Free computer games are becoming ever more popular. But how free are they really?
The top of the bestseller charts in Apple’s app store looks rather different from what you might expect. The first 65 places this April were occupied exclusively by free apps. Nearly all were games, with names like Clash Royale, Game of War, Mobile Strike and Candy Crush Saga.
But how can games users don’t pay for break turnover records for the manufacturers? The answer is in-app purchases – small investments to make the game more interesting, like buying a better weapon or a tool to master a particularly complicated level. A lot of games also have built-in “wait times after you have lost a certain number of rounds. These waiting periods, which may just be minutes at the start but can become hours and even days later on, can be cut short in return for payment.
This concept is known as Free2Play or F2P. It is not a genre but a revenue model. F2P players run virtual farms, fight medieval battles or look for three precious stones of the same colour on a board. Even classic games like Patience or Mahjong can be found as F2P versions.
The idea is that you no longer have to buy games. They can be installed and played free of charge, which ensures that they are extremely widespread. But in return for money you can make life easier for yourself. Unlike the “freemium” model, which provides basic services free but charges for advanced features, there’s no fixed monthly tariff. As a rule, the F2P players pay for things that are used up in the game and so have to be repurchased again and again.
The prices may seem low, but they add up to a decidedly lucrative business. Experts estimate that the game Clash Royale alone is bringing in its manufacturer Supercell around US$2 million (£1.54 million) in the USA and on the iOS platform – every day. And, of course, it is also available on Android and in countless other countries. By comparison, the music streaming service Spotify only achieves a tenth of that turnover with its subscriptions.
From Renaults to tanks
For many players F2P is actually as the name suggests: free. The percentage of players who buy extras (the so-called conversion rate) is largely single digits. “On the mobile platforms with a lot of occasional players, you can be satisfied with 3%,” says Teut Weidemann, a game developer. He has been active in the sector since the 1980s and helped create more than 100 titles. He knows the business inside out, from the old Commodore 64 to the smartphone, from programmer to executive. He has been advising firms like Ubisoft on the F2P business for about 10 years. “Free-to-Play has increased the worldwide gamer community about tenfold,” says Weidemann. “A games console like PlayStation sells per generation, meaning a period of several years, around 100 million units. In the F2P market a single game often has that number of users.” He thinks the Wargaming firm is especially clever. “Its CEO, Victor Kislyi, once mentioned a pay quota of 25%. That would be extremely high, but it is correct – as far as I can judge from the data available to outsiders.”