The growth of free games and the impact that they’ll have on the gaming industry
Whether you believe that the best things in life are free or that there's no such thing as a free lunch, there are arguments to support both opinions when it comes to free mobile games.
But before we get into this debate, time for a little background. The phenomenon of the free game has very much grown up alongside the development of mobile technology and the seemingly unstoppable progress of the app. The very first games that were free to download and play on your mobile were simple and fairly uninvolving, often no more complex than titles like Tetris and designed to fill in time rather than to provide a fully immersive and engaging experience. So replayabilty was always limited and player expectations were low.
However, app and game developers soon realised that they would be facing a continuous battle to increase the quality of the games they produced. The increasing sophistication of mobile devices and the expectations of players ensured that the quality of the games was only going to go in one direction. So the world of free games that are available to download and play today is a very different one from only a few years ago, fuelled by the fact that mobile game revenue could top console games in just a few years time.
The involvement of big game companies resulted in far more complex games being created, many of which were made available for free. This is a trend that is still very much in evidence and is even starting to see paid-for console games being repurposed as free mobile ones. A prime example of this phenomenon comes in the form of The Legend of Zelda. Nintendo are believed to be developing this for mobile and it may well be released as a free-to-download game. It does look like we might have to wait for a while to find out though as the word is that they are aiming to launch a Mario Cart game first with Zelda following on in 2019.
The Fortnite Phenomenon
Of course, the free game that has been capturing all of the headlines for quite a while now has been Fortnite. There have been thousands, if not millions, of words written trying to analyse just why this has managed to grip the imaginations of players worldwide. But there's no denying that the primary reason has been that it's free. In fact it's proved to be even more popular than its creators, Epic Games, could ever had anticipate with an estimated 125 million people playing worldwide within a year of its 2017 launch. Plus, as part of another trend that only a few years ago no-one would have anticipated, it's also achieved record-breaking viewing figures on Twitch with audiences of up to 500,000 people tuning in to watch the world's best players compete.
But this is where the subject arises of just how free supposedly free games really are. Because, although Epic Games keep the income from Fortnite a closely-guarded secret, it's believed that it brings in millions of dollars of income a month from in-game purchases using its own unique currency, V-Bucks. Players can spend these on everything from distinctive character skins or even the Battle Pass which gives players a tiered selection of rewards as they progress through the game.
While these purchases are optional there are probably very few serious players of the game who haven't spent at least a little money enhancing their enjoyment of it. It may also bring into question whether this supposedly free game really is free or whether it is initially given away by Epic Games safe in the knowledge that it will generate revenue in the long run.
Ready, steady, Pokémon Go!
The model for this approach was first set in 2016 with the launch of Pokémon Go. Up until then the world had never seen a game that so brilliantly combined augmented reality with a competitive way to play solo or with a group of friends instead. And, like Fortnite, its multi-generational appeal ensured a very wide player base. This also set the blueprint for raising revenue through in-game purchases generating almost a billion dollars within just seven months of its launch.
So it would definitely seem that free games which are destined to make a global impact need to be complex and involving for a wide number of people and this has a strong influence on the development costs of the game. In-app purchases are a logical and direct way to turn them into profitable ones too.
Bingo goes free
A comparable technique is the one used by many online casinos and bingo sites. Obviously, their first priority is to encourage more and more people to play on them but the obstacle they face is that until they are comfortable with what they have to do they may be reluctant to play for real cash. The solution has been to introduce a free play option designed to share all of the excitement of playing on the site without the cost.
This works particularly well for free bingo because it's all about the sense that players get of joining a community for a fun way to spend an hour or two while online casino players are likely to be playing mainly for the money that they hope to win. That's not to say that there aren't potentially big prizes to win with bingo, because there are. And once players have had the chance to try a particular site out for free they'll be in the perfect position to start trying.
Looking at free games on a broader scale it would seem to be that, as mobile technology grows more sophisticated and players' expectations rise, games will become more complex and have higher development costs. So developers will have two options: firstly, they could start to charge up front for the games. Or, secondly, they will start to make even more of in app purchases. So it may well be that we've seen the golden age of the free game come and go - but there will certainly be plenty of exciting new games ahead of us.