Why Free Samples Work

Every week or so, I walk into my local Costco and talk to Meredith, who politely offers me a taste of whatever food she’s providing free samples of that day. Luckily for me, last week was chicken nugget week, and Meredith’s food cart was conveniently standing in front of a huge display of chicken nugget bags. Within 4 feet, I could try the free sample, and if I liked it, grab the bag to purchase.

Costco has used the free sample approach for as long as I can remember, because they understand the need to entice shoppers to new products. Shoppers generally walk into a store with a shopping list, and they are numb to discovery of new products that are not on their list. This lack of interest makes sense from a consumer standpoint: Why should someone invest money in a new product that they know nothing about, especially when their old chicken nuggets taste just fine? Seth Godin, a fellow bald guy, describes this principle in his TED talk about purple cows:

Consumers don’t care about you at all, they just don’t care. Part of the reason is that they have way more choices than they are used to, and way less time; and in a world where we have too many choices and too little time, the obvious thing to do is ignore stuff.


Game development today is dominantly focused on mobile, and with a total app footprint topping 1.4 million, it’s safe to say that most users have too many choices and too little time. This is why mobile app stores are so fervently fought over: They tell users what to pay attention to, and without that prompting, apps can easily languish.

The question for you as a game developer, then, is how to get noticed in these ecosystems and make your app rise above the noise. In this context, many developers have come to the realization that cost is an added barrier to entry. This realization has led to the development of freemium applications, which are now a dominant revenue stream. Even developers of premium applications produce free-trial equivalents in app stores, offering a familiar nod back to our shareware roots. The proof is there: Users are more willing to try something if it’s free.

As a game developer, then, you should be providing free samples of your game, not just in app stores, but to every human on the planet. For years, game developers have focused on making their apps available on as many platforms as possible. Digital distribution services do offer an opportunity to provide a free version of your content, but silo barriers still filter out many of the potential users that would otherwise seek to discover your content. Supporting multiple platforms also comes with an implicit resource cost, which at some point raises the issue of diminishing returns and Region of Interest.

 

The Ultimate Free-Candy Platform: The Internet

As a platform, the web provides an unbounded opportunity for game developers to reach out and engage with potential users. The viral nature of the Internet hasn’t diminished with time; in fact it has accelerated. Consider as an example the launch of the game 10000000. Eli Hodapp, the editor-in-chief of TouchArcade, quickly found and fell in love with the game. As was reported:

 

The speed of all this is remarkable: It only took a few hours for the community to begin talking about the game, which alerted Hodapp to its existence, and he gave it a shot and played through the day. His review went live that evening, less than 12 hours after the game had been released, and before anyone else in the industry was aware of it.


Hodapp then went on to quickly tell his friends about the app, even buying some a copy so they could try it.

That type of quick uptake and social championing confirms the results of a large research study that analyzed how mobile users discover new content. Not surprisingly, the two dominant sources through which users found out about new content were social channels and friends groups; on-mobile stores were in 3rd place in the study.

This trend has been confirmed by other studies as well. Google’s own Research Division produced a great case study showing that game players are more attached to the web for their discovery/purchasing options. They also retain the connection to the web post-purchase, looking to extend their experience through multiple channels.

As an industry, we’ve seen web-based success stories play out frequently. Minecraft started as a Java application played in a browser. That web presence let players experience and share the content quickly, and enabled the developer to raise over $700k in user-contributed funds to help finish the game (a task done way before Kickstarter was around).

The HTML5 game Bouncy Mouse illustrates another great example of how to use the free-candy web. Their case study shows that the web version of their game not only generates revenue, but also gives them the ability to leverage the reach and ease-of-discovery aspects of the web to help drive users to the mobile versions of the game.

Other games, like Air-Mech and Don’t Starve, have taken advantage of the web’s reach and ease-of-access to offer early beta builds of the games to a large user base, iterating and making improvements before doing bigger launches in other digital distribution locations.

And on a personal note, I quickly backed funding support for Desktop Dungeons after I found  the game and played a lightweight version of it in HTML5. Which I highly suggest you do too.

 

How to Make Free Candy

Creating a web version of your game is not an easy engineering task, but it’s far from impossible. Modern web technologies are easily capable of running high quality games in a browser. With a little effort you can put those technologies to work for you.


Overcome the Language Hurdle

Converting C++ to HTML5 is one avenue that simple 2D games like Angry Birds, Fishing Joy, Cut The Rope, and Bouncy Mouse have followed. A straight port may be cumbersome, but you can fill in the gaps with a technologies like emscripten, which help maintain a game’s look-and-feel while providing decent performance.

For more complex games, you can use new technologies like Native Client that let you run your existing C++ code in a web page. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is one example of a full console game that runs right in Chrome—Native Client let the developer leverage their existing code and content in their migration to the web.

Unity developers have the option to export a web version of their game that users can play with a browser plugin. As a bonus, in the Chrome browser, Native Client eliminates the need for users to install anything.

New languages like Haxe provide an interesting middle ground. Haxe is a language that you can use to generate language-specific code for your desired platform, including C++, Objective-C, JavaScript, and Flash. With Haxe, you can write your entire game in one meta-language, and generate platform-specific builds as you see fit, each one optimized for performance and features post-Haxe-conversion.

 

Optimize for the Web

Once you’ve addressed the initial issues in creating a web build, you must make sure that your game translates over to a web experience properly. Specifically, make sure that you:


Once your game is live on the web, make sure that you allow users everywhere to experience it, and give them easy and incentivised means to share the game with their friends.

Most importantly, make sure that you take full advantage of your web presence by adding deep user-metric tracking to understand your users better, and implementing A/B testing to collect information about how users play your game. With that type of information, you can gain enough statistical data to determine which design elements in your game work, which ones don’t work, and which ones do the best job at funneling users from free-candy samples to premium  purchases.

 

Start Making Candy!

The Internet is all about free content, social channels, and going viral. By using a few key pieces of technology, you can quickly generate a web-based build of your game to help drive user adoption and provide a base platform for marketing and viral social media. Give users some free candy, and they will happily buy the Kobe steak.