The “chicken or egg” dilemma of the second decade of the 21st century is most definitely “free or paid apps”. Only it took us just a few years to crack this one. The deciding factor is always revenue – can a free app support itself and its creators? The answer is simple – yes. Not only that, but free apps dominate paid apps in every aspect. In the list of 20 top grossing games for Android, they’re all free to play, with in-app purchases available.
The general conclusion is that you should (in most cases, anyway) go for creating freemium games (free to download, with in-app purchases), as much as you can. But what do you do when you already have a fully built, completed game, selling on an app store?
Especially if the game isn’t selling as well as you’d want it to, you probably considered (in multiple occasions) switching to the free-to-play model. However, doing that transition is like a game of Jenga – one wrong move and you might end up scraping up the pieces of your work from the floor.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it – it just means you need to be extra careful and plan all your steps ahead, to make sure the transition is smooth and no one ends up feeling played. No pun intended. In this article we’ll break down some of the main issues of the paid-to-F2P model, and show a few general tips you should consider if you’re thinking about crossing that road.
Problem #1: Redesigning to fit the free-to-play model
Simply stripping the game of its price tag won’t suffice – you’ll have to do a lot more. Not only will you have to implement ads to make sure the game pays its upkeep – you’ll also need to work on creating an in-game currency and most likely pay a large client refactoring penalty to enable server-authoritative driven data.
A free-to-play game features many elements often overlooked when you’re creating a paid game. The core game loop must be tied to real-world consumer habits. Each level or session should include innate forms for earning resources and spending them regularly as part of the game progression.
The game design should introduce stress points and barriers that can only be surmounted with sufficient virtual resources collected and spent. On top of that, F2P games usually include an authoritative server to manage aspects such as cross-device synchronization, social leaderboards, global leaderboards, balance backup or messaging campaigns.
Sometimes redesigning a game to fit the F2P shoes might prove more expensive than creating a new one from scratch. This requires careful consideration.
Problem #2: User loyalty and free mobile games
This one is a no-brainer, really. Only a tiny portion of people who download a free-to-play game will stick around for longer than a week. Heck, some will move on after only a few hours. With paid games that’s somewhat different, as people who pay for things often feel they’re at a loss, and will play through it, at least for the sake of “returning the investment”.
Problem #3: Payers and F2P players don’t often mix in mobile games
You will need to also think about how to keep the old, paying players still with the game, and how to make sure the new ones stay around for much longer than they originally intended. Not only that, but you also need to keep in mind that payers, and those who’d rather opt for a F2P title, behave differently in-game.
There are many strategies which you can use to successfully transfer your game to a free-to-play model without too much hassle, and this is by no means a tutorial, or the only useful example. The truth is, your strategy will always depend on multiple factors I can’t know from this perspective: what kind of games you’re creating, how many players you have, what’s the demographic of your audience, etc.
Here we can only focus on the basics, the things which will most likely work in any occasion. Consider it a general outline of a strategy you need to create.
Don’t forget to communicate
Your first priority must be to communicate with your players. Explain your decision to move from a paid to a free-to-play model, and make sure you explain how they will benefit from it. Communication must be frequent, detailed and informal, while focusing on the players who paid for the premium version. Placing yourself on the same level as your players and bringing a “human” element to the conversation will help you ease the transformation. Use all marketing resources at hand here:
- Email: send personalized messages to all users you can contact via email, which is still considered the best marketing channel
- Use in-game messaging and push notifications to inform your users of the transition
- Announce the change on your blog and website
- Start discussions in your forum to involve your community of dedicated players
Premium users must see a benefit
If your paid users don’t see the benefit from the game switching to a F2P model, it just might backfire on you. You could see the overall rating on the app store plummet, and your page might get flooded with bad reviews, which could seriously damage your reputation and hurt your business. People don’t want to think about “why did I have to pay if he can play for free?”, so make sure the paying players get some sort of compensation.
One of the ways you can do it is to award those players with an equivalent in the future in-game currency. This basically means you should redesign your game to feature in-app purchases, subscriptions and ads. For advertising, rewarded video ads have proven to be a winning approach. Giving boosts, power-ups and whatever it is that you planned on selling as IAP to players who’d paid for the game could calm the imminent storm down. Planning this ahead with analytics platforms that help segment your different users will prove useful to implement this strategy.
Another thing you should also consider is not to show ads to users who already paid for the game. This somewhat complements the idea to award the players with in-game currency, as that currency can often be used to disable ads. However, paying users don’t seem to care much if they’re shown video ads, as long as they’re shown in the right time and in the right place. Even paying users are being receptive to them, as long as they’re awarded afterwards.
“I also really like having ad-funded options like watching a video to earn extra currency, as that gives me an opportunity to improve my playing experience without always having to open up my wallet,” says Gamasutra’s Rob Weber. “In fact, I often find that the ad-funded options to earn currency enhance my gameplay, as I can advance in the game more quickly than I otherwise could, which generally causes me to purchase items more frequently than I typically would. Rewarding me for my attention is a positive bonus that I welcome that makes me feel good about paying because I don’t feel forced to pay to play.”
Just hitting the “FREE” button and completely wiping off the paid game model is not something I’d recommend. Instead, you should try and transition slowly, through a prolonged period of time (think three to six months), where the prices will be slowly reduced, while doing free promos and introducing F2P players to the game. By the time you get closer to the free model, you’ll have a significant majority who’s already used to it.
Notable examples of games that successfully switched
Gameloft’s racer is one of the examples how to do things properly. The slow transition from premium to freemium ensured the game would not lose its original, paying users, and keep the new ones coming, as well. The game, first launched back in August 2013, cost $0.99, but was available for free, in certain occasions. One of such occasions was a limited-time special offer in September, and afterwards it was offered as The Free App of the Week in the App Store.
After that, the game turned completely free – but only after Gameloft released the first content upgrade for it. So not only did it transition slowly, but it also used the expansion as an opportunity to push the new approach through.
Another notable example is the EA/BioWare MMO. It too, took its time and transitioned slowly. As we can see from this example, in July 2012 Polygon announced the game will transition to F2P in November. Even then, in early July, the game already offered the first 15 levels for free.
The game’s developers also increased the frequency of content updates in the transitioning period, offering paying users more value through special in-game items.
This game has seen a significant jump in IAP and revenue after transitioning to the F2P model, but it took its time to get there. The game gradually decreased its price, while at the same time adding new content and doing free promos.
There are many things you can improve in your paid mobile game, if it isn’t performing well. That being said, switching to a free-to-play model might not be the easiest, simplest or fastest solution, but it is one that has the biggest potential of turning the tides in your favour.
You will have to examine your game in great detail, and forge a powerful strategy before you start transitioning into F2P. Brace yourself for some important overhauling, a lot of communication and a few unsatisfied customers.
The paidmium model (also known as Paymium) combines the paying model with in-app purchases. It is still not mainstream and is considered a fairly bold, emerging strategy. It is usually used to unlock a special in-game feature, or to include a subscription model where your players pay for extra content. Just make sure you don’t force your players to pay in order to progress through the game, as that will most likely make them quite unsatisfied.
Food for thought bonus: Do you keep two versions in the shop or not?
Here’s something you could also think about: having both games in the app store, but in a way that they complement each other. The general idea about having two games is to offer the free one to everyone, and then upsell the paid one to high-engagement players.
Let us know what you think the best strategy is in the comments below.