Free-to-play is a divisive topic in the games industry right now. Some developers and publishers, especially in the mobile gaming world, love it - free games get downloaded more, and they have the potential to bring in more revenue. Gamers used to the "pay once, pay forever" model of games and software in general over the last 30 years think it's changing the industry and damaging both the economics and the mechanics of gaming itself.

But at the end of the day, the decision of how to make a game, how to monetize it, and whether or not to adopt that tempting, lucrative, and divisive "pay to win" model should rest with the people actually making the game. Alas, that seems to be changing as well, at least with a few publishers. PocketGamer reports on the struggles of one independent game developer who approached publishers, only to be told that they had to adopt a free-to-play model with a modern monetization strategy (currency-based in-app purchases, paying for hints, or intrusive advertising).

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BloodyMonkey's upcoming Pablo Cavarez, a sliding puzzle/platform game, was shopped around to various publishers. BloodyMonkey founder Paolo Taje said that every publisher they approached required some kind of recurring revenue, either via ads or in-app purchases. The developer wanted to create a more balanced game, letting players download the puzzler for free and try the first level, then pay $1 via in-app purchase for the rest of the game. (This is basically the same demo/shareware model that's been around for years, and one of most reasonable ways to implement IAP.) Since no publishers were interested, BloodyMonkey will self-publish Pablo Cavarez on iTunes, Google Play and Windows Phone on May 28th.

Aerena: Clash of Champions is a game we've covered before, and it already has a free-to-play structure - you can pay real money for in-app currency to unlock new characters and upgrades. According to an interview with Strategy Informer, developer Cliffhanger was especially careful to make the game "fair to play," ensuring that players could unlock new characters with money earned from playing for just a couple of hours, as you might expect from a lengthy console game. All the characters and upgrades can be had through earning currency in-game, without paying real money, though the time taken to earn that currency does get longer as the game progresses.


Cliffhanger creative Director Jan Wagner says that this approach made it difficult to find a publisher. According to Wagner, they were outright denied without incorporating not just free-to-play mechanics (which the game already has), but a pay-to-win structure.

They flat out said, 'we love the graphics, it's a good concept, we think it's got a long lifetime – great! But it's not pay-to-win so we don't like it. We're not going to take it, we only take pay-to-win games.'

Aerena: Clash of Champions is currently available in Google Play and Steam. For both stores, Cliffhanger elected to publish the game themselves.

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Relationships between the publishers who distribute games and the developers who create them are important. Publishers can give a game a strong financial backing, promotional support, or even technical guidance (for example, when porting a game from one OS to another or localizing for a new market). That said, the degree of creative control that each publisher has over developers is a sliding scale. A publisher that owns the developer in question essentially has free rein, whereas a publisher that's supporting a large and successful independent developer will have to make compromises.

Throw in the evolving world of digital distribution, and those relationships get even more confusing. Twenty years ago, a game publisher was necessary in order to secure distribution for game consoles, to make physical copies of a game, and to get them into stores. Now those functions are no longer necessary on mobile, and they're becoming less and less popular on PCs and even consoles. The option of self-publishing has put some of the power back into the hands of developers. But that also means they're taking more of the risk. A single ambitious game self-published by a small developer can bankrupt the company if it fails, making the traditional developer-publisher avenue a tempting one even for small teams.

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The controversy over the prevalence of the free-to-play system is now reaching beyond the spheres of gamers. Both the European Union and the Italian government have launched investigations into false advertising of "free" games that rely on in-app purchases to advance, and it seems like every month or so some parent decides to sue Google or Apple because their child bought an obscene amount of fake money via in-app purchase. This sort of "milking" isn't exclusive to the mobile world - PC and console gamers have been complaining about pre-order perks, day one DLC, and content intentionally left out of "full" games to be published later for years.

The free-to-play model isn't going anywhere any time soon; it's simply too lucrative for publishers and even some developers to ignore. But the evolving self-publishing options will hopefully get at least some publishers to put the brakes on some of the more unreasonable tactics used to relieve gamers of their cash. The growing number of gamers who refuse to be a part of the IAP cycle is also encouraging.

