Experiments with FREE

Trying to get visibility on the App store is a constant struggle. In most cases it requires ongoing effort to publicise your game, finding a way to get it in front of the people who it will appeal to.

Astro Noughts is my latest iPad game. It’s an arcade number crunching game with, what I consider to be, a fairly unique concept. You can read a postmortem here (it was also featured on Gamasutra). I released Astro Noughts on 14th December 2010 – incredibly bad timing since there were a large number of high profile, kick-ass games released at exactly the same time (and EA decided to play hard ball). Despite the bad timing Astro Noughts sold 16 copies on its first day – you might consider this terribly low but I consider it a success. Sales bounced around for a while but by the end of January this year they had petered out to precisely 0 sales every day. That’s where it has remained, receiving 0 sales for the past 2 months.

Also in that time I have released a number of updates to improve the game and add value. I’ve also attempted to keep a thread alive on Touch Arcade. I had some coverage here and there but ultimately my attempts to court the media have failed miserably.

It was clear that I needed to do something, but what? I went FREE that’s what. Here’s how it went down…

Why Free

I’ve dabbled with Free before on my other games without much success. The general idea is that you make your game free for a period of time. During that time you are trying to get as much exposure as possible so that, when you make the game paid again, it takes off through word of mouth. Alternatively Apple may notice it rise up the charts and opt to feature it. Either way, you’ll increase your user base which increases future exposure from updates (e.g. you update the game and someone tells their friend who doesn’t yet own the game).

I made the decision to go free on Sunday 20th March. A quick tweet (and a follow up reminder) in addition to a post on my touch arcade thread – the stage was set.

Rankings

Making your game Free for a period is a bit like reliving launch day in that you get to obsessively check your chart ranking in the various categories and countries. It’s great fun and, to be perfectly honest, it alone is enough reason to go free.

There are a couple of tools used pretty much universally for checking rank. The first is MajicRank which tracks rank dynamically and the second is App Annie which aggregates daily rankings.

Astro Noughts started off pretty gently, breaking into a few of the the game sub category charts…

By the end of the first day it was the #1 educational game in a number of countries and had also broken into the top overall games in the US & UK as well as the top overall Apps in a number of countries…

Things came to a head on the second day when Astro Noughts hit #14 in the top free Apps in France. It was also in the top free games in US, UK, and Canada as well as the #1 educational game in 5 countries and within the top 10 educational game in 17 countries…

Due to its high ranking in France, Astro Noughts also ranked higher than Angry Birds HD Free in the top free Apps in France for a while. Pretty cool!

I’ve tried to collate this data as best I can to show the most interesting chart rises…

Top Free Apps

Top Free Games

Top Educational Games

Downloads

Rankings are all very nice but the big question is, how many downloads does this equate to? The iPad App store requires far fewer downloads than the iPhone store in order to begin seeing changes in rank. Presumably this is due to the reach of the iPad (when compared with the iPhone) and also perhaps the way that iPad users are interacting with their devices (perhaps spending more time in the prebuilt Apps such as Safari and Mail).

During its free period (20th – 23rd March) Astro Noughts was downloaded a total of 2,299 times. I’m pretty pleased with that number. Its great knowing that such a large number of people have played my game.

I think it’s always interesting to look at country distribution, if only to highlight how important the US charts are.

Press

I didn’t contact the press during the free period and most of the positive press happened virally on twitter. However, I did get some press through App Advice (check out the humorous comment) and Appmodo.

iTunes reviews and ratings

In the past when I’ve gone free this has had a negative impact on my iTunes ratings. With Astro Noughts this hasn’t been the case and my rating is still pretty good. I suspect some of this is due to Apple’s removal of the rating popup when you delete an App.

Aftershock & Conclusion

The Astro Noughts Free experiment lasted from 20th – 23rd March. I decided to put the App back to paid on 23rd March when I could see the rankings & downloads begin to decline. Putting Astro Noughts back to paid had an immediate affect on rankings since these are not shared between free and paid apps (i.e. I went back to my previous paid rankings). However, Astro Noughts did begin to rise up the paid charts in a few places…

Since putting the App back to paid, I’ve seen a total of 4 sales (across 2 days). If we say on average that during the free promotion I had 766 downloads per day and I’m now seeing 2 downloads per day (on average), that puts my conversion rate at about 0.26%.

Here’s the resulting revenue chart for the entire life of Astro Noughts…

and the related download chart…

From that you can extrapolate fun facts such as, for Astro Noughts, each download is currently worth 0.5p.

You may look at the above as a bit of a failure. I, however, see this as a partial success. Here’s why…

  • An additional 2,299 people, from around the world, have played Astro Noughts
  • For a brief period, Astro Noughts was higher than Angry Birds HD Free in the Top Free Apps in France.
  • I have 4 additional paid sales that I may not have otherwise had
  • I got to enjoy a few days of chart craziness

As an aside, Astro Noughts v1.3 has been submitted to Apple with Game Center support and a few minor fixes. If you feel compelled, you can buy Astro Noughts for $0.99 (59p) here.

