Wonderland boss Matthew Wiggins on free apps for fun and profit.
As CEO and co-founder of developer Wonderland, Matthew Wiggins is at the sharp end of the free iPhone games movement, having made GodFinger for ngmoco.
The game was released for iPad and iPhone earlier this year as a free download, with in-app payments as its business model. Wiggins took the stage at the Develop conference this morning to talk about his experience.
Wiggins has worked in the games industry for more than ten years at companies including Lionhead and Codemasters Guildford, but co-founded indie developer Wonderland in 2009.
"This space is not the same as doing traditional console development," he said.
GodFinger came out of Wonderland's previous experience working on god games, and started as a project that would roll out gradually. It was first released in Canada in March, shooting straight to the top of the local App Store chart, before going global in June.
"The store that we always care about is the US App Store, because it's 70% of the market for us," he said.
GodFinger currently has hundreds of thousands of daily active players, according to Wiggins, who pointed out that at one point, it was even sitting above Apple's own free apps at the top of the chart.
Interestingly, Wiggins said that GodFinger was originally intended to be the "ultimate god game", selling for a premium price of $9.99, and designed specifically for the iPhone's touch interface.
"ngmoco had similar ideas at the time, 'premium's where we wanna be', and we developed for a couple of months along those lines, gradually feeling more and more concerned about what was happening in the App Store," he said. "The reality check was that $9.99 for games was a struggle. It's got better now, but at the time it certainly wasn't going to fly."
Wiggins said that games have "basically become a commodity" on iPhone, with a tendency for developers to race to the lowest possible price point - $0.99.
"As a quality app developer, it's really hard to make money, bizarrely, if you charge," he said. "Even really big places like EA, with their big licences, were struggling to stick to a $9.99 price point."
Wiggins also said Gameloft had helped drive prices for premium down when "they - how do I put this politely? - turned on their cloning engine".
By which he meant Gameloft's ability to make games bearing similarities to big console franchises, and sell them at a lower price. At this point in development, Wonderland and ngmoco decided that downloadable content (DLC) might be a better strategy for GodFinger - sell the game for a lower price and make money from in-app payments.
However, he said that this strategy was stymied by the fact that low 99-cent prices still act as a barrier. "If you sell a game for $1.99, you're still not going to make five times as much as if you sell for $9.99." So? "The epiphany was 'okay, we're going to make this motherfucker free!'," said Wiggins.
He also said that the barrier for paid games is as much about people having to think before they download a game - the prompt to pay adds more friction than for a free download.
"It's removing the mental barriers, and giving us an absolutely massive market," he said. "The next thing you have to do is figure out how to make money from it..." Wiggins said that the most important thing for developers to realise is that as soon as they make a game free, the game itself has to change. They have to design "around the fact that it's free".
That includes targeting "everyone in the world" - a true massmarket audience, rather than just traditional gamers. He made a crucial distinction between 'gamers' and 'players' - iPhone is "a return to games for all".
"What kind of games are going to appeal to all of them? It's not going to be the Triple-A games you were making before for gamers."
Wiggins said developers should take inspiration from Apple's products, Nintendo's DS and Wii, and Pixar's movies. However, he warned against games becoming "middle of the road", saying developers should be trying to make games that people love or hate, but which can never be accused of being mediocre.
Wiggins dealt with a current hot topic in the industry - whether "Freeville = FrEvil" and Facebook games in particular are a bad thing for consumers and for the industry.
"It's complete bullshit," said Wiggins. "I think that free is a true meritocracy. I'm giving you a full game, and after that point, do you feel engaged enough to want to put some money into it?"
Wiggins said that reviews and hype aren't really factors in making people spend money in these games, and marketing is only a small factor in persuading players to open their virtual wallets.
"It's about making the game itself compelling enough that they would want to," he said, while saying that it's not a good thing if developers find themselves doing "bad things" to get their players to spend money. So what do players spend on? They'll pay for customisation, thinks Wiggins, and they'll also pay for content, to share content with friends, and for status.
He said the latter has to be managed carefully - for example when putting items in games that can only be paid for, which may give players an advantage.
"The question becomes how are they actually going to pay you?" he says. "On the App Store, for us the minimum is 99 cents [for an in-app payment], so a really key design thing here is in-game currencies."
Wiggins says players of GodFinger prefer to buy wodges of its in-game currency - ore - rather than buy items using in-app payments. This also works well, he said, because it reduces friction on individual purchases: players buy some ore, and can then use it for lots of little purchases.
"Get them to buy game currency, and then there's no reason why you can't reward a player within the game with that same currency," he said. "It becomes a really positive relationship... We're basically giving you money as you're playing the game, which makes you more likely to spend it."
Wiggins also talked about using advertising in-game, which he says has turned into a "very significant revenue stream" for GodFinger, including homescreen ads and also incentive advertising.
"It supports the vast majority of players who actually won't pay. If you're talking about this vast user base, at least 90% of them will never pay... But you still want them in there, to have this big community and this critical mass. For those sorts of players, if they can look at an advert and get something for it, they're going to be happy to do it."
Wiggins talked about gameplay, and specifically the 'systemic gameplay' seen in GodFinger. "Things that you can code and create that are repeatedly playable... You need a core design to the game that is about repeatable gameplay."
He also said 'emergent gameplay' is important, where the developer creates a space for the player to play in - a sandbox environment. "What's really nice is when you create something, and players come up with really bizarre ways of using it."
He admitted that this sort of freeform play can be quite intimidating to a lot of players - "if you drop people into a world and don't give them any structure, a lot of them will just leave in this market".
Wiggins said Wonderland saw this happen when GodFinger launched in Canada, and moved to fix it before the global launch. In other words, content should go alongside systemic gameplay in these kinds of games. Wiggins also talked about GodFinger's social aspects, including the idea of asynchronous versus synchronous play.
GodFinger uses more of the former - players do something and then later their friend sees it - but he'd like to do more synchronous elements too. What about mistakes? He admitted that GodFinger's gameplay is "a bit too repetitive", so Wonderland is working on introducing more interactions and gameplay elements. He also said that its social features need more polish.
"What's next? You want to create systemic gameplay and merge it with content, with higher quality social interactions," he said. "It's about finding the fun and just multiplying it."