Source: PocketGamer, Strategy Informer

Michael Crider
Michael is a native Texan and a former graphic designer. He's been covering technology in general and Android in particular since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order.

  • bungadudu

    We should boycott this before it'll get the norm.

    It's our duty to take action against being pimped!

    • tekfr33kn

      It's already the norm. The Google Play and iTunes have been loaded with this stuff for nearly 2 years. Instead of complaining about it, support the devs who do it the way you prefer and hop the pay-to-win publishers get the hint.

    • xHabeasCorpusx

      We can boycott this all we want but it won't do anything. Sure we can support and will support honest devs but the issue is the mainstream public. Keep this figure in your head. 50% of the public is either of average intelligence or below, half of that 50% is retarded (not referring to the mentally disabled). So anywhere between 1% - 25ish% of people ruin everything. 25% of Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth (even higher percentage in Britain and Germany). 25% of people think mp3s are robots from starwars. About 25% of Americans did not know or were not sure what country they won their independence from. 25% of people believe that god decides the outcome of sports games. 25% believe that George W Bush was a good president.

      Freemium devs say that the top 10% of players in a freemium game make up for 50% of revenue.

      Take a 100 people who paid the game devs $10,000 of gems for example. The math goes like this - 90 of those people would spend 5,000 in total which divided out would mean they would pay 56 bucks each. The top 10%, or the remaining 10 people, would pay 500 bucks each.

      Some games there are users spending anywhere between 1,000 to 16,00+. Thise is the new casino type era.

      • Mike Reid


        Publishers, huh ? Gee, I sell my own apps directly and make my own decisions. But I don't do games and my market is niche.

      • Matthew Fry

        The figures I saw were more like 1% spent 50% of the total and 10% spent 90% of the total but I can't find the gamasutra article with the graph anymore.

        This is definitely the sort of case where oversight is needed by a committee of ethical businesses (Valve, Atlus, and Mojam maybe?) or possibly legislation.

      • james kendall

        98.76% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

  • nvllsvm

    To publishers who force this: eat shit.

  • alacrify

    Just put a reminder in my calendar to buy Pablo Cavarez the day it comes out. Giving our money to the good devs and refusing to buy from the IAP dicks is the only way to make a change. Their bottom line will get their attention eventually...

    • Avalos

      It's not really my type of game, but goddamn do I respect the dev.

    • Lula Jardim

      I don't know if will buy it but i'll definitely check it out! Who knows, maybe i'll like it and buy it!!

    • Matthew Fry

      Just wish it was something I cared for. I'm honestly so overwhelmed with the sheer number of games I already have through Humble Bundle and such that I don't have time for what I have.

  • Himmat Singh

    This is not something new and I've heard stories like this before. Publishers have been pushing freemium and IAPs since mid 2012 already. I know Chillingo practically forces every single game they publish to come with IAPs, and even in some games where IAPs didn't make sense or were not necessary at all, they forced it on the devs.

    Other publishers like Bulkypix do the, while of course Mobage/DeNa are at the extreme in terms of only ever accepting all out freemium games.

    It's terrible for us REAL gamers, but the bottomline is some duds out there gobble up IAPs like nobody's business and with profit in mind, publishers will obviously hold developers ransom and force them to include IAPs in their paid games or get them to design their games with a freemium economy.

  • CRiTiCaL_FLuX

    Not much we can do. People who didn't play games before mobile came along think pay-to-win is normal practice and see nothing wrong with it.

  • David Nguyen

    As a rule I don't exclude freemium games as long as it is balanced. Where one can play and enjoy the game without the need to 'buy' with real currency and the ads are not obtrusive. The IAP are there if you wanted to 'cheat' but otherwise not necessary. Developers like Glu, EA, GameEvil are the worst of the lot. Even recently, dev of Cut the Rope went for this model until they heard the outcry and did the right thing. I'm more than happy to support a great quality game. What I don't like is to be pushed into paying in order to continue on or ability to complete the game.

