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Paid vs. free-to-play: Advice from notable mobile studios
Paid vs. free-to-play: Advice from notable mobile studios
April 26, 2013 | By Mike Rose

April 26, 2013 | By Mike Rose
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At the start of 2012, myself and a couple of friends finally decided to have a crack at something we'd been talking about for many months prior -- making a mobile game.

Earlier into development, one topic came up over and over again: Would we make it a paid game, free-to-play, or some sort of mish-mash of the two models?

We argued over the finer points of each model for hours at a time, and eventually I decided that there was an easier way to solve it. I emailed various mobile developers who had dipped their toes in both the free-to-play and paid market, gave them a taster of our game idea, and asked them whether they'd be willing to donate advice regarding the direction we should take.

A few notable names gladly got back to me, and along with my team, we made a decision based on these answers. Alas, we shelved the game later into the year, as we each became far busier at our respective day jobs, and simply couldn't get together as often to work on the game.

Now, 16 months later I've decided to put my original question to the same developers, to see how their advice has changed given how the mobile market has progressed over the last year.

The original email

What follows is my original email, proceeded by the answers I received from each developer, first from the start of 2012, and then from this week:

This is Mike Rose from IndieGames.com and other assorted places of the writing. Hope you're well! I was hoping to ask you a quick bit of advice if that's OK.

I'm currently starting up development of a smartphone game with a couple of friends, and we're putting together a puzzle game that we're hoping will prove popular. Obviously I'm very much aware of the paid vs F2P aspect of App Store pricing, and we're currently weighing up which direction we should go in. Since you've had great success with F2P, I was wondering if you'd be so kind as to give your opinion on which I would be best going for!

I'll give a little background on what the game is about - it's essentially a puzzler that throws up conundrums on the screen, ranging from maths problems to logic puzzles to real head-scratchers, with a story that links all the puzzles together. There's a little more to it than that, but that's the core idea.

Our initial idea was to make it a 99c app, but having researched F2P a bit, we're now wondering whether making it free with IAP would be a better idea. When it came to which IAP we'd implement for this idea, we were thinking that players would be able to purchase hints for the puzzles, so that if they get stuck, they can buy hints on how to solve it. We were also considering having additional puzzle packs, so the main story of puzzles would be completely F2P, but then players can buy additional blocks of puzzles that don't affect the story if they so choose.

Does any of this sound logical? I have no idea whether any of what I've just said would work commercially... we just have an inclining that if we put it out as a 99c app, it will barely sell and then be confined to the depths of the App Store. If you have any thoughts, big or small, I would really love to hear what you think.

Cheers
Mike

Nimblebit

Nimblebit's David Marsh was kind enough to get back to me with advice. At the time, his studio had just released Pocket Frogs, and was gearing up towards the release of its hugely popular Tiny Tower -- both free-to-play titles.

Most recently, Nimblebit released Nimble Quest for iOS and Android, a sort of Snake meets RPG meets tower defence style game. Below is March's original response to me, followed by an updated response from this week.

01/24/2012

Hey Mike,

we have had such success with F2P stuff that I fear anything I have to say is going to be pretty biased. I think it is safe to say though that the main hurdle on iOS is getting people to install your game, and that becomes a lot easier to do when it is free.

How you can structure F2P with your game can vary wildly depending on what type of game it is. Some people put in IAP and still make it 99 cents or higher, and then depend on dropping it to free later as a promotion. Some make it free from the get-go with IAPs built in. Unfortunately we have never done a F2P trivia / puzzle type game, so I don't have a lot of sage advice for good ways to structure IAP in that setting.

nimble quest.jpgI know of many similar types of games that do have non-consumable extra level packs as IAP like you mention, and I think that can work well and it makes sense with the structure of the game. Consumable IAP definitely can be more successful financially over the long run, but I think it is a real challenge to figure out a way that consumables make sense in a puzzle / trivia type setting. Some people sell skips or hints like you mention. I wouldn't be afraid of experimenting with both.

None of what you mention sounds crazy, and is probably the first things I would experiment with too. Good luck!

04/22/13

Hey Mike,

it's been 16 months - would my answer be the same? I think in two words my new answer would be "it depends."

