What Your Brand Can Learn from Free-to-Play Games

free-to-play games

Wildly successful and designed to appear light and carefree, free-to-play (FTP) games are based on decades of research on why we consume and what compels us to purchase.

These games may appear to be a highly successful island unto themselves providing limited insights for non-game brands. But if we take a closer look we can see how free-to-play paradigms can be applied to your brand’s mobile app development, increasing engagement and driving sales.


Reciprocity theory posits that in response to friendly or positive actions, people are often friendlier, more positive in return and feel compelled to return the kindness. Because we are being given the game for free we subconsciously feel compelled to reciprocate and pay developers back.

I like to remind brands that you have to “give action to get action.” Offer your users real solutions to the problems they’ve hired your app to solve. By delivering sustained value (convenience, special access, useful tools) for free you create a reciprocity dynamic that helps compel users to purchase. Even a small gesture can elicit reciprocity.

Compelling reasons to return

The most successful FTP games are sophisticated and entertaining, taking full advantage of the latest platform advances.

But all too often brands try to ‘check the box’ on apps. They provide apps that aren’t compelling for users. Others may have novel but low value features, a short shelf life (like event-based apps) or are just beautiful brochures.

Brands should provide features that deliver ongoing solutions to users’ problems. Amazon’s app is a perfect example; in any retailer I can open their app, scan a product, compare pricing and order in just a few taps. It’s now a habit for me to have Amazon open when I’m shopping.


Successful free-to-play games are impeccably designed and well branded. Your app must be highly usable, well-designed and thoroughly tested. The polish (last 3% of a project) is the hardest to complete but the most important 3% of the project.

User engagement

FTP games use push notifications with surprising grace and tact, engaging users who have been away and providing limited-time offers, special events and news.

Brands can use push notifications to alert customers when they’ve abandoned a cart, ping customers who have been inactive and notify customers about limited-time offers/events. They key: be conversational but not chatty. A user can easily turn off push notifications if they feel spammed.

Remove purchase friction

Free-to-play games are expert at getting users to part with money. They do this in a variety of ways but the most important is that these apps remove all friction and make it simple to complete a purchase.

Whether your brand has physical locations or is virtual, your app can make purchasing simple and fast. The Apple Store apps allow you to scan an item and pay from the retail floor, and Amazon’s app has a “1-Click” purchase option. Beacons allow you to upsell, cross-sell and even buy items out at the current location.

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