“Cracking games,” or removing and bypassing mechanics that require players to pay for the product, has existed since the medium first developed. Unfortunately, you can’t guarantee protection against game cracking, and as soon as someone invents a new safeguard, someone else find a new way to circumvent it. So, how can developers — particularly on the iOS platform — protect their prized assets from intellectual theft and increase their monetary return?

Forget about trying to crack-proof anything — it takes insurmountable effort that, in the long run, should be spent building better games. The true task at hand is for developers to design and implement monetization mechanics into their releases that 1) make it harder for non-technical consumers to bypass them, and 2) design games so that users get access to a sufficient “sampling” of game content for free.

Freemium, or “free-to-play” games, allow players to try them at no cost, which maximizes user acquisition from the start and allows them to pay into the play experience through microtransactions — small purchases of virtual goods or currencies that give players more power or the ability to advance more quickly. The model has been proven in freemium PC-based online games for a decade now, in both Asia and the West. I believe this model is the best way to crack-proof mobile games in China, not only due to improvements in user acquisition and engagement, but also due to new circumstances affecting the China smartphone games market.

Jailbreaking in China is very convenient

In China, you don’t have to browse the Web to learn how to jailbreak your iPhone. Simply take it down to your local (unauthorized) Apple reseller and get your phone jailbroken for the cost of a roasted turkey sandwich. The friendly neighborhood store clerk will also install the latest jailbreak App Store client, show you how easy it is to download free software, and even install his favorite games for you as part of the package. However, the primary reason many Chinese people do this to their devices is not to get free games. After all, the inconvenience and additional cost of having to get their device re-jailbroken every time Apple upgrades its iOS far outweighs the cost benefits of jailbreaking a device in the first place.

JailbreakingIn the past, jailbreaking was a way to bypass the Apple China App Store’s inability to process local currency (RMB) payments. Now that Apple has enabled local payments, the primary reason people hack their phones is for ease of use…for an experience that is arguably better than Apple’s App Store for Chinese people to find, read about, and download games, all free of charge.

How to protect your products

The key to “crack-proofing” your monetization lies not in preventing people from jailbreaking their devices and cracking your games — that’s a battle you just won’t win. However, if you focus on giving your users an all-around better experience when they do pay, you’ll find that your users will be happy to do so. This is where the freemium, free-to-play model shines when compared to the paid-download, subscription, and free (ad-only) models for the following reasons:

  • Chinese gamers will pay to advance in a game. They enjoy the instant gratification of leveling up or moving ahead and are willing to pay for features that provide an instant advantage in the game. Whether it’s blowing past a particularly difficult section of a game or gaining a competitive advantage against an opponent, 6.6 billion good reasons exist (China’s 2011 gaming revenue in U.S. dollars, according to Pearl Research) that prove Chinese gamers will pay to play.
  • Chinese gamers like to try before they buy. On the day of writing this, the top-grossing games in Apple’s China App Store show 7 of the 10 top-grossing games are free for download. Expanding the list to the top 25 grossing games shows 20 that are free for download. What’s more, games that are free for download typically generate a significantly higher install base than paid download games, allowing a better monetization rate through more rapid user acquisition, higher game engagement, and the resulting ad-driven revenue.
  • Paid downloadable games are convenient to crack on jailbroken devices, thanks to popular sites in China. One click, and a jailbroken device gets all of your content for free. Freemium games, on the other hand, are integrated with Apples’ In App Purchase (IAP) mechanism, unlocking additional content or virtual items after a gamer has had a taste. iOS games that use IAP are very difficult for jailbreak users to crack because the only way they can unlock content or buy virtual items is via the use of a specific “IAP cracker” for a specific product. Paid downloadable games encourage cracking, while free-to play tends to keep cracking at bay.

In summary, successful global developers need to adapt to the changing needs of a worldwide audience, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of how gamers in different regions prefer to pay for games. China now has more iOS device activations than any other country in the world, and the difference between a wildly pirated game versus a highly profitable game may truly lie in the monetization model and design.

In the current state of smart-phone gaming in China, in a market rife with pirating and cracking, the freemium model cannot be beat.

Henry Fong is CEO of Yodo1. Yodo1 is a market-entry specialist and full-service technology provider helping Western game developers successfully gain traction in the China mobile-games market.

Image courtesy of Gamezebo.

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