What does freemium mean? And why it’s time to stop being cheap [EDITORIAL]


Game developers have finally found a way to make money on their apps and games, and users don’t like it. I’m talking about the explosion of “freemium” content that has stormed into the Google Play Store as of late. It’s nothing new, with this sort of content seeding the market for a couple of years now. It has picked up as of late, with nearly every high-profile title launching with free-to-play features.


What is “freemium”?

A lot of people don’t really understand the concept of freemium, so I’ll put it simply. You’re often promised a “free” download, and that game is “free” forever, but the game is designed to entice you to spend real currency. Currency might be used to buy something like energy (the game would block you from playing if you don’t have enough energy), power-ups, new costumes, and other add-on content.

It’s through these tactics developers look to make their money. Instead of scaring people off with the initial price tag, they can attract more people to download the game. Even if just a fraction of those customers regularly buy in-game content, the developers are making more money than if they were to offer the game with no frills for a few bucks.

Where did it come from?

The freemium model didn’t actually take off on mobile. Enter places like Facebook, where games like Farmville have gotten millions of users addicted to the point where they’ll gladly spend more money to enhance the game. You could even rewind a bit further and see services like the now-defunct Coke Music and the still-strong Habbo Hotel, internet-based games which also encouraged you to spend real money to make the experience that much better.


These models translate well to mobile titles because users have a sense of entitlement when it comes to mobile gaming. A game should be no more than $.99, shouldn’t have ads, and shouldn’t have any in-game content locked behind a paywall, according to most. Thus, developers have caught on and have started designing games, keeping these monetization tactics in mind every step of the way.

Why is this happening?

It’s simple: people are cheap. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but whenever I write an article about a great new game, but note that it comes with a relatively high price tag, the answer is as clear as day. People need to stop being cheap and buy games. Take, for instance, X-COM: Enemy Unknown on iOS. That’s a $20 download, but people see the value in that game and are glad to pay that $20 for the full experience. There are no catches, no ads, no freemium nonsense to put up with — just you and the game.

Similarly, people loathed downloading Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 because it required an initial $10 purchase to unlock the full game after going through the tutorial. Many users moaned and groaned in Google Play Store reviews, giving the game 1-star ratings because they felt they were “duped.”


This is happening because we’re not willing to pay for quality content. It’s that simple. Users need to understand that developers put a lot of time and money into these projects, and they have to be able to make that money back and make that spent time worthwhile.

Unfortunately, the vast majority have shown that they aren’t willing to help make a (worthy) game profitable by throwing money at it, so developers would lose interest (because let’s face it, the money is a very important part of why most people make games in the first place).

It’s the same reason why ads have become prevalent, though even those are taking a backseat to this magical new freemium concept. We’ve done this to ourselves, and as long as we keep showing developers we aren’t willing to pay for games they will keep evolving and do whatever it takes to get the sales they need.

Can things change?

I think so. When users said they wouldn’t put up with high price tags on games, developers introduced ads. When users said they wouldn’t put up with ads, developers introduced freemium. Those particular changes weren’t changes beneficial to consumers, but they were changes nonetheless. If enough people are willing to take a stand and show developers they are willing to buy quality games, developers might be more comfortable making games that don’t ask for money around every bend.

If we’re going to stay on the freemium route for a while, though, developers have to do it right. Things have gotten better in recent months, with developers making it possible to tap the vast majority of a game’s content without spending a dime, but there are still some titles which completely miss the mark.

oregon trail

I can only think back to my time with Oregon Trail: American Settler, where I was completely blocked from getting ahead in the game after just an hour of play. That was one of the biggest violations of the freemium model I have ever seen, but thankfully there hasn’t been much of that since.

Developers have a right to make money on the content they create and deliver. Knowing how the development cycle works from personal experience, I gladly spend the money to help a developer out if I genuinely like the game and feel it deserves a purchase. I know how nerve-wrecking, time-draining and cost heavy development can be, so rewarding those developers with a sale is as easy to decide as whether I’ll have regular pancakes or potato pancakes for breakfast.

