Why you *really* don’t want to make your mobile game anything but free

In the last year or so, I’ve had conversations with several developers who had tried to put their game or app on a mobile store with a price of “only” 99 cents. Of course, all of them were disappointed with only a handful of downloads.

Several years ago, I had the thought that if I could make any money, even a few dollars, it would be a way to get my foot in the door of a new opportunity. After that point, all I had to do was keep working on increasing that income slowly but steadily, and eventually I could make a significant amount of profit.

But, after having a few apps on the store myself, and doing some research, I realized how wrong I was.

I don’t have the exact figure in front of me, but I’ve read several places that nowadays something like 90% or greater of mobile games are free. Frequent browsing through iOS games pretty much confirms that, especially given that the apps I usually peruse are in the “popular” categories and even many of those are free. But what is more important than the fact that most are free is that many of the free games are really well made, with top-class graphics and gameplay – clearly something not done by a lone developer.

As you might expect, many of these games use in-app purchases to try and make a profit, and some games still use advertisements, though use of ads seems to be gradually decreasing over time (I consider that a good thing). There are other free games which, surprisingly, seem to have neither of these – the only explanation is that they are just trying to get their name out there in preparation for a followup game.

As a budding mobile game developer, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking your game will somehow be special, and achieve great popularly while earning you thousands of dollars (at a price of only $0.99). While this might be true if you have one or more people on your team with a great deal of experience making and promoting mobile games, for the average small team or hobby developer your odds are not so great.

So let’s say you were trying to decide between making your game free, where you could potentially have a few thousand downloads, and 99 cents, where you would be lucky to have a few hundred downloads (if that). Your first instinct might be to go for the cash, but that would be a terrible waste.

The reason is that while very few small-time game developers will make much money on their first game, they have a great potential – the potential to gather precious information.

The more downloads you get, the more chances you have of getting reviews, either directly in the app store or from a third-party website. Reviews are one of those things whose value can’t be measured easily. Not only do they tell you someone cared about your game enough to write a review, but they get to the heart of what a user enjoyed, or didn’t enjoy. For my first app I only got a handful of reviews, but they were all very valuable information, and helped me drive updates.

Another advantage of free games (especially if they have no in-app purchases or ads) is that it’s much easier to advertise them on the net, or with friends. You’ll less likely to get people saying your spamming or just trying to make a quick buck from a forum post. You still need to exercise caution and tact when advertising, but it’s a little bit easier.

Also, there is a higher chance your app will go ‘viral’ if it’s free, since all that takes is one or more people who have popularity to happen to mention your game, whether in a tweet or on their blog. At $0.99 if you get only 50 downloads compared to 500 when free, your odds of going viral are 10x higher when free.

And don’t forget other sources of hard data. Now with Apple’s analytics being released to all developers you have much more data to mine, and even the most basic data can be extremely valuable if you know how to analyze it. For example, using the number of reported upgrades gives you some idea how many people actually cared enough about your game to not delete it immediately. If you have used something like Flurry in your app you have even more data from each person who downloaded your free app. Tools like this can help you determine engagement, which is a measure of how much the user was really involved when using the game. Did they make it to level 7 after 2 hours of play, or give up due to frustration in the middle of the tutorial?

The other reason the bar for paid games is so high is because there is so much competition even in the realm of free games. As a user, I can tell that there is a major psychological difference between free and 99 cents, regardless of the monetary fact it’s “only 99 cents”. I’ve only paid for a handful of iOS games, but I’d say that at least 30% of them were disappointments which I stopped using after only one or two sittings – in spite of the fact the screenshots or app preview seemed impressive. Gameplay does matter. After being fooled I’m even more hesitant to spend anything on mobile games. In spite of my annoyance with the concept of in-app purchases and the “freemium” model (especially coming from PC gaming where everything used to be one-time purchases), I have to acknowledge that using free games to get users to experience the gameplay is a key aspect of the current mobile game market.

As a final note, while it’s true that you can do aggressive advertising to help up your downloads for both the free and paid models, your improvements in the free case are bound to be more drastic. Compare spending a few days of advertising all over to increase your sales from $20 to $40, as opposed to making free downloads jump from 1000 to 2000 (with a handful more reviews).

Once you’ve reached a moderate success with the free model, you can then either decide to add in-app purchases, ads, make a ‘pro’ version (as a separate download), or just use your newfound knowledge and start over with a new project. Whichever option you choose you can leverage the popularity of your free app to drive traffic to wherever you are trying to actually make money.

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4 thoughts on “Why you *really* don’t want to make your mobile game anything but free

    • I think in most mobile user’s minds there is a large divide between free and 99 cents. For example, I can tell you there are some days where I will download a bunch of free apps, but very rarely will a get a bunch of 99 cent apps.

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  1. I agree with your article wholeheartedly. I’ve made a few small games for projects but the first game that I’m going to release will be a free mobile game to get my name out there. It’ll be great to be able to direct friends and gamers to my creation and get feedback.

    Liked by 1 person

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