Mobile Mavens

Can paid games successfully switch to free-to-play post launch?

Our Mobile Gaming Mavens talk New Star Soccer

Can paid games successfully switch to free-to-play post launch?

Last week saw New Star Soccer switch from a paid release to free-to-play on Android, bringing it in line with the iOS version.

However, on the day the changover took place, the game was flooded with negative reviews on Google Play.

Some users objected to a technical error that required those who had deleted the paid version of the game to pay up again for premium content. However, others had a more fundamental problem with the change, claiming that the switch to free-to-play altered the structure of the game for the worse.

So, we asked the Mavens:

Is it possible to switch a game from paid to free-to-play after it's launched, or do successful free-to-play games have to be designed with the model in mind from the word go?

Harry Holmwood, MAQL Europe
I think, historically, it was possible - Temple Run being a great early example of a game which didn't really start moving until it switched to F2P.

Now, however, particularly with the extremely high cost of user acquisition, it's hard to see that a game that wasn't originally designed that way would monetise well enough (or, most likely, even retain users long enough) to be profitable as F2P.

New Star Soccer doesn't really fit this argument, as it was really a F2P game all along on iOS - not sure why it wasn't in iOS - I'm guessing some technical reason may have prevented it initially?

Certainly, switching a game to free via an update is a dangerous strategy - users who have paid will inevitably feel short changed if they suddenly have to start paying for content, consumables or watching ads when they didn't have to before.

I think, if you are going to change model, you need to introduce a separate 'free' version, which brings with it the problems of maintaining separate code bases, but at least doesn't alienate your earliest valued customers.

Mills, ustwo
The reality is, any 'change hysteria!' caused by 'changing' what people were used to actually stems from a tiny yet vocal fraction of the overall players of your game and doesn't really represent the true feelings of the change.

Early adopters always got to be just that and should really feel proud to have been first to touch, even if they paid.

Indeed, many more (as in a multiple of around 1,000,000) will never ever know that it was any different beforehand - or should even need to know - as change is always pretty much always a good move. Even more so in this case, probably, because the game wasn't generating the returns the developer intended.

John Ozimek, Dimoso
Mills is right - it is often a vocal minority which capture a disproportionate share of attention.

In theory, there's no reason why you can't change a premium game to freemium, or vice versa, but you would assume that any choice to shift business model is prompted by a negative - as in, I'll get more players if I switch to F2P.

New Star Soccer relies very heavily on an active pool of users for multiplayer, so there's a good reason for the shift. But the assumption is that any game that shifts its revenue model post-launch must have made a mistake.

This may be true in many cases, but if a shift is what you need to make your game a success, then that's what you need to do.

Having said that, the window for success for an app is often ridiculously slim; any mistakes are seldom forgiven. So we would rather counsel a developer to get it right first time, than be flexible enough to change post launch.

Joony Koo, Swarm Media
If the game shows good enough potential when viewing the user data analysis - like retention, K-factor and ARPU – and ff the numbers are strong, why not?

Andreas Vahsen, machineworks
Someone recently said, "If you don't have somebody complaining, your monetisation isn't working right."

I don't know what the big fuss is about. They wanted to keep their user base as they changed to F2P, some folks complained. It's not the end of the gaming world as we know it.

Christopher Kassulke, HandyGames
First of all, there is a market for both F2P and paid. I think Oceanhorn from my friends at FDG in Munich shows that premium games with a price point of €7.99 still works on the App Store.

Not all games need to be F2P. Switching a paid game to a F2P is extreme problematic. A good F2P game need to be designed as F2P from the beginning in my personal opinion. Releasing a new version or even a second version like a paid and a F2P would make more sense.

HandyGames released two different version simultaneously in the past - one premium and one free version on iOS and Google Play. Perhaps that would have been a better solution for the dev.

Charles Chapman, First Touch Games

We made the switch from paid to free with Score! and it went okay. It wasn't ideal as Score! was never really designed to be a typical F2P game, so the free version was pretty much the original 69p paid version but with additional stuff available to buy.

Straight away it did better as a free app than when paid, and eventually opened other revenue possibilities such as advertising etc. As a free game now it still generates more revenue now per month than it did back when it was #1 paid app (69p) in loads of countries.

