In the mobile world, freemium products seem to have come out of nowhere and massively changed the way the business works. I’ve seen some products create massive success with this model, and I’ve seen spectacular failure as well. I’ve looked at the pitches, the business models, and the expectations of revenue generation from incredibly excited teams as they take a turn at having their slice of delicious freemium pie. I’m still not much closer to truly having an expertise on the subject, but I have learned a few things regarding the freemium model.
- Plan for freemium, don’t adapt to freemium. Each product needs to have the mindset of being a true freemium title right from the outset. In fact, this needs to be one of the most important discussion topics right off the bat. Taking a title that was initially planned as a paid title, greenlit as a paid title, and had initial development started as a paid title, shifted to a freemium model during active development is a recipe for disaster. The amount of risk added to the project is intense, and the risk of alienating members of the team is not trivial.
- Freemium should enhance the game, not be the game. Despite the relative newness of freemium (is newness a word? Should I purchase the DLC that will tell me?), it has changed quite a bit since inception. The most successful freemium titles now are the ones that hit the perfect balance of what they give you for free, versus what you need to pay for. A great example of this is The Simpsons: Tapped Out (full disclosure, I did work on this title, but more in an ancillary/support manner). The core game is entirely playable without spending a dime. It is fun, dynamic and oddly addictive. At no point do you *have* to spend real money. Instead, for a lot of players, they are enjoying themselves so much that they want to. The premium content is an added bonus, not the backbone of the game itself.
- Be ready with customer support. Nothing kills a game’s momentum quite so much as a string of terrible reviews, especially ones backed by apparent apathy from the developer. When bad things happen (and they will), there needs to be a strong support system in place to help the users. While this is true for free apps, paid apps are even more susceptible, and freemium apps even more so. Real money for digital items makes people edgy. Continued investment in a digital product creates a level of expectation that needs to be met. While obviously the ideal is to have everything running smoothly 100% of the time, we sadly do not live in a magical land of pixies and unicorns (also, the pixies and unicorns are awesome coders in said magical land). Having a strong customer support that is engaged with the consumer, communicative, and supportive is a very important part of making sure that people continue to support your product, even after misstep.
The freemium model is a delicate balance to make successful, but when done right can be a potential windfall. A quick look at the Play Store’s Top Grossers tells the story. Out of the top 100, ninety four of them use some form of a freemium model. In fact, the first paid app only shows up at number thirty nine. It’s a trend that is impossible to ignore, but difficult to really master. It is the perfect example of risk vs reward. Going the freemium route adds considerable extra risk (extra development on the back end, better planning needed for game economy, a solid grasp on how to deliver freemium goods, a direct engagement with customers, and that ever important customer support level), but can make for an incredibly profitable title. It’s an interesting route, and one that may slowly take over how mobile goods are delivered.