Mobile Mavens

Are paid apps dead or is there still life in premium mobile games for indies?

Are paid apps dead or is there still life in premium mobile games for indies?

The mobile market is a tough one to crack, no matter how you tackle it.

And while it's true that there have been a number of high-profile, profitable premium games, like Monument Valley and Square Enix's GO series, free-to-play titles look to be the way to go if you want to make money.

Especially given recent accusations that paid apps are dead.

But we wanted to know what our Indie Mavens, who have experience releasing both types of games, thought about the matter.

So we asked:

  • Do you think paid games really are dead, or is there still life in the premium model for indies?


Aaron Fothergill Co-founder Strange Flavour

To be honest here, I’m uncertain.

We’ve got history in both premium and F2P with our apps, but it’s pretty much a random market now and there’s a ton of factors.

For starters, if we had the 235th top grossing app with a premium app I’d be over the moon. With our two-man team, that means we’d pretty much be set for life with the current values.

In the past I’ve had a top 10 grossing app (where we had a decent % cut from our publisher), but that was back in the old days (pre-F2P) of the App Store when that was OK money but didn’t set you up for life.

All it would take would be one minor hit and we’d be funded for another year.
Aaron Fothergill

The reality is, even a top 10000 top grossing chart place is pushing it unless you get everything right and get lucky. That applies to F2P too though, and that involves even more investment to get money out of people.

About a year or so ago, we realised that our series of F2P games just weren’t bringing in anything like what we needed to survive on.

We had decent enough downloads, but just weren’t getting any sort of revenue from them, and were sacrificing too much in game design in the process.

So we switched to a premium only model for our next set of games, which was kind of back to our roots. It’s bringing in slightly more money than F2P did, but still not enough.

The App Store and the gamer demographic has changed a ton over the last five years, so there’s now a much bigger challenge in getting enough players that want your game and want to pay for it. Visibility amongst all the other apps being the biggest issue.

Then again, all it would take would be one minor hit and we’d be funded for another year, which is the benefit of a small team.

We’re about to try our first F2P game in a while as our next one though. Essentially switching our gamble from "Put it all on 00" to "Put it all on black".

Kepa Auwae Business / Design RocketCat Games

I've heard from everyone else making paid games that paid isn't worth it anymore.

However, my $7 game Wayward Souls still seems to be doing very well in the long tail.

I haven't launched a new game in a while... I guess I'll see how things are for paid pretty soon when I launch Death Road to Canada for iOS. Ask me then!

Pavel Ahafonau Co-founder Happymagenta

The conversion from App Store impressions into downloads is around 2% for free apps/games and is around 0.2% for paid apps/games.

This means that with all the same promotion and traffic factors taken into account you will get at least around 10x more users for a free game.

A simple non-sustainable and not-promoted for a long time free game with ad monetization should earn at least $0.20 ARPU, and a sustainable, promoted over at least 30-180 days game should earn $.40-.50+ ARPU.

Deeper games with more content and monetization shifted more to IAP should show even better ARPU. If your free game earns less, then it means you are doing something wrong.

With a proper approach and well thought-out monetization, a free game can earn you a way more than a $6-$10 paid game.
Pavel Ahafonau

Taking into account the free games viral k-factor that varies from 5x to 1x over time from the initial launch, you can afford keeping a free game up for a long term by acquiring users for $1.20-$1.50 each and stay profitable.

However, it requires you to have an access to a few $M initial ad spend budget, as volumes are required for better rates, and thus the income/profit.

All the above matters in case you want to run a sustainable model.

With a paid mobile game there is no chance to run a sustainable long term model unless it costs over $50, which remains questionable as the conversion drops the higher the price is.

If you do not promote your game and only count on free traffic, like from a publisher with a huge IP portfolio or a platform, or like from being featured on the app store, then your paid game will get 10-20-30x less users.

This means that to earn you the same money, it needs to be priced in-between $6-$10, and you need to be lucky to get featured, or to get a good deal with a good publisher (are those left at all?).

Otherwise, a paid game stands no chance to return the ad spend and your release will fail, unless you've spend almost nothing on production.

And, with a proper approach and well thought-out monetization, a free game can earn you a way more than a $6-$10 paid game.

Leanne Bayley Developer We Heart Dragons

Having released a game on mobile using a shareware model (free to play to level five, then a single IAP for the rest of the game) and a premium title, I can say for us - for the Glyph Quest games - yes, premium is dead.

Glyph Quest has done 250k+ in downloads, with conversion averaging out at 14%.

People have reviewed our games with one star for being free with IAP, even though there is literally just one.
Leanne Bayley

Our follow up title, Super Glyph Quest, has done 8k downloads to date, and at one point we were the top grossing RPG on iOS.

There seems to be a real resistance to premium apps when there is now just so much available for free, even if you may end up spending more than the ticket price in IAP during your time with a free app than if you had opted for the premium equivalent.

We are big fans of shareware. Honestly, it seems the best and fairest way to monetise in a time where people are unlikely to buy an app outright and are worried about F2P games designed to rip them off with never ending IAPs.

We just need the language to exist on iOS, as people have reviewed our games with one star for being free with IAP, even though there is literally just one, and it's like $1.99.

They can try before they buy, just like having a Lite version already rolled in.

Glyph Quest Chronicles will be F2P. There will be a vocal few who feel we're trying to rip them off and a few who will feel we've 'sold out', but we've tried premium at a time where the market was saying that's what it wanted, and it was almost the end of us.

That said, if you are making games for children on mobile, it had better be premium with no ads, or hidden behind parent wall ads!

Pierre-Luc Vettier CEO Zero Games Studios

I think there's a real paid apps market, and some players are ready to spend money on paid apps.

The problem comes from many devs, who think they have to sell their paid apps cheap to feel like they can nearly compete with free apps, and then don't succeed in making their games profitable.

I think it's a big mistake. If your game is really good, and you know your audience is relatively small but ready to spend money in your game, there's no shame in selling it for six, seven or eight dollars (or even more!).

It's just a question of strategy.

Ben Murch Co-Founder Perchang

So let's just get this fallacy out of the way early on. The paid app market is most certainly not dead. There are still millions and millions of players out there who are willing and able to spend money on games... and they do!

I recently launched Perchang with a friend of mine. Priced at £1.49 / $1.99, it has sold crazily well and fully funded our next title (with extra employees) already!

Before we started development, we had a game idea in mind, but also an audience-type in mind. That's something a lot of devs don't take into account.

Coming up with an idea is only half the equation, you also need to think about who's going to be playing. Once you know players are out there who want your product, then you can absolutely charge them an entry fee.

Pierre-Luc said it best, "it's just a question of strategy."

Matthew Annal MD Nitrome

When you're asking 'is the paid market dead?', you're really asking 'can a developer make money in the paid market?'
Mat Annal

I'm torn on this one.

I want to say paid apps aren't dead and cite examples like Monument Valley, Wayward Souls, and Perchang, but I feel doing so would be hypocritical, as we at Nitrome have not made a premium game in a long time.

It would be more appealing to be able to make a game and not have to consider the freemium hooks, so if it were viable I feel we would still be doing it, but we consider the market too big of a risk.

I think when you're asking "is the paid market dead?", you're really asking "can a developer make money in the paid market?".

They can, but in my humble opinion it is a huge risk, and not one worth taking when the chance of making a return on a free title is far better.

Sebastian Lindén CEO & Creative Director Qaos Games

Not dead, but definitely not as popular as it was a few years ago.

Great premium game makers have transitioned into F2P, with the development of ad networks and other new revenue streams.

Still, I think it is a matter of monetization strategy.

With strong branding and premium content to a niche group of players (five-eight year old kids for example where parents buy the game), ad networks or in-app purchases is not an alternative, and paid games could be a good idea. Just look at Toca Boca.

However, with a great casual game and monetization strategy, I would definitely choose to make a free game over a premium game, much because it would lower risk make the game more profitable.

Henrik Johansson Designer and artist Mediocre

I think there's still a market for premium mobile games, but it definitely doesn't suit every type of game.

I think it seems to work best for content rich, story driven games, or at least those with great atmosphere and high quality visuals and sound.

The typical mechanic-driven "casual" game, on the other hand, seems like a poor fit these days, and the players who'd normally be into that type of game don't seem to be that interested in paying for games.

I think it's great that prices have gone up slightly the last couple of years.
Henrik Johansson

Perhaps they're just looking for a quick distraction rather than something that could be an emotional investment. I think that makes sense. Would you have paid to play Flappy Bird? There is a large grey area for sure.

I agree that a shareware style model can work for mobile games, but it is good to not completely lock out players who can't (or just won't) pay for the full game, and a content paywall might scare people off or lower ratings significantly.

Our solution was to offer checkpoints (or save games) as a single purchase, and that has worked really well for us. People seem to get it and agree that it's a fair deal.

In a sense I feel that we are still doing premium games, but more generous than that since we do not show any ads at all and there are no consumables, there is only that single in app purchase that can only be made once. This solution doesn't fit every type of game either though.

I think there is a lot of room for improvement on the app stores, mainly in terms of discovery and recommendations.

But I'm optimistic regarding premium. I think there are a lot of people who want it to work - I certainly do, and Apple seems to want that too (in the light of promotions they've done in the recent past).

I think it's great that prices have gone up slightly the last couple of years as well, now that all of the devs that contributed to the "race to the bottom" have turned to freemium entirely.

Deputy Editor

Ric has written for for as long as he can remember, and is now Deputy Editor. He likes trains.


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