Friday, August 5, 2011

No such thing as a free lunch (for the delicatessen?)

For the past few months, one of my daily stops on the internet has been Amazon's Android app store. I don't often spend money on phone apps, but Amazon's store has given me a second gateway into trying out new things - they have a featured item that is their "Free App of the Day."

Often, it's something that's a whole lot of fun to try. I've picked up a couple productivity suites, which are nice, and I've picked up a couple of games I wouldn't have gotten otherwise, including popular games like Plants Vs. Zombies.

From a game developer's standpoint, though, it's interesting to think about the mechanism behind this. I recently read an article, that, while fairly self-evident (and couched in only a single anecdote), did at least prompt me to lend some fresh grey matter to that mechanism. The concept is a fairly simple one - offer a good for free for a certain period of time in exchange for attention. In this case, the attention is probably pretty significant. What was interesting in the abovementioned article, though, was that the particular developer being profiled saw no real uptick in sales as a result of all that attention (they did see a drain on resources, though, because of all the customer service they now had to provide to a slew of new users).

Now making the - admittedly dangerous - assumption that this is indicative of many app authors, it's interesting to work through this logically. It seems so pat, the idea of giving away "free samples" to entice users to a product. Why doesn't it work here?

I suppose that it may be working, albeit in a different way. Obviously one would expect sales to shoot high for a day, but maintain some small fraction of that momentum moving forward. Although that is not happening here, there may be a "double peak" effect that happens - the authors will see the obvious peak at the "free day," see the expected dip in sales, but then may see a second peak as the app starts to see press. I can't verify this, of course, and the article indicates that at least in this case, nothing like this was seen.

Another potential issue here may be that the short uptick in popularity represents an opportunity given to the developers, rather than the fulfillment of a previously-taken opportunity. The expansion of the user-base now may give them an "in" into a market for expansions, DLC, and the like. In the case of the article above, it's not necessarily the case that those authors took this advantage, and that may be where the true value lies.

Or, I suppose, it could simply be a well disguised benefit for Amazon and Amazon alone. It's tough to say, of course, but the job of a distribution channel like Amazon is certainly to make as much money off of managing their third-party content, and they may simply be exploiting that to its maximum.

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