The freemium model is here to stay, exploding across the Flash-based web, social gaming and, in recent years, mobile gaming.
2010's top-grossing free game on the App Store was The Playforge's Zombie Farm
, and company CEO Vince McDonnell says that victory wasn't down to any kind of metrics-savvy or in-game economy wizardry -- he just made the kind of game he'd want to play and pay for.
McDonnell and his wife designed Zombie Farm
on their own -- The Playforge as a studio was only built to scale at the beginning of this year, he tells Gamasutra.
was the first game I had created on my own for mobile. Prior to that, I worked at a console gaming company," he said. "I transitioned to doing mobile games because the market looked very attractive, and I was looking for something new to do."
Creating a free-to-play game that monetized on microtransactions just seemed to make sense to McDonnell, he says, a matter of intuition rather than a business decision. He himself had been shifting his time from intensive retail gaming experiences to quick sessions on Facebook. "If you look at Facebook games, all of those are free, so why couldn't games be free elsewhere?"
At the time McDonnell began work on Zombie Life
, Apple had just made in-app purchases possible. "Prior to making the game, I did have a productivity app, and I think most people were in the same boat as me in that they had a paid app on the App Store, and in-app purchases seemed like a way for their Lite versions to transition into paid much easier."
"I thought, why not just make it completely free, and use in-app purchases... to monetize a free app that will get lots of exposure for [being free]?" he says.
McDonnell combined what was at the time an unusual business model on the App Store with a pretty overt recipe for popularity: zombies plus farm sims, a mix of two popular trends audiences would grasp immediately. It uses some of the design conventions of farm games, except players are growing zombie armies that they can upgrade, tailor, care for and lead in invasions against game levels.
McDonnell says he had to release the game in something of a bare bones condition due to budget constraints, and then began to upgrade and add features as money and time allowed. Turns out that frequent-update schedule is as key to success in freemium iOS games as it is on other platforms.
"In the free category, it was the app that made the most money," says McDonnell. The game saw more than 20 million downloads and was the top grosser for 18 months. "A lot of companies saw that, and identified that as the bringer of the trend that's as prevalent as it is. We were able to create a company that is self-funded by the profits of Zombie Farm
alone, which continues to be profitable today."
In recent months, the new studio made the difficult decision to start working on its second project: Zombie Life
, which just launched a week ago. The game continues to play with zombies, but places them in a map-based life simulation that tasks them with working to find happiness and avoid decaying so as to blend in with the world of the living.
"That was a very tough thing to start," says McDonnell. "We needed to scale a team that could provide the frequent updates that Zombie Farm
needed, as well as separate resources to go off and create something new and continue success. So that was a big challenge for us... we actually started development [of Zombie Life
] only around June or July, so that's a big gap from when we actually started planning on making the game, which was December."
The Playforge has a staff of around 25 people, about four of which worked solely on Zombie Life
and completed it in four months. The game is not as easily recognizable as Zombie Farm
, which McDonnell says makes it all the more impressive that over it reached number one on the App Store on Saturday morning, within 60 hours of its launch.
"It's a different landscape now than it was before," McDonnell admits of the freemium space on the App Store. "But if I go back to how I felt then, my advice to developers is... just to do the games you believe in. Put yourself in the shoes of a player, and create the games you would really play."