Even over the last 16 months the App Store has seen pretty incredible growth, which means a couple of things. One is that the people at the top are getting massive amounts of downloads, and subsequently earning mountains of cash. The flip side is that now it's even harder to get visibility climbing the charts, since the download numbers you have to compete with are insane.

It's harder now than it's ever been to get the huge download numbers that make F2P work. In light of that, I still think it makes sense to go free if you have a game with broad appeal that you could imagine sitting on top of the charts.

When almost everyone is a potential fan of your game, your mobility on the charts is more lubricated. If you don't think you have a shot at the top of the charts, if you have a more niche game - I think you can do well by making your game paid, or paid with IAP.

I think if we could launch Nimble Quest again, we might try going that route. There is a tipping point where the power of free really takes off, but if you are not going to hit that point - it can make more sense to start paid.

Unless you think you are going to have a really crazy launch with millions of downloads, there is little risk in starting off paid, you can always experiment with going free at a later point.

Kiloo

Jeppe Bisbjerg from Subways Surfers dev Kiloo also fired advice off in my direction. Here were his responses, both 16 months ago, and now.

01/25/12

There really isn't any magic formula as to what you need to do. Some games flourish by being freemium, others by being $0.99.

If you're afraid your game will get overshadowed by the hundreds of titles that launch every week, then perhaps free is the best way to go to make sure that people at least notice your game.

subway surfers.jpgI get the feeling that you're a smaller, new company so my guess is that you don't have the funds to create large marketing campaigns. In this regard, remember that the iOS market is extremely crowded and competitive.

Generally, we always try to create the best possible game, no matter the price, I encourage you to do the same thing. If your product is polished and fun enough, people will notice it. Word of mouth can be a very powerful thing, especially in this day and age.

04/23/13

Everything depends on the game in question. Not all premium games make good free-to-play games, not all free-2-play games make good premium games.

One thing you can never discard is quality, execution of style and player experience. Discovery and market position will flourish from a polished product.

Business models can help you in a crowded market, but basically it all boils down to direction, vision and attention to detail.

Godzi Lab Games

These third and final pairings of advice were sent to me by Jerome Lanquetot, co-founder of Godzi Lab Games -- best known for mobile titles like iBlast Moki and Happy Street.

01/24/12

Hi Mike,

I'd be happy to help you with what we have seen on our side.

Unfortunately F2P puzzle is not the best match for F2P games. We have been thinking about it for quite a while with iBlast Moki 2, and we decided to release it as a paid game. The best for F2P is when you have a currency which unlock new content, and best is if the content is unlimited such as time. In a puzzle game, apart from unlocking new levels or hints, it's limited.

We actually submitted a F2P version of iBlast Moki including those 2 unlockables (hints and levels) which was rejected due to the usage of virtual currency - they didn't want us to use virtual currency. We might fall back to a simpler version with IAP.

It's not a trivial answer for your type of game. If you can find more than those 2 IAPs, it might worth it (such as bonuses or powerups) - otherwise, I'd release a paid version first, and an F2P version later.

04/24/13

Hi Mike,

today I still think a F2P puzzle is a lot harder to monetize than other F2P genres, mostly because the content is limited and requires a lot of level design.

Candy Crush is the best example of highly successful F2P puzzle. They have more than 250 levels and are still producing a lot of content and find new gameplay mechanics with every update to keep their current userbase. That's a lot of content, 2x more than what Angry Birds has.

The other thing that's hard in general with an F2P game is balance - to monetize you have to create gameplay mechanics which involve timers, and some developers will also play with frustration to push the player to buy bonuses or boosts.

iblast moki.jpgIn Candy Crush they chose to monetize both time and frustration: you can fail a maximum of 6 times before waiting for an hour for your lives to regenerate or buy a pack of lives. And frustration is solved with the bonuses you can buy. Some high levels are purely based on luck, and if you don't get the right combination at the right time there's no way you can make it.

They push the difficulty quite high once you are already addicted to the game, and when you start failing more than 20x at the same level over and over, either you quit the game or you buy the special bonuses. Especially when you see you only had one jelly left to clear and you saw the exact move to get it. Candy Crush leaves you the option to buy those 5 extra moves for one dollar and your frustration will be relieved. That happened to me more than once.

As a developer, your role is to create a product that entertains the player. With those monetization techniques you are balanced between entertaining the player, or seeing how far you can push the player's patience and frustration. Candy Crush manages to play with the pacing quite well - they have created a few of those extra hard levels that monetize a lot than the rest of the levels. And in between, they have some much easier levels which increase the player's satisfaction until he reaches the next hard level.

Regarding the F2P model in general, some genres are definitely more adaptable than others. We integrated some F2P mechanics into iBlast Moki 2, but we decided not to release it as it was not designed for it even if it was done from the ground up.

In term of monetization, I definitely think F2P games are the future. You can look at the charts, and a game like Cut The Rope: Time Travel which is #1 in paid games is only #37 in top grossing games. All the titles above are free games.

Our last title Happy Street is an F2P game designed from the ground up with F2P game mechanics. Developing an F2P game is not easy, as it's not easy to fall into the trap of monetization and forget about the player enjoyment. For us we are avoiding gameplay aimed at monetizing frustration - we mostly use timers and we are quite generous with the hard currency.

In the simulation/building genre, you can also sell premium content, but we have to be careful not to create supremacy goods. The key is to find the right balance between all those gameplay mechanics, and don't forget that we are making games for players to enjoy first.


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Comments


Phil Maxey
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There seemed to be a lot more enthusiasm for F2P a year ago than there is now, what's interesting is regardless of the more cautious approach everyone still seems to be totally on the F2P bandwagon.

I think what's happened is everyones realised how difficult it is to effectively monetize gameplay. The people who are getting it right are a tiny tiny percentage of game developers overall.

Jose Blanco
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F2P was working for more studios when "free" games were not quite as abundant and the demand for more mobile-based games on phones and tablets was much higher - which was about two years ago.

Now it is not uncommon for a studio to release a game, and have it lost in a sea of hundreds of other games that look, feel, and play almost exactly the same. There are now big F2P franchises now that have established themselves which customers trust (Temple Run, League of Legends, etc.), as well as far too many copycats trying to ride off the appeal and success of those already successful games. How many endless runners have people seen on the App Store, now?

While F2P can still technically work, it can not realistically work for every game and is highly dependent on its general appeal and how it is marketed against the 15 other games released alongside it every day.

Arturo Nereu
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Thanks for sharing this Mike, and also thanks to the developers who answered. At this moment we have the exact same question, which model to follow.

Again, thanks and good luck!

Robert Green
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At this point in time, it's hard to imagine any new dev having a great success on mobile with a paid app. Let me provide an example from the last month:
The new Cut the Rope game came out a week ago on android (iOS numbers are a little harder to find), and there's a free version and a paid version ($1). As I type this, the paid version has downloads in the "10,000 - 50,000" range and the free version is in the "1,000,000 - 5,000,000" range. So even for one of the biggest names in mobile gaming, you're looking at a couple of orders of magnitude difference, and barely enough from the paid version to fund a single developer, let alone a team. And that app is in the top 5 new paid apps in all of the countries I checked!
I'm not sure things are quite that bad on iOS, but it does look like the paid games market on mobile has become a niche at best.

Zack Wood
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10,000 - 50,000 downloads in one week is barely enough to fund a single developer? Sounds impressive to me.

Robert Green
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Keep in mind that's a launch week, for a featured app with a highly regarded brand. If it's at the top of that range, and it continued at that rate then sure, it'd pay for a single developer in no time. But if it's at the low end of that range, then subtract the 30% cut of the store, any money put into advertising and overheads during development, and then assume that sales will quickly trail off after the featured launch week, and maybe it's not so impressive.

Jason Withrow
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Glad too see this article! Predictions and advice are all well and good in their own way, but so is learning what others have learned, and it keeps those theory articles from sitting in a vacuum that shouldn't exist to begin with! Keep it up if you ever get the chance to do another!

Lewis Giles
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I think another problem with F2P games is the lack of initial investment. With that first bit of commitment, even a paltry $0.99, the player may feel obliged to try the game long enough to stick with it. With F2P however it had better get interesting before the player loses interest.

A F2P game needs to sink its hooks in quickly. Early game exposition, long winded tutorials... the player may delete the game before it even starts. I know I will. I can barely stand things like that in the games I pay for upfront. But a F2P game, in a sea of F2P games? Gamers are spoiled for choice, and with no initial investment they will move on quicker than you can skip a commercial on YouTube.

