At the time of this writing, there are no Angry Birds games in the top 20 charts for either iPhone or iPad. That means our irritably feathered friends are missing in the paid, free and top grossing charts. It’s been a while since they’ve been seen in the top grossing spots, but to be dethroned from their comfortable chair in the top 10 paid is quite the turn of events.
But truthfully we all saw it coming. I even wrote about this last year. Angry Birds is a great premium game, but it doesn’t make sense in a freemium world where free to play games dominate the charts.
Freemium has been a controversial issue. If you aren’t familiar, these are games you download for free but can spend money purchasing items and currency in the game. They are often referred to as “free to play” and some have said it’s ruining gaming because of it’s avid use in social games. The truth is small independent studios that rely on ad revenue to stay in business would have dried up 2 years ago if we were still stuck at a .99 premium model on the app store. These high payouts from ad companies like Chartboost and Revmob would have never happened if social games didn’t sweep the landscape.
What’s interesting is love it or hate it, it was bound to happen.
History repeats itself
Want to know where mobile gaming will be in 5 years? Look East. Far east.
The U.S. has been slowly following the game monetization path Asia trail blazed a decade ago. Let’s take South Korea for example, who has one of the largest free-to-play markets in the world. Video games are a borderline national sport there with extremely popular televised Starcraft events. The events have turned into such a large viewership it landed one South Korean TV station in a lawsuit with Starcraft developers, Blizzard. When discussing game monetization, the 1980s and 1990s in South Korea weren’t much different than the Western world, but in 2002 things started to change with the release of Maple Story. Maple Story is a free to play role playing game in an anime pixel style. The game was a huge hit and the developer, Nexon, have created a string of culturally popular freemium RPG games since.
Nexon solidified the freemium model with insane revenues. They are currently doing over $1 Billion a year on their free to play games.
How can indie developers make freemium games?
If you want to make $1 billion dollars a year in revenue, be prepared to spend about as much acquiring game companies and staffing up. Obviously that’s not the most people’s goal, so as indie developers how can we use this proven concept? We could look over to social gaming, but I’ll tell you from personal experience those are expensive to create. My first social game cost me over $30,000 and the second one another whopping $12,000. It can be wildly profitable, but be prepared to spend some serious expenses to create the game the first time.
[row][col_half]For independent game business owners, the best way to start with freemium games is to build endless games. This is why small studios like the teams behind Temple Run and Subway Surfers have crushed it with the freemium model. It’s also why Angry Birds didn’t work as a freemium game… it wasn’t endless.[/col_half][col_half]
“Angry Birds didn’t work as a freemium game… it wasn’t endless”
Why does it matter?
To understand this, we first have to discuss why people actually play games.
The best book I’ve read on game design is aptly titled The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell. Jesse spends the whole first chapter simply trying to explain what exactly a “game” is and I have to admit, it’s pretty genius. He goes on to explain that the most important part of the user experience.
Can you guess what that is?
A good friend of mine concludes this with the word “Wonder”, which is a great substitute. People keep playing your game beacuse they either want to beat their own score, see the next level or unlock the next item they’ve been eyeing the last 2 weeks.
Levels in a game are the classic and ultimate surprise.
Think back when you played Super Mario Brothers the first time. Most likely you were extremely curious what the next level would look like. What enemies you would have to beat and if there would be any new power-ups or obstacles to weave through. A more recent example in the platformer genre is Rayman Orgins. Nik, the main programmer at Game Academy, turned me onto this game and we played for hours. One of the biggest parts of the experience I remember was wondering, “What will come next?”.
This sense of wonder is great, but too much can be bad. Why? Because let’s assume with any game there is an anticipation meter. When this meter is full, then the user has maxed out their anticipation for the next surprise. That surprise would be some sort of new experience. Possibly a new level, a new character or a new item in the game. When the meter is full, they have enough to occupy their curiosity and aren’t interested in more surprises. If this were not the case, then we could just make a game called “Surprise box” and have 10,000 crates you touch to open. That wouldn’t be fun, it would be surprise overload. If you have too many surprises, they aren’t special anymore.
Within here lies the issue with leveled freemium games. The users’ steadfast goal is to complete the level. They don’t have as much interest in unlocking a new character typically, because that will not progress them further into the game. With endless style games, unlocking new items IS the game. There are no levels, the only things to do in the game is beat your high score, while collecting coins to unlock new items.
For a similar reason, this is why Angry Birds didn’t convert well with the freemium model. There are so many goals you are trying to accomplish that spending money for items becomes secondary. Also it didn’t hurt that people have to be getting bored of flicking birds. You can only flick so many birds for so long.
That said, I think Angry Birds is a brilliant franchise and probably the best marketing lesson in merchandising the last 10 years. I’m not sure if anyone has rivaled the amount of brand exposure they’ve achieved since Disney or Star Wars. They created Angry Birds bed sheets, skateboards, candy, and even Duct Tape.
With that much brand exposure, I don’t think we have to worry about them going anywhere for too long.