A couple of months ago, I briefly previewed Wind-Up Knight, the new action game for Android (and soon, iOS) by Robot Invader. Well, it came out about a week ago, and the only reason I didn’t mention it then was that I didn’t really have anything to say. I didn’t expect that the first thing I’d have to say would be about their business model, which is really interesting.
Once upon a time, a game like this might have come out as shareware with a free demo. You get a certain amount of content to try out, and if you like it and want to continue, you pay for the registered version of the game. This model still exists to some extent with games like the iPhone version of Guitar Hero, which ships cheaply with a sample selection of songs, and includes in in-app store for fuller content. And, of course, many apps have free “demo” and paid “pro” versions, but I want to focus here on in-app transactions.
A more contemporary approach is the current freemium model, where the game is free to play, but you pay for some sort of advantage, customization, or convenience. All too often, this takes the form of a one-size-fits-all “energy” mechanism that rations the amount of gameplay you get in any unit time, and hits you up to buy more of this energy. I say “all too often” because one-size-fits-all solutions are generally lazy, and because the energy model in particular trades on the player’s frustration. Now, frustration certainly has a place in motivating the player, but being frustrated in one’s attempts to achieve is different from being frustrated with the functionality of the product itself.
Wind-Up Knight isn’t exactly doing any of these things. Instead, it has an in-game currency, and as usual this can be earned via in-game action and spent on useful things, or purchased as a convenience. But while most freemium games try to tie currency as strictly as possible to labor, Wind-Up Knight is aggressively skill-based. It is definitely not trying to be a pastime, but a challenge. So they tie currency strongly to performance, not just effort.
More interestingly, they hybridize the pay-for-content and pay-for-convenience approaches. The progression model is pay-for-content, but you pay with the in-game currency. So, the better you are at the game (or the longer you work at it) the more levels you can progress through, but if you don’t care about needing top performance on one level before moving to the next, you can use actual money to bypass that requirement (pay-for-convenience).
It’s an inventive synthesis of old-school and contemporary approaches, and one that I find more respectful of the player than many other free-to-play games. Let’s hope they’re rewarded.
You can find Robot Invader’s post discussing the Wind-Up Knight business model on their blog.Updated 11/9/2011: There’s a good article out now on the same topic at GaintBomb, getting into more detail than I do here.