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[Gamesbriefers] Should you ever have a hard paywall?

By on September 7, 2012

This is the third in a series of posts where industry experts respond to a topical question. We’re calling this series ‘The gamesbriefers’.


Harry Holmwood writes: “A colleague and I downloaded New Star Soccer at the airport and were playing it on a flight back from Germany last week, got hooked, but then hit the ‘hard payment’ point where we had to pay to continue the career.  As we were on a plane at that point we couldn’t do the IAP and had to stop playing.  Over the weekend I was tempted to pay and play but didn’t bother – the moment was lost, and I suspect now I won’t do it at all.”

Are hard paywalls a good idea, or should you always make it possible for players to keep playing?


Mark Sorrell Game Director

Locking the game behind a paywall is shareware or free-demo, not freemium.

Freemium is about a bespoke experience for the consumer, tempered with lots of behaviour economics.

It’s not a business model alone, it’s also a game design issue and so, to my mind, it would be impossible or nonsensical to make a ‘true’ fremium game with a hard paywall.

Philip Reisberger Managing Director at Bigpoint

In general, we’ve seen that it’s most important to have the users playing. Monetization is always to be regarded as consequence of gameplay. There are some really core-style titles where a hard paywall is possible, but I’d regard this rather as an exception than the norm.

Andrew Smith Director at Spilt Milk Studios

My preference is to have a game that is free to play with as close to 100% of the main content as possible.

Be that through (fun to play) ‘grind’, or just being really generous, the tiny percentage of players we expect to turn into paying customers on a free game are not likely to be the kind of people NOT to pay, just because they get more of the game for free.

I find it also avoids accusations and backlash if you are generous with content by default. Also, it removes the headache of trying to find the sweet spot!

It’s just all round simpler to monetise through the currency than any other method, simply because it keeps a clear line between the two, and the systems behind it are simpler as well.

Harry Holmwood Consultant at Heldhand

I still haven’t paid!

I’m tempted to think, though, that with NSS the hard paywall is right.  If, as was suggested last week I think, the conversion is 39% (correct me if wrong) it’s such a good rate it’s worth it I think.

I imagine it’s a very rare game that can get that kind of conversion that quickly though.

Charles Chapman Director and Owner at First Touch Games Ltd. 

It depends on the game. Some games are really an either/or thing, but most can be structured so that you can allow players to keep playing, without feeling like you’re giving the game away.

Obviously so long as people are playing, there’s a chance that they might spend. But I’d say the bigger reason is for the revenue that non-paying players can generate through advertising, or incentivised advertising. Our most successful game has been making over 40% of its revenue over the past couple of months from video clips and banner ads.  Most of this comes from players who haven’t spent any money.

So, yes let them keep playing if you can. But for the right game, as NSS shows, a hard paywall can still work.

Tadhg Kelly Consultant at What Games Are

This is trickier than it initially sounds.

The easy answer is to say “Always”, agreeing with Harry. In many cases this is also the right answer. Any kind of sim/farm/grind/rpg game should always be thinking of the player as either a current or eventual customer, and so be making the long sell. The binary choice of pay-or-die interrupts that process, most likely turning more away customers than it brings in because it makes the choice unattractive.

But what about an action game?

In some cases (Temple Run, Bejewelled Blitz) it’s the same. They basically sell boosters and cheats to make better score runs, and since the core action of the game is so compelling it’s more likely over time that you will buy. Bringing a money-now question into that dynamic is inappropriate for the same reasons as the grind game.

Yet boost-selling doesn’t work in all cases. Angry Birds is very constrained by level design and bird choice, and offering boosts or birds would wreck the main dynamic of the game. It would remove all fun from the puzzle-solving aspect which is essential to its fun. (The Mighty Eagle IAP is more a nested mode all of its own). In those cases making players pay is the only way for the game to make money (unless you’re really keen to try your hand at advertising).

If so, though, they should charge immediately. While a game is an imagined desire it is worth a punt. Once you’ve actually played a few demo levels and reality has set in? It’s usually harder to convince the players that the rest of the game is worth it (the paradox of demos), particularly for casual games.

Patrick O’Luanaigh CEO at nDreams

I’d be very wary about ever saying that a particular model/route is ‘the correct one’ or that you should ‘never’ do something. Every game is different and every platform is different. In PlayStation Home, where we publish most of our games, it’s beginning to appear that ‘paymium’ may be the most commercial route given the size of the audience, their propensity to pay and the ease of generating awareness. But on iOS, being new to the platform, freemium is the only model that makes sense to us currently.

