Independent developers are finding themselves at a crossroads.
With the perception that the paid app charts are becoming harder to crack, and players more unwilling to spend even 99c on games from unknown developers, free-to-play has become a necessary experiment.
For some of these indies, it's been a floundering process.
A question of ethics
The problem appears to be that indies are particularly concerned with being "ethical" with their in-app purchases.
It's a move inspired in part by the success of Temple Run from Imangi - which boasts 53 million players on Game alone - and NimbleBit's trio of free-to-play titles, Pocket Frogs, Tiny Tower, and Pocket Planes.
This means that they want to make their games playable without spending money - to make the purchases feel truly optional, something both those studios have been acclaimed for doing with their games.
I've spoken to many developers working on free-to-play developers both in recorded interviews and casual conversations, and the refrain of wanting to be like these games, with 'ethical' free-to-play keeps coming up.
There's just one problem: for small indie, such an approach simply isn't working.
Freemium is dead
Possibly the two most-notable crashes and burns of the past year include Outwitters from One Man Left and Gasketball from Mikengreg.
Both were free downloads without ads, and planned to make money through players unlocking content.
Neither did that all that well; those at Mikengreg were left homeless, while Outwitters has yet to make a profit on its lengthy production time.
Both games may have made mistakes outside of using just the freemium model: Gasketball's in-app purchases and their purpose was hard to decipher for many players.
Outwitters gave players the ability to play games with the one default team for free, and teams available through IAP had only minor differences, and the maximum amount players could spend at launch was USD $3.98 for two of the teams, and $2.99 to permanently unlock all content.
Yet even games that follow a more traditional path are failing.
See Rocketcat Games and Madgarden's Punch Quest, which attempted to mimic Temple Run's one-currency model, failed at first. It reached #9 on the iPhone free charts and #32 on iPad, but appeared to only get as high as the 300s in the grossing charts.
The problem appears to be that items are unlocked far too quickly; the developers have put out an update that tweaks item prices and adds in a coin doubler.
However, considering that the game was also built around selling expensive cosmetic items - which the player may only be made aware of later on in the game sessions - it may not have seen success anyway.
In fairness, the game has only been released for two weeks; there's still time for it to be a success. Temple Run wasn't a smash hit at first.
The contradiction of ethical free-to-play
All all these games, high-profile in and of themselves, not to mention the countless lower-profile games like Ski Champion that got far fewer downloads, are showing a common flaw between them.
It is that free-to-play is inherently built to tempt people to spend money; those who do things in an ethical way are merely playing with different shades of gray, and are clearly costing themselves.
Temple Run and NimbleBit's games have succeeded in part because of their massive amounts of downloads, despite not being as pushy with in-app purchases.
The inherent contradiction in free-to-play is simple: those who matter don't mind, and those who mind don't matter. The people making a stink about free-to-play are those not spending any money, as evidenced by the still-microscopic conversion rates that even successful games get.
Designing games around business models that reward those who don't bring in any revenue is clearly not sound business advice.
I asked Kepa Auwae of Rocketcat Games if Punch Quest's performance so far has changed his opinion on free-to-play if at all.
"Even so far, assuming the numbers are still bad, I still think it's free-to-play or nothing for us," he told me.
"We did a free game for exposure, so we could be seen. And Punch Quest managed that, with a million downloads."
The studio has another free-to-play game in the works that uses a two-currency model down the road that is a spinoff of their 2011 paid release Mage Gauntlet.
But the fact remains that trying to do things "the right way" is increasingly proving to be the wrong way to even just survive on the App Store.