The popularity of iOS and Android gaming is driving among the largest disruptions in video game history, already eclipsing portable platform gaming revenue. With low barriers to entry and potent revenue generation possibilities across more than 500 million active iOS and Android devices in the market, casual gaming is reaching new heights on mobile.
In this report, Flurry compares traditional versus independent game companies in the new mobile app marketplace. To set the stage, let’s get a current read on which kinds of apps consumers use most.
Gaming Dominates Mobile App Usage
For the first two months of 2012, Flurry Analytics measured that more than half of all end user sessions were spent in games. Across January and February, Flurry observed sessions across a sample of more than 64 billion applications sessions across more than 500 million iOS and Android devices. In addition to the snapshot above, we lay out the trend in app session growth over the last three years.
Game Session Growth Exploding
The above chart compares normalized game session levels seen in 2010 versus 2011 and 2012. We did so by first taking game sessions tracked by Flurry Analytics in Q1 of 2010 and setting that as a baseline. We then compare gaming sessions observed in subsequent years against the 2010 baseline. By our calculations, 2011 and 2012 gaming session grew by 5.3 times and 20.5 times, respectively, over the level observed in 2010. Note that we use the first quarter of each year, extrapolating Q1 2012 from January and February of this year.
Indie Games Dominate Consumer Usage
For the above chart, Flurry separated game sessions between indendent game developers who started their businesses on iOS and Android versus established gaming companies who extended to iOS and Android from other platforms. Starting from the left, in 2010, we see that about 60% of all mobile game sessions occurred in games built by independent studios. In 2011, this figure declined slightly to 56% primarily due to a wave of consolidation by established game companies who acquired independent studios (e.g., EA acquiring Chillingo, Zynga acquiring Newtoy, DeNA acquiring Ngmoco and Gameview, etc.). However, in 2012, another larger wave independent companies appeared to emerge, overwhelming established companies once again, pushing indie game session share to 68%.
Historically, the video gaming industry has been ruled by brands and established IP from a few major game publishers such as Electronic Arts, Activision, Ubisoft, THQ and others. High production, marketing and distribution costs created formidable barriers to entry. High retail price points created risk for consumers to try new titles with which they were not familiar. For these reasons, brands published by larger companies dominated the landscape.
With Apple and Google entering the ecosystem, the rules of competition have changed dramatically, arguably creating the most open, egalitarian market in the history of video games. Flurry first wrote about this phenomenon in 2009 in a series entitled The Rise of the Middle Class. While we would have expected indie game developers to fare better early on in the history of iOS and Android mobile app platforms, it's remarkable that their dominance has grown over the last several years, with no signs of slowing. Even when traditional, established game companies have attempted to buy a stronger position on iOS and Android through acquisition, the reduced importance of brand power in mobile app gaming allows indie developers to continue to innovate and capture increasing consumer mind share.
In the new smartphone app economy, Apple and Google have truly empowered indies to thrive. And among indies, game developers are thriving the most.
To free, or not to free
Among the most common questions we get from game developers is whether the free-to-play (a.k.a. freemium) model makes sense for their next game. For teams that have always charged players up-front with a premium pricing model, the thought of distributing games for free makes them very uncomfortable. I made the switch myself when I joined a free-to-play social games startup as a Studio Director in 2009, so I’m well aware of both the anxiety and the opportunity.
To best answer this question, I decided we should do it the Flurry way: with hard data. To do so, we compared the revenue generated by pricing model, freemium vs. premium, among the top 100 grossing games in January and June of this year. Premium simply means charging for the download (e.g., $0.99). Freemium describes the free-to-play model, where the game is given away for free, and then the consumer can purchase virtual currency and/or virtual goods through in-app-purchases. Tracking over 90,000 apps with its analytics service, Flurry can measure the amount of revenue generated per ranked position in the App Store top grossing category. The chart below compares the proportion of revenue generated by each model.
Inspecting the chart, we see that free games already represented 39% of the games revenue generated by Apple’s App Store in January, but that number has since risen to 65% last month. The traction of the freemium business model is undeniable and growing fast. In fact, with games often occupying more than 75% of all top 100 grossing apps in the app store, it’s the single most dominating business model in the mobile apps industry today.
Unleashing the beast
In the old paid world of video games, success was measured by multiplying the number of units sold by the unit price, the traditional retail model. In the new world of digital games distribution, it’s all about how many players you can keep engaged with your free game, followed by how many compelling spending opportunities you can provide them.
When you make your game free and add in-app purchases, two powerful things can happen: first, more people will likely try your game since you’ve made the “ante” zero; and second, you will likely take more total money, since different players can now spend different amounts depending on their engagement and preferences. It’s not unheard of for individual players to spend into the tens of thousands in a game they like.
Flurry data shows that the number of people who spend money in a free game ranges from 0.5% to 6% depending on the quality of the game and its core mechanics. Although this means that more than 90% of players will not spend a single penny, it also means that players who love your game spend much more than the $0.99 you were considering charging for the app. And since you gave away the game for free, your “heavy spender” group can be sizable.
Free-to-play is here to stay. If you’re a game studio, you simply need to understand how to take advantage of this game-changing opportunity. In future posts, I’ll cover strategies and tactics you can employ to make this powerful model work best for you.