    • Steve Freeman

      I agree. And even worse is when the pay features are expensive. One particular CCG I play (Evoker) is (mostly) fun, but if I want to pay for any card packs, or gems, etc, the cheapest package, which gets you 500 gems (which is basically useless), is $6. To get anything of value, you need to spend maybe $50 or more. Though to be COMPETITIVE in the game, you would need to spend hundreds of dollars, or play for months.

      Unfortunately, my example above seems to be the norm, not the exception, at least in the case of games I've tried recently. Pay-to-play, and pay-to-win, seems to be getting excessively expensive. I've never paid that much for full blown PC or console games, so there's no way I'm going to pay that for a CCG I play on my phone.

    • Matthew Fry

      I'd be interested to know whether ethical F2P games make a decent amount of money or not. I've done the "donate by buying an IAP" before but I have my doubts that this is a common thing. F2P as a monetization strategy kind of hinges on exploiting a very select group of "whales." (users who hundreds to thousands of dollars on a stupid game)

  • Randroid

    I have never spent money on an IAP in a game and I never will - except for the "free demo, pay for the full game" model, which I respect greatly. Paying real money for digital currency is ridiculous, and games that require the use of that digital currency to advance are frauds as far as I am concerned. It's ruining gaming, and it's encouraging developers and game companies to squeeze every cent possible out of our pockets.
    I know that it's not easy to make a profit as an independent developer, because I am one, but there are better ways to do it.

    • james kendall

      I agree completely. The whole paying for recurring iap's is just stupid and I refuse to play any game that used the real money for digital currency modal. The only IAP's that i like / tolerate are the one time IAP's that unlock the whole game.

    • GraveUypo

      exactly. even some games i really liked (radiant tower defense for instance) i just tried to go as far as i could without buying anything then gave up when it was literally impossible without IAP.

      i don't know, it's not only the money and devs and publishers disgusting greed that keep me from buying iap. it's also because it ALWAYS feels like cheating. even in the game i mentioned. so i don't pay. i just boycott all the iap shit.

      • Randroid

        I also feel like it's cheating, and I've never been one to cheat at games. I use cheat codes sometimes for the lols, but only after I've completed the game without cheats. IAPs feel like I'm putting in a cheat code.

      • Marcelove

        I feel like the same... Even non mobile games I don't buy if it has IAP... Example: Diablo III... I were a huge fan from the franchise, but when Blizzard sneaked it's Auction House trying to monetize the D2JSP from Diablo 2, I just avoid the game like a vampire cross...

        • http://www.modminecraft.com/ Nick Coad

          I was the same, but you should know they've removed the Auction House now and have vastly improved the game. I purchased D3 at release, refunded it because I hated it and it was terrible to play in Australia with no Australian servers. Then I repurchased it when RoS came out because they have literally fixed every problem I had with it. You should read up on it again, you might be pleasantly surprised! Just a head's up from a fellow Diablo fan to hopefully lighten your disappointment!

          • Marcelove

            Yes, I didn't buy it but I'm aware of the news, for example the expansion pack...

            Problem is it has many other problems (ex: run only when online, bizarre drops, bugged servers, eyc)

            Worse of all: D2 has much more replay value than D3...

            So it lost all the hype for me... And I were really excited before it's launch, following it's news since when Blizzard started to develop it...

            But I still play the old D2... Maybe if a D4 exists in future, Blizzard will have a chance to get my money... :-)

          • http://www.modminecraft.com/ Nick Coad

            @Marcelove:disqus ah.. yeah the bizarre drops have been fixed for the most part (you'll still get occasional stuff you don't like of course, it's part of the game) but you're right about the other couple things. Online only is still stupid as hell and they do have occasional server issues which is shitty.

    • Matthew Fry

      I don't know about better, but certainly more ethical. No matter what the F2P supports say, they can't deny that the vast majority of their profits is gained from a very small minority of users. Where I come from (my house?) that smells of addictive behavior or scam.

      • Randroid

        True that I guess "better" is not a good word to describe it. As far as the developers are concerned, whatever makes them the most money is probably the best way to do it. But it is completely misleading and is definitely designed to scam people out of their money. I am glad that Google has now added a notice in the Play Store for apps that include IAPs.

