Why Android Games are Free-to-Play

Why you can't just pay for games any more.

 Why are so many games, especially on Android, free-to-play? While there are plenty of paid games, there also exist plenty of games that are free on Android instead. And Android's existence has forced many games to instead be free-to-play across all mobile platforms. I see 4 major factors in play as to why free-to-play is so prominent on Android.

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Android phones are cheaper than iPhones

Android One phones
Stephen Lam / Stringer

On Android, free-to-play is a particularly different situation from iPhone because of the fact that so many Android users don't have as much money as iOS users. Think about it: to own an iPhone, you have to have the money to pay at least $199 upfront for a phone, and then for the monthly post-paid service. And many phones run with higher upfront costs, or with steep unlocked prices. Compare this with Android, where budget handsets are everywhere. It's easy for anyone with just a small amount of money to buy an Android phone or tablet. With the advances in mobile technology, the phones and tablets you can buy now are actually pretty capable of basic tasks and lower-scale games. ​And with MVNOs and prepaid plans being so cheap now, it's possible for anyone with a bit of discretionary income to have a capable phone and plan.

Now, here's the problem: if someone is scraping the bottom of the barrel with their Android phone, they're not necessarily going to have the money to pay for games up front, are they? Even if they don't pay for in-app purchases and become paying users there, they can be valuable in other ways. They can watch ads, both banner and incentivized video ads, which contributes revenue to the developer. As such, free-to-play is kind of an equalizer: while paying players in many games might do better, everyone can play.

This is not to mention that Android is really well established in countries like India and China, where a dollar goes much further than it does in western countries. While app stores often offer alternative tiers for pricing, a game that's $0.99 up front costs a lot more to someone from those territories.

So, in order to appeal to this wide audience that might not have much money to spend on games, free-to-play is the answer.

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As games scarcity reaches zero, so does the price.

Digital Legends Entertainment

Games quickly shifting to free-to-play is just a larger part of the rise of digital distribution. What's happened is that as it has become easier for developers to make and sell games without being a part of a larger entity, and without having to go through publishers, they have been able to make games with greater ease. They've been able to make smaller games than when they would have to make something that required the production of physical media in order to distribute it. What's happened is that there's been an ever-increasing number of games on mobile stores.

Now, think back to the music industry when Napster came around, and suddenly you could have all the world's music for free. Why pay for music when you didn't have to? Why pay more for CDs when digital music was slightly cheaper? Why buy music now when subscription services are so cheap? $9.99 per month is the going rate and often come with lengthy cheap trials and other bonuses. Google offers YouTube without ads for anyone who signs up for Google Music. Cable subscribers are dropping like flies as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu offer loads of content at people's convenience and for much cheaper than cable subscriptions. 

It's the same with games. As the supply dramatically increased, the need to pay lots of money for games decreased. Prices started to drop down to $0.99, and as in-app purchases became available to developers, they quickly became the go-to form of payment. The average player doesn't have to spend money on games up front at all.

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Piracy is a special concern on Android

Monument Valley
Ustwo Games

The effects of piracy are kind of a great unknown – do they affect sales, or are they just people who wouldn't have otherwise paid at all getting the game for free? China, where Google Play has disappeared at times, is often a large source of piracy. It's quite possible that developers are being scared by something they shouldn't, but they have been. 

Regardless, on Android, it is technically much easier for pirates to get games for free, since APKs can be installed by anyone, as opposed to iOS where it is more difficult to sideload games. And Android users are pirating games. As such, some developers will make their games free on Android with ads, as compared to paid on iOS. Maybe the ad-supporting users aren't as valuable per user, but it's better to make some money instead of risking making zero from people who would get the game for free anyway.

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Free-to-play games are more lucrative because they create their own economies

$100 Bills
Mark Wilson / Staff / Getty Images

The biggest reason why free-to-play has not just taken off, but sustained itself, is that each game is immune and insulated from other games in the market. A paid game is immediately compared to other games at and around its price point. Meanwhile, because free-to-play games have their own economies, the question doesn't become "is this valuable in relation to something else," but "is this valuable to me?" As such, the idea of spending more than the average paid game's price is quite palatable. And with unlimited spending, it's possible for whales who spend hundreds and thousands on a single game to exist, when a hundred dollars could satisfy most people with paid games for a long time. 

While deciphering a way for these games to actually make money is a challenge, and a balancing act; a game that is too generous to players won't make any money, but a game that's overly aggressive with monetization might turn players off. And of course, getting enough downloads is a challenge in and of itself, especially when a small minority of players are paying at all. But when it works, it works extremely well, with games making millions per year and even over a billion in the extreme best-case scenarios.

There's real reasons why free-to-play is so prominent.

Even if you don't care for free-to-play games, there's always going to be many of them for you to play and enjoy. But there's a reason why free-to-play games are so numerous.