A Free-First Approach: Thoughts On Mobile Game Monetization

I’m finishing up my first new mobile game in a while. I need to figure out how to monetize it. I wish there was a group or forum with other mobile game creators where I can talk about this stuff, but I haven’t found one. So I’ll talk about it here and maybe come to a conclusion. Or, maybe my thoughts will help someone else.

The most obvious way to monetize is to simply charge for the game up front. This was the original method, and has been around since day one. The problem is that with so many free and free-to-try options, you won’t get that many people to pay for something up front. Sure, if it has a big brand name in front of it, or you can afford to spend a lot on marketing, you can break through that. But for a small indie developer with no brand name content, you’ll just see zeros.

Soon after the app stores got going around 2008 or so, the second monetization method started up: advertising. This is what I use for most of my games. You allow a network, like Google AdMob, to place banners or interstitial ads in your game, the user is annoyed, and you get a steady income. This allows you to keep the game free, so more people will at least try it out. But it sucks from a design and user experience standpoint. Plus, the one network that did this really well, Apple’s iAd, doesn’t exist anymore. AdMob only pays a fraction of what iAd did.

Most big mobile games make money through in-app purchases. From a game design standpoint, you can have nice purchases like game levels or more content. But that’s not the model that really makes money. The big apps all sell in-game currency or objects. Often, you need these to advance, or at least advance quickly, in the game. The hope users get addicted to the game and then fork over the bucks. This works great when you have a ton of users and marketing money. It also requires a deep game with a lot of internal content. Small casual games can’t really do it as well, which is why it has never really worked for me.

So here’s where I am going with all of this. I have a new game to launch. I can just stick ads in it. Or. I can just charge for it. The first one may work, but I hate it and it really complicates the design. Also, when I first launch the game I can’t expect to have too many people playing, which means I won’t be seeing any real revenue anyway. So why not start with no ads, and then add them later if the game gets popular? This should increase the chances that the game is a success, right?

Or, if I plan on charging for it, I know it will be a failure right away. No one will pay $3 or even $1 for a game they have never heard of from a company they have never heard of, with no reviews. But if I start it out for free, I can always charge for it later, right? So why not start it for free, and if it fails then it would never have worked as a paid app anyway. But if it succeeds and gathers some reviews and downloads, then I can switch to charging for it.

Or, I can do in-app purchases. But that would require the development of a lot more content. I’ll need new game modes, features, etc. But I can start it out as a free app and then add all of that content later on. At that point I can start charging for the new content.

So all three monetization methods seem to work with a free-first approach. I put the game out for free. Then I can decide whether to charge for it, put ads in it, or add content. Heck, I can do all three. People that downloaded it for free can’t complain (though they will). And I can make one of the in-app purchases to remove the ads.

So a free-first approach is just the logical approach. But then why don’t I see it more often? Maybe I’m just not looking for it. Maybe these free-first games have already moved on to the paid/ads/in-app stage by the time I see them.

And there is one more advantage to the free-first method. There is a halo effect when a game does well. People will seek out other apps from the same developer, partially because the app store shows them. So if the game does well I should see an increase in ad revenue and sales from my other games even while this new game is free.

OK. I think I have talked myself into launching my new game as a free and ad-free app. We’ll see how it goes.

Posted on January 12, 2018 at 5:20 pm by site admin · Permalink
In: General

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