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Developers, give complacency the kick and go freemium, urges PapayaMobile's Oscar Clark

How free releases are different by design

Developers, give complacency the kick and go freemium, urges PapayaMobile's Oscar Clark
Oscar Clark is an evangelist for PapayaMobile, one of the leading mobile games social networks.

A lot has been said on the importance of freemium from a business point of view, and there's very little debate left to be had on the subject.

Instead I think it's time we stood up and argued why we think this model will allow us to make better games.

Obviously, if we have no upfront cost to access a game we will attract a larger audience. However, these players are less loyal than premium players – and it's not just because the premium players already cared enough about a game to pay for it.

The transformative power

It's because something fundamental happens when people make a commitment to purchase.

We're actually more confident after spending money than we are during the purchasing process, and later on, we'll tend to emphasise the times when a purchase was the right decision while ignoring the times when we got it wrong.

This makes premium gamers much more accepting of problems, such as laborious tutorials or cumbersome mechanics. They have an incentive to not only get past the tutorial, but to keep playing until they have gained the maximum utility from their investment in the game.

I believe that all this makes premium design complacent. Freemium games don't have the same luxuries.

Instead we have to work harder to gain players' attention and keep it. I believe this creates a Darwinian process – survival of the most adaptable.

You need to understand your players and their lifecycles, and be nimble enough to adapt quickly based on what you learn. Okay, this includes more business speak, but bear with me.

The longest tail

All products start with the market introduction stage, which – if the product finds an audience – soon shifts to a growth stage. Eventually the growth slows and the product reaches a maturity stage, which may be extended with new variations on the theme.

If we're extremely lucky, our products end up being evergreen, but this is extremely rare. Generally we have to assume that we will face an inevitable decline, and if you've heard of the 'long tail' it's this stage that people are referring to.

At the market introduction stage are early adopters who have a high level of enthusiasm and will act as advocates if your product is a good one. They will also be less negatively affected by problems than the early majority group that follows during the growth stage.

The early majority are often the biggest spenders, although it's not until the late majority who join at the maturity stage that the product will have the largest audience and revenues.

Finally, as the product starts to decline, the remaining users are often called Laggards, who tend to be slowest to adopt technology and leave.

Chasmic girl

But there is always problem period between market introduction and growth where a lot of products fail, and we see the same in freemium games. The gap between these two stages is called 'the chasm'.

All players start at the discovering stage; finding the game and then installing it. By going free we have reduced the barriers that would prevent people playing; however, we still have to give these users a compelling reason about what we have to offer, build their trust and create anticipation.

Assuming this is successful and they install the game, players then enter the learning stage and we have to start by immediately grabbing their attention, setting their expectations of entertainment to come and cultivating aspirations of success.

Remember, the player has made no commitment to play at this point, and it's up to us to wow them if we're hoping to get a second date.

Moving players from the learning to earning stages is freemium game design's equivalent of the chasm. We don't want to move too early, or we risk losing the player, but we also don't want to leave it too late, or we will never monetise the audience.

So, we have to manage the user's first buying experience. The first goods they get should deliver delight and great value, but also help the player to learn to trust that buying is safe and delivers the expected level of value.

Changes, turn and face the strain

Once users have made the transition to earning, we find that their attitudes and desires change. Initial purchases will include simple consumable items, often on goods to 'make the game their own' or to show off progress.

However, if we want them to become repeat users we have to provide a sufficient arch of playing possibilities and a balance between consumable items (such as energy crystals) and durable items (such as a well that provides 20 energy crystals per day).

After this we want to try to delay the inevitable churning stage as long as possible. This requires us to keep the game alive with new content and events; often by carefully – and optionally – increasing the depth and complexity of play.

Players typically require a sense of ongoing purpose and eventually some competition with other players. However, that competition must be meaningful and we need to take care it doesn't create a blocking experience in itself.

Players can still be spooked if the learning curve is too steep or if the experience appears too niche for them.

No guarantees

Eventually, the players will churn. It is inevitable.

However, we need to make the best of it. Personally I would rather anticipate their departure and look for ways to move them on to another game. Perhaps through cross-promotion, for instance, we can turn that churn into a new install.

It's worth noting, too, that this approach to product marketing is not new. If you want to know more, Geoffrey A Moore's Crossing the Chasm is essential reading.

I can't guarantee that you will make a good game, but if you follow and understand the user lifecycle, I know you will make a better one.
For more on PapayaMobile, you can visit the firm's website or follow Oscar on Twitter.

PocketGamer.biz regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.

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