What choice did we have?
When we started Itzy Interactive a little over a year ago, we were already too late. Developers has already undercut each other’s prices on the app store to the point where all games were already pretty much in the $1-2 dollar range, and the freemium pricing model of giving away a game for free and earning revenue from in-app purchases had already taken root. It was a bit like pulling up to the starting line after the race had started and you’re informed that everyone has already piled up in a spectacular crash in the middle of the racetrack but you go ahead anyway. There we were, all shiny and new, ready to go and determined to make our mark and hopefully pay our bills in the process. When we launched Itzy3d we knew right from the start that freemium was the direction we would go with this and future releases. Our second title, Vex Blocks, is also planned as a freemium release. The reasons just made sense to us and still do.
As a small indie team our resources are limited. When it comes to marketing our products we simply don’t have a lot of options available to us due to our financial constraints. We’ve spoken to other developers who have been successful in the mobile marketplace and a few of them maintain that paying for ads simply doesn’t pay. Certainly the response we’ve seen to the ads we ran in an attempt to test the waters back this up. The increased visibility and downloads we received when running our mobile ad campaigns simply did not pay for the money spent on those ads. Social marketing through our Facebook, Twitter and blogging efforts probably put just as many eyes on our products and didn’t cost us anything but our time.
So that leaves really only two other factors that we have any control over as indie developers: the game we’re creating and the price point we choose for that game. Now game quality is an interesting topic. We’re not so arrogant as to assume our games will be of the same calibre as games made by more experienced teams, or made by larger teams with millions at their disposal. So we endeavour to make the best games we can possibly make given our talents and the resources available to us and that’s all that can be expected of us.
We’re not operating under any illusion that we’ll create the next runaway hit. Something that always strikes me about people I speak with in the industry and developer interviews I see from successful indies is that they never know if what they’ve created is any good. There’s always that nervousness as they release their product into the wild when you simply don’t know how you’ll be received. You’d like to think that you’ve made a game people will enjoy, that you’ve made something that stands out but what you think and what the reviewers, other developers and ultimately gamers think can be completely different. Opinion is opinion. The notion that if you simply create an excellent title people will flock to it is contingent on something you have no control over. People’s opinions of what constitutes a great game. So you do what you can. You set out and make the game you want to make and you make it to the best of your abilities. Then you learn from your mistakes and hopefully don’t go broke in the process.
So the only option left to us, the only other thing we can control is the price, and against the hundreds of thousands of other games out there – what chance do our little, independently made games stand against juggernauts that are already charging nothing right out of the gate? Freemium isn’t the only option for mobile developers, but realistically in today’s marketplace – what choice do indies really have? Convert or die. The notion that your games are super special and people will recognize this fact and line up to throw money at you may work in rare instances where the planets align just so but that’s like putting a video of yourself singing up on youtube in the hopes of being discovered. Sure it happens, but so do lottery wins. For us it makes more sense to level the playing field as much as possible to maximize our chances of success. That’s why we went freemium. There’s simply too many free games available in today’s mobile marketplace to risk alienating users by asking the price of a cup of coffee for our hard work. At least, not right off the bat.
Making the decision to go freemium doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve sold your soul to Old Scratch either. Freemium games receive a lot of grief from “core” gamers for some very good reasons. There are companies out there that use freemium and combined with habit forming hooks they keep gamers addicted to apps that more than a few gamers would turn their noses up at. There are companies that try to obscure the actual price of in-app purchases. Other companies offer multiplayer games with the option to purchase powerups to gain an advantage over other players. All the above give the freemium model, in my opinion, a bit of a bad reputation but it doesn’t have to be this way.
I prefer to approach freemium games the same way people approached shareware. “Here’s the game to try and if you like the game, please support us by purchasing some of our other options.” No tricks. Nothing hidden. If you like it, please support us. I view the the freemium pricing structure no differently than offering a demo version, but the key to me (and to my conscience) is to not waste gamer’s time with a mere taste but to make it worth their while. There are a lot of products vying for gamers attention and I always keep that in the back of my mind to make sure our products are offering up enough gameplay that I would be satisfied, as a gamer, with the amount of play I’ve received. Then, hopefully, gamers will like what they see and respond by opening their wallets.