And I think the YouTube commercial comparison is a good one. Those YouTube commercials have five seconds to sell their idea to me before I press that skip button. And nine times out of ten in those first five seconds the viewer doesn't even get a clue as to what the commercial was going to be about. It is the exact same thing with a F2P game- sell it to me quickly or I am moving on to a game that is hopefully more interested in being played.

Peter Eisenmann
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I agree with Lewis. In addition, it is worrying that the initial obstacle of giving your credit card number to apple or especially google raises with the number of free games out there. If I really want to play a game I cannot get otherwise, many won't hesitate. But just to fill up an energy bar or get new armor in an otherwise free game - meh.
the web introduced the notion that every content shall be free - ad-free, cost free. right now, mobile is entering this phase. Once it's there, it will not leave. It's probably too late already.

Robert Green
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That's something I worry about a lot, though I'm not sure ad-free is necessarily an expectation, even if people are still inclined to complain about it.
We've seen similar shifts thanks to the internet, such that most people can't imagine paying for a newspaper any more and the apparently the music industry just had its first increase in revenue (if only by 0.3%) since 1999, the year Napster was released, though the f2p model in that case wasn't legal.

It remains to be seen if we can return from free. There is reason to be hopeful though - part of the problem in the early years of the app store was that there was really a small difference between what a few amateurs could do vs. what a professional studio could do. The more powerful our phones and tablets become, the more the professional teams will stand out from the hobbyists again, and hopefully that difference will encourage a notion of "quality is worth paying for" which still convinces people to go to the movies when they could be at home on youtube. Also, there's a very real possibility that with the rapid expansion of the player base and the increasing trend of the ur-game, that within the next few years you'll see a large number of these new consumers start to drop out of the market, just like they did with the eye-toy, the wii, plastic instrument games, and probably any other trend which quickly pulled in large numbers of new users. If that happens, and you're left with a higher proportion of core gamers, then you're back in a market that's more tuned to recognise and value quality.

Of course I may be pulling all of this from you-know-where. Time will tell.

Phil Maxey
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@Robert

I think you're wrong about the users dropping away, because people are playing these games on devices which have other uses other than the games, such as a phone or a basic computer. I think tablets will become even bigger than they already are. I read a article recently where it was said that tablets will replace all other Apple products as the most important device for them, selling more then phones etc. Tablets open the possibility of more hardcore gaming and with that hardcore gamers who are willing perhaps to pay more.

Having said that to me F2P doesn't mean a game makes no money, it simply means the player doesn't have to pay to download, and to me that's all it means. Once they have downloaded then there can be a number of different methods which earn the developers revenue. IAP's are actually a much more difficult method to earn revenue because they need to be well integrated into the actual gameplay for that revenue model to work, otherwise it just looks like a scam to the players and will have a negative effect.

Robert Green
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I'll address your second point first, since the first one will follow on from that.

No, f2p doesn't mean no money, but it does mean no money upfront, and preferably no money being mandatory for progress at any point. The problem is that not every game works in a f2p model, but that doesn't mean that the ones that don't work can survive being paid in a market that's conditioned to not pay anything upfront (and usually not pay anything at all). Ideally the types of games which work well as f2p would be f2p and other types of games would be a single upfront fee and others might be subscription-based, etc. But in practice.... take a look at the top-grossing charts in the iTunes store. Once there is an expectation of free, everything else has an uphill battle ahead of it.

And while you may well say that there are "a number of different methods which earn the developers revenue", take a closer look at that top-grossing list, specifically the names of the IAP's. What you'll likely notice is that in most of the top-grossing games, the IAP's are basically synonyms of the same thing - a quantity of virtual currency. While these games may have a variety of different gameplay mechanics, they often have large similarities. With the exception of gambling games (which run contrary to your claim about things which look like a scam), they all have a lot of things in common, which is necessary if the only business model that can succeed at that level is selling virtual currency.