Unfortunately, one man’s propensity for doing that isn’t enough to incite widespread change. I probably won’t change the opinion of the vast majority with this plea, but I felt the need to spread the message anyway — stop being cheap, buy the titles you want to play, and we wouldn’t have to deal with freemium. Otherwise, we’re just going to have to deal with it. How do you feel?

Quentyn Kennemer
The "Google Phone" sounded too awesome to pass up, so I bought a G1. The rest is history. And yes, I know my name isn't Wilson.

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  1. I don’t have any problem dishing out cash for an App I really like but some of the newer apps don’t even have a paid option. It’s 100% micro-transaction based.

    1. And that is not counting when you lives run out and you do not want to wait for them to regenerate “shudder”

    2. That is the most appalling thing. And some other games, you would have to add $10 every month, indefinitely, to have full status. Absolutely disgraceful

    3. All of Candy Crush can be played and beaten without spending a penny. The only catch is that you have to play 3 puzzle days to unlock the next level set. Time VS Money.

  2. I don’t touch freemium games.

    I also don’t buy apps over 5$. My reasoning is that the life of mobile apps (in my case) is very limited since I get bored fast. PC games is another matter. Games like Skyrim, I feel a lot more justified in paying 60$.

    I understand that some developers want to charge 20$ for a really good game, but they have to live with the fact that there are a lot of good games out there for 5$, which means a lot of people will not be willing to spend 20$ no matter how good the game is.

    1. My limit is $15. This is how much I pay for Xbox Live Arcade games, and if a mobile game looks good enough, I gladly plunk down the money.

      Of course, sometimes I watch a $15 game for a month to see if it’ll go on sale and when it does, I pounce. :p

      1. I did pay around 15-20 once (Final Fantasy 3), but I quickly regretted it. I can’t invest myself as much in a mobile game like I can on a console or PC. Imo, it doesn’t have the same feel.

        1. Absolutely true. Devs need to understand that mobile games are NOT on par with their PC and console counterparts. I’m not going to pay more than $10 for an app that if blown up onto big screen will look like 15 years old 3dfx Voodoo graphics. Doesn’t matter that the mobile screen is smaller – that just lets you not care about textures and models too much.
          Oh, and I have not spent a dime on mobile in-app purchases, yet I did spent money on PC game add-ons.
          EDIT: Last statement isn’t completely true. I did buy some add-on package for a note taking app for my Note 10.1. But nothing on games.

          1. Upvoted because 3dfx Voodoo was mentioned :D

            Developing for mobile might not have the same processes as developing for PC but it has its own quirks and they do take time to implement/work out. Time = $. As a developer I know that even simplistic projects that have special features or options (like overall UX design accommodating 4″+ screen(s)) sometimes take as much time as big and ‘fancy’ projects.

            Should mobile game devs charge $60, absolutely not but quality work shouldn’t be free. I stop myself at around $10-15 per app on purchases..

            BTW I do not support freemium as most of the time (read all the time) it feels like a scam.

        2. A multiplayer experience is worth even $100. People play multiplayer games for at least a year, so the price justifies it. There are not enough multiplayer games on Android. Time shifted multiplayer does not count. Real-Time or GTFO!

          1. If you can honestly say you could spend $100 on an Android game then you must have money to burn. What a waste of money.

          2. No I was referring to spending $100 on a PC or console game, because you get to play for quite some time…..

          3. True that

    2. I agree with you. Mobile games, to me, are meant to just be a quick pick up and play for a few minutes and then either put it down to do something else or another game. I understand they are trying to bring almost “console quality” games to the mobile platform, but I cant play a game for such a long time on a phone. It just doesn’t feel right to me idk…

      But when there is a good game that has a price tag of $5, I do jump on it… when it goes on sale! I don’t mind spending upwards of $5 on a game or an app, I just become a little more picky when it comes to apps or games that are more than the $0.99 though.

      I just think that devs are trying to make games as in-depth as consoles and PC games… the market just isn’t there yet, i feel like. With the introduction of Android based consoles, OYUA and Mad Catz’ MOJO, its going to take a while for this market to heat up to the level devs are wanting.

