Why I’m Trying the Freemium Model With Starship Captain

My biggest app game ever, Starship Captain, launched today. It is a throw-back to the strategy/adventure games I created earlier in my career, Space Pirate and Rebel Dawn. But with the old comes something new: a new revenue model to try out.
“Freemium” is a term used to describe an app that is free to download, but has in-app purchases that you can buy. Some freemium games are little more than trial versions of themselves until you make the purchase. Others can be played in full, but in-app purchases make it easier to advance or speed up parts of the game. I’m going with the later model, which is used in a lot of games from Clash of the Clans to Candy Crush.
In Starship Captain, the planets on the map are grouped into clusters. You can travel to nearby planets with hyperspace warp jumps that take less than a minute to complete. But to jump to a planet in another cluster, it can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 12 hours. Still beats the hundreds of years it would take to do it in real life, though!
If you want to speed up jumps, you can use “relativity crystals” in the game. Each crystal equals one hour of time. You get 20 crystals to start. You can purchase more.

It was important to me that you would be able to play the game without paying anything. I do this all the time with these kinds of games. I just start a long process, like upgrades or buildings, in the evening and then let the process finish overnight. The same can be done with Starship Captain. You can plan your long jumps for the end of the day, and then resume playing in the morning.
Most of my games use advertising as the revenue model. You can get them for free, and there are no in-app purchases. I have a few games that have no ads in them and you pay for more content (jigsaw puzzles, Push Around levels). I have a few where you just pay up-front.
But if you are a developer and follow various blogs and discussions that go on in the industry, you hear that the freemium model is the best one. Just look at the “top grossing” list in the iTunes store. They are mostly freemium games. So it was about time I tried this model.
One of the big downsides to this model is the hate I will get. Some people get absolutely furious when they see a game use this model. In fact, within hours of launching the game I received my first anonymous hate email about it.
Of course people would prefer that games be free, with no in-app purchases and no ads. That would be nice. But that’s not realistic. I have bills to pay and mouths to feed just like everyone else.
My “job” is to create these apps. And just like other people want to get paid as much money as possible to do their job, I want to make as much money as possible doing mine. So I’ve got to look at the ways these apps make money and figure out what will do the best.
The argument most haters use is that they would rather pay upfront for the game than have in-app purchases. I like that idea too. But it isn’t the way reality works. App developers have tried and tested these and find that the freemium model works better, way better. No matter how many people say they would have rather purchased the game, the truth is that they wouldn’t have purchased it. Developers have tracked this. I’ve seen it myself.
Maybe one person saying that is telling the truth. Fine. But that $2.99 is not going to pay the bills. There would need to be thousands of people buying the game for it to make fiscal sense. And unless you have a huge marketing budget or a big brand, that isn’t going to happen.
And there is an upside to the freemium model for users too. People really do get to try the game before they spend any money on it. They may not think of it as a try-before-buy, but it works that way for them if they want to see it like that.
So I am trying the freemium model for on simple reason: I want Starship Captain to succeed. I want lots of people to play it and to have a nice revenue stream. I want the revenue to be good enough so I can justify spending time updating the game. I want to add to it, improve it and expand it. But that will only happen if the bottom line looks good. And the best chance of that, is to make the game freemium.

Posted on February 12, 2015 at 11:08 am by site admin · Permalink
In: General

5 Responses

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  1. Written by Randy
    on 2/12/2015 at 11:45 am

    It’s interesting YOU get hate when you have invested countless hours multiplied by your talent to create value and fun for people who are not forced to play the game, while meanwhile, doesn’t Apple (for iOS apps) and Google (for Android apps) take HALF of whatever is spent, “simply” for making it available in their stores? I’d MUCH rather the developer got rich from creating something valuable than stockholders. Yet only you get the hate….

  2. Written by site admin
    on 2/12/2015 at 11:51 am

    Yep. But for the record, Apple takes 30% of app store sales. Seems like a lot compared to credit card or ecommerce fees if I were selling the app from my own site. But 70% is huge when you compare to the small royalty that game developers used to get from publishers.

  3. Written by Wil Double
    on 2/12/2015 at 1:53 pm

    You picked the worst possible model of freemium in my opinion. The minute I read that your game had timers I lost all interest in playing it.

    Do I “hate” you for making the game have timers? No.

    Do I think you owe me a free game with no IAPs? No.

    But I will never play your game because making me wait 12 hours is not fun. It’s like a television network telling me I can watch 5 minutes of a TV show after I watch 12 hours of commercials. I also do not like having to keep paying to play a game. I’m not writing this to complain. I’m just giving you some feedback from an iPhone owner who does pay for games, since you are testing various models. The best model I have found is when the game is free and offers me the ability to pay for the full version after a few levels.

    A lot of games also seem to make money by charging up front then having optional IAPs. Yes that means a lot of people need to purchase the game for the developer to make money, but a lot of people normally do if the game is good. This is why a lot of people get angry at the freemium model and developers. Releasing a sub par game that needs to hold a person hostage to make money is just shitty, and it sad watching the race to the bottom ruin things like the App Store.

  4. Written by site admin
    on 2/12/2015 at 2:48 pm

    Thanks for the feedback, Will. But it isn’t exactly the same as watching 12 hours of commercials. You don’t have to watch anything. You just start the jump and then come back to play later.
    As for paying for the game up-front, you are right that people will do it if the game is good. But how to they know it is good? Word of mouth? Reviews? Neither happen for small developers because no one downloads the game in the first place. Not a problem for brands or those with marketing dollars to build brands. But then we are left with an App Store that only has games from big companies, no indie developers.
    What I don’t understand is if you are willing to pay for a game one way (up-front purchase) then why not another way (in-app purchase). Chances are, the amount you will spend is the same. But the in-app purchase way lets you try before you buy. As for doing it as “purchase more levels” — I like that, but this game doesn’t have levels. I wanted to make the in-app purchases fit in with the game, not have the game shaped by the in-app purchases.

  5. Written by Wil Double
    on 2/12/2015 at 3:56 pm

    I’m willing to pay for IAPs, but there is something about timers that’s a huge turn off for a lot of people. You play a game to pass the time, so waiting to play a game just seems to defeat the purpose. I understand your game was not created for iOS and this was the best way to monetize it since it doesn’t have any levels and so on. I also didn’t mean to insinuate that it was subpar at the end of my original comment, in case it sounded that way.

    I hope Starship Captain does well and I enjoy reading your blog. It allows me to see things from the side of an indie developer. Good luck!

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