Stateside: Can free-to-play games ever really be ethical?

The failures aren't hard to find

Stateside: Can free-to-play games ever really be ethical?
Chicago-based Carter Dotson is a senior writer at, which was recently acquired by publisher Steel Media.

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.

Temple Run

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.

In-app purchases

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.

Punch Quest

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.

Punch out

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.

Stateside columnist

Freelance writer covering mobile and gaming for @toucharcade, @Gamezebo, and more!


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Phil Maxey
I feel for the guys who did Outwitters, but fromt the outset the art style looked wrong to me, it's a style that appeals to exactly the kind of audience that don't like strategy games and likewise the hardcare strategy players who might well like the Outwitters gameplay won't like the art style.

Something they did do right though is build a following through all their blogging and build up to launch, and I think it's that more than the "Apple love" that got them a lot of downloads.

My advice to them would be do the same game again, but give it visuals that will appeal to it's core audience, or equally keep the style but make a game that is just about tapping.

As for the general point above, freemium is a fact of life if you are anyone other than a major brand on the App store. Yes absolutely you need a well produced product to make money from freemium. When you are giving your game away for free it doesn't take much for it to fail. Just making it freemium will not guarantee revenue, it simply guarantees the chance of revenue, where as if you are a nobody selling a premium title you won't even get that.
Brett Seyler
+1 Nate.

Freemium games are HARD to do right, and it's easy to look for unethical shortcuts, or simply to be greedy optimizing a game toward whales's enjoyment rather than the larger player base. Developers that see these challenges and take them seriously, seeking help when they need it from technology or partners, CAN and DO succeed at scales that simply aren't achievable with a paid download model. But there are a lot of good pitfalls pointed out by the author here that every developer should consider soberly before jumping on the freemium train.

Brett Seyler
Nate Dykstra
Seems pretty clear to me that those who fail don't fully understand the freemium model and how to optimize their games to make it work effectively.

It's 100% imperative to build time into your schedule for a "beta" launch in test market(s) (ie. Canada, Australia, UK, etc...) before going global. Test Market(s) should be used not only to identify any potential critical bugs, but also to collect some data from a smaller user base in order to gauge the health of your game with regards to monetization and retention before going live globally.

In theory, you should be able to see after about 2-3 weeks in a test market whether the user base is monetizing (and sticking around) or not and make any necessary optimizations and testing them out again (repeat as needed) before going global.

If you go global before optimizing the game you're likely to miss out on a lot of opportunities (early chart position, any launch buzz the game might gain, etc...) similar to what is detailed with some of the "failures" above.

You should definitely do some test market analysis and optimizations before even thinking about spending any money on paid user acquisition, otherwise there is a really good chance you will just be throwing money away.