You don’t need to be an expert in the latest form of the user acquisition funnel to know that the world of free-to-play games is a complex one.
There exists a vast industry built around turning free games into successful ones, and a host of bewildering phrasing around the likes of retargeting, ad bidding networks and effective cost per paying user.
It can feel as intimidating as it can be bewildering, but making your game free can also serve as a gateway of discoverability, and potentially bring millions of customers to see your creation.
And for those unsure about the best way forward, fortunately there are some realistic, practical things you can do to give your free game the best chance of success, both critically and commercially.
Speak to the various studios that have seen their Unity-authored F2P games enjoy both healthy chart position and revenues, and while they all have a lot of different ideas about how to monetize, one concept is universal.
Make the decision to go with free before you design a single thing, build it into your game’s very core, and be sure that, above all else, you have a good playable game.
That is all easier said than done, of course, but it’s a lesson that has led to many studios meeting with remarkable mobile success, and brought some back from a point where games were not making anything like enough money.
“Free-to-play can only be decided on before you start any development, as it includes every single thing in the game that follows,” offers Jakob Lykkegaard, Co-Founder and CEO of Pocket PlayLabs, which saw its puzzle hit Juice Cubes picked up and published under Rovio’s own Rovio Stars banner, before it went on to secure over 25 million downloads and a still sizable 2 million daily active users.
“We had – before Juice Cubes – made a big mistake with Lost Cubes, as we tried to make a premium game free-to-play in the middle of the production,” continues a reassuringly frank Lykkegaard. “We ended up with a ‘free premium game’ that didn’t monetize at all.”
But what exactly is designing for free-to-play? For some of the most successful studios, it about the kind of design a number of Unity users will likely warm to.
“We concentrate on hardcore gameplay and our visual quality still remains top-notch,” says Marek Rabas, CEO and Co-Founder of Madfinger, which continues to enjoy much success with its Dead Trigger 2 title, now downloaded 80-million-plus times.
And according to Rabas, designing for F2P success stems from delivering “great core gameplay and visually stunning environments, high quality models, motion capture animation, all built around F2P mechanics.”
What Mad Finger and the Dead Trigger IP have shown is that, if paired with workable freemium mechanisms, traditional game design values and concepts can still make for a significant mobile success story. There’s a misconception that free-to-play success demands designing a game built from the likes of microscopic core loops and roulette-style spinners. Those concepts can work too, but the point is this; as long as you are thinking how to apply your gameplay to free from day one, and what monetization model you choose, almost any genre or form can thrive.
The monetization methods can vary wildly, of course, and today while pay wall timers continue to remain popular, in-game ads, character customization IAP, cross-promotion for external apps and the established unlockable content remain viable options.
But however you monetize your mobile game, one thing is clear; pestering your player to spend – or making obstacles to progressing for free too aggressive – is not the way forward, and can ultimately be financially counterproductive.
Yet there is much you can do without disgruntling your player base.
“We tried avoid using pay walls, but instead try to create scenarios where the player would want to spend money in our game, even though he doesn't have to,” explains Moti Novo, Co-Founder and Creative Director at Jelly Button; a studio seeing its recent Unity-authored release Pirate Kings enjoy some 930,000 daily active users, despite the team being a relatively new entity.
“We wanted to make a place where payers and non-payers would have identical experiences and a balanced progression,” continues Novo. “We trusted that a beautiful environment, and a fun enough interaction with friends we would keep people involved in the game regardless of whether they want to pay or not."
As Jelly Button demonstrates, you needn’t commit to pay-to-win and aggressive pay-walling to meet with success. In fact, for the Israeli team and many of their contemporaries, quite the opposite is true.
Similarly – the experts agree – if you are relying on ads for revenue in your free game, it’s about integrating them into the design if the game in a way that feels natural, and won't aggravate the player.
“Our business model is ‘free plus ads’,” states Nicolas Sorel, CEO of Magma Mobile, which has turned to Unity for all of their games such as the wildly popular Burger, and enjoyed 380 million downloads across its catalogue. “Sometimes we implement some in-app purchases, but majority of our model is ads monetization. When we build a game, we try to put ads at a good place and at the right moment. We try to find the right balance not to annoy our users and so we don’t ruin their Magma Mobile experience.
“But I want to be clear,” continues a clearly passionate Sorel. “We avoid intrusive ads; we try to make a clean integration of banners that don't annoy our users. When we integrate in-app purchase in a game to buy something, we automatically remove ads. If a user buys something in-app, our way of thanking the user is to remove advertising in the game.”
Well-placed ads can certainly work well in free games – as case in point being the Unity-authored hit Crossy Road, which made two-man studio Hipster Whale a global success story. Harnessing the Unity Ads ecosystem, Crossy Road integrated commercials into its gameplay without ever forcing them on players, and only ever promoted other games: something that worked for both Hipster Whale and its players.
Ads, it is clear, offer an option available to studios of every size, even if they don’t have a seven-figure user acquisition budget. And they can be used in myriad different ways.
“We chose to release Blendoku for free with the core of the game – so all levels are free,” offers Rod Green, Co-Founder and Developer of Lonely Few, a team of two that saw a mobile hit with their minimalist puzzler. “You could call it 'unlimited trial'. It's ad supported and […] we added purchasable expansions over the course of development.
“A key thing for us was to make any purchase remove ads. We figured if you want to pay for some extra content then we'll treat it like it's a premium paid product. We also don't have any consumable purchases as we feel they don't fit the 'unlimited trial' concept.”
Lonely Few selected the model as they didn't expect to have access to a big marketing budget; they were developing a distinct concept and thus wanted to be able to capitalize on grassroots support.
“The initial paid barrier to entry would have seriously hindered Blendoku's ability to be shared and enjoyed by so many people,” concludes Green, taking us back to the opening point. Whether you’re a big-budget powerhouse or a small, creatively bold start-up, free can offer a gateway to you’re game that can bring players – some of them paying – pouring in.
If you handle it right and design it into your game from day one, free can be an important part of making your game a mobile success story.
Those that want to harness the potential of free-to-play to make their creation reach more people – or make them more money – can design it into the game from the start, without sacrificing gameplay standards or ideas. Consider the monetization model that best matches your design, and avoid irritating your users with your ads, IAP or pay-walls, and matching the success of some of the most bankable Unity-authored projects is far from impossible.
There’s rather more to it than that, of course, which is why this is just the first in a series of blog posts looking at how to make your mobile game a success, with advice from Unity users that have done it themselves.
Other blog posts in this series: