You’re Doin’ it Wrong: How to Master the F2P Upsell

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Kevin Ford

June 19th, 2013

Upselling has been a powerful tool used in retail for decades. I think we all understand the increasedrevenues it can bring. However, upselling at the wrong time or to the wrong person can not only annoy the consumer, but can also kill possible sales or turn consumers away. This is true in retail stores and in mobile games.

As a member of the NativeX Games Task Force, I work with game developers to improve their upselling techniques in ways that create value for their players. The result is increased engagement, retention, and monetization. Before we get into the correct way to upsell in mobile games, let’s observe some real-life examples.

The Classic Fail-Latte

Take coffee shops for example. If I walk in and order a coffee, they ask me if I want a scone. Sometimes I get one even though I never intended to when I walked in. Boom, value was added by the upsell. Now let’s take that same example, and I’ve just walked in to order my regular black coffee…

Barista: Welcome to Coff-e-holics! Would you like a muffin?

Me: No thanks.

Barista: Do you want a bagel?

Me: No, just a coffee…

Barista: Do you want a super awesome venti, cherry, chai cooler with whipped cream?

Me: No dammit!


At this point I would leave. The person obviously isn’t listening, and doesn’t know how to properly upsell or even take an order for that matter. You might be thinking “well, that example is kind of extreme” but rest assured, I’ve seen just as ridiculous upsells at my home, in my emails, and even in F2P games.

Unwanted Solicitation

How many times have you been at home relaxing after a long day at work and all you want to do is watch the game, shoot a few zombies or maybe just put your feet up and unwind when all the sudden…


“Hi, did you know Carl is running for Mayor? I’d like to tell you what he’s going to do for you.”

“Hungry? Steak-From-a-Truck has some great deals on steaks!”

“Did you know Awesome Garbage Company is now serving your area?”

Nobody loves solicitors. Signs like this one exist – enough said. This sign also sums up the real problem. People are selling me products or services that I either already know about, and more likely, ones I am not interested in. I basically only keep my doorbell around for Thin Mints.

Digital Upselling

Should the rules be different based on the medium in which the solicitation takes place? Around every six days, I get an email from LinkedIn reminding me about my last chance to sign up for LinkedIn Premium… and it’s FREE! (For only one month of course.) If I don’t do it right now, there will definitely not be another chance for me to sign up. They will definitely not send me another email anytime soon advertising this same service. And let’s not forget how awesome this service is – I can see the identity of all three people that have viewed my profile in the past 30 days!


That was a cheap shot at LinkedIn’s expense, their Premium service provides value to some people, just not me. Last month, I received four emails from LinkedIn about their premium service, and I asked a coworker to find out if it was just me. He has seen five upsells from LinkedIn so far this month. And in the midst of writing this, we each received one more email.

Just for the record, LinkedIn is doing quite well for itself and I’m not disparaging the company or service. But can you imagine if a real solicitor came back and asked you if you still wanted their service every few days even when you keep telling them no? “I know you didn’t want this service last time, but how about now?” Three days later. “How about now?”  What if this happened in other industries that use the F2P model?

Upselling in Games

The truth is plenty of F2P games abuse the user experience and upsell their virtual goods constantly. This hilarious video details one of the more egregious examples, but there are plenty of other more subtle cases.

In late June of 2012, there was a tower defense game where the location of Dracula’s coffin was revealed and the user needed to protect Dracula for a certain amount of time. It received some positive reviews on Inside Mobile Apps and other sites, and in my opinion was a pretty fun game, but all the reviews noted how often a pop-up selling the user more coins appeared. Even in the gameplay trailer, the user sees the pop-up for more coins twice in ten seconds. The game was pulled from the App Store in September after the developers agreed the upsells were too aggressive.

However, other games approach upselling differently. In Blood & Glory if a player fails to defeat an opponent they ask the player if they’d like to buy a better piece of gear to increase their stats. This is done using only part of the post-battle-screen, meaning it’s not an interstitial or menu that players need to navigate through. If you’re immune to advertisements then you’ll never see it, but if you’re struggling in the game this gives you options without navigating menus or browsing virtual stores for the right item.

A step further would be to offer an item to improve where the player is lacking. If the player needs help with their offensive stats, then offer a better weapon, or if they’re not very good at defense perhaps offer them a better shield or armor. This version of upselling or advertising is more intelligent, and we’ll see more and more intelligent advertising and upsells in games over time. Advertisers used to only care about the sheer number of impressions an ad received, but are now looking for better ways to target the right audience. Trust me, this isn’t a bad thing. We’re going to be advertised products, services, and games so I’d rather see ads that are relevant to my interests.

The Freemium Model Under Fire

The F2P game referenced earlier has since been re-released on the App Store and is significantly less belligerent with its messaging, but this is a problem that has been plaguing the freemium model since apps started going free with microtransactions. Nagging, needy, or greedy implementations of F2P can alienate or turn users away and detract from all games that employ the freemium model. For each of the manipulative attempts at F2P, there are an equal number of successful games where the freemium model enabled developers to get an incredibly fun experience in front of more users than ever before. Unfortunately these don’t get nearly as much publicity as the negative stories.

Opponents of freemium/free-to-play/F2P say it is a business model that takes advantage of users and nickel-and-dimes them for as much money as they are willing to pay to experience the content. It’s important to remember that people are paying to be entertained, most of the time. There are exceptions to the rule, as in, developers who make a living off of preying on whales or addictive personalities, but that doesn’t mean all F2P games are evil. In fact, the vast majority aren’t.

Master the Upsell

As the world continues to “go mobile,” the freemium/F2P business model will continue to grow in popularity. Some developers will have success resisting and others will abuse their players but smart developers will embrace the freemium model and master the upsell. Intelligently upselling adds value for your players. Once you crack that nut, you’ll notice an increase in engagement, retention, and monetization.

Kevin Ford

Marketing Manager


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