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Indie Exposure: the realities of free

By on June 26, 2012
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This is the latest in a series of guest posts by Alistair Aitcheson, reproduced with permission from his own blog.


It’s been a while since the last Indie Exposure post, hasn’t it? When I was planning to post this instalment, I was preparing Greedy Bankers: Bailout! for launch – that is, the free version of the game with expanded game modes for in-app purchases. I fully expected this to make a massive difference to the game’s fortunes – specifically, enabling much better exposure.

Of course, as with the best laid plans, this strategy didn’t go the way I expected. While I am receiving consistently higher downloads of the free version as I had been getting on the paid version, I was expecting the userbase to grow by significantly more than it actually did. I needed to do some thinking before I could wax lyrical about the exposure opportunities for free games.

I’ll begin with my starting logic: offering your game for free should make it more open to recommendation, and hence benefit your exposure. Let’s think about why.

The Logic

Put yourself in your customers’ shoes, or look at your own purchasing decisions. I presume I am not an atypical iOS user, and from my own experience even paying 69p for an app requires a big decision. After all, how many times do I want to spend 69p before I find something that I really enjoy? Unless I am cautious about my spending those 69p’s could really add up!

When I buy a cup of coffee, I know exactly what I’m going to get and have a fairly accurate estimate of how much I’ll enjoy it. So paying £1.80 for my medium Americano is not a big decision. With a game I have only the vaguest idea how much I’ll enjoy it, even if I take time to read all the copy, see the reviews and look at the screenshots. In short, I’ll be taking a risk.

Putting your product out as free eradicates that decision, and makes impulse downloads a possibility. Usually if a friend recommends me a game I’ll ask them how much it is. If it’s got a price tag I’ll say “I’ll think about it,” knowing that their tastes in games are very different to my own. If it’s free, I have no reason not to download it now and give it a go.

In short, putting your product out for free decreases friction and increases the chance of a successful recommendation.

Encouraging Interest

In terms of encouraging these recommendations the bigger the free offering the better. Rather than a free demo, offering players a complete and unlimited game keeps them coming back, sustains their enjoyment, and makes it a much sweeter offering to recommend. Monetising is another question entirely, but my assumed strategy from here is to enable enthusiasts to pay a premium for specialist content. If a free game has obvious pay walls it should, in theory, nullify its chances of being returned to or recommended.

Perhaps the most exciting examples, in the case of gaining exposure at least, offer fully-accessible web versions of their game. CanabaltRobot Unicorn Attack and Steambirds serve as fantastic examples. Players who enjoy the game but would really like to play it on the move or on the sofa will happily pay money for the same game on another device. They’ll happily pay a non-minimum price, as they already have trust in the quality of the product, so there is no risk involved.

Arguably the sustained success of these games has been due to popular recognition and frequent featuring on the App Store itself. But their complete free online offerings certainly helped rocket them into that level of recognition.

The realities of free games

I still believe in the logic of all of everything I’ve just said. Free games are a useful asset on your side, but (from my own experience) they are by no means a game-changer. While this may be different on the open web, drawing eyeballs to your shopfront is just as difficult on the App Store, regardless of whether your game is free or paid.
App discovery is dominated by the layout of the App Store as a marketplace, and releasing as free barely changes your position in that marketplace at all. You’re still going to rely on working around the App Store, in order to get the attention that you need. In order for all the theory above to make a real difference, your game must encourage a lot of recommendation.
In fact, when I attended March’s TIGAMobile Games Conference, there was a definite feeling of anxiety in the room, even from developers with established mobile successes. The free space has become increasingly competitive since the advent of In-App Purchases. Big fish such as Zynga are moving into the space, and the only games which can ensure consistent eyeball space (from the free charts) are those for which virality is built into the games themselves. This is where social games, fromFarmville to Draw Something, really excel.

Free is a lubricant for virality

Building a userbase from the App Store alone, whether your game is free or not, is reliant on your game being viral. Clearly being free reduces significant friction, but virality is a tricky beast to bottle. Some games are viral because the mechanics are built so that the game improves with more friends involved (e.g. Draw Something). Others go viral simply due to the quality of the game, like Temple Run, but that’s much harder to pin down – endless runners were already a common genre on iOS beforeTemple Run appeared; why this one flew off the shelves so well is a question I do not have an answer for.