      I only see these $10-$20 games making money on those Android consoles and not enough people have them yet, or people are waiting till the bugs get worked out.

      Whatever the deal is, I don’t like Freemium, don’t like the idea of spending real currency on in-game items, but I don’t mind spending a few bucks on a game.

  3. I’m glad you wrote this article. People need to stop being cheap. Biggest complaint I have is when people complain to the developers or leave one star reviews for stupid problems that are usually the players fault. I think the mobile community needs to appreciate the developers more.

  4. On the other hand, I can see why some people are cheap about buying games. I think there are a lot of people that download a game, and play it for an hour and never really pick it up again. To them that app is like a McDonald’s toy.

    1. Even then, a buck or 2 on an app or game that you’ll have for the rest of Google Play life is a great deal. Can always revisit the game and play for another 1 or 2 hours again later.

      1. I have a whole bunch of those, thanks to you Chris ;-) If only I could re-sell them for like 10 cents, I could probably buy another game at the full price.

    2. That’s a great analogy, and I wholly understand that train of thought. There is a limit for some of these games, and most developers tend to get their pricing spot-on, but some people won’t even give a game a chance if it’s a penny over $.99. I’ve seen a lot of people spew disgust for titles which cost $1.99 and $2.99, let alone the $5 and higher beasts sitting in the Play Store. It’s that attitude and sense of entitlement which has pushed us to this point. It’s too soon to tell if it’s too late for the tide to change, but with how fast this model of monetization is spreading I think the damage is already done.

      1. The worst part is, people are willing to spend $500+ on a mobile phone but they can’t spend a measly $1-5 on an application. So illogical.

    3. Right, I agree with both of you. (See my comment below).

  5. the problem with mobile games is that exactly. its a mobile game. graphics are going to be decent but not awesome. gameplay is probably good but short. so why pay a lot of money when you are probably going to beat the game in a day or two. also the majority don’t have online gameplay like toy would on a console.

    1. Totally agree, that’s why most of these games on iOS only go between .99 and $20, that’s really all they’re worth. Anything over that is unjustifiable. The problem with fremium is you’ll end up paying way more than $20 if you’re not paying attention.

      1. yeah I’m addicted to this zombie game but if I want the premium pack I have to pay 50 bucks. wonder what the developer was thinking

  6. I think the problem started with all mobile games not worth spending any money on in the beginning. Over time that has changed but I think a lot of people got used to the low prices.

    If I developed a game I would just give the customer the choice. First a demo, a section of the game completely free, second the option of freemium or buy the game outright.

  7. I think the main problem with this business model is simply because IT WORKS. There’s a lot of research involved and by the numbers, freemium tends to make developers more money.

    I think for us old timers that remember paying $74 for the Legend of Zelda a Link to the Past — freemium sucks. But there’s a whole new generation of casual gamers. Ones that don’t want to invest in a great game, but need to be gradually sucked in by a free game that has in-app purchases.

    My problem with in-app purchases is that they’re almost always TEMPORARY. Using real money to buy disposable in-game items or currency. That kinda stuff is lame to me. I have no problem spending a buck here or there to upgrade a character, by a new outfit, or unlock more levels.

    *shrugs* But may that’s just me.

    1. Simpsons tapped out comes to mind, that game is ludicrous. You litterally have to spend 100$’s to have every character/building. That games was the last straw. Haven’t touched freemium since.

      1. Not to mention that that game charged my account way too easily. When the screen came up prompting me to purchase energy, I had no intention of buying any. But I clicked on it out of curiosity wanting to know how much they were charging, thinking I would be taken through at least 2 more screens before it charged: the menu offering different levels of energy for different $ amounts, and a Google play store screen authorizing the charge. But no, one click and it charged my account. I had to them scramble to get it refunded.

  8. I don’t mind paying cash for a game I really like. My only issue is that the window for refunds in the play store is not very big. What happens when I pay cash for a game, play for 45 minutes only to find I don’t really like it after all and want to return it?

    1. Nail. Head.

      I often don’t have time to play games when I read about them. I want to go get them on the website, let my phone install, and then play for a little while. I’m not going to pay for a game that sucks, and that means if I’m not going to get time in the next 15 minutes to play it, I won’t buy it. Sorry, too many games clamoring for attention, and the next one will; be just as good.