Does this match your findings? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. As for me, I’m taking my £12 and moving to France.

12 Comments

  1. paul says:

    “I think it’s always interesting to look at country distribution, if only to highlight how important the US charts are.”
    From my calculations only slightly more important than Europe, not forgetting that the UK is part of Europe. :)

  2. Dad says:

    So, this suggests that the freemium model is perhaps a better way for this type of app to succeed? Make the app free and then upgradeable or enhanceable via in-app purchase? Or do you attribute the start of a decline at the end of the free period as an indication that the people who wait for a “deal” had all gotten it and that it was those individuals who had responded to free? Very interesting, thanks for sharing this. Sad how difficult it can be for a game to earn back the effort it takes to produce it… :-(

  3. Brian H says:

    Wow, congrats on the free downloads! It’s definitely sobering to hear how difficult it is to acquire paid downloads. Our first game is moving right along in production, and I’m trying not to get my hopes up about downloads. I appreciate your positive take on the whole issue.

  4. Chris says:

    @Paul – You’re quite right and in fact I noticed that Canada has become a more important iOS market since my previous tests (easily levelling with the UK).

    I suppose the real point to highlight then is not to ignore the combined sales power of the smaller countries.

    @Dad (not my dad, I should point out) – I think freemium is increasingly the way to go. As you say, this doesn’t have to be purchasable in-game commodities, it can just be a charge to unlock the full version.

    The development effort vs returns is fairly low – I think it works out at about 4p/hour for Astro Noughts development :)

    @Brian – I think it’s fine to get your hopes up. It’s part of the fun of developing for this platform. Whilst its happening less and less, your “lottery ticket” may still be a winner.

  5. iphoneros says:

    Chris, i’d like to know how much time did you invest developing this app?

  6. Facinating stuff; thanks for the details on numbers. I have had a very similar experience with my first iOS app, Angel The Cat 2. After a paltry 16 or so purchases before it tailed off to 0/day, I experimented with making it free on two separate one-day events; combined they gave me 733 downloads, which were heavily biased towards the first one-day event (I didn’t tweet the second event as the bit.ly link didn’t show much traffic from it, but it only gave me 139 downloads). I have now had a total of 21 sales. Currently working on #2, but this definitely cements the sales model I will be using for it (free download, in-app-purchase to get about half the levels).

  7. Your findings are pretty much inline with experiences I’ve had. Even to the point where you app did well in France. I little while ago I switch an app to free and a leading French site similar to FAAD picked up on it and asked me to put some text in my description saying they made it go free while in return I’d get free publicity. The app went to #1 free app in France and top of it’s category around the world. When I switched back to paid? Exactly the same as before it was free. My advice to anyone is don’t do it.

    I’d also advise people to steer clear of putting IAP in a free app that unlocks features. From my experience people hate this. I tried this before and the backlash against the app was not funny at all. In the end I restored the app to paid and removed the IAP. I made more money that way.

    I think for games the old tried and tested paid lite method is the way to go. Make a free version with just enough to get people hooked and no more. This is what I’m currently embarking on. I don’t know for sure if this will work yet but I’ll soon find out.

    The the game I’m about to release the full game has 75 levels, plus the option to download user created levels. The lite version has 18 levels, with no option to download more, though you can create the levels. The levels in the lite version are different so people won’t need to replay them if they decide to buy the paid. A lot of the most success games have this approach. Whereas I’ve never seen a success story of a game where you unlock features.

    Freemium where you buy virtual goods is another story. Personally I have a moral problem with that though so it won’t be something I’ll be exploring. I honestly don’t see how anyone can justify selling virtual goods for the price of a console game. Frankly I find it disgusting.

    Good luck with your future projects.

  8. Chris says:

    @iphoneros – Good question. I spent about 300 hours creating Astro Noughts + additional time for the 2 updates. You can see a bit more of a breakdown in the comments on my Gamasutra post – http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/ChristopherWaite/20110110/6753/Astro_Noughts__A_Postmortem.php

    @Ben – I agree that free with IAP is the way to go – good luck with your next game.

    @Daniel – Interesting that your experience mirrors mine so closely. I personally don’t believe that paid + free is the way to go. It requires additional effort and upkeep and it also means you have 2 charts to consider.

    I also think that its frustrating for players to have to download two versions – unless you offer an easy upgrade path and/or substantial additional value in the free version (such as unique free levels).

    Good luck with your game.

  9. Enrico says:

    I had a very similar experience (4 days for free in the same period) with similar results, I’ll write a post to share my stats as soon as I can ;)

  10. Enrico says:

    Here I am,
    inspired by this great post I’ve just written something to share my experiment with free:
    http://blog.spiralys.it/2011/free-promotion-a-small-case-study/

    I also prepared some interactive charts with Google Chart Tools. Check out here: http://freakyalarm.spiralys.it/freakyalarm-free-promotion/

    Thanks Christopher ;)

  11. Jay says:

    Have you ever gone the route of free but ad-supported apps? I am currently creating an iphone game and am trying to decide what would be the best model for making money is.

    Thanks!

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