Interestingly, downloads of the free Greedy Bankers continue at a relatively stable level, just like sales of the paid game did. Presumably this means that it is just as viralas the paid version was, or at least not significantly more viral. Otherwise I would see a difference between the growth rates of each version. Of course, this is making wide assumptions about how players discover the game. But it suggests that Free isn’t as strong a lubricant as I though.

If you’re not looking to rely on your game being viral then it’s questionable as to how important that free price band really is. A free open-web version which is easily linked to and instantly playable in a browser still makes good sense. But if your product is only playable from app stores then you’ll remain just as hidden, regardless of price band.

Either way, I find myself feeling that your core USP is king here. Without it, your game cannot go viral, and if you’re not reliant on virality – and would rather build a premium-paying base of passionate hearts and minds – your USP is still going to decide whether press and enthusiasts take an interest.

Is userbase size important in Free-to-Play?

Of course, there is one more question about free games. I approached Free-to-Play for the sole purpose of getting more players into the Greedy Bankers fold. Perhaps I’ve missed the real beauty of Free-to-Play: the In-App Purchase system. Do you need a large userbase if you have a game where a select few enthusiasts will pay vast amounts of money for content and features?

Admittedly, the monetisation in Greedy Bankers: Bailout! is pretty simple, and very limited. There’s currently two unlockable game modes, for 69p each, and nothing more – no consumable items, most importantly. My plan was to see if I could crack the problem of exposure first – if I had a large enough userbase to make it worthwhile, I would expand the IAP opportunities and attempt to increase my Average Revenue Per User (ARPU). Takeup of the IAP so far has been very low, and I’m not surprised. The problem is, trying to get users to spend vast amounts of money is going to be a massive amount of time, effort and research. Without a sizeable Daily Active Userbase this becomes a big gamble of my time and energy.

So is it worth the effort to improve monetisation?

Of course, we can put this into perspective with the knowledge that I’m getting five times the downloads on free that I was on the paid version. So, under the assumption that everyone’s discovering the free version in the same way as they did the paid version, that means going free has reduced “friction” by five times – sounds, great, doesn’t it? Of course, to make the same revenues as I was making off of the paid version, I’ll need to make a fifth of the ARPU I had before. So instead of each player paying 69p upfront to play, I’d need an average 14p spend per player, merely to equal what I was making before. If I’d reduced friction by a factor of 100, improving the IAP mechanisms would be a no-brainer!

On the plus side, I am still making sales of the paid version (now priced at £1.49), albeit not as many, and am actually making a few more sales of the iPad version, Greedy Bankers vs The World, (priced £1.99). So this hasn’t made a difference to revenue at all! All versions continue to receive 5-star reviews from all around the world, so at the very least I have more eyeballs on Greedy Bankers and greater familiarity and confidence in my brand – something I can leverage when publicising my next game.

The conclusion

I still believe a business model based around free content makes great sense. But in terms of gaining exposure for your games it is by no means a magic bullet. Especially in the App Store the same barriers to exposure are there as were always present. What Free does is, presumably, oil the gears of virality.

On the plus side, the recent race to free in mobile means that – with the expectation that everything should be free – a game that is not free can be pitched at any price you like! A paid game for £1.99 only seems marginally less attractive than one for 69p, which is good news if you want to price your game above the minimum.

In my eyes, the most important factor in getting exposure for your games is in the very design of your product. Is it remarkable? Does it grab hearts and minds? This is what really drives recommendations between players, and it’s what gets passionate interest from the market before your game has even launched.

In the final piece in this series, I’ll discuss where I feel your priorities should lie, if you want to get exposure for your game.

About Alistair Aitcheson

  • Rob

    Although I enjoy articles like these, I think they need more solid sales/chart data, otherwise its hard to assess if strategies worked. ‘5 times’ the users is not really enough data to go on (I’d actually expect much higher for free vs paid?).