      Personally I think the freemium model is only getting better. Plague Inc. is a great example of a game that is 100% playable for free. Paying just unlocks features that make it a bit easier, or that you could unlock yourself given enough time.

      1. Good example, I bought Plague Inc. becuase the app was so maddeningly good. It drove me nuts and yet, I loved it and I needed to buy it to make it easier.

    2. Hasn’t hurt iOS which has no refund window at all, and if you can’t tell if you don’t like a game in about 5 minutes-you may want to consider another hobby.

    3. Ammm…some games only take 30-60 min to complete. They are mobile games after all. I look at it like this…If the game has replay factor then good for you, if not then you had an hour of fun.


      I honestly think 15min is very generous. There were times when i bought the game, downloaded it to my phone only to find out that i had no time to play it right away…guess what i did, yep refunded right away. And bought the game again when i DID have time to test it.

      1. some games take 15min to download the extra content before you even start the game. Especially the ones that would cost a lot. We really need a longer refund window.

  9. Quentyn, I think you may have over simplified the subject a bit. A good chunk of the Android user base got in early when most of the apps were never more than a dollar or two. So they got used to it. That was also because new Android developers want ed to get themselves out there in the brave new world of Android. Cheap was the way to do it. If you read the complaints in Google Play, users believe that if they are going to pay premium prices like on iOS, they should get the same experience as on iOS but they don’t. This is better evidenced by users that have both Android and iOS devices. If a game is really worth it, most will shell out the money. I have several games that were $5 or $6 and I even have a few apps that come closer to $20.

    What the real complaints are, have to do with the comparative experience and not being nicked and dimed to death. I understand that most users have no idea why there is a really valid reason that devs have trouble providing equal experiences on Android vs iOS but that really shouldn’t matter to them. Paid means, it’s mine. Freemium means, I will be shelling out money with no end in sight; as long as I keep playing. That’s the perception.

    We’re not cheap but we do sense a “grass is always greener on the other side” when it comes to the better apps. If an app is really good, the ones that pay for it will inspire the cheapskates to do the same. Freemium just pisses everyone off.

  10. One thing I like about Freemium is that you can try out a game before spending any money. If we somehow are able to ditch the Freemium model, I hope we are able to somehow retain this aspect, like you can play the first couple of levels to try a game out before you have to pony up any cash. Of course, a lot of devs are terrified of this, because they make games as a quick cash grab. This is why the refund period went from 24-hours to 15 minutes, which was Google’s way of catering to these devs and showing their utter contempt for its users.

    At any rate, I partially place the blame for the abuse of the Freemium model on Google. They really need to do a better job in the Play store to denote if the package is REALLY free, whether it is infected with adware, and/or if in-app purchases are involved.

  11. The best thing to do is to take some classes and design your own.

  12. All the games i have bought, i bought during a sale. like MC4, Asphalt 6and7,Sonic the hedgehog, and others..

    only full retail purchase was Minecraft for $7 and That is a game that is well worth the money. no FCs, no Lag,No force restarts….also NBA JAM $5…flawless game..no complaints.

    only Freemium game i have and spent money(lots).. was dead trigger….this was a masterpiece IMHO…stopped spending so much since i know DT2 is just around the corner..

    all the games i buy,beat,delete..simple as that..

    i think it has less to do with cheap people and more to do with quality of apps..how are you going to charge $10 + on FF game and it does not have the original soundtrack..or better yet..
    GTA series which cost$5 but the controls and the lag is just too much to handle. i may as well go to game stop,pick up the copies for $5 and play on a console…

    some developers update apps once per year, or not at all….alot of consumers want bang-for-your-buck…and alot of devs do not offer it….

  13. They need to vastly increase the refund window if they want people to pay more than a buck for something. Otherwise, people won’t risk it.

  14. Personally, I really miss the earlier iPhone days where there were two versions of a game, the trial/demo version and the paid version. This really helped me know if I liked the game enough to buy it. Now it seems a lot of developers don’t do that anymore and it makes it hard for me to decide if I want to buy the game. Include a demo and I’m way more likely to buy the game.

