Exclusive Content: The Value of Free; or What Rhymes with Freemium?
by Scott Rogers, author of Swipe This!
The saying goes "few things in life are free." There are exceptions like oxygen, rocks, and bonus content on Amazon.com; but looking at today's mobile gaming market, free is the rule, not the exception. There are currently 48,000 free games offered on iTunes but how can developers "sell" their game for free and still make a profit? Have they gone crazy? Nope, they're just using the freemium business model.
The term freemium comes from Free as in "this game is free to download" and Premium as in "if you want to keep playing, you will pay a premium fee." Called "shareware" back in 1993, Doom (Id software) pioneered the freemium concept in gaming. You could play the first level for free but had to pay to unlock the rest of the game - which makes the saying "the first taste is free" a closer analogy - a strategy usually reserved for selling ice cream and crack cocaine.
The model is this: The developer offers the game for free. If the player likes the game, they will spend real money on virtual currency which can be used to buy a variety of in-game features and goods - like virtual hats for virtual people. Freemium games are already proven winners for the developer, but can leave the player feeling financially abused - like when you buy virtual hats for virtual people. To prevent this buyer's remorse in your customers, you must carefully design your game. Try these concepts (not hats) on for size:
Customization: What's better than zooming around on a jetpack? Zooming around on a fruit-shooting jetpack! As a zombie! With Abe Lincoln's hat! The characters and costumes found in Jetpack Joyride (HalfBrick, 2011) and Temple Run (Imagi, 2011) or color palettes in Draw Something (OMGPop, 2012) don't change the player's core gameplay experience, but they do allow for self-expression. Don't flood your players with options or make the items insignificant (like a color swap) unless it means something to the player.
Durable goods: These items offer a clear long-term benefit to the player, but often at a higher price. But sometimes they're a bargain, like Jetpack Joyride's counterfeiting machine that makes the player feel like they are "outwitting the game" for only .99 cents. Cost and timing is the keys when introducing durable goods; a player is more likely to buy a capacity-expanding barn later in the game when they are producing more crops than they can store.
Payment gate: The free price attracts customers and then additional fees are required to unlock full features. This one is tricky; Justin Smith's Realistic Summer Sports Simulator (Justin Smith, 2012) received criticism from the gaming community when day-one buyers realized that ten of the game's fifteen events were playable only by paying an additional fee. Many developers offer "Lite" versions of their game - free but diminished experiences that, when completed, lead to payment gates.
Perishable goods: These come in many forms - turns, energy, food - but they all have one thing in common, if the player wants to continue playing, they will need more of these. Often a game will award an allotment of perishable goods on a daily basis, building tension around "how long can I play before I need to pay?" Offer your perishables in cost-effective bundles to create an appealing purchase proposition to the player.
Upgrades: Known as "power ups" these temporary abilities give players an edge for a short period of time. Coin magnets, limited invulnerability, distance boosters, and one-shot resurrections let the player maximize their score and performance. It's up to you to determine whether they get to keep the ability permanently or pay for each use. These can be tricky, as many games just give these away for free.
Speed ups: Found in simulations like Smurf's Village (Capcom, 2010) and Hay Day (Supercell, 2012) speed ups allow players to pay a fee to speed up a time-based action - like growing crops or building a structure. While the player can progress much faster in the game, it creates an abusive cycle of "pay to play" that can lead to players dropping out.
The Freemium model has drawn its fair share of criticism from both the developer and player communities. Some call Freemium games "unethical", "player extortion" and even "evil." Consumers claim to have been "deceived" into spending more money than they realize and younger players have racked up large bills without realizing they are doing so. Don't let your game contribute to Freemium's bad reputation. Follow three simple rules:
- Clearly advertise that your game has in-app purchase (IAP) features. Make sure the player knows what they are getting into before they start playing.
- Clearly differentiate in-game currency from real-world currency. Make the currencies distinctly different in color, shape and theme. For example, stars could be your in-game currency while coins represent real-world cash.
- Clearly mark payment gates with confirmation messages. A simple "Are you sure you want to buy this" pop-up message makes a player think twice and avoid an accidental purchase.
No matter which side of the Freemium model debate you fall on, the most important design rule is "be responsible."