Everybody’s free (to feel good)

Is freemium the future for mobile app developers?

Lucy Carey

The mobile games industry offers a fascinating case study into how users feel about in-app purchases – and how much cash they can rake in.


Aside from disgruntled
swine and addictive candy, the mobile game app sector offers a
fascinating micro case study of the evolving  macro mobile
ecosystem as a whole, and by virtue of their mandate to provide the
next big craze, mobile game developers are constantly pushing the
boundaries of what is technically possible. But when it comes to
actually knowing how to successfully monetise their product, these
guys are as unsure as everybody else in the field.

At the moment, there seems to be an interesting
by developers towards the so-called ‘freemium
model’, moving away from all
-for apps in favour of free models
which give users the option of investing a few dollars here and
there should they choose to as they progress in the game. Revenue
that would have come from traditional pay-per-download models
instead comes from in-app purchases – much to the distaste of a
subset of users, who argue that this new free-to-play model is
‘ruining’ games.

The numbers behind the shift to freemium speak
for themselves. A two-year study by 
App Annie Intelligence, a company
which tracks more than 700,000 apps, showed that revenue from
freemium apps has eclipsed that of premium ones as far as iOS and
Android are concerned. Revenue from premium download apps failed
to show any significant increase

PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies 2 is the latest
blockbuster example of this model. Launched this summer, the
tower-defense sequel racked up more downloads in the first two
weeks of its launch than its predecessor did in its entire
lifetime. The massive increase in uptake was driven by a shift from
an all out paid model to an ostensibly free version of the

To date, over 25 million people have downloaded
the game, and a small but vocal portion of them have been quick to
voice their dissent at this new tactic, with app store reviews such
as, “A wonderful concept destroyed” and “Waited all this time for
this game only to be presented with in app purchases. Would’ve been
happier to purchase at a one off fee.”

This mode of operation also allows developers
the freedom to keep growing their in-game worlds. By releasing
in-game add-ons in regular increments, developers can continue to
enrich and improve gaming experience once the product has been
released, and although this could be seen as a cunning money
sucking tactic, at the end of the day, it’s up to players how far
they want to take their investment. As one of the development team
behind Plants vs. Zombies pointed out, “It’s hard for us, because
the Plants vs. Zombies 2 experience is one that we’re going to be
expanding and adding content to all the time. “ He went on to add,
“It would be hard to charge you for something that we haven’t even
thought of yet … We’re not selling content.”

One big issue with the freemium option of course
is that many users simply aren’t interested in upping their gaming
experience. By opting for this form of monetisation, developers are
catering for both hardcore and casual gamers – the latter making up
the bulk of the mobile gaming market. The average casual gamer may
only use their apps to while away a few minutes on the train, and
however ever many exciting bells and whistles the developer grafts
on, be happy enough with their basic package.

On the other hand, game fans may be disappointed
that you can now effectively pay your way to a faster gaming
experience, unlike traditional games, where free cheats helped
those in the know enhance their fun. Those unwilling to pay may
have to sit for a few extra hours of tedious of work before getting
the payoff -

killing the fun of the exercise

The solution?  According to Adam Telfer, VP
of game development for XMG Studio, developers must become more
sales-orientated, putting the potential customer in mind from the
start to create something genuinely immersive that people will be
willing to

invest in

PopCap will be releasing more in-app purchase
driven games later this year, although fans may complain about the
apparent hard sell. Developers get the carrot of having all the
freedom they want to grow their virtual worlds, unfurling their
ideas as the fanbase grows. The theory is, if you build it, they
will come. And if you build it well enough, they’ll come back, and
buy some of your awesome unicorn stickers while they’re

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