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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.


      The Result

      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.

      [indent=1]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!

[indent=1]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.
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Thanks for sharing, it's been great reading along with your experiences!

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Oh the irony... My wife downloaded the free version to her iPad last night and started playing it on the couch. She played it longer than she ever played the pay one. Booooooooooooooooo!

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After reading BOTH articles I have some clear insight into what you could approve on. Though you being part of a larger body and organization I can't tell you to take these actions. However, I do need to advise these actions in hope that someone reading my response could avoid disasters such as this in the future.

#1. platform distribution such as tapjoy is there for a reason. Yes, you pay but you can also earn soo much more by using them. Though more recent changes to the app store make it hard for anyone who uses such platforms to RANK on Apple, you can still turn in a buck using the platforms. You can Google tapjoy if you are curious.

#2. I SAW no video or anything about your game. How is anyone other than sheer blind luck going to see your application other than the app store? You say review sites, BUT most of your traffic WILL come from YouTube. Enough said, I don't see you on YouTube or even top page of YouTube or a review by a major channel like Machinima or Yogscast then no I don't care about your game.

#3. SEO Link juice brings in curious people. Yes YouTube is going to account for 70% of your sales, but 30% will account through Google. I don't see you pop up on Google Search for generic keywords like fun games or fun iphone games then I won't buy you.

#4. People don't simply buy a game they take interest to IF there is no hype or interest created about the game. You seem to not have any experts on your team for marketing and advertising. You do know games only sell if the public can see them. If you can create a AAA Dramatic Mood set with a strong call to action finisher then you can sell your game. How much is each customer worth to you? Is it worth it to pump out a big campaign in the hundreds of thousands to create a loyal fan base or is it too much work to see your game succeed? Your publisher should have given a money pump in order to create a successful game, but yet I never heard of you before looking here.

#5. Games are made for profit in exchange for a set period of fun. Your game seems fun, but you lack the key steps EVERYONE on here seems to. You think by chance aliens are going to market your game for you. Angry Birds used every dirty trick in the book to get ahead when the App Store took the the iPhone. In essence you should at least attempt to learn from them and their viral marketing methods.

I don't take myself as a "One Stop Source" of information, but with a little bit of time and Google you can check whether or not I know what I am talking about. I am open to any questions that Google doesn't provide a answer for as I do have some experience in marketing, game development and advertising. Feel free to pm me anytime, just that I may take 24 hours to answer back.

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[quote name='RPGJohnny' timestamp='1336593735']Your publisher should have given a money pump in order to create a successful game
Indie developers don't [i]have[/i] a publisher. ;-)

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