What Are Freemium Games?

There's no cost to play, but the extras will cost you

A freemium app, otherwise known as free-to-play, is an app that you can download for free but that includes in-app purchases to produce revenue. You don't have to purchase anything, but the items for sale are often features or extras that make the app more functional or enjoyable.

The word freemium is a combination of the words "free" and "premium."

The freemium model is particularly popular on mobile devices like smartphones, tablets, and internet-connected PC games, especially massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) like Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Screenshot of the Dungeon Hunter

How Does Freemium Work?

Free-to-play is a successful revenue model for app developers. Typically, the developers give away an app's core functionality for free and offer upgrades to add certain features. For example, the app may contain ads, and you can pay to disable them. Or, a game app might allow you to purchase additional game currency to advance more easily through the game.

The idea behind the freemium revenue model is that free apps are downloaded more than paid ones. When users like the app, they want to continue to use it and some of them are willing to pay for upgrades. Others continue to use it for free but the number of in-app purchases exceeds what could be earned by making people pay to download.

Free-to-Play Gaming

The strategy for free-to-play games is often to provide the complete game for free and offer cosmetic changes for purchase. One example of this model is the popular game Temple Run. The game's online store allows players to buy virtual gems, game characters, and a special map, though each of these items can also be unlocked through gameplay.

Other games use in-app purchases to add new content. In multiplayer online battle (MOBA) games, the core game is often free while different characters must be purchased through an in-game currency system or through in-app purchases. Typically it takes much longer to accrue the game currency needed to make the purchases. This method allows a premium game to be free to try. 

When Free-To-Play Goes Bad

There are plenty of examples of the freemium model executed poorly. Some games enable players to "pay to win," meaning pay money to quickly become much more powerful than other players. Others use a "pay to play" model in which players encounter a time limit unless they pay to extend their time. Unfortunately, many games use these methods.

Players become frustrated when it seems like the developers of these games are trying to nickel-and-dime them to death. It's even worse when a good game such as the Dungeon Hunter series becomes freemium and implements the worst aspects of it. An initially bad game is aggravating but a good one turned bad is even more so. 

Additionally, many players have become accustomed to downloading a game for free, making it harder to convince them to pay for those downloads. Thus, more developers are using the free-to-play model, sometimes with disappointing results.

How Free-To-Play Is Good for Gaming

Even given the negative aspects of free-to-play, there are a lot of good ones as well. The ability to download and try a game for free is great. And, when developers do freemium right, players can alternatively earn the premium content by working through the game and building up in-game currency. So they don't have to feel like there's no way to advance past a certain point in the game without paying.  

This model also places emphasis on longevity, which players like. That is, a popular game with an existing fan base can continue to add premium content to keep the game fresh and keep those loyal players. This approach is in opposition to earlier stages of gaming during which a game might get a couple of patches but any bugs left after that were left for good.

  • When is Destiny 2 going free-to-play?

    Destiny 2 currently has a free-to-play version called Destiny New Light. New Light lets people play content that came out before the Shadowkeep expansion without having to purchase the game. It's available on PC, Xbox One, and PS4.

  • How can you play Sims FreePlay?

    Sims FreePlay is a mobile game for iOS and Android. You can download it from Google Play or the Apple App Store.

  • How much do freemium games make?

    How much revenue an individual freemium game generates varies wildly depending on its popularity and player base. Overall, though, free-to-play games generated an estimated $98.4 billion in 2020, according to market research firm SuperData. Freemium games accounted for 78% of the total digital games revenues earned that year.

  • In addition to Pandora, which other streaming music service uses a similar freemium business model?

    Most major music streaming services have a freemium business model where you can get some basic features for free but can unlock more features with a monthly subscription. The free subscription tier usually limits what you can listen to, restricts the number of times you can skip songs, and shows ads in between tunes.

Was this page helpful?