status for the young, rich and urban population in Vietnam. Everybody wanted a smartphone, and that means not just teenagers but also office workers and government officials, bankers and housewives, entrepreneurs and CEOs. Slowly but surely, these new users found new ways to use their devices other than for e-mailing and Internet surfing. Blockbuster games such as Plants vs. Zombies, Candy Crush and Clash of Clans quickly made way into the app library of middle-aged, well-educated and high-income white-collar workers. And what do users with too little time and too much money do when they are addicted to a game? They make in-game purchases, in big amounts.
A month ago, as part of a freelance consulting project I conducted an online survey regarding smartphone app usage and purchasing behavior of Vietnamese users. As anticipated, a sizeable group expected app content to be free and ad-supported. Furthermore, many respondents reported frequently visiting unofficial app stores for pirated content. However, there was a cluster of users who responded they often make big in-app purchases of more than 20USD each. 20USD per click per user in a country where average monthly income is just over $180! Who are these users? A closer look into the data reveals a typical person between 28 and 35 years of age, often educated abroad with a proficient level of English, a stable job and well-above-average annual income.
Curious, I went outside the scope of the project to interview a dozen of such individuals. To my amazement, many of them were mid-career managers or executives at large companies. What was even more surprising is the fact that many of them had never played video games prior to purchasing a smartphone. As if rediscovering a long-lost youth, they immersed themselves feverishly in the ecosystems of the games. Wanting to achieve all but having little time to spare due to their heavy work schedules, many opted for the easy way out: trade time for real money. Be it bonus plants in Plants vs. Zombies, extra moves in Candy Crush, the third (and fourth or fifth) worker in Clash of Clans, these in-game purchases signify the emergence of a new breed of gamers. In Western literature they are called casual gamers, but this is a misnomer for whom I am describing, for our Vietnamese new-wave spenders are in no way casual. In fact, I was shown farms and cities so vast and populous that I could only imagine how much time (or money) was put into building (or buying) them, as evidenced by the hearty smile and big sense of accomplishment on the faces of their owners.
To conclude, I would like to come full circle by stressing the importance of this trend for game developers. For the longest time, low levels of willingness-to-pay and high piracy rates plagued the gaming industry in Vietnam. The people who were addicted to games did not have much money and those who had the money were not interested. Now the tables have turned and both needles (money and interest) are pointing in the right direction. Even public opinions are no longer a problem, for smartphone gaming is consumed in small intervals, pause-friendly and easy to pick up, but most importantly quite easily protected from unwanted scrutiny. I believe the time is right for game developers to explore various monetization models and make the most of this new consumer base. More profit means better content which reinforces the customer’s faith in the products and helps build a healthy and self-sustaining gaming community. I believe this eventually leads to higher productivity and work morale among the gamers, but this is another topic that should be discussed in a separate post.
Image source: Flickr
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