Last week, while I was in Toronto for the SCREENS conference, I attended an IGDA Toronto social meetup called “Dr. Gamelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Freemium.” It was a great panel on free-to-play gaming. This is something that has been on my mind for some time, and while I won’t sum up the entire panel, I figured I would share my opinion on Freemium games and the potential to publish them on Windows 8.
On the panel were Trevor Fencott, president at bitHeads/Playbrains; Rob Sandberg, senior producer at Fuse Powered; Andy Smith, production manager at Get Set Game; Nathan Vella, president at Capybara Games; and it was moderated by Ryan Henson Creighton, Untold Entertainment. Perhaps the best dynamic of the entire panel was between Rob and Nathan over the validity of making Freemium and the exploitation this model lends itself to. Rob was quick to throw out that developers who have a problem with Freemium should “just get over it,” which Nathan rebutted by arguing for a vision-first development approach versus monetization. I found this dynamic the most fascinating because I sit somewhere on the sidelines.
For me, making games has always been a hobby. I have never made a living at it. I have developed some commissioned games here and there as side projects, but my passion for making games has always fallen somewhere closer to my desire to be creative. Personally, I am happy to release all of my games and source code for free since I find it fun and relaxing after a long day of programming for a client. Rob and Nathan, along with the rest of the panel, are making games for a living and have to deal with the reality that making, producing, and publishing games is a serious business. When it comes to mobile game development, the room for error is incredibly high due to lack of visibility in an overcrowded market and not getting enough exposure in order to build a solid user base early on. And, from what we have seen on iOS, the price you can sell a game for has been a race to the bottom. Trevor, Rob, and Andy all decided to go Freemium because they see the potential for making money in lowering the financial barrier of entry and counting on the larger user base to help drive revenue via alternative methods such as ads and in-app purchases. Nathan, whose company is responsible for Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery, argued that it’s still viable to make and sell games at a premium price (which on iOS is around $5 and under).
It’s an incredibly interesting dilemma because mobile phones and Apple/Google app stores are open markets. Because of this, people quickly brought down the price of what they were willing to pay for apps and games. On consoles, the prices for new games was standardized, so they always stayed at a premium. Customers had no choice in bringing down the price of new games unless they waited for the game to go on sale. Mobile app stores have completely disrupted this model but, at the same time, the higher price tag attached to console gaming was largely due to fees associated with getting a game on the platform and the cut the device manufacturer needed to get in order to cover the loss on the hardware. I would be lying to you if I said the biggest reason I am not pre-ordering the Wii U wasn’t because of the $60 price tag associated with the new games. Steam sales, free-to-pay bundles, and iOS/Android have altered my perception of what I am willing to pay for a game, and I doubt I would ever go back.
The other thing that is happening is that gaming is going more mainstream. And, the way people play games is largely dependent on what they are playing it on. For mobile, most people want time-killing games that don’t require huge emotional attachments and can be picked up and put down quickly. It’s hard to attach a high price tag to something that you only play a few minutes at any given time versus the much longer investment of time sitting down and playing a game on your PC or TV requires. Freemium is scratching an itch for casual gamers that want to have little time investment and don’t want to pay for it. The big problem with these types of games is the compulsion loop and companies that exploit it in order to make people open their wallets for them. I actually support the idea of Freemium but dislike games that allow you to pay to speed up time and in turn force the player to unnecessarily grind to slow them down. Some people like these games. My wife, who is not a gamer, will spend hours feeding monsters or collecting crops, which I would find mind-numbing. But, she would never pay for an app purchase either and, historically, the conversion rates on getting free players to pay up is incredibly low.
So, where does this leave indie game developers on Windows 8? The Windows Store is going to have several advantages over other crowded markets, which will be really appealing to developers looking to get the most out of their dev investment. While I don’t believe I have all the answers, I thought I would offer up a few things I think will help you monetize your game on Windows 8:
Trial mode: I think Apple’s lack of a trial mode accelerated the downward price of games on the iOS market since there was never a way for people to test out if they liked the game. On Windows 8, you can add trial mode into your game, which not only allows players to try out the game but also keeps them from having to install a separate app with the un-purchased features. Windows 8 allows you to lock out specific parts of your app based on if it is in trial mode or has been fully paid. It’s dead simple to add to your app, and here is some reference material on how to do it.
In-app purchase (IAP): This has become one of the most popular ways to monetize your apps on iOS and Android. The good news is that Window 8 apps support IAP as well. Generally, you can offer up your game for free and let players buy new levels or open up the entire game and use in-game currency and allow players to buy that currency with real money. Chances are good that if you have played any newly released game on iOS it has some form of IAP. You can also easily add IAP to your game by checking out this article about it.
Ad support: Finally, a very popular approach to monetizing your game is to use in-app ads. You’ll find this mostly on Android, which was slow to
support IAP. Windows 8 also supports this feature, and you can simply build it in with third-party ad servers just like you would on any other app, especially
if you are building an HTML5 Windows 8 app, or you can use Microsoft’s Advertising SDK for Windows 8. You can read more about it here.
As you can see, if you plan on going the Freemium approach for your Windows 8 game, you have lots of options to help monetize your hard work. The hardest question now will be if you decide to just go for Freemium or directly sell your game. I am a fan of the latter, but you will have to follow the path that makes the most sense for your own financial situation. Since Windows 8 is a new platform and new market, you will have a lot of room to experiment with what works best. Being first in the door also allows you to get better exposure and charge a premium for your game, as long as people are willing to pay it. Remember how much games cost on iOS when it first opened up the app store? Either way, publishing your game on Windows 8 is a great opportunity to tap into a totally new revenue stream.