Knowing Si and the guys involved in NSS, I'm sure there's nothing cynical about what's happened here.

I don't know exactly what's gone on, but stuff goes wrong sometimes, or doesn't work as expected, and when you've got tens or hundreds of thousands of users it only takes a tiny percentage to have issues and get vocal about it to make something sound a bigger problem than it actually is.

Back to the original question. Yes, highly successful free-to-play games need to be designed with the model in mind. However, I'm sure plenty of paid apps can probably reach a larger audience, and potentially greater revenue by going free with sensible monetisation.

Paul Farley, TAG Games

Likewise we've had experience of switching models. This was around three years ago just at the dawn of the F2P revolution with Astro Ranch.

The biggest issue we had back then was not so much the change in model, but the technical challenge that was presented by maintaining user data and ensuring existing players didn't miss out under the new structure. It's fair to say we made a bit of a mess of it!

The game was built in Unity with third party solutions for the connected/social features and various other plugins. It barely held together for the premium launch and unfortunately many of the existing players had a less than smooth transition to the new F2P version.

In our case, the transition to free was less of an issue for players because this was overshadowed by the technical issues. However, as Mills has pointed out, it's always a very vocal minority that you hear. As long as you ensure existing players are not discriminated against it should be fairly smooth sailing.

We have found the free version has been much more successful and well received than the premium, so have to assume that the vast majority of players are more than happy with a F2P model.

I do believe it is best to choose a model and design your game around it, but in some genres it's actually pretty easy to swap them around if you need to.

For Astro Ranch it gave us a second bite at the cherry. The learning from the technical experience led to us investing heavily in our own engine, cloud solution and metrics platform and I'm glad to say that should be have to switch models in future we are in a much better place to do so.

Oscar Clark, Applifier
I think the views expressed here represent pretty typical experiences.

I've done a bit of consulting on top of my regular Applifier role to talk to studios wanting to attempt this and in particular I'm currently working with Colossal Games to help move Commando Jack to F2P.

I think the first thing that's a challenge is to see if the underlying game has the kind of repeating mechanisms which make can continue to delight players after days, weeks and even months of playing. If that's there then the next stage in my process to work out where the sense of purpose to continue playing lies.

This is often missing; or at least under developed and most of the work can often be building that up; rather than just shoe-horning in monetisation models.

This takes effort and time, but at its heart is a shift from a product approach to a service model. There the hardest part is changing the minds of the team and being able to invest over the long term.

If successful, however, it leads to a gradual on-going cycle of regular, frequent small releases that not only spread out the risk but, creates a sense of life in the game and trust with its audience.

Taking this approach can be extremely rewarding and allow you to expand the game as well as to start developing the Metagame - interactions around the game between players themselves and with you as the developer. That's were the true longevity can come from; and of course the ‘Super Fan Game'

The question of backlash and the inherent reality that any reboot will have missed the initial window of opportunity is a real elephant in the room. However, you don't have to assume that you are starting from scratch.

For me, it's vital to engage with your existing community and find ways to take them with you if you can. There are some people that think a change of name or quick touch up of the brand is all that's needed, but that is rarely enough.

There is a stigma of being a game that players have seen already and rejected and sometimes this will be too hard to overcome. You have to ask yourself if its worth all that effort.

It's much more expensive to overcome a negative preconception than where there are no expectations at all. The game has to have an audience who love it to show that the game has something worth saving. That starts with the developer, of course.

How much do you love that game and are you really willing to commit to giving it everything over the next few years?

Don't get me wrong, there are of course successful quick fixes and, as Christopher says, there remain successful (premium) products, but they are rare and I would argue riskier in the end than a service led-approach.

At the end of the day, the question has a different answer for every game and every studio. What does success look-like for your team? Do you need to be top 100? What is your run rate?

If we can build trust, demonstrate that we are focused on delivering delight rather than just trying to scrape as much money as possible our of players pockets then there is a fighting chance we can make this work.

I'll happily tell you how this process is going with Commando Jack when we know the results. I have submitted it as a talk to GDC (warts and all), but I don't know if the organisers will pick it up.

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.