iPhone developer ngmoco released the virtual pet game Touch Pets Dogs onto the App Store in November 2009 as a "freemium" download. But it wasn't always planned that way.
When the studio was working on the game in early 2009, ngmoco producer Matthew Roberts said they felt the game should be sold for $19.99, in the same price range as games sold on Nintendo DS and Sony PSP.
By mid-2009, ngmoco thought it'd be wiser to release the game in the $4.99 to $9.99 range, just based on the pricing trends happening on the App Store at the time. Touch Pets would be a great deal, the studio thought, because it had visuals, gameplay, and depth on par with handheld console-based counterparts.
However the App Store, being the dynamic and unpredictable creature that it can be, made it clear that even a $4.99 game would have an extremely difficult time doing well on a chart-driven storefront that is dominated by 99 cent to $3 games.
Ultimately, Touch Pets became a "freemium" game, or one that is free to download, but requires players to pay in order to enjoy premium features.
"We were fundamentally trying to get to the answer to the question, 'How do we sell the game?'" Roberts said. "If you look at the top 100 apps, that [average] price is generally low. It's hard to charge more than $3 or $4."
He said that ngmoco's strategy quickly shifted from generating revenue at a single point of sale to "[building] the largest audience possible," then monetizing those players. "We just wanted to get it in front of as many people as possible," Roberts said. ngmoco now offers six different SKUs of Touch Pets, ranging from free all the way up to $40, a scheme that gives players a choice to spend no money, or a relatively large chunk of money.
The games industry is still trying to figure out the free-to-play business model, and ngmoco is no different. In Touch Pets, players give their pets dog food in order to give them energy to play. When they're out of food, they fall asleep. Want more playtime? Buy more food on the App Store.
But this didn't take with many players, who left harsh reviews on the game. They felt slighted by the pricing scheme, not to mention that initially when the dog would fall asleep from lack of food, some players thought the pet died.
The studio eventually increased the food replenishment rate, and added the option to directly purchase virtual goods, an option that "tends to be a better value proposition for some customers," he said. "Understand your monetization strategy, don't overload mechanics to monetize your game," Roberts warned.
Finding a balance between mechanics and monetization is key to commercial success. "Giving away stuff can increase exposure, but can hurt monetization," Roberts said. From there, an App Store game has a better chance of reaching the 50, where success can really "snowball."