Lessons Learned Making a Free Version of our Mobile Game
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I’m Thomas Henshell (LordYabo), co-designer and programmer of Catch the Monkey. I work at an indie mobile game shop in Burlington, ON called Mirthwerx. In a previous article we talked about how we took Catch the Monkey from ideation to deployment and marketing in the app store. This article is about how we made a free version to advertise Catch the Monkey and our brand.
A Bad Demo Example
Making a free version (lite, express, demo, whatever you want to call it) is not as simple as it first seems. I remember when I downloaded the demo to Dead Space for my PS3. I hated Dead Space because of the demo. Sure it had great graphics and concepts, but the interface was confusing, the weapons made no sense to me, my motivation in the level wasn’t clear, and I spent the whole time either stuck or constantly dying. I never wanted to play Dead Space again. Not for free and certainly not for money.
It just so happened that Dead Space got an amazing review on Gamespot and the price point went below $20, so I irrationally took a chance on it. I don’t like survival horror games in general, but this one was so well done I really enjoyed it.
So here’s the issue: A bad free game can prevent people from finding out about your good paid game!
Are you advertising a Game or a Brand?
During the core testing phase, I happened upon a video presentation by fellow game designer Matt Rix for his game Trainyard.
In the video, Matt makes a key point about free versions of games:
Don’t make crippleware, make a GOOD free game that stands on its own.
When I heard this, I knew he was right. If people like your free game, they will want to buy your pay game. I don’t mean this in the sense of Doom where after 10 levels you want to play the next 20, that is obvious. There is something more subtle going on here that has to do with building your brand, not just pushing a widget. What I mean is if you give someone something free, they appreciate you (it’s like a present) and then they are intrigued to see what else you have. There is even a sense of an honour system like with albums that say “pay us what you think it is worth”. For the indie developer, these are all things we need to build the brand!
With this direction we started brainstorming what our free version would be.
The Free Features
The first order of business is to determine what to give away and what to keep only in the pay. Of course, we fired up XMind and whiteboarded until we settled on a few things.
Obviously when you make a free version, you are working from the assets (art/code base) of the pay version. So this will limit what you can and cannot do in your free one, unless you really want to start the whole development cycle again.
We determined the following principles:
- Don’t do anything that would make the people who bought the paid version regret their purchase. The free version should complement the pay one, and theoretically co-exist side by side on the player’s device.
- Don’t do anything that would make a person regret buying the paid version AFTER playing the free version.
- I recently had a negative experience with an iPad game where I played 12 levels of the demo, bought it, and then had to play through those same identical 12 levels. I regretted buying it, and I did not want to spend hours redoing my previous progress. I didn’t bother to play the pay version. (InApp purchase obviously solves this.)
- Give the free player the same experience as the pay game. For us, it is: to tickle and play with cute monkeys
- Give the free player a different goal and experience than the pay one. Something they can achieve in the free one.
- When it comes to advertising, always put your best foot forward.
- The illustration I will give will sound ridiculous, but it was a real debate. The banana animation is not as cute as the ducky animation. We needed a “pickup toy” in the free version and had to decide between the two. We wanted to save the ducky animation for the paid version, but decided if we are making a billboard ad we should put our best work on it.
- A free customer is less invested in your title, therefore they need a quicker more streamlined experience.
Given the above, we decided the following:
- Remove the store, tool select, and star power management features. This makes the game faster and simpler to play
- Remove the catching of stars, as there is nothing to save up and purchase
- Oops! Catching stars is fun and breaks up the game rhythm, so put them back in but for a different purpose
- Give the player 10 plants at the start. See how many waves of monkeys they can fend off before losing them all. This is an entirely different goal and play style than the paid game.
- Give them 4 of the 10 tools. This holds back a majority of the paid game, yet still lets them get a similar experience.
- Create colored stars that give you a special ability like raining down gum from the heavens.
This all sounded good to us, especially the protectionism of defending your plants across wave after wave (I can’t think of any popular game that has that feature J). Unfortunately we had to create some new functionality, but it was so good that we went and added that to the main game as a bonus update for those who already bought the main game.
The tools we chose to include in the free version are not the tools you sequentially get in the paid one, we spread them out. This way if you play the free version for a while then play the pay one, you don’t feel like you are wasting your time as you go through the first set of levels.
All in we estimated it would take a day to build and test the free version. It ended up being 20hrs. We once again proved we suck at estimating testing duration. J
While adding the new colored star powers to the main game, we thought about adding the endless wave mode to it as well. That would be significant work (we can’t just cut & paste it in) so for scheduling reasons we decided customers can just download the free version if they want to play endless mode.
I’m loathe to reveal this, but these two results are so ironic and funny I’ll share it just with you if you promise not to tell anyone.
1) Some people when play testing PREFER the free version over the paid version. Totally not our goal, but we’re happy people like it!
2) The free version is closer to the initial vision of what Catch the Monkey should be.
With the pay version of Catch the Monkey complete, and using that as a palette, we were able to make a tighter more streamlined version. I’m not saying this is a rule (though it could be, I only have one experience thus far), but sometimes you need to build in order to know how and what to cut. On the whiteboard everything seems better than it really is.
We (the development team) still prefer the paid game to the free one. The pay one has more depth and strategy to it, so we prefer it. But check it out for yourself and post a comment here or on our blog or tweet us at @Mirthwerx which one you prefer.
We’re almost done the android version. So our next article will discuss the issues involved with making an android version. To know immediately when the next article is available join our twitter feed @Mirthwerx or on facebook.