“Making premium mobile games? Go free or PC”

Ben Cousins discusses the expectations and misconceptions among developers intending to sell their smartphone titles

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It's a topic that has already been debated in our Mobile Newsletter, but still the debate endures: is it possible to find success on mobile with a premium game?

As was discussed on our podcast earlier this year, there are plenty of impressive games available for smart devices with reasonably low price points - low enough to be in danger of undervaluing the developer's work - but studios face a reluctant audience that is difficult to convince when it comes to spending money on that initial purchase.

The indie spaces on both the Apple and Google app stores arguably offer better exposure for premium-priced games, and there's always the possibility the release of a must-have title could drive more interest in such apps. But Ben Cousins - former EA and DeNA exec, and now co-founder of Swedish dev The Outsiders - says it is too late: the tide has turned against anything but free-to-play games on mobile.

"The biggest barrier is the existence of very good quality freemium games. It's pretty much impossible to overcome that"

"The issue isn't that there aren't quality premium games or that people don't know about them," he tells "It's that people don't want to buy or don't have time to play premium games if there is an even slightly decent free alternative.

"It's not anything intrinsic in the games themselves, it's more about how the consumer sees them sitting in the marketplace relative to freemium blockbusters. The biggest barrier is the existence of very good quality freemium games, highly optimised for engagement, and advertised to the tune of millions of dollars a day each. It's pretty much impossible to overcome that."

Both Apple and Google have gone to great lengths to better curate their storefronts, highlighting acclaimed new premium games alongside their freemium competitors, and the consensus among developers seems to be that securing a highly-coveted Featured spot will solve all their problems. But, much like Google itself, Cousins urges studios not to rely on this.


"There have been high-profile premium games in recent years that were featured and did well," he concedes. "Monument Valley being a prime example. So devs assume that this was the determining factor, when really it was something more random like product fit for the marketplace at that time or product quality.

"There was a time around 2012 to 2013 where featuring on the app stores could have a huge impact on the success of a mobile games - either freemium or premium. But that time has passed and I think we are now deep into the era of heavy advertising and high engagement drowning out the effect of featuring. Premium titles are particularly unaffected by featuring, I have seen shocking data over the years where a mediocre poorly-priced premium game gets a good feature but does almost no business - four figures at best."

He goes on to posit that developers need to think long and hard about what they're trying to accomplish: delivering the game they envisage at a price they deem appropriate, or generating significant revenues from it. Both, it seems, are rarely an option. The levels of success that transform and grow businesses are now solely to be found in the increasingly competitive free-to-play market - or on another platform entirely.

"There's always going to be a market for people who are okay making a few grand from a premium game," says Cousins. "But if you want to build a business with more than 10 staff, it's pretty much impossible to do that as a premium mobile game developer.

"If you are making a premium game on mobile and you want to know what to focus on to be successful - that is not just making enough money for two people to live on for a few months - the answer has to be to make a freemium game instead or move to PC dev. This has been the case for at least two to three years - it's not a new situation."

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Latest comments (4)

Oh look, a Ben Cousins interview :P
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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup StudiosA year ago
Obviously I'm in the minority, but I actively favour premium titles because I want to avoid being needled for cash at intervals during gameplay. As a developer I'm very aware of the design compromises a freemium title has to make - even a one-off "unlock remainder of game" purchase throws you out of the experience. And the spectre of pay-to-win looms over even the most ethical I stuck on a level because I haven't figured out the right strategy yet, or is it only beatable using paid power-ups? As a customer there's no way of telling.

However, my brother refuses to countenance paying for any mobile games, as long as he has free alternatives that still hold his interest...despite my enthusiastic recommendations of MV or The Room (hi Barry!). Which is really sad.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation LtdA year ago
I don't understand the point of this argument. Clearly there *is* a market for premium mobile games and a marketing channel that can be successfully exploited - as developers and publishers such as Devolver, TinyBuild and Team 17, (and Fireproof of course ;) who continue to do this and actually have data can attest. Obviously it's a risky market. What isn't?
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Jeremiah Moss Software Developer A year ago
I think there is still some exploration to be done with the business models. Nintendo did something interesting with Super Mario Run where it essentially reflected the shareware model of years past.

Also, I don't think episodic gaming has been tried much outside of Telltale games.

I hate to say it, but: I think it would be more ideal if premium games added some optional monetization in the form of things like cosmetic items. Maybe not go whole-hog like "free" games do with multiple currencies and such, but something is better than nothing.

Part of the problem is that apps have basically trained users to be used to horrendously low price points, which are absolutely unprofitable. On a PC, a $20 game is cheap. But on mobile? $20 is seen as laughably high. Games on PC can easily sell for $60 or more when it comes to AAA titles. But the expectations users have built over the years with mobile devices has made such prices completely unthinkable.

So mobile game developers are going to have to deal with the price problem no matter what, it seems.

I should note that storefront curation is also still terrible on mobile devices. On the PC, Steam has gone to great lengths to customize the experience for the user, but Apple's App Store is still essentially one view for all users. There is no way I am going to find the game I want in the App Store on my iPhone.

All I see are what is popular at the time. Which I actually usually don't like. It would be much nicer if the app stores would try to customize their store fronts for the user, like what Steam is doing right now. Then maybe some of the lesser known titles can get a bit more visibility.
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