The other day I was looking through some stats on most successful mobile games, and noticed that of the top 100 highest grossing iOS games, 97 are being offered for free.
It gets even scarier when you look at the actual numbers stating how much these games are actually earning. Clash of Clans, a game that has been on top for quite some time now is earning more than $1.5 million a day, and that’s only on iOS. Another studio producing high grossing games, King, with their Candy Crush/Candy Crush Saga/Farm Heroes Saga is earning almost $2.5 million a day with all of these combined.
How is that possible you ask? The freemium business model. It basically means that the core product is offered to you for free and you only need to pay if you want to use its premium features. Freemium isn’t anything new and it’s been around for quite a while. You’ve probably experienced it with products like Dropbox, Skype or Spotify. However, it’s only been in the past few years that freemium has become really big in the game industry as well. Some games allow you to buy different skins and cosmetic items for your characters, others demand you to pay for items that you wouldn’t be able to get otherwise, thus making you pay real money in order to win.
People started boycotting the pay-to-win model and studios have now settled on a model that allows you to buy in-game currency which you could also get by just playing the game. Many games do this very well. For instance League of Legends and Blizzard’s Hearthstone are very successful and widely popular freemium games that I myself really enjoy playing. The main reason is that these games provide a very solid core gameplay without the need to pay.
There are also games that do take this a bit too far. For instance, in Asphalt 7 it would cost you $3500 in order to unlock everything. Rather than making you pay to finish the game, most freemium mobile games simply make you wait. In Clash of Clans for example, you start building your village and as you progress through the game, and as you get further, buildings and upgrades take longer to finish. At a later stage many take 10-14 days. You can of course speed this up by paying real money.
However, the main problem is that the whole game is designed around the monetisation model instead of just trying to make an exciting game for players to enjoy. These games use cheap psychological tricks in order to squeeze as much money out of people as possible, similar to the way that slot machines do. Some games take it so far that you spend hours playing, find a chest with a certain reward in it and then the game asks you to pay money in order to be able to open it because they know you really want the item inside and you feel like you really do deserve that reward.
Luckily, most people are not susceptible to these tricks and a huge majority of players never pay a single penny while playing freemium games. Recent research found that 50% of the revenue from freemum games is coming from only 0.15% of the players. Game studios refer to these players as ‘whales’. In some cases, these players could be spending over $1000 a month on these games, which could be just because they have lots of dough to spare, but it’s more likely that they have a serious addiction. Creators of South park even devoted a whole episode to freemium games, titled ‘Freemium isn’t free’. What worries me even more is that many once great and original titles have gone freemium with their new releases, namely Plants vs Zombies 2, Sonic Dash, Ultima Forever or most notably the new Dungeon Keeper.
The freemium model itself has been so successful that it’s hard to imagine it going away anytime soon. This once again punishes the small developers trying to create original games, because unless they have money to spend on marketing, their paid-for game has almost a zero chance of succeeding against thousands of well established ‘free to play’ freemium titles. There are exceptions, such as Monument Valley, Threes! or Terraria, but being an indie game developer, unless your game receives great media coverage or social media praise, it’s really hard to be found on the Apple Appstore or Google Play Store.
It would be great to see Google Play or Apple Appstore introduce something like the Steam Greenlight, thus helping indie developers stand a chance against the freemium giants such as King or Supercell. If not, then I’d like to see more original freemium games, that are just helping the studios earn the money to produce great game content and gaming experiences, rather than just centering the whole development process around maximizing the monetization. Here’s hoping.