The independent developer Radian Games has questioned the ability to be "fair" to players and remain successful with the free-to-play model.
In a post on the company's blog about its iOS game Bombcats, Radian addressed two idealistic notions about freemium: namely, that quality and generous access to the game's content are reliable drivers for financial success.
In 100,000 downloads of its game, Radian received less than 100 in-app purchases. "I don't know exactly how much Bombcats needed to make to keep Radiangames in business, but these numbers aren't close... I can't foresee any likely scenario that would boost the game up to the daily revenue needed."
The key problem, the post explained, is that, "making a free-to-play game that's not pushy about purchases and signing into Facebook or whatever else just doesn't work without many millions of downloads." For independent developers with limited reach and marketing budgets, like Radian Games, free-to-play developers are reliant on explosions in popularity that may be beyond their direct control.
"In terms of making money from it, I tried to straddle a line between free-to-play but fair and it's failing financially as a result"
Radian's tentative solution to this was generosity, but, "it's obvious now Bombcats is just too generous with everything. It's more generous than many paid games. I was hoping the quality and value of the game would draw people in, make them happier to spend some money on it as they further along, and more likely to tell others about it. The second may still happen, but the first is barely happening.
"I tried to make a fairly unique, very high-quality physics puzzle game, and I think I succeeded very well there. But in terms of making money from it, I tried to straddle a line (F2P but fair) and it's failing financially as a result."
The struggles of developers like Radian Games cuts against the notion that free-to-play needn't hinder the creative process. Radian is now preparing to convert its game to a paid app rather than alter what it believes to be a good design to be more mercenary with its players.
A similar concern was raised by Sid Meier in an interview with GamesIndustry International last week. Meier, who has just launched his free-to-play iOS game, Ace Patrol, claimed that making monetisation a part of a game's design is, "not a totally comfortable thing."
"We really don't want to get into a situation where the two are in conflict," he said. "Where to make my game more fun I would do this and to make my game earn more money I have to do this. I'm looking for places where those two are in agreement.... The game should be as fun as it can be."
"Don't worry about the top-grossing charts, they are not a metric you should be following. Throw out the idea of building a game around a business model"
Nathan Vella, Capy Games
In a session at this year's GDC, Capy Games' Nathan Vella expressed concerns that too many independent developers are rushing into free-to-play based on an idealistic view of its creative utility, and the revenue of top games like Clash of Clans. Not only does it favour a larger scale of users, he argued, but it also strongly favours a limited number of genres.
"Don't worry about the top-grossing charts, they are not a metric you should be following," he said. "They are not a metric that you should be caring about. There is still a massive amount of revenue to made, even outside of the Top 100 chart... Throw out the idea of building a game around a business model."
Of course, a number of the most popular and lucrative free-to-play games on platforms like iOS and Android started from humble origins. However, the reasons for a breakout success are often inscrutable, even for the developers responsible for the game. In an interview with GamesIndustry earlier this month, Gungho Entertainment's Kazuki Morishita attributed much of Puzzle & Dragons incredible success to simple good fortune as much as quality.
"If everyone focused on sales and they came up with a solution, then every company would make money," he said. "We really think that, in terms of sales, it has to do a lot with luck, and we believe that as long as we focus on the creative side and make sure that the game is fun, at least among us, that's something that will transition to sales as well sooner or later."
For Radian Games, however, that advice will seem fatally flawed.