  15. Twenty years ago, we had shareware. The beginning of the game was offered for free and you could pay for the rest if you liked what you played and it ran well. I’m perfectly okay with that, and I don’t see anything inherently wrong with it. I don’t like paying for a game and having enhancements costing extra. There should be one advertised price that unlocks everything, not ongoing micro-transactions. And I agree about people being cheap.

  16. I think you’re missing something. There’s potentially more profit in the freemium model. It’s like the subscription model most software vendors have moved to. They’d rather have steady, if lower, income over a long period of time than get a lump sum at the beginning. A person may not be willing to plunk down $20 today, but more than willing to pay $100 in $5 increments over the course of a year. That’s turning one lost sale into the equivalent of five sales.

  17. I feel you are 100% right. The only issue is most people want to know that what they are getting is quality before shelling out $5-$20 for a phone/tablet game. There are a lot of really bad paid games out there. I think perhaps timed trials or a free first level might help to show people willing to pay that what they are thinking about buying is in fact good quality. Its easy with big names like Xcom but smaller, lesser known devs are going to have to show that what they made is worth buying. Maybe freemium is the way to do it. I personally prefer to just buy a full game, but again I need to feel comfortable that what I’m going to spend my money on is a quality product.

  18. Counter here: I like the freemium model, and I don’t think it’s broken.

    To be clear, “Oregon Trail” is NOT a freemium app. It’s a demo.

    A FREEMIUM app is fully usable in its current state, but you can improve your experience by supporting the author. The most devoted users keep the app afloat.

    A DEMO is a limited sample of the application. Either it times out or it is missing so many features (such as levels) that it quickly becomes unusable unless you pay. I don’t mind demos. It’s another “try-before-you-buy” option. But it’s an ugly bait&switch to post a demo and call it “free.” I want to know up-front if payment will be required.

    Thankfully, there is a solution. Users don’t like to be tricked, and it often shows in the ratings. A quick read of any 1 or 2-star review will usually disclose this practice. Don’t install it until the developer calls it what it is.

    My favorite freemium application is Evernote, seconded by Guns’n’Glory WW2. The applications are fully usable without paying a dime. However, you can improve your experience by throwing some cash to the developers. The free download makes it accessible to everyone, and the developer is funded by the most devout users (as it should be).
    So, let’s not banish freemium plan. It’s a good one when it is done properly. Let’s banish the developers who are actively trying to trick the users by claiming their demo/crippleware is a freemium title!

    – Jim

  19. Of course, if you give studios full reign, you’ll end up watching 20 minutes of promotional crap for every hour of use/play.

  20. IAP to unlock the rest of the game is not bad, you get a taste, like a demo, and decide if you want the game or not.

    regenerating lives or energy is the bane of freemium and needs to stop, as does logarithmic difficulty curves.

    Make the game fun, and you will get my money, frustrate me, and you can kiss my @$$

  21. I’d gladly pay $20/$25 for a game that I had interest in. I have no problem spending money, just ask my wife ;-)

    1. Are you saying you bought your wife? They sell wives on the google play store? :O

  22. To the author: care to address the sleazy and deceptive ways in which developers integrate these practices into their marketing and development of their games?

    Otherwise, I think you make a reasonably good case.

  23. The reason dev’s and publishers LOVE freemium, is because it’s a cash cow. They make 5 times more money off freemium games, than a full version game with a 1 time fee.

  24. I’m sorry quentyn, but there aren’t enough cheapskates out there to push freemium. It’s the fact that developers can make a lot more money going the freemium route. X plane is probably the most I’ve spent on a mobile game. Was like $7 to buy the game and then an additional dollar for an extra plane. I have probably purchased 6 or so planes.

    If developers can even squeeze just a dollar out of a cheapskate consumer, then freemium has worked.

    Personally, I mostly just pay for games and try to avoid freemium.