FYI, I don’t believe the gaming world will end up existing purely of games that you can play forever with continuous loops, return mechanics and daily bonuses. I believe there will always be games that have a beginning and an end and a strong linear storyline. For these kind of games, I’m not convinced that freemium is necessarily the correct approach.

Oscar Clark Evangelist at Papaya

I get to look at the data for lots of different games which use lots of different models – most of which I can’t talk about publicly.  That’s why I’m confident to say that Paywalls don’t work and that those that have them don’t know how successful they could be.  Of course there may be exceptions, but I’m not judging this on just publicly available information.

Mark Sorrell Game Director

The game that always leaps out as a ‘you can’t do that fremium’ is Skyrim. The joy of Skyrim, the hook, is that sense of complete freedom in a huge, huge world. The fact that you can go anywhere and do anything. That emotion seems to be the exact opposite of what fremium is capable of. Sometimes, paying up-front will allow the player to experience emotions they just wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

At that point, the question of what makes more money is a bit irrelevant. If you want to make the maximum amount of money, don’t make a game about (the illusion of) unlimited freedom. But don’t think that you can’t make good money from offering that, you patently can.

We make beautiful machines, eh? Sure, the machine must function with efficiency and power. But it must also be beautiful and full of joy.

*single tear rolls down cheek*

Teut Weidemann Online Specialist at Ubisoft

Bleh. Skyrim is the one example which can work freemium beautifully. Of course you can explore the whole world for free. No paywalls there. RPGs are ideal candidates for freemium but slightly overcrowded 😉


Oscar Clark Evangelist at Papaya

There are lots of different techniques and that’s where Freemium creativity has just started. Basically it comes down to understanding what you are selling and what is driving repeat play.

Is it really important to focus on payments linked to the release of those levels or episodes?  If so could you release them over time, allowing users to only unlock them by fulfilling certain conditions, e.g. Games like Cogs used a great technique where you had to have a certain number of ‘Gold’ stars to unlock later levels – creating reasons to replay specific levels or to pay to skip the grind. Or with Cause Of Death there was a delay to accessing the new content after completing a story; but you could pay to get this early.

Personally I think the release of episodic content over time is a driver for old players to return especially if there is a published schedule which the developer keeps – and this momentum is worth more as a retention feature.  I’d focus on monetisation through virtual goods which support the play such as health potions or special equipment or experience boosting crystals. Infinity Blade used weapon based experience which meant that once you mastered a weapon you stopped getting bonus experience – giving you reasons to change your equipment. Of course I’m using a fantasy example but we could be talking weapons, engine upgrades, et.

But all this does imply that the narrative is supported with repeatable play mechanisms; even if these are simple side-line minigames like cleaning weapons or tuning your vehicles.  If your story can’t be adjusted to support that then I guess it will be difficult to make Freemium – but the I’d argue that’s quite difficult to make commercial anyway.

Will Luton Director at Mobile Pie

Narrative per se isn’t incompatible with making money in a freemium manner, you can monetise around it. The problem is that, for a narrative to be compelling, it has to conclude in a reasonable period, whereas most free-to-play models allow for continuous play in the months, if not years.

Very few stories can sustain that long.

Oscar Clark Evangelist at Papaya

Good point – but if we think bigger then we can deliver a series of self-contained narratives in the same world/context.  This has the advantage of allowing us to re-purposing the original game assets whilst building more as we go along. This approach also means we can tell stories from different perspectives. To my mind the creative opportunity is tremendous.

Patrick O’Luanaigh CEO at nDreams

So maybe Nicholas’s next question should be something like:

“If free-to-play becomes the main business model for platforms that are encourage longer play times and less ‘snacking’ (such as consoles or PC), how can rich, 8-hour long single-player narrative games (think Half Life 2, Tomb Raider or any other high quality linear game) be monetised?”

About Gamesbriefers

Every week, we all ask our august panel of luminaries a burning question in the world of free-to-play and paymium game design. Or we ask a broader question on the future of the industry. We’re not going to announce who is a GAMESbriefer. You’ll just have to read the posts to see who is saying what to whom. We have CEOs and consultants, men and women, Brits, Germans, Americans, indies, company people and much more besides.