To make money on mobile, you have to give your game away and charge for virtual goods. That’s the contemporary consensus, but at least one developer is proving it wrong.
Fireproof Games revealed yesterday that it has sold more than 5 million copies of its mind-bending puzzler franchise The Room on Android and iOS. The latest title, The Room Two, launched in December and has already surpassed more than 1.2 million in sales. Fireproof has sold more than 4.2 million copies of the original since its 2012 debut. The Room costs $1 while The Room Two costs $3. Spending on game apps reached $16 billion worldwide in 2013. The bulk of that went to free-to-play titles, but Fireproof director Barry Meade thinks his games are proof that consumers want something that doesn’t resort to microtransactions.
“OK, so premium games on mobile don’t sell, [or] so we keep getting told by the investor/marketing wing of the industry,” Meade tweeted yesterday. “Well, today, Fireproof received word [that] The Room Two has sold 1.2 million. Combined with The Room, we’re at 5.4 million sales over 14 months. Yet this all happened without Fireproof spending any money on marketing or PR or analysts or analytics.”
The Room and The Room Two lock players in a digital space and give them a box that they have to open. To progress, players must solve riddles and visual brain-teasers. The developer designed it to let players discover the answers on their own without any help, and you can’t just spend a dollar to skip anything.
Talk surrounding mobile tends to focus on huge free-to-play products like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga that make their money from in-app purchases. These games have millions of players and generate millions in revenue, but they also spend a ton of money on player acquisition and data mining in an attempt to squeeze every dollar out of each and every player. Additionally, some free-to-play titles employ techniques to get money from people when they are most vulnerable. For example, players are more likely to spend money to keep items they’ve collected when the game threatens to take them away after a game over. The European Union is currently holding hearings to address these kinds of business models.
Fireproof ignored all of that stuff and instead just made what it wanted to play.
“We had no experience in mobile,” Meade said. “We made it up as we went along. Our game wasn’t a service, and we believed in gamer word of mouth.”
So, does Meade think that Fireproof is doing things better than “freemium” developers like Supercell and King? It certainly seems that way.
“Maybe what mobile games needs is less databollocks and more devs who believe in gamers and what gamers want,” he said. “Who cares if free-to-play games’re making ‘$zintrillion’ if they’re barely games at all. Gamers need a space on mobile, and only we can create it.”
Fireproof is in no way making the kind of money that Supercell and King are bringing in, but it also might have a more stable model. For example, as King’s Candy Crush Saga gets larger, the company has to spend more on player acquisition. This takes the form of ads on TV or in other apps that draw players to its title.
A huge number of people at King spend all of their time trying to figure out how to bring in new players, and it’s part of why King’s releases make so much money. But that infrastructure can also turn into a liability later in a game’s life. If King is spending a significant amount of money and resources to acquire new players, but older players start leaving faster than new ones are coming in, that’s a lot of money to keep an old game running. It puts a lot of the cost on the backend, as opposed to Fireproof, which spent the brunt of its budget upfront and can just keep reaping the rewards without having to take further risks.