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Paid vs. free-to-play: Advice from notable mobile studios

At the start of 2012, a selection of notable mobile developers gave UK editor Mike Rose advice on which business model would best suit his mobile game. This week, each of these devs revisits their original advice.

Mike Rose, Blogger

April 26, 2013

11 Min Read

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'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.


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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