On the front of mobile battle royal, mobile declinations of the PC pioneers were thought to be unrivaled. But mobile only Free Fire, from Singapore company Garena has shaken up the market and is now dominant in both South America and South East Asia. In many countries, Free Fire is not only first in its genre, but is also at the top of the mobile revenue chart. The game ranks number one in Brazil with 36 million dollars in 2018, and number 2 in Thailand with more than 8 million that same year according Sensor Tower. Gameindustry.biz also revealed that the game new installs increased by 81% every year since its release, making it the most downloaded mobile battle royal (excluding China). There is a lot to learn from the success of Free Fire on a game design and monetization standpoint. Free Fire can also set a great example for western game companies on how to adapt and localize to high potential developing markets. Here I want to share a short analysis on what I think are the reasons for the game’s success, starting with its edge on optimization (1); how it adapts the battle royal formula to casual gamers (2); its monetization strategy (3); and the way it handles operations (4).
A Strong Optimization
The reach the game market of developing countries, Garena worked hard on making sure Free Fire ran smoothly on low end devices. According to Device Atlas, in Mexico and Brazil, the most popular device for 2019 Q2 were the iphone 7 and the Samsung Galaxy J2. The latter, released in 2016, offers a performance of 1.5 GB of RAM and has an internal memory that goes from 8 to 16GB. It's fair to say that most Battle Royal games don't run so smoothly on this kind of device. PUBG mobile and the recently released Call of Duty Mobile requires at least 2GB of RAM and require more than 1.5 GB of storage, while Fortnite requires at least 3GB of RAM. Other slightly less demanding competitors like Knives Out and Rules of Survival need at least 2GB to get installed.
Meanwhile Free Fire takes about 900MB of storage on Android (store size) and can be played with only 1GB of RAM, making it an ideal choice for devices with low performance. But smaller size goes with less content. The game’s two maps are small, less detailed and diverse compared to its competitors. However, the resolution effectively adapts to a wide variety of devices. On a 1GB RAM phone, shadows and most light effects are either absent or less visible, the map generates at a slower pace, and the environment looks very pixelated. But the core gameplay elements of the game are only marginally impacted. Shooting, running, and jumping works on both high and low end phones.
Free Fire's lobby on 1GB and 3GB RAM devices
Players can also edit the performance of the game in the settings. They can change the graphics, the framerate and whether or not there is shadow.
A casual spin
Free Fire managed to resonate with casual mobile players by renewing the Battle Royal recipe. The first thing the game does is drastically reducing the number of contestants landing on the island from 100 to 50. Games are therefore much shorter: the average time you need to end in first place is about 10 minutes in Free Fire, instead of 20 minutes for PUBG mobile. Free Fire’s two maps are also faster to traverse and have lower number of locations. Other gameplay mechanics contribute in keeping the pace fast. Several times during a game, a drone will fly over the map, revealing the position of players it crosses on the radar. Also, buildings do not have any doors or windows, making them less suitable for slow, hide-and-seek games. Finally, in a recent update, the game features “high loot area” marked on the radar, encouraging even more early game killings.
Free Fire also greatly lowered the skill threshold necessary to start playing and enjoying the game. Just like other mobile shooters, many players landing on the island are actually bots, especially during the early games. Easy kills against NPCs help to boost the player’s confidence and overall retention. Also, similar to PUBG mobile, player’s position is revealed on the radar when they start shooting. There is no icon appearing when an enemy is moving nearby, but the sound of the player’s pace is loud, making them easily spottable at a distance.
But the mechanic that really sets it apart from other mobile BR is the heavy reliance on aim assist. Aim assist is nothing new in shooting games, and you can even find it in Call of Duty mobile. But Free Fire pushes it to another level with the aim literally following the players as they run away from you. The aim will automatically lock on the enemy to lower your chance of you missing him. Also when you zoom in with your gun, the aim will turn red when an opponent is on your line of fire, which helps to know when to take the shot. This is partially balanced by a relatively fast jump with little cooldown time, which can allow skilled players to dodge the shots. But overall, Free Fire is very welcoming game for mobile players and people who have never played shooters.
Aim turns red when enemy is on line of fire
A hardcore monetization
At first sight, Free Fire has a very classic monetization scheme. First there is an elite pass that gets renewed every season. The player gets rewards by playing, and unlocks extra rewards by buying the elite pass. There is also a store where player may use “gems” bought against real currency to directly buy skins. Many weekly events are also present to encourage retention and player spending.
