Why Spend a Dollar in Free-to-play?


The industry has a growing obsession with “free-to-play,” a tough style of monetization that draws in users under the guise of no-cost gaming. Typically, it is anything but free. Prices can range anywhere from a quarter to hundreds of dollars, calling for “the whales,” hyper-addicted customers who blow thousands for non-existent items for use in these digital worlds.

But, the existence of free-to-play, now sneaking onto consoles with the likes of Doritos Crash Course 2, is misplaced. The crux of the idea, players being asked to spend small amounts in support of a development team – and potential for continued profits – goes against the priceline of (often) mobile gaming structures.

For one dollar, I could access extra lives in Candy Crush Saga, or purchase an actual, full game that won’t ask me to spend again. In the space of mobile gaming, the existence of low entry software creates a logistical barrier. Is the restrictive paywall a more logical purchase than the millions of other apps on the service? Probably not.

What has illogically succeeded is the mentality. Seeing “free” next to an app on the Google Play store is enticing, whether one knows the business model or not. Therein lies why Candy Crush Saga – a bloated clone of Bewjewled – has catapulted to the peak of the store’s charts. PopCap’s Bejeweled 2 lists for $3 on the Play store, Candy Crush Saga is free. Bejeweled sits at 30th in the paid charts, and if stats are correct, that doesn’t say much when only 3% of apps are accessed via the paid model. Apple’s iOS marketplace is a hair more tantalizing: 17% of sales are paid.

Most of the games listed on these services are small. Unless they latch onto an audience, including those casual players, they will rarely find success. The charts are everything. Social is everything. When friends are playing, so are you. Thus, finding friends to play for “free” is easier, but often inconceivable as a better value than an actual, fully functional title.

Some games treat their consumer base with respect, shuffling non-essential items into its pay structure. Those are less of a bother. Others, Candy Crush Saga included, feed into impatience in a mobile space based around a lifestyle of on-the-go play. They charge for in-game lives or force the player to wait hours to access more, which doesn’t work on the way home from work on the subway. So, people spend the dollar on an artificial limitation as opposed to broader software. The hook is more powerful than we know.

In actuality, the explosiveness of free-to-play has sucked the waters dry. When less than 5% of your audience is paying money, a mentality has been established that punishes developers looking for a more traditional living. It also further solidifies a dangerous mindset that things on the Internet should be free. Major publishers will soon be dipping into the waters of digital AAA gaming. They will likely land a hardcore audience (Steam already has), but what of those who “splurge” on free-to-play? If they wouldn’t pay one dollar, what makes anyone think they will pay $60?

I can’t imagine they will.