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Summing Up Mobile Gaming In 2013 With A Single Word... Freemium

Dec 28 2013, 7:31pm CST | by

Summing Up Mobile Gaming In 2013 With A Single Word... Freemium

Photo Credit: Forbes

If there is one area of mobile game development that has come to prominence in 2013  it’s freemium. This payment model has proven to be a financial success for many companies and now dominates the Top 20 charts in the smartphone app stores. While the freemium model is a double-edged sword that sits uneasily with customers and can lead to bad headlines of exorbitant in-app purchases and greedy developers, it defined the year and is here to stay.

The principle of offering a sample of a game and then asking for a payment to play the full title is not a new one. Titles such as Commander KeenWolfenstein 3D and Doom were running ‘freemium’ long before it was called freemium. The shareware model was well established in the minds of all, there was a balance and a respect on both sides of the equation, and nobody felt hard done by.

And then came freemium.

The combination of smartphone, mobile payments, and the adoption of some basic principles has created the modern freemium template. These included dual in-game currencies, boosters to aid gameplay or increase scores, and in many cases time-based limits to starting new games that can be circumvented through payments.

The poster boy for freemium has to be Candy Crush Saga. Released as a Facebook App in April 2012 but making its mobile début at the end of 2012, King’s variant on the match-3 game has every single element of the freemium balanced to extract the maximum revenue out of as many users as possible, with estimates of daily income from in-app purchases reaching £610,000 ($1,000,000, BBC News). Neither is the saga of Candy Crush overKing has released a major expansion in the last few weeks to keep the candy dropping and the cash rolling in.

But adding the expected elements does not always mean that the income will follow. During 2013 Electronic Arts grafted freemium onto some of their biggest titles. Real Racing 3′s freemium model was a significant experiment for the publisher, and while they eventually managed to find the balance the long-running Real Racing franchise traded in a lot of goodwill to get to that point. EA wasn’t finished with freemium as Plants vs Zombies 2 also switched to the freemium model. While there was critical pushback, the mobile game still reached the Top Ten. I believe that EA’s continued efforts in the mobile will space will continue to use a freemium model.

Looking at the top twenty titles in the Apple App Store  ninety per cent of them are using the freemium model. Just 8% are paid-for downloads, while 2% are paid apps with in-app purchasing (Satista, via Mashable). While there are downsides, I suspect that it is hard for developers to ignore the difference in income that a freemium model provides, especially as it monetizes the user throughout the life cycle of a title, and not just at the point of download.

Freemium is now the default option for developers, but it still adds another layer of risk. You might have a good game, with smart mechanics, smooth graphics, and a well pitched level curve, but the addition of freemium can pollute that. A recent high-profile title that was smothered by freemium was Rovio’s latest Angry Birds franchise title Angry Birds Go (“We went to check it out and found a game that has been given the full – and we mean full – free-to-play package. It’s got $100 cars and energy systems and pay-for power-ups and multiple currencies and advertising,” Pocket Gamer).

Used correctly, freemium can turn a hit game into an ongoing revenue stream for a developer and build up a relationship with the gamers. But if your game moves out of this sweet spot, the downsides are far steeper than they have ever been. You’ll find that both the critical reception and the gross income from the title will not be enough to counter any significant development budget if a mistake is made in pricing, promotion, or playability.

Freemium may be able to provide the successful developer with revenue, but it is a harsh mistress, and very few companies have fully tamed her during 2013. But it has changed the gaming landscape over the last twelve months, and I very much doubt that we’ll be able to go back to how it once was. Freemium sums up 2013 in mobile gaming, and it will define mobile gaming for at least the next twelve months, if not longer.

Source: Forbes

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