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Fortnite and free-to-play games raked in billions last year
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Fortnite and free-to-play games raked in billions last year

In the realm of video games and even entertainment in general, 2018 was Fortnite's year. The numbers have come in and the uber-popular battle royale game brought in $2.4 billion in revenue, topping the charts for the year and setting a record for highest annual revenue for a video game. And that's while being free to download and play. 

The data comes from a new report from Nielsen’s SuperData Research, which, aside from the unsuprising yet impressive figure for Fortnite, offers a few more insights into the state of the digital entertainment market. For a start, were you aware that free-to-play games are the most successful business model worldwide, bringing 80% of total digital games revenue in 2018?

To put Fortnite into perspective, here are the top 10 free-to-play titles and their earnings:

  1. Fortnite (Epic Games) – $2.4 billion
  2. Dungeon Fighter Online (Nexon) – $1.5 billion
  3. League of Legends (Riot Games, Tencent) – $1.4 billion
  4. Pokémon GO (Niantic) – $1.3 billion
  5. Crossfire (Neowiz Games) – $1.3 billion
  6. Honour of Kings 2 (Tencent) – $1.3 billion
  7. Fate/Grand Order (Aniplex) – $1.2 billion
  8. Candy Crush Saga King (Activision Blizzard) – $1.1 billion
  9. Monster Strike (Mixi) – $1.0 billion
  10. Clash Royale Supercell (Tencent) – $900 million

Even if many people who download and play a free game never pay, the ones that do count for a lot, with players with particularly deep pockets being known in the industry as 'whales'. The wider you cast your net (by making your game free), the more likely you are to catch those whales. Where are whales found? Mostly in Asia, it seems.

Regional markets differ starkly. 62% of global free-to-play revenue was earned by Asian mobile games, while North America and Europe generated 80% of premium games revenue. By and large, the population in Asia is more likely to game on their phone, and prefer free games. This could be due to economic differences, with Western consumers being more able to afford a PC/console on top of their smartphones, and more able to pay upfront for premium games. China's tight control over the market is another. In the most popular Asian country, the well-known game consoles are effectively banned, so it's PC/mobile or bust for the Chinese gamer.

Pokemon Go 03
Pokemon Go is still being updated, and rolling in cash. / © AndroidPIT

Of course, the way these earnings from free-to-play games are gained have been criticized a lot, including right here on this website. Carefully crafted mechanisms and hedonic feedback loops in free-to-play games can deliberately make games frustrating, unfair or unfun until a payment is made, or worse, offer random rewards that can trigger gambling addiction.

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With the popularity of free-to-play titles comes increased scrutiny, criticism and more pressure upon publishers to improve their monetization models, especially when put on top of premium paid titles. At the moment though, this gravy train shows no signs of stopping.

Do you enjoy free-to-play games? Which do you think have the fairest monetization?

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