People have been struggling to figure out how to make premium apps work since the App Store launched. I suspect the struggle of premium phone apps isn’t solvable. This makes sense if the core role of phones today is understood as attentional gambling. And no one wants to pay a premium price to gamble. The medium is the monetization.
Imagine attention is a currency and your brain is spending it to focus on something. You start off the day with $100 of attention. Throughout the day you spend it on whatever you’re doing.
Certain tasks are more expensive — writing a long essay, working on a side project, reading a book. In a very real sense you need to save up to pay for these tasks. You don’t try to do homework at a rock concert — all the stimulation extracts mandatory attentional payment.
On the other end of the price spectrum, there are cheap things to pay attention to. And the cheapest thing you can spend attention on is a gamble. Phones are built around this game of chance. It’s like penny slots — you plop in a penny looking at your phone hoping for a $5 e-mail notification to be waiting for you.
Once you’ve established that attention has a cost, a natural market emerges. Gambling a penny to look at your phone for the chance to win $5 feels like a good deal! Especially when you’ve won that gamble in the past. The problem is that once you’ve won that bet, it becomes very hard to convince yourself to pay full price for anything up front.
This doesn’t only make it hard to pay a higher attentional price for tasks, but it establishes the functional role of the medium of apps. Since apps are embedded in phones, they are forced to compete with the cheapest attentional gambles. The closer a task is to a phone, the cheaper it must be to pay attention to.
This truth holds in the reverse direction as well — the further a task distances itself from phones, the higher the attentional price it can ask for. Movie theaters don’t only ban cellphones because they’re annoying. If you were allowed to use your phone during a movie the attentional value of the movie itself would be diminished. You’d be comparing the value of a $13 movie ticket to some penny gambles. Your brain can’t help but feel ripped off.
In short, we look at our phones to gamble. If our apps don’t pull those same levers to fulfill that roll, we don’t use them.
This, then, explains why free to play games dominate mobile — they are synthetic attentional gambles. You only have so many friends on Facebook, only follow so many accounts on Twitter, only get so many people sending you e-mails, etc. Once that natural supply of attentional gambling is spent, there is huge value in the creation of artificial attentional gambling mechanisms. And what better way to create those than games.
The other major ecosystem where free to play games are king is Facebook. They succeeded there precisely because Facebook operates on the same attentional gambling mechanics (via non-chronological shuffling of the news feed) as phones. Notice how games are the only major category of apps built on top of Facebook’s platform? There’s a reason for that: they’re the only thing that can match the attentional price of the newsfeed.
There’s a certain restless dissatisfaction that comes after staring at your phone all day. You’re restless because your brain knows it still has attention to spend. It just won’t let you spend it on anything that costs more than a cheap gamble because it feels like a bad deal.
Once you’ve gambled 1 cent and won $5 it’s very hard to ever pay $1 for anything ever again. Once it feels like you’ve paid attention to something for free, it’s hard to actually pay attention to anything ever again.