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The curious case of Monument Valley: Is free-to-play the only way?

One of the greatest smartphone games released in the last two years is Monument Valley.

The game, created by indie design agency UsTwo, is effectively a glorified Escher painting-cum-puzzler. It’s quite a short game, but it has won multiple awards, appeared as a minor plot point in hit Netflix show House of Cards, and has been downloaded a ludicrously high 24 million times.

Here’s the interesting point. Unlike most other smartphone hits, such as Clash of Clans or Candy Crush, Monument Valley is not a free-to-play game. It costs £2.99 a download.

Now, a lot of those 24 million downloads didn’t cost £2.99 each. Apple gave the game away for free for a week, which significantly bolstered that number. But UsTwo has managed to make this massive audience count. It launched a piece of DLC for Monument Valley called Forgotten Shores, which in itself costs £1.49. That was never available for free, and UsTwo says a third of all iOS owners that bought the game paid for that piece of DLC (including one in ten people that received the game for free). UsTwo has made more than £40m from its quirky iOS release, and all without indulging in the dreaded micro-transactions.

Listen to any major developer or publisher today, and you’ll be told that free-to-play is the only way in mobile. ‘Nobody makes money from 79p apps’, and developers are – on the whole – afraid that if they charge more than that, then consumers will ignore their game.

This belief is back up by the billions being generated by free mobile games such as Game of War and Boom Beach. To make these games a success, developers such as King and SuperCell are even taking to advertising on prime time TV – including ads starring high profile celebrities – to acquire users. It has made the mobile market impenetrable to anyone that doesn’t have deep pockets.

Critics argue that Monument Valley is the exception that proves the rule. The one game that contradicts the free-to-play trend, but is it really? And do the analytics back this up?

Gustaf Leksell is the founder of Reflection, a mobile game data company that has just been named the official supplier of mobile charts by one of the UK games industry’s trade bodies, UKIE. He is a big advocate for paid apps, as he believes it is a significant way for smaller developers to find success on the App Store and Google Play.

He told us that to get into Apple’s Top Ten Paid charts for the UK only requires a few hundred downloads (in fact, on an average week, a paid game could get into the UK charts with under 400 downloads). Conversely, to get into the Apple Top Ten Revenue charts would require the game to generate tens of thousands of pounds. This effectively means that developers could – in theory – get their games in front of millions of App Store browsers (who will see the charts on the App Store) by going down the paid route over the freemium model… they could even get their game into Top Ten Paid Apps simply by encouraging all their Facebook friends to buy it.

In a talk that Gustaf delivered last year at Develop, he revealed that the UK has a vibrant paid smartphone games industry – pointing to companies such as UsTwo, Freaky Roboy, Mindy Candy and New Star Games, who all adopt the paid model over the free-to-play option.

In the UK, 14% of games in the Top 200 Grossing UK charts are paid apps, this is compared to just 8%, in the United States. So the UK does over-index in this area.

There are two types of paid apps. There are those without micro-transactions and those with (a model often referred to as ‘paymium’). Interestingly, the number of paid apps without in-app purchases is actually on the rise. Up until the summer last year, the number of paid games on the App Store (that don’t feature micro-transactions) was increasing by 2.12% every month in the UK, and 3.67% a month in the US (again, this is all Reflection data). For all the talk of free-to-play, developers are still making paid games and increasingly so.

Also, the belief that 79p is the only price point that consumers are willing to pay for apps (most of the time) is contradicted by Reflection’s figures. Based on the Top 200 iPhone grossing apps, paid games were costing consumers £1.99 on average. This is actually even higher on iPad, with iPad games costing 15% more on average (data is for the seven months ending July 9th, 2015). And of course there are some hit smartphone games, such as Football Manager and Final Fantasy, that charge even more than this for their games.

Another interesting element is when consumers prefer to buy their smartphone games. Unsurprisingly, the weekend is the most popular time for app games (both paid and free), and Friday is a generally quiet day (Gustaf assumes they are having their fun elsewhere). The only exception is for Education apps, where the most popular day is Friday (iPad) and Monday (iPhone).

The weekend period is popular for all business models, but paid games actually do even better. The lower-ranked paid smartphone games tend to see a 75% uplift in downloads over the weekend, that’s more than free-to-play titles and more than the top-selling games.

The conclusion here is that to earn billions on the mobile market, then free-to-play is the model of choice. Of course it is, just look at the £3.8bn acquisition of King (Candy Crush makers) by Activision.

But for smaller developers, looking to make a name for themselves in a hostile, congested and competitive mobile market, then at least consider charging for games up front.

And don’t worry about charging a few pounds for it, either.

Monument Valley does not have to be an exception.