How Freemium Developers Get You To Pay
Free, microtransaction-driven games are here to stay.
It seems like every multiplayer title on the computer or phone these days is using the free-to-play (freemium) model. While the genre is still in its infancy, most developers tend to adhere to a few specific design styles that emphasize the old gambling adage of “separating a sucker from his money.” The best defense against being tricked is knowing the tricks yourself, and I’ve got the lowdown on all the ways developers aim to part you from your money.
This knowledge is not an inoculation against the temptation of freemium games. Rather, it will allow you to make an educated decision as to whether you really want to give a developer your money. By knowing all the tricks, you can figure out whether or not you want to fall for them. It’s entirely possible that you will do so quite often! I’ve shelled out far more than I care to admit for some freemium games.
Before we get started with the different design styles, you need to understand the basics of the freemium model. Developers who produce freemium games measure their users by a few metrics: average revenue per user (ARPU), lifetime value (LTV) and churn. ARPU is simply the total revenue of a title divided by how many people play it. LTV is how much a player puts into the game while their account is active. Churn is how often players – especially players that have paid – leave the game.
Think of it like an ocean where the players are fish and the developers are fishermen. The fishermen want many fish (ARPU) that are nice and plump (LTV). However, if the fish are constantly escaping the nets and warning other fish off (churn), the fishermen can go out of business. Developers want maximum ARPU and LTV while maintaining minimal churn. They want you to stay addicted and pay without being forced away through frustration or anger.
The players who do this – keep playing and keep paying – are called “whales” (a term from gambling circles). Their LTV is off the charts, and the often spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on decking out their accounts with all the cool stuff they can. Whales are the current focus of freemium design, and developers aim to convert as many players into whales as possible. A small percentage of whales can contribute immensely to a game’s revenue, and the continual conversion of subscription-based titles to the freemium model – with accompanying revenue boost – is proof of just how much players are willing to pay.
So now that you know what freemium developers want from you, it’s time to tell you how they take it.