Stories from the post-free world

Stories from the post-free world
Will Luton

By Will Luton

October 14th 2011 at 8:00AM

The free model has been robustly proven, and it still has masses of potential, writes Mobile Pie's Will Luton

When I was asked to write this column I promised to myself that I would avoid writing about free. I’d covered it a lot, as has everyone else, at conferences and in specialist press and it’s fast becoming old and rather tired.

Yet I still see lots of young start-ups – and repositioning giants – chucking out numbers about how well they’ve done with free over paid.

When we at Mobile Pie launched Top Trumps for iOS recently we pushed a free version with an up-sell to premium branded decks and then those premium decks as paid, individual apps.

Top Trumps Collection – the free one – hit number three in the UK all apps chart and the top-50 grossing, whilst the paid apps, well, didn’t.

FREE TO MOVE ON

These sort of stories garner a lot of attention in the press, so I guess there’s still a lot of people out there scratching their heads. What’s going on is simple. We are now in a post-free world.

The free model has been robustly proven. It does well where it can be applied – at the moment mostly web and mobile – and it will continue to do so. Unless of course the predicted consumer free burnout happens. Which it won’t.

The reason why I’m certain it won’t happen is because what’s hot now is not free itself but the new ways of using free which are financially viable and creatively progressive.

I don’t have the keys to the ‘Future of Free Castle’ and I won’t pretend to.

What I do have, having designed, released and supported several free games, is a knowledge of the basics. Which I would like to share with you in a contrived, awkward metaphor.

It all starts in a far away kingdom where games are actually theme parks. Some parks have fences surrounding them, that millions jump over daily, and a ticket booth. That’s a paid game.

A free game is another type of park, a park that has no ticket booth and no fence. People stroll in and out of these parks freely. Inside the park they get access to the rides and the picnic area, where their friends are, for free. They have to queue, but they are free.

So how does this park make money? It has big billboards (banner ads) a branded trampoline (product placement), and a shop selling t-shirts (virtual goods) and VIP queue jumps (boosts or energy).

At a paid park you make the most money by spending lots on telling everyone that you have the best show on earth behind the fence and then charging lots of money for a ticket.

At the free park you make most money by having lots of visitors all looking at the many adverts and branded trampolines, but also buying from the shop. It’s a big balancing act between the cost of the park, how appealing the rides are, the number of billboards, the number of visitors, how expensive the shop is and how you get people in there without pissing them off.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

Paid parks have been doing and perfecting their thing for over 30 years, but free parks have only been around for four years since the land became cheap (Facebook and mobile app stores) and shops could open (microtransactions).

What happens next in my story is going to be the best bit. The paid parks have been watching how the free parks have shops and encourage their visitors to bring along their friends and they like it.

Infinity Blade Park opened up with a shop. It means even the fence jumpers could spend money. Meanwhile Rockstar Games opened parks with social clubs.

Elsewhere, the free parks have been looking at the paid parks’ rides and so parks like the Quake Live Park opened. They want the big rides to sit next to the shop and queue jumps and the billboards and the trampoline.

It’s all a bit awkward now, but they’re working it out.

On top of this further land owners are allowing parks to be free – Sony just set up the Free Realms Park – so there will be more and more of them. Soon almost all of the land will be free parks interspersed with big-ticketed mega-parks, which the free parks will forever struggle to compete with for glitz and glamour.

All of this is interesting not because of the fences or the ticket booths – or lack of them – but what’s going on inside.

Although we’re an industry obsessed with numbers and stats, we should spend less time seeking proof of the already proven and starting looking for and making exceptions to the rules: Games that do free – or paid – in new ways.

Our industry has been given a rebirth nobody expected.
Let’s stop figuring out the inception date and boasting the birth weight and start thinking about what they’ll grow up to be. I want them to be an astronaut.

And that’s why next month I’ll be asking the important question: “Are games art?”

Just kidding.