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Are your non-paying players valuable?
by Balazs Juhasz on 05/30/14 06:11:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Are your non-paying players valuable?

Nowadays over 80% apps are using the freemium business model and over 90% total app revenue is generated that way. In these apps, only about 5% of the players - and you are quite happy if you hit that rate – convert to become a paying user. Like it or not, about 95% percent of your users are just free riders.

What are the attributes of these free riders? First of all, they are using up your server and bandwidth capacity – actually almost all of it (we are talking about the 95+ percent of your users, remember), keep your customer support busy, occasionally leave one star ratings in the app store, and the most painful point: you probably spent the same amount of money acquiring them as you did on your biggest spenders.

So these bastards are really just sucking your blood? Is there any way to get rid them off? Or even better, can’t you just somehow prevent them from downloading your app? Well, that’s the holy grail of marketing – spending money only on those who will bring you profit. Unfortunately I can’t help you on that – but I can show you why you should still respect your non-paying users, and how they are making you money in several (sometimes indirect) ways.

The trivial monetization method for non-paying user is in-app ads, you might even tweak your app to show ads only to those who are not willing to make in-app purchases. But in app ads won’t pay your bills unless you fly as high as flappy bird did, for example. It’s not a coincidence that publishers are turning away from this business model. (Not mentioning that in game ads tend to annoy players what has a bad influence on the retention or even worse, your direct competitors might pop up in your own app.)

Let’s move to the not so trivial values of non-paying users: They might help you to go viral by having their friends download the app. This saves you a lot of money:  just take your average CPI and multiply with the number of players brought by a non-paying user.  This, occasionally rather high sum is not an actual revenue, rather “just” a lack of expense, but you can get some high spender whales that way and their spending is a real hard cash to you. The non converting players are easier to incentivize with in game benefits than the pay ones as this might be their only way to catch up: just let them earn the same or comparable benefits that a paid user can buy and they will happily use their social connections to get you new players.

The greatest value of the free riders is keeping the paid users entertained – in case your game let’s some space for player to player interaction. Just image your city suddenly shrinks by 95%: much less variety, much less thing to do, this is what would happen if you didn’t have your free users in the game.

Furthermore, in general, paid users have an in game advantage (they are better equipped, have more resources – have all the benefits they paid for) making them on average „stronger” than their non paying counterparts with the same amount of gameplay experience,  even in the most properly balanced games. This will produce a better result (higher leader board rank, have better win ratio, etc.). It’s not about that your free players should act as punching bag for your paid payers – (only if you made a really bad pay to win game), but that a paid user should always have benefits compared to being a non paying one. Even if you sell just personalizing items to your players, they still need the non paying ones to have someone to compare themselves to and feel themselves unique that they made that purchase.

Easy to beat opponents will provide paid users with a better gameplay experience making them feel better, love your game more and probably pay you more than they would without your non paying users.

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Michael Stevens
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I definitely agree, and I feel like it's part of a bigger lesson that even console developers should also be taking to heart. It's really important to build the right sort of scaffolding around your content to keep it durable. So much of the cool stuff that happened in the console space this gen just doesn't work anymore because there isn't an active player base anymore, or because it's exclusively expert players, or because the servers are gone.

We came to a lot of the same conclusions you do here while we were trying to adapt a tabletop game to iOS. There was a week where we were really anxious about trying to figure out what number of players was the critical mass that would keep the game from immediately withering away. We're still not sure we've cracked it.

It's really a massive shame that ads aren't a better solution. I'm no fan of the advertising industry, but many grosser and more complex maneuvers could be avoided if we could get it to work.

TC Weidner
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Easy to beat opponents will provide paid users with a better gameplay experience making them feel better, love your game more and probably pay you more than they would without your non paying users.

and is this really the reason any of us dreamed and wanted to make games in the first place? for crap like this?
Gee let me create a baseball game and unless you pay me, you only get 6 fielders in the field, and only 2 strikes and 2 outs when batting... pay me and I'll give you the option of having 3 strikes, or 3 outs or both..for a fee.......

Fabian Fischer
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Couldn't agree more. How are "easy to beat opponents" the equivalent of a "better gameplay experience". If your users are all braindead rats pushing the lever without even thinking about it (Or maybe you try to make them be?), I guess then it's true. But I think you should treat your users as a little more intelligent beings... well, if you care about creating something of more than only just financial value.

John Flush
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But if you think about it, braindead people are easier to find / program than a braindead AI that we used to make for single player experiences...

Balazs Juhasz
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TC, Fabian - thank you for your comments, but I think you might misunderstand what I wanted to say. In a freemium game you'll inevitably have non payers. Your game balance decides what are the "disadvantages" of being such a player - in a badly balanced game, like the basketball game TC used as an example non payers will act as a punching bag, but they will quickly realize that and leave your game - making you loose all of the non payers' benefits.

But on the other hand you have to give some extra to your paid users (or else they just won't pay) and this extra will obviously be an advantage on the non payers.

Fabian, I agree, we all should care about creating something more that just financial value - but let's not be hypocrite, we all want to make money with our games.

Alexis Lessard
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So you have to make them easy targets for paid users, but not make them realize ?

Personally, I really don't like that. I don't think you can make a great game by thinking about your players that way. I understand what you mean, and you're probably right that you can make more money out of your users with that. I just think that it's bad and lazy game design.

Balazs Juhasz
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The primary intention of this post was to make you respect your non paying users and not to treat them as an unavoidable burden (and trying to get rid off them or offering them lower level service, like not so responsive customer support or such)

Creating a proper game design what is well balanced between the paid and the non paid users is anything but a lazy work - it's an ultimately complex and hard task.

Regarding the monetization, I agree, the currently trending freemium model might not be the best - please come up with something better what suits all the players and the game makers and you'll be a celebrated hero.

Andreas Ahlborn
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"The greatest value of the free riders is keeping the paid users entertained"

I wonder why nobody has thought of creating AI-canon fodder for whales and masking them as real players.

(Or have they?) you get all the benfits of making your whales feel whalethy and none of the drawbacks (because the AI runs on the client side).

With the highly restricted interactions between players in f2p games there is almost no chance to figure such a scheme out. Take Hearthstone for example: Every player I am matched with could potentially be a Bot, there is even an Expert AI in training sessions that suggests that Blizzard has thought of this scenario.

ganesh kotian
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Thank you for sharing such a nice post

Rik Spruitenburg
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I was thinking about this when SWTOR converted to "free to play" and they restricted free players from PVP. It seemed really short sighted. Your seasoned Killers need someone to defeat and here they are, and you put up a pay wall.