Which brings me back to your first point - consumers won't be dropping out of playing games on those devices because they'll stop using those devices. The market for smartphones and tablets is still increasing, and may do so for many years to come. But just like everyone has a PC, but most people are not PC gamers, there's at least the possibility that ultimately most people will have smartphones and tablets, but not play games on them. What would lead to such a drop-off? In my opinion, lack of diversity in games, which is what I was hinting at earlier. Just like people got bored of eye-toy games, plastic instrument games and wii mini-game collections, any gaming platform based on a restrictive set of game types is likely to cause burnout. These consumers may notice that every game is based on levelling up, completing microgoals, inviting facebook friends, customising your appearance, etc., but most importantly on ultimately being encouraged to spend money on virtual currency through systems that force waiting or grinding. I believe a single gamer can only experience these things for so long before they'll stop caring, much like people could only be funnelled from one ZyngaVille game to the next for so long before they think "This again?" and the market for facebook social games started trending down.

Does that make sense?

Phil Maxey
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@Robert

It makes sense but I think that boils down to peoples perception of F2P, or how different groups perceive it. There's some other very good articles on here right now which go into the generational divide between older players who grew up with one payment model and who usually dislike F2P and younger players who find the concept of paying up front odd.

I think what you are essentially talking about is good and bad implementations of F2P/IAP's, and from that good/bad games. Players are willing to pay as they play, I think the top iTunes charts show that, but I agree there definitely is room for different types of games using that revenue model. Also I think the difficultly you are referring to has more to do with the platforms themselves rather than the revenue models. It's very hard for games without huge marketing budgets to get to the tops of these charts simple because the games that are up there are probably spending a lot on advertising to stay up there.

Going forward these platforms, these games types these revenue models will evolve. I don't think where we are at now is where we will be in 10 years time. But I do think that F2P or whatever flavour of it will be the dominant revenue model for games by then.

Robert Green
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@Phil "Players are willing to pay as they play, I think the top iTunes charts show that, but I agree there definitely is room for different types of games using that revenue model."

It's a nice thought, but my concern is that there isn't room for anything else. It's all good and well to talk about good and bad implementations of F2P, but if the market is rewarding the bad ones, then what's the incentive for people to find good ones? Wouldn't that be like encouraging casino's to create new games where the house doesn't always win?

EDIT: Took a little time to think this over, and I think I got distracted from the point I was trying to make, which is that regardless of how good or bad the monetisation in a game is, at some point you find yourself playing through a game just to earn enough virtual coins to buy something that will help your character continue earning more virtual coins, and you realise that it feels like work, and that this keeps happening in every game. The app store is full of games with relatively simple game mechanics, with the same meta-game structure designed to keep you playing what could have been an arcade game for 10 hours, and at some point people may think it's a waste of their time, and in looking for something of a higher quality they may leave the market altogether.

George Karagioules
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I think that generally the online market has reached it's peak at least for a few years. IOs, Android, Steam etc...i mean the competition is so huge that even the good ones struggle to make it. Personally, i am talking from the perspective of a music composer-audio guy, i am mostly a musician and i have only worked on a sound design indie game. What i see, at least in the music-audio business is that Internet, as the new age ''Behemoth'' actually diminished a lot the chances for new-comers musicians, developers etc to even get noticed. It's easier than ever for an indie team to sink it's hooks, very quickly.

Now, i am not trying to blame the internet for this. Internet has been a revolution and it definitely has changed our lives in many aspects. All those online stores mentioned above rely on the internet 100% and it's them really who have promoted the F2P and not only. I can hardly imagine nowadays consumers googling for a payed software, we all end up looking for the cheapest-totally free solution and in the end of the day we end up spending more time looking for the cheap one rather than working productively.

Internet users take it for granted that everything should be for free and if not free then maybe it could be found on a torrent. There's a whole ideology behind that, and that is that there is a team, a bunch of guys who have worked hard to develop something and they need to be payed or at least get noticed (if their work is worth it). From my personal experience, consumers don't know that, and if they do they just ignore it.

The internet and all it's products such as the IOS, Android etc, etc are very entertaining no complain, i am just having the feeling that consumers globally are not totally ready to accept those radical changes happening to the online world. F2P is one of those changes and it's good but it just lead people to overconsuming. It's like swallowing without chewing first.

Harsh Singh
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I believe rather than looking from monetization angle, small developers or starting indie developer (like me) should be focusing gameplay rather than monetization. Being a start its important to understand what gamers wants to play. So our initial focus should be on gameplay and not money. As such market is already flooded with lots of F2P & paid games. We can still make decent money out of F2P model by in-app ads but once we crack gamers needs, I believe everything will fall in right place. Correct me if that's not best of the approach.


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