  25. Its not that we don’t want to pay devs for their work its that they normally charge an arm and a leg for it there is no reason absolutely no reason why a mobile game should cost anything over $15 there is no physical copy to produce, no absolute guarantee that they will continue support and if you don’t like the game google took away our right to return games after days and switched it to 15 minutes. If devs want to get payed maybe they should make a quality game at a reasonable price.

    1. Not to mention they just don’t have the same experience as a fully fledged PC/Console game. Who do they think they’re kidding? If one million people buy a $1 app they’ve made nearly a million dollars, how greedy can one be?

  26. I use android as my personal phone and iPhone for work. I have several of the same apps on both platforms and I have paid for them. I have always thought that true android fans support the devs but I think most Android users got on the platform with a cheap or discounted phone and they have the same expectations for apps. I think it’s a shame and I also think that is why most developers don’t care as much for android. I have no problems with freemium if it helps them push out a game or app. I also don’t have a problem paying 20 dollars for a good app. if more android users would have showed their appreciation to developers early on by paying then this wouldn’t be a problem.

  27. i only have 2 words for freemiums, FU. It’s not even the game perse its the damn greedy ass mofos behind it. Hell, ill pay for iaps. i don’t care about that, but these devs DONT KNOW WHERE TO DRAW THE EFFIN LINE.

  28. My biggest gripe with “freemium” is that it is often the only option. I wish more devs would give consumers the option to outright buy a game and unlock everything, or at the very least, remove artificial constraints like energy/fuel. I loved the Fast & Furious 6 game that came out with the movie, but I hated that I could only do 5 races and then wait for my car to “refuel.” I would’ve gladly paid $5-$10 dollars for the game. I was pleasantly surprised by Microsoft’s decision to have the new Killer Instinct be free-to-play with the option to just by the game whole cloth and be done with it.

  29. Real Racing 3 is what really stoked my hatred for this price model. Screw “freemium”. Kill it now please…

    1. Pretty much. Tiny Tower is probably the best freemium game I’ve played.

  30. Freemium things should stop…Either free or premium….Thats it..

  31. I’m sorry, but there are no mobile games or apps worth more than $5, PERIOD. Freemium isn’t a problem, provided it isn’t used to rip people off. Take Sniper Shooter for example. I would gladly pay $1 for the game, however it’s free – and after the first level or two it offers to sell you a gun for $25!

    Who the hell do these developers think they are? Developers selling games and apps for $20 or more? Selling Freemium content for an obscene amount of money with “buy” replacing the button to start the next level? I hope they all fail.

  32. Mobile games aren’t worth more than a few bucks. I am one of the people that doesn’t pay a dime for games, and I resent being called a cheap skate. I’ve paid $50+ for good console games, and will again when GTA 5 is released. It’s not necessarily developers fault, the mobile platform just isn’t suited for proper hardcore gaming. If you’re spending too much effort on building a mobile game to justify only charging a couple bucks for it, you’re probably wasting your time and should develop a more simple app.

  33. I like freemium and here’s why. People being cheap will always be a major factor. The problem with going all free is that you generally get a lower quality game. Paid games are higher quality, but then don’t generate income (ofcourse there are exceptions). Freemium effectively places a high quality game in the hands of the maximum number of people. People who were willing to pay for the game in the first place will have no problem paying for in-app-purchases. They in fact would see it as a bonus. On the other hand, it potentially entices people who never were going to pay to try the game in the first place to spend a couple bucks on IAP. If you need proof that freemium is a good model, just look at Candy Crush. Freemium game in the #1 position of “top grossing” games until it was recently bumped off the top by Despicable Me (another freemium).

    Then there are paid games with free demos often branded as “lite” which is similarly effective albeit a bit bothersome needing to download again if you decide to buy. In the end.

    This article may be preaching to the wrong crowd though. This is the android literate group who are more than comfortable with side loading apps which I’m sure you all know that means it’s as easy as downloading a full version of a paid game through an apk. In which case, getting a full version game through APK guarantees zero expense. That isn’t being cheap. That’s straight up facilitating piracy. I’m not afraid to admit that I do side load APKs. If I like what I see then I’ll go back and pay for it. Rovio’s new Tiny Thief is one example.

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