How do Free Games Make Money?

Piggy Bank Traditionally games have made their money by charging up-front. However, on mobile stores such as the Apple App Store and Google Play a large number of games can be downloaded for free. This may make you wonder, how are the developers making money to pay their bills? Here is a summary of the most common methods that allow businesses to release games for.

In-app purchases

A common approach is to allow players to download the game for free but later offer optional in-app purchases (also known as micro transactions). These usually involve buying a premium currency which can then be spent on things such as new characters, costumes and items. With this method there is no limit to the amount a player can spent and a small minority can shell out hundreds (known as whales). Games that employ this tactic are known as ‘freemium’ games. A popular example of this is Pokémon Go, which is free to download but you can buy extra items and upgrade your inventory space.

Premium Version

Some games offer a certain amount of levels for free, but then you need to buy the premium version (via an in-app purchase) to continue playing. This method is similar to demos and the old shareware model used by games such as Doom and Jazz Jackrabbit. A good example of this business model is Super Mario Run, where the game is free but you can use an in-app purchase to unlock additional levels.


Games employing this method are downloaded for free and you are given a certain amount of lives. However, when you run out of lives you need to pay to continue playing or wait for a period (typically 30 minutes to an hour). This is not a one-time purchase and you will need to constantly spend money unless you want to wait. This method is, rather unkindly, known as ‘pay to skip’. This type of game is most commonly found on mobile games such as Candy Crush.


Adverts have been around for a long time, so naturally they would make their way over to games. These could show during transition periods such as level complete screens or be in a part of the screen the whole time. Popular ad networks used are AdMob (owned by Google) and Unity Ads. Many games have an in-app purchase to remove adverts. This lets the developer have the best of both worlds.

Game Engine Promotion

Some game engine developers create entire games to promote and show-off the power of their tool. For example, Epic Games created a new Unreal Tournament game and released it for free to help promote the Unreal Engine as an industry leading engine.

Sequel Promotion

Some game developers release an older title in a series for free to promote a new one. This is sometimes done for retro games that are being rebooted in the modern era.

Brand Promotion

Some brands have free games on their website to help promote their image. These are usually simple and similar to existing games such as arcade classics, endless runners or Bejeweled clones. Examples of brands that do this are Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Hasbro. This method can also be used to promote another, bigger product. Games such as Pokémon Go and Fallout Shelter could be considered this, although they are now both successful games in their own rights.

Cryptocurrency Mining

If the game you downloaded uses this method of monetization, while you are playing the game it will use a portion of your device’s resources to mine a cryptocurrency (such as Bitcoin or Monero). This will:
  • Consume more power. Bad for the battery life of mobile phones and laptops. It also means increased electricity usage for desktop computers.
  • Heat up the device quicker due to extra resource usage. Again, bad on mobile devices and laptops.
  • Wear out the device’s CPU/GPU quicker due to more use.
Permission to do this will likely be buried deep within the End User Licence Agreement (EULA).

Portfolio Piece

Aspiring game developers who are trying to break into the gaming industry may release their game for free. By releasing it this way, they will (in theory) help it get more visibility.


Some developers just want to create games for fun as a hobby and share their games with the world. Maybe they don’t believe their games are worth paying for. The Flash scene was full of creators like this and many of them have transferred to the mobile scene with Flash’s demise.


There are many ways to release a game for free and still have a viable business model. Whether it’s by using in-app purchases, adverts or another method games released on mobile will most likely be free for quite some time due to consumer behaviour.
I Make It. You Play It.