It’s a sad realization that a game so universally beloved as Tetris would fail as a premium mobile game in today’s market. That is, if the game would have been made at all.
Tetris was developed when there were significant hurdles between the developer’s vision and final released game; you were required to have a publisher, you had to deal with physical manufacturing and distribution, securing shelf space and there were also development fees and dev kits that were required.
Back then, you were already committing to a lot of money, time and resources well before you’ve even started to make the game. Physical games, like cartridges, are an expensive proposition; so of course it made sense they would cost $50 or more for a simple game like Tetris.
Imagine if someone tried to sell a game like Tetris today for even $4.99 on mobile?
Our values are different
What caused this dramatic shift in the value of games? It all comes down to the democratization of game development. The easier it is to develop and release games, the more competition a game has and therefore the harder it is to get noticed. If anyone can make a game, everyone will make a game. And that leads to a crowded market.
The strategy in the days of Tetris was simple: Create a game, sell the game.
This fundamental shift in value and the reduced barrier to entry paint a stark picture of why these ultra-simple, addictive games can't be premium products on a mobile platform anymore. Look at what happened with Threes and its various free clones. Successful premium mobile games can often act like a proof of a viable market and so become prime targets for unscrupulous clone developers.
So what can a developer do? In the current market, developers have a few key decisions to make when deciding a strategy on how to make their game viable. This "monetization strategy" details, in very basic terms, how the game will make at least enough money to allow the developer to continue making games.
The strategy in the days of Tetris was simple: Create a game, sell the game. Players went to the store to buy the game, and that was that.
These days the the first decision you’ll have to make is the obvious binary choice between premium and free-to-play. Premium requires significant exposure to do well beyond a few thousand installs and to have a chance at staying visible on the store. A big part of this problem is that the exposure required to achieve this comes in three forms: advertising, store features, and going viral.
Advertising is expensive, cost per install of a paid product is very high and the conversion rates of clicks is very, very low. Expect to pay upwards of $5 per install (CPI) for a $0.99 game. The CPI also goes up accordingly for more expensive games. So you have to run large ($50,000 to $100,000) campaigns at a loss in the slim hope that the grassroots exposure will lead to more natural growth, which is measured in installs. In other words, developers end up paying a lot more to get customers than they get back in return from those customers.
Store features are great, as they give a massive amount of attention to a product and usually trickle down into sub-features after the weekly store refresh. However, store features are not at all guaranteed. If you’re an indie developer it’s pretty difficult but not impossible to get the attention of the editorial teams. Being featured in the App Store or Google Play is a huge boost, but you can’t really plan for it unless you have some serious connections.
Go viral? Yes please! How do you do it? No idea!
Ask anyone who’s managed to acquire viral success and they often can’t pinpoint any one thing that caused it to happen. Sometimes the game is, for all intents and purposes, dead on arrival, but then something happens and it blows up. The very nature of viral success is the inability to say exactly why it is popular, you only know that the game is supported by a community and awareness is generated without any support or direct effort from the developer.
Imagine if someone tried to sell a game like Tetris today for even $4.99 on mobile?
There’s also press coverage, write ups, reviews etc. All of these don’t have much affect on their own without pushes from one of those three above. Think of press coverage as something that can help make other things happen, but by itself it rarely moves the needle when it comes to sales. In comparison to a store feature we typically see only a 1% bump in installs for a day or so after a write up on a gaming site.
Outside of these strategies are games that use existing brands such as Iron Man, Temple Run, World of Warcraft or well known developers such as Rovio, Nimblebit or Blizzard which can also sidestep these three areas as they tend to have an existing market for their game.
So with only three main areas of promotion, only one of which is in a developers control, premium is less and less viable path to success. It’s a very steep climb, but you’ll do great if you make it.
The other choice is free-to-play
Since selling a premium product is a rough battle, developers have come up with other methods to try to earn a return from their work. Enter free-to-play, which over time has become the go-to, or only, option for most developers. So much so, that developers often get criticized for the greed of selling a game for the price of a coffee.
The market at large, and by that I mean average users, has almost stopped supporting premium products altogether on mobile devices. Developers are almost always forced to consider freemium, although this doesn’t mean that all games should or will work as free-to-play products.
The free-to-play model isn't all bad, and I wish everything we make could be free. We want to get as many people playing our games as possible. We also want to be able to keep creating and so we have to consider how we can make a living. It’s a necessary evil, and it's frustrating; we want to make great games and not worry about making money, integrating systems for in-app purchases and ads.
Offering a free game that’s monetized with ads is a quick fix. They are simple, but require significant (millions of) installs and can have a negative effect on the perceived quality of your game. Ads require allocated space for banners or pauses in game play for "a word from our sponsor" interstitials. Not to mention the work needed to implement the different ad delivery systems such AdMob, iAd, Tap Joy … the list goes on.