    • B

      More importantly, they're encouraging devs and publishers not only to squeeze every cent, but also to replace actual gaming mechanics based on player ability with carrot-and-stick bullshit and luck-based stuff (borderline gambling sometimes!) designed to prey on little kids that don't know any better and their parents that think their kids are playing with an inoffensive game boy. If there's something really damaging to the gaming industry in its broadest sense, this is it.

  • http://www.blueflamegames.com Alexandru Cristian Ghita

    I'm afraid is too late, the users like it the way it is now otherwise the model will disappear. When we built our game the main focus was on premium content and no IAP at all. We got less than 2 downloads per day paid. Guess what happened when we went full free no IAP? Only 100 downloads per day on iOS and less than 10 on Android... the only monetisation is an ad that appears in a certain screen and only once every 3 minutes. The users are already used with IAP because they think if it costs money must be something good and if they have it for free clearly is crap. Now I don't say our game is perfect, it's far from over and misses a lot of features, one of the reasons why the downloads are crap apart from visibility.

    • Sergii Pylypenko

      Sometimes I think Google Play ranks apps with IAP higher than other apps, because that will obviously bring more money to Google.
      But let's have faith in our Google overlords, they've said they are not evil, no reason to doubt that.

      • GraveUypo

        lol are you still in 2010?

      • Himmat Singh

        Your faith is misplaced.

  • USiT

    The only IAP im using is when buying new tables in Zen Studios Zen Pinball HD. For me thats OK as they don't force me to buy a new table and give me the chioxe to skip.

    This for me is OK but IAP for keep playing next level or to grab the amazing axe that allow you to kill the last enemy in The game is sh*t

  • solbin

    Yup. When I was showing my nephew a game on the PC (Diablo 3), he asked for money so he could buy more gold in the game.

    • Randroid

      Luckily D3 got rid of the auction hall. But D3 was never a "pay to win" game. It was more of a "pay if you want to win without any effort" game. (prior to the elimination of the AH)

      • GraveUypo

        nope, it was a "pay if you want to finish" game.
        there was no way to beat the game in the inferno difficulty without going into the auction house. you could grind for months and never find gear nearly as good as $5 would get you. the game SUCKED. it's improved sooooooo much after the closed that shit down and rebalanced drops... though it's still a bit simplistic to my tastes.

    • renz

      And in the past game allows you to enter cheat codes so you can get resource easily (like StarCraft). Now you have to use real money if you want to 'cheat' in games

  • http://www.youtube.com/crisr82 Kristian Ivanov

    I now feel terrible after reading this, thanks for reminding me why I don't have faith in humanity

  • hp420

    Piracy, ftw!

    INB4 THIEF! - I wouldn't buy any apps anyway, so it was never going to go to the dev anyway. I've owned android devices for 4+ years and the only purchases in my play account are for my G voice number to be ported and my monthly all access charge....so yeah, I don't pay for apps when there is ALWAYS a free alternative. And yes....there always is.

    • Craig Currier

      Yes, there are free alternatives to most paid apps, but I think you're missing the point in that someone has to code that app - free or paid. Developers deserve to be paid for their work in much the same way I assume you enjoy being paid for yours. It is how they get paid that becomes the problem with IAP in games and "pay to win". But if you genuinely find an app helpful and worthwhile, do not pirate - pay the developer as you should.

      • hp420

        I feel they deserve money if they do a good job, but I think outright charging is what is wrong with the ecosystem. If an app is good you should donate...you should never be forced to pay, IMHO.

        • Craig Currier

          We should adopt that pay structure at your job. If other people think you're doing okay, we'll let them pay you what they want to. And if they don't think it's good, they can still steal from you instead, it's all good.

          • hp420

            I take it you're not a fan of open source software then?

          • Craig Currier

            Open source software is great. But you're advocating piracy. And you outright say you don't pay for apps. Some people make apps for a living but who cares about them, eh?

