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Stateside: Why choose between F2P and Premium when you can have both?

An unnecessary choice

Stateside: Why choose between F2P and Premium when you can have both?

It's time for the mobile industry to start thinking like kids. Specifically: the kids' section of the App Store.

The gaming market needs to accept that free-to-play is just one business model, and not the only business model. It's time for games to release as both paid and free versions.

This idea was sparked in part by a conversation I had over lunch with Josh Tsui, President and co-founder of Robomodo, and a veteran of Midway Games and various other Chicago studios.

Tsui is a father, and he told me that he and his kids prefer apps that don't have any ads or in-app purchases. This way, his kids aren't disrupted by any pop-ups, and they don't bother him when they do pop up. What's more, he's willing to spend money on the apps that provide such an experience, which, of course, makes everyone happy

The stats show that Tsui isn't alone in this thinking at all. You only need to glance in the direction of the top grossing chart for kids' apps to see it's littered with both paid apps, and free ones, and while the paid apps are at a variety of price points, most are above $0.99.

What we have here is a little, rather healthy, sub-market on the App Store. The apps that appeal to people who want free content are dong well, as are the ones that appeal to those who would rather pay. The scales are balanced. 

The free-to-play trap

That balance doesn't exist on the overall top grossing chart, which is bursting at the seams with free-to-play games.

Premium games often only make temporary appearances in the top grossing chart shortly after release, with most of the games that stick around in the chart being free-to-play. Unfortunately, this means it's easy for publishers and developers to fall into the trap of "everything that succeeds is free-to-play, so we must release free-to-play games!". 

It's easy for publishers and developers to fall into the trap of thinking everything that succeeds is free-to-play.

It's sound thinking, but only halfway so. Why must free-to-play exist at the expense of premium experiences? I posit this: if it can be done in a minimal amount of effort why not release games that, in separate versions, appeal to both the gamers who want to pay for content up front, and those who prefer free experiences?

Granted, only some games will work. A game like Candy Crush Saga could perhaps be made into a paid game, but it doesn't have the core appeal that would justify a premium launch. There are also plenty of games that are explicitly built around the free-to-play economy, where it would make little sense to release a version with a different economy, either from a financial standpoint or a gameplay one.

Still, it doesn't change the fact there are plenty of games, especially ones with a core/traditional gamer appeal, that would thrive using such a hybrid model. These games usually come from a place of traditional gaming, rather than many of the genres that free-to-play has thrived in like simulations.

Game changer

Trials Frontier is a game that fits the bill. It's a title that's imediately off-putting to core gamers because of the way it uses tactics like energy systems in a gameplay style that wasn't designed from the ground up for them.

It's still a deep and challenging game: it just does a lot to make sure that core gamers who want a Trials experience on mobile have a substandard one by not letting them play whenever they want to without restrictions, and by making the uphill climb to obtain necessary currency an unavoidable part of the experience. 

What if, instead, Ubisoft had released a version of Trials Frontier that was designed for core gamers alongside their free version? Price it something like $4.99, $6.99, or maybe even $9.99, then eliminate the energy system along with the wait timers for upgrades. Increase the amount of coins earned so that players can get upgrades at a faster pace with less grinding. In short: make it so that there are no in-app purchases at all. 

Make it a game for people that want a premium experience, and who are willing to put their money where their mouth is, but keep the F2P version on the market as well. 

The desire for paid games, while shared with the kid's apps, is not childish. Paid games without IAPs can provide a preferable experience, and that experience will rightly come at an upfront cost. The craving some have for a 'complete experience' is just as valid as the desire that others have for games that allow them to pay as they play.

The problem is that developers and publishers see the free vs. premium decision as an either/or proposition when it doesn't have to be. The answer to "free or paid" should sometimes be "both!". 

Certainly, this tactic has been attempted before but only really in half-measures. Bombcats garnered attention for its "old school mode" that disabled IAPs, but through a convoluted unlocking method. Table Top Racing just released a "Gamer Edition" to the Amazon Appstore, but this is months and millions of downloads after its initial release.

Look at it this way: developers that make their games both F2P and premium are choosing to make money from a variety of gamers who are itching to spend it. So, if a game can be premium, why not cover all bases and bring in a a larger audience by making it available for both freemium and F2P advocates? You know it makes sense. 

Chicago-based Carter Dotson is a senior writer at 148Apps.com, which was acquired by PocketGamer.biz publisher Steel Media in 2012.


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

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Simon Windmill
We are definitely between a rock and a hard place when it comes to ads. The vast majority of mobile players do not mind them; they get a completely free game and the dev gets a tiny bit of money. But I've always felt uncomfortable with throwing ads in front of kids, so I usually add a "Remove Ads" IAP. This worked well in the past, but now we have a situation where the group of people who would pay to remove ads is becoming the same group of people who now avoid downloading anything with the dreaded "Features In-App Purchases" tag in the App Store. We can't win.

So, yes, a free and a "deluxe" version seems like the ideal solution. The problem is that the gatekeepers (especially Apple) *really* don't want you to have different versions of the same app. The dev agreement language usually allows them to reject your app purely on "duplicates functionality of an existing app" grounds. They will then suggest you offer it free with an IAP to unlock the full version, and then we're back to the IAP stigma. Sure, most devs don't have any problems, but it's always a gamble and the risk is being rejected or having your app pulled, costing extra time to rectify - something most of us can't afford.

Solanimus DavidHK
Hey Carter, thanks for the article. I've thought about this idea before as well, but I wondered: what about whales that would spend $500+ on a free-to-play game buying a $9.99 version with no IAP? Wouldn't you be losing that potential revenue from players like that? I'm not wanting to argue, it's a serious question.
Kevin Pazirandeh
You're hitting the nail on the head. Even if it wasn't a whale, if a player would have spent $20, giving them the paid option means you'll make less, or at least piss off the freemium player when they find out. You could argue you'd grab the "anti IAP" market, but I doubt that would tip the scales for just about any app.

And that's the rub. Freemium games don't have a high median LTV (usually $0) it's the average you hear about. Freemium needs the bigger spenders to work. That has changed a bit in some corners because of ads, which bring that median up above zero. But ads need volume AND quality clicks. Those paying users are high value clicks as well!

Having free/paid just doesn't ever lead to more money (though I still think lite versions work quite well for some apps!). So the answer to why choose? You'll make less.

Caveat: you can do different models on different platforms with great success.