Vodacom quietly launched a mobile gaming platform – and would like you to pay R100 a month to play games you can get for free

Business Insider SA

News analysis

Vodacom Playinc
  • Vodacom has – very quietly – launched a new gaming service:
  • If you stumbled across it by accident you wouldn't associate it with Vodacom, and technically users of other networks are welcome to use it (for now).
  • Vodacom hopes casual gamers will pay R5 a day, or R25 a week, for access to games for their cellphones, even though you can get almost the same games for free elsewhere.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider SA.

The new website does not exactly trumpet its association with Vodacom; unless you read the terms and conditions you could miss entirely that it is a Vodacom service.

Likewise, when Vodacom this week told the world that Playinc had launched, it did so in very understated fashion. The site received a single mention in Vodacom's 60-page booklet containing its annual financial results, which read in full: "our gaming platform PlayInc. has now been launched."

Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub did not expand on that when he presented those results to investors, even though "digital content platforms" is listed as Vodacom's number four key strategic pillar, right after financial services and ahead of having the best technology. 

See also: Some 10 million South Africans are now borrowing airtime and data from Vodacom – and paying up to 60% extra

Even though Playinc, with its slick website promising "personalized gaming feed with user stats and recommendations for mobile games, gaming news and videos" has the makings of a major initiative.

And even though the idea of a mobile gaming subscription platform is a hot one right now, with Apple's "Netflix for games" in the iPhone due to launch soon.

Such a quiet launch may have something to do with the fact that, although Vodacom says it has big plans for Playinc, the platform's value for money proposition right now is highly debatable.

How to pay for what you can get free

Anyone with a cellphone number can set up a profile on Playinc, and that specifically includes users of MTN, Telkom, and Cell C. In future, the site's terms and conditions warn, non-Vodacom subscribers may be locked out of some features or even be booted from the platform entirely, but there is no sign of any walled-off sections yet.

During registration you get to select your favourite genres of game, and pick a couple of your favourite games so that the recommendation system can get to know you a little better.

Playinc game selection

That is about as far as the free service goes, however. To play any of the games, or at least any of the dozens we checked, you have to pay up, either R5 per day or R25 per week, for a total of between R100 and R150 a month.

The first day, however, is free.

Vodacom Playinc

R100 is relatively big money for Vodacom's customers. In the year to the end of March, the financial results it released this week show, the average Vodacom prepaid customer generated R54 in revenue for the company. In other words, a Playinc subscription would represent double to triple the average those customers spend on airtime and data.

The subscription does, Playinc promises, offer the ability to play as many of its more than 2,000 titles for free, as often as you like. But you could do much the same thing without paying.

On Wednesday the site was promotion five games as among its current highlight:

Randomly digging deeper into the long list of available games did not yield premium titles that would cost money to buy, only the likes of the three-year-old "Car Racing Mania", and "Tomb Raider I" – which was first published half a decade ago.

Especially among Playinc's highlighted games, the free versions available elsewhere come with either in-app purchases or in-game advertising, or sometimes both. Playinc, on the other hand, promises "no ads or in-app purchases" (a promise we could not test because the site would not allow us to make a payment.)

For many games, however, in-app purchases make things easier or allow progress faster, but you don't necessarily have to spend money to play. "Lara Croft: Relic Run", for instance, allows you to pay cash money for a "stack of gems" with which you can buy special items, but those gems can also be earned in the game. 

Nor is using Playinc guaranteed to keep you safe from ads. Signing up means agreeing to receiving messages from the platform, and unless users opt out by sending a stop notification to a specific number, that includes "partner communications".

There is one thing Playinc offers subscribers that other free platforms and apps don't: the chance to win games through "challenges" – currently three games, all for the PS4.

Vodacom told Business Insider South Africa that its service allows gamers to “choose the Playinc experience as opposed to the ‘freemium’ versions of these games on the iOS and Play Stores, where those versions carry adverts as well as paid in-game items behind in-app purchases.”

"In practical terms, it’s the same game but the subscription model enables a different experience for the gamer, especially those gamers who want to experience certain locked in-game items without needing to pay for them via additional in-app purchases."

It said future plans include "more blockbuster gaming titles", plus "localised titles that will suit audiences across Africa."

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