The game also has a casino feature to get store items through luck draws. This feature is put out quite bluntly in the Luck Royale menu. In Luck Royale you will find 3D boxes that clearly look like slot machines, with “megaluck” in fluorescent color on top of them. Each has a different currency you can use, whether it's in game “gold currency”, diamonds that you need to purchase or event tickets. The slot machine gives you an estimation of your chance to get an epic item, each new draw increasing your chances of getting better loot. This feature is quite popular among Free Fire youtubers, who post videos about their draws.
What makes the game stand out is its light RPG system. In Free Fire you start the game with a generic character. Once you are familiar with the base mechanics of the game, you will find that there is a set of 20 characters, each with one unique and easy to understand ability. One of them deals more damage at low PH, another one has increased accuracy etc. To this day, 10 characters are unlockable with ingame “gold” that you can grind, all the others need to be bought with real currency. Each character can have his ability upgraded to level 6. You can upgrade it by playing lots of games or straight out pay up to speed the process. In addition, the player may add two abilities from other characters to his own, which requires a lot of extra grinding and real currency to open the two other ability slots.
Free Fire monetizes character ability upgrades
Aside from the characters, two other elements have real gameplay effects. In the store and in loot boxes, players may acquire gun skins. These skins value is not only cosmetic, they also change the stats of the corresponding gun on the island, from accuracy, damage, to rate of fire, giving their owner a significant advantage. Also, players can acquire equipment that will help them during the game. You can bring a bonfire that refills HP, summon airdrop an equipment crate, get a map that notifies you where the resupply locations are on the map… You can get some of them with ingame currency, win them during battle or buy them with real currency. The key point is that overall when stacked up, these elements can have a real impact on the gameplay. Free Fire thus breaks the myth of players landing on an island equally “naked”, where skill is the main factor for survival. Paying players may have a significant advantage over non paying ones. And this did not stop the game from being successful.
Free Fire roll out of new content and events is fast and localized. Each season lasts between one to two months but new skins and sometimes characters are added to the store on a weekly basis. Two things are worth noting on the skins. First, they strive to match the preferences of major countries in South America and South East Asia. There were specific skins and events for the Brazilian Carnaval back in March, events related to the Mexican Day of the Dead back in November of last year, one of the main playable characters is the Monkey King, a Chinese figure quite popular in South East Asia... To promote its content, Free Fire does not only have seperated Facebook and Twitter accounts for each country but also specific Youtube accounts (one for Brazil, rest of LATAM, India, Indonesia etc.). Each country follows its own marketing strategy, with specific influencers and events.
Second, the mainline store content takes heavy inspiration from mainstream pop culture. Most of the cast of characters will probably look quite familiar for most players: the character Andrew looks similar to John Wick, Rafael looks like Agent 47 from Hitman, cloth skins may look like the Joker, or Fallout etc. Overall, Free Fire has no main theme, and its content and events can take inspiration from popular culture from all sides, whether it's anime or live action movies.
Finally, a noteworthy element of Free Fire strategy is esport competition. Mobile esport is not a big thing in the west. Only a few titles, notably Hearthstone and Supercell games have managed to create meaningful competitive events. In this field, Garena has been a major actor, organizing big events across South East Asia for games such as Tencent moba mega-hit Arena of Valor and FIFA Online. But first, Garena has organized several local events in countries where Free Fire had a big following. In Brazil, there is yearly competition called Free Fire Pro League, in which any team can participate. This year the final took place as an offline event in Sao Paulo, the Youtube video has a total of 13 million views to this day. The best team competed at the world championship in Bangkok for the Garena world championship to win a 100k dollar prize pool. According to esports chart, the Free Fire event set a record with a total of 1.7 million concurrent viewers on Youtube (against 174000 for the PUBG mobile 2018 event). The appeal around these competitions were supported with the help of many local influencers and youtubers, as well as free fire ingame events and social media promotion. And indeed, the point of these world competition seems first and foremost to build local communities around the game.
Winners of the 2019 Free Fire World Cup
To sum up
- Free Fire has a competitive edge in South America and South East Asia thanks to a game optimized for low end device and a gameplay adjusted to casual mobile players
- The game is successfully monetized thanks to a fast roll out of cosmetic content but also because of its light RPG progression system, where upgrading your character(s) has actual gameplay effects
- Garena has managed to build local communities around its game by promoting localized content and events, and by organizing regional eSports competitions