In-app purchases are an unwieldy beast. They can be a great addition to a game, giving the player more content, more customization, or other benefits. In-app purchases can also limit the player or introduce pay-to-play mechanics that make the game feel more like a tool for extracting money than something that is played for fun.
In-app purchases or IAP really need to have some value, otherwise players will ignore them. Working IAP into a game requires much more work, and finesse, than many people realize. Done clumsily and the game feels broken and even sleazy, or give too much and players don’t see the value in spending any money. That’s a great outcome for the player, but developers would like to be able to afford things like rent and food.
Our company has released 2 games: Brainsss and Blendoku. We’re just a couple individuals in a spare bedroom, like most indie developers these days. However, we were very lucky to get Brainsss featured in both the Apple App Store and the Google play store. Despite these features, and very good ratings from players and reviewers, Brainsss didn’t last long after its first month or so.
Our initial downloads were great, but we didn’t come close to making back the personal investment we made in the game.
So then we switched it up. We wanted Blendoku to be simpler and free, but we also realized the risks in putting most of the content behind a paywall. We really didn’t want to create some artificial barrier for progression, such as only offering three free plays a day.
So we decided to include a complete base set of levels with the free version of the game. We used ads as a base form of revenue then we added some extra IAP unlocks, not consumables, for players who were really dedicated. The ads go away if you spend any money in the game, creating more value for the players who support us. What this did was allow us to reduce the barrier to install, a free game is infinitely easier to share than a game that requires someone to pay even $0.99.
If you liked the game enough to either turn off the ads or extend the game then any purchase would transform the game from a freemium to premium game. Permanently.
Blendoku, to date, has just under 3.1 million total installs and 30,000 unique daily active users. Even if not one of those 30,000 players purchased content from us we’d still be able to keep supporting it. We're currently averaging $150 to $200 a day in ad revenue.
However, since we do have some in-app purchases, which earn us around $200 a day, we’ve managed to do well enough to support ourselves for the next couple of games.
So what happened to Threes? The developer believed, rightly so, that the game would be at its best in the form of a premium product. Part of what makes Threes so great is the simplicity in the gameplay. Blocks combine to create larger blocks, swiping the screen combines these blocks but also adds another block. That’s it, that’s the core of the game.
Threes is a premium paid game, however it’s also quite simple to clone, so everyone did. The free-to-play clones are now choking app stores, and even gaining mainstream coverage in the media. The simpler a game, the easier it will be for someone to steal the concepts behind it and turn your ideas into a free-to-play product, whether that was your intention or not.
Then there’s Blek, also a great example of a simple premise, beautifully executed. Blek is a paid game and was released back in January of 2014, it had a fair amount of initial success but in the last few weeks it has sky rocketed to the top of the paid charts! I’m fairly confident that the ‘clone army’ are busy at work developing free knock offs but they might run into a little snag.
While the style and quality of Blek is very clean and polished it also isn’t procedural like Threes — it’s all hand-built levels. Balanced, thought out, instructional, all of which aren’t easily reproducible, this might be all they need to keep the Blek clones at bay.
The market is resistant to simple, premium games
Tetris is more akin to Threes and similarly the design of the game is "simple" but still brilliant. Blocks fall in different shapes, if you make a complete line it will disappear. So what would happen if Tetris was first released in today’s mobile /t ablet market? If it wasn’t free to play and released as a paid game it might do OK but, even if it did, chances are it would be cloned into oblivion.
Then the logical conclusion would be to release Tetris as a free game. Tetris, however, doesn’t lend itself to free-to-play mechanics, and the original’s game’s aesthetics, complete with its Russian theme and catchy music, could be severely hurt by intrusive ads.
In-game items would also hurt the game, since the core of Tetris is a race against the clock. The designers would likely be forced to utilize a lives-based in-app purchasing system, or a limited number of plays a day, similar to something like Candy Crush.
Maybe a free-to-play Tetris would be huge. However, it wouldn’t be the Tetris we know and love.
It may be easier now for anyone to make a game and because of this, we’re probably getting games that would never have made it to market back in the day. Though in many ways the market has become more difficult for creative designers and developers. It’s exciting but saddening for me to think about how many great games are on the store right now that I just aren’t aware of.
In the end, maybe like Candy Crush, a free-to-play Tetris would be huge. However, it wouldn’t be the Tetris we know and love. We should be thankful Tetris wasn’t released today, and spare a thought for what other games we may be losing due to the near-requirement of free-to-play mechanics on mobile games.
Rod Green has worked in the video game industry for 14 years, contributing to a range of titles. He was one of the key people behind the ill-fated Project Offset, which was acquired ultimately