          • hp420

            Anyone who says they have never pirated anything is either 90 years old and never had a computer or they are a liar. No offense, but really....you've never pirated anything? I can't believe that.

          • Craig Currier

            Never said I haven't pirated anything. Very different from what you said with you never pay for software. Very little software would exist if there was no money to be made. People seem to think software just magically appears, and they are mistaken. Software comes from people working or from peoples hobbies because they get paid from a different, primary job and they code for fun.

          • hp420

            I didn't say every thing I touch is pirated...you're reading too much into that. I always use a legitimate free alternative, when possible. I'm not saying I don't pirate sometimes, though. For example, I use My Backup Root because it's free and TiBu is $4.99. I used to pirate the living hell out of Angry Birds, though. Get what I'm saying?

          • Craig Currier

            I get what you're saying. I'm saying that piracy isn't the answer because you want something but don't want to pay for it when someone has made it.

          • primalxconvoy

            I advocate responsible piracy. Sometimes it's the only way to try content for free. I also hope games with intrusive iap's (like Shamesoft, EA, etc) get pirated MORE (especially the cracked versions with unlimited gold) and that people email those companies to tell them WHY.

          • Thiago Bachi Rehbein

            it's not because Android is open source that all apps need to be...

        • primalxconvoy

          Surely, a better option is to download a free version and then use iap's to unlock freemium content and/or demo/full versions of apps and games.

          If there is a full version with no demo, by all means sideload it. Then, if you like it, go and buy it. I've done that and made a point of telling the dev that if it wasn't for the free trial, I wouldn't have bothered with (paying for) their app at all.

  • Ghost

    I respect them for not making the game pay to win. I only recently started using IAP's because I simply don't have the time to grind for hours in a game anymore. That said there are some games I quit because there's a near endless amount of IAP's so you are stuck spending at least 9 bucks a week or more just to keep progressing. And any game with a $99 IAP is almost immediately uninstalled. Those are the worst imo.

  • primalxconvoy

    I remember a few devs who have released their games through a publisher at Google Play yet by themselves on Ouya, Steam, etc. When I asked them why, they said that their publishers wanted them to make their games have iap's (even though they didn't want to, due to coding problems and the fact that they didn't like free-to-play).

    The usual reason is piracy but most of the devs I've mailed have sent steam codes or even debug apk's of their apps so I can test my controllers on them.

    That's one good thing about the Ouya, I suppose.

  • Lula Jardim

    IMHO the "free-to-play, pay-to-win" model will be in the market for as long as there are people willing to pay-to-win the game! Which is either forever or until some law turns it into a forbidden practice.

    For me, it is simply unacceptable that I put a lot of hours into the game so that some dude can beat me just because he was willing to spend lots of money and I wasn't! In other words, "pay-to-win" is out of the question whether the game is balanced or not.

  • Guest

    Is it the reason that CastleStome is F2P ?

  • jeffmd

    Of course NO one hacks IAP games so you don't need any money, right? I hate to tell these guys but, A (but not THE) driving force in pirating software is that it gets rid of unwanted things like DRM and DLC blocks for on-disc content. If more and more wanted games are turning to IAP then more people are going to be driven twards hacked versions with no IAP (And of course because gaming on phones is more social, then they will show their friends, and then their friends will realise "hey! free games with no IAP"). In the end you are driving people twards the pirating market because they have the more desirable hacked version with no need for IAP.

  • apsley

    Let's be totally honest: the only companies who make any money writing smartphone applications are those that scam little children by selling them game tokens using their parent's credit cards. Smartphone applications (iOS, Android, it doesn't matter which) are a scam and a rip off, and, frankly should be banned in their present form. Companies who scam little children by selling them game tokens should face criminal child exploitation charges. The vast majority of developers make no money at all and Google and Apple should be sued for the millions of hours of unpaid labor that developers put into these apps.

  • H4rd-c4ndy

    I hate "free" games im hooked on the room and room two the graphics are amazing and it reminds me so much of MYST you feel like you are in the game! Pay to win sux. Five me a real game and I'll pay to play give me a fake game I'll try I won't buy anything and when I realized what it actually is i delete it.

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