Noted video game analyst Daniel Ahmad (who goes by @ZhugeEx on Twitter) has been working with news source Niko Partners to create a series of reports analyzing the state of the video game industry in Asia. Recently, they examined the various methods of monetization used within the gaming market. These contrasting games could be purchased for a flat price with those which utilize what is known as the "free-to-play" or "F2P" model.
F2P games are, as the name suggests, initially free to download. However, many of them contain what are known as in-game or in-app purchases or "micro-transactions" — small, individual purchases that relate to the game in some way. Some of these purchases are cosmetic, such as character skins in Fortnite or League of Legends, while others directly benefit the player, allowing them to obtain powerful items or characters. Both of these often rely on the "gacha" or "loot box" model, where players have a random chance of receiving weaker or stronger items/characters. Still, others provide additional content, unlocking new stages or gameplay modes, which often give rewards upon completion. These are typically referred to as "battle passes" or "mission passes."
According to Ahmad and his team, approximately 80% of game revenue in Asia comes from titles using the F2P model. The majority of these popular F2P titles were mobile games, including Asian favorites Free Fire and Honor of Kings. Some western titles also did well, notably Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Call of Duty: Warzone.
Ahmad theorizes that the popularity of F2P games in Asia is partly due to the ease of acquiring a mobile device or a PC with programs such as Steam. This contrasts with consoles, which can be challenging to obtain and have been in unusually short supply lately due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The vast majority of games using the F2P model are mobile apps, although others, such as Fortnite, are available via PC. In 2019, all of the top 100 most popular mobile games in Asia used the F2P model in some way.
The team does caution mobile game developers that, despite this data, making a F2P mobile app might not be an immediate ticket to success. This is because the market is currently over-saturated, with many new mobile games with in-app purchases being produced and released practically every week. This includes presumably low-effort copycats of existing popular apps, such as Glory Emblem.
Notably, while F2P-model games did well throughout Asia, "premium model games" (which cost money to buy but do not necessarily feature in-app purchases or battle passes) were successful in only certain parts of the continent. Premium games earned the equivalent of $3.85 billion in Japan, but only $156 million in China. Ahmad attributed this to China's strict game approval process, which has resulted in many popular premium games being difficult to purchase or banned outright. It is also important to note that Japan is the headquarters of multiple significant companies known for creating premium games, including Nintendo and Sony.
While F2P games are popular and successful in other countries, this disparity between F2P and premium sales is not as pronounced outside of Asia. However, Ahmad suspects that this might not remain the case forever. He pointed out that several Chinese studios are currently producing or have produced premium games which have attracted international attention. In particular, he cited Lost Soul Aside, Bright Memory Infinite, and, most recently, the popular trailer and gameplay reveal for the upcoming Black Myth: Wukong. Ahmad has exceptionally high hopes for the future of the Asian gaming market.