Freemium vs. Premium: Best and Worst Games in the App Store!

We do enjoy the games at iPhone Life. What's not to love about having something like a kabillion titles to choose from?! So, we decided to run a series amongst the gamers here that highlight our favorites over the years (some of us been swiping, tapping, or joysticking since the 1970s), and expound a bit on our opinions about freemium, downloadable content (DLC), and regular old-school purchase models. Siva Om has regularly covered this area (and does a superb job) in his column, but the other iPhone Life gamers thought maybe we would each throw in our two cents as well. Here is mine...

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Whether we like it or not, the game market is and has been steadily changing. Consider this recent article in Mashable painting a financially rosy picture for freemium games particularly90 percent of revenue-generating games in 2013 were free with in-app purchases (IAPs). That is compared to just 8 percent for paid games, and just 2 percent for paid with IAPs. One might look at that and say it is great thing for the consumer. Plenty of free stuff for everyone, right? Well, maybe…. The upshot of having this grandly inclusive, free and expanded gaming marketplace is that you get a sea of mediocre clones, with only a few shining gems.

In the panoply of choice, we are drowning in frivolous and now obnoxious marketing techniques (like banner ads to purchase consumables popping full screen even in game titles you paid for). When a game is successful, the developer may have the luxury of time for improving the game, or even creating a new one without a lot of gouging behavior; but in my opinion, the model is self-fulfilling. There is a growing perception among many gamers that the invasive employment of ads is becoming more prevalent and the urge to make more money on the shrinking margins is too enticing for many developers not to succumb in some way. Piracy is the culprit most often blamed by developers; but in my opinion, this is also being used as an excuse.

So to guide our readers through the veritable sea of freemium games we now face, I am offering some of my own choice games (free or otherwise) that represent the best and not-so-much titles I have enjoyed over the years. I took the time to research and replay most of them—I've probably reviewed most of these games at one time or another, so now is also my chance to right any wrongs, and share some of my best and worst iOS picks from over the years. Below is a quick rating key, and at the end I share some overall game-buying tips I have used to find great games.


Game Rating Key:

Great: The game has few IAPS or consumables, and/or offers a full game unlock to a great game for a reasonable price. If IAPs exist, they are not in your face.

Good: There are a few IAPs or consumables that get in the way of a good game, but game advancement is not dependent on them.

Tolerable: There are more IAPs or consumables bugging you, but still the game is still playable even if it would be better without them.

Annoying: Game unlock is not available, and/or IAPs are practically required to do anything beyond the intro levels. Offers online mode only, with timer features blocking access that would allow you to grind for currency or gain enough experience points to level up (XPs).


The Great Games:

Great games (freemium or otherwise) offer high quality gameplay in all areas; are not designed to extract money from you at every turn; and get steady and responsive care, bug fixes, and updates from developers when needed. They are worth the money even when you buy additional consumables.


Sky Gamblers ($4.99)

Sky Gamblers is the standard for flying combat games and offers superb graphics, realistic controls, and a monster assortment of aerial combat platforms to choose from. This game is a major accomplishment, and well worth the $4.99 price. Like other "great" category games it has few IAPs to bother with.


Galaxy on Fire 2

This game has morphed into a free game with IAPs, but is still well worth grabbing, in my opinion. For overall 3D space-shooting, strategy, playability, and graphics, it is excellent. The game started as a standard purchase app with zero IAPs, but has recently migrated toward buying DLC, and consumables to add interest and keep the levels going. I have to give it a special "great" rating (and I was one of the suckers who bought the original game), because there is absolutely no reason to buy anything to enjoy this game for hours and hours; and the graphics are gorgeous. If you are looking for more strategy, FishLabs has added free-to-play GOF - Alliances to tickle your fancy.


Tiny Wings remains one of my all-time favorite mobile games. The simple yet wonderful artwork in this game, combined with the overall immersive and addictive visual and audio sensations, make this karmic sliding scroller practically priceless. There haven't been any updates for awhile, but it doesn't really need any. This is a great game at $0.99 that has survived on the app store for years without sliding into freemium. Hmm, I wonder why piracy hasn't affected this viable game title?


This game is a fun take on 3D tower defense that you can play online multiplayer or computer bots. And though additional units can be purchased, there is really no compelling reason for you to do so! It's worth every penny of the $1.99 price.
The backgrounds are totally eye-popping in this steampunkish, alien, scooting, spawning, and bouncing original scrolling game. It is currently $3.99, but I have seen it on sale a time or two, and even free.
This is an eerie platform-style puzzler game ported to iOS. There are no IAPS, and it is very well done. VERY well done! It costs $4.99, but great traditional apps can be pricey. This is another example of a viable app that hasn't required a transition to freemium.
One of the finest strategy games you will find on the App Store. If you loved older games like Risk, you will love this mass and maneuver extravaganza. Control armies of bots, drones, tanks, aircraft, and advanced weapons. MAW 3 really gives you the entire gamut of mobile force elements to engineer and master. The game is pricey at $6.99, but there are no IAPs required.
I love real slot car racing, and this is about the best $0.99 simulation I can find on the app store. Multiplayer action is available or you can just race in career mode against the computer. The few IAPs in SlotZ are for adding content, which is how I want my IAPs. Few and far between. 


The Good Games: 

Good games have the same hallmarks of great games, but they may have lapsed into obscurity without recent updates, have a somewhat high price tag, or are otherwise flawed enough to get a slight markdown. They are still quality games, and of solid value.


This game epitomizes, in my opinion, how freemium can be done well. The tough game started out that way as a traditional 99 center when released. You can buy an add-on set of combat locations (there is one expansion available, I believe), but it comes with six fighting environments. Online and offline modes of play are featured to advance, and a lot of awards and weapons are available. You can also buy level ups if you want to be a spoiled cheater, but it you have the patience to work like me by getting good at the game and spending time in combat, there is no need to do that. The game does occasionally prompt for you to buy something, which almost got it marked down to just "tolerable," but it is a rare pop-up that is easy to clear (mostly when you are online between rounds).
This is an amazingly simple breakout clone that is really not fair to call a clone. The game extends beyond anything the original Breakout ever imagined! It is a $1.99 game that can be played to exhaustion without buying anything if you have the patience and skill. There are unlocks available via IAP for cheaters.


This Electronic Arts game is about as intense a third-person game I can think of, and is totally buyable at the premium price of $6.99 (the overall price and the fact it was not made a universal title is why I gave it only a good). Here is a tip: during the holidays or over long weekends, software houses often offer deals and specials. You might be able to snap up premium games for a fraction of the price that they normally sell for. Of course, you have to wait (which is hard for gamers). This game does offer IAPs, but they're not needed.
Robokill started out as one of my all-time favorite iPhone games, back in 2010. The two sequels were about as fun as the original, but not much was added in terms of changing the gameplay, and some fans were unhappy with annoying bugs left unfixed. IAPs crept in for "buying up", but I still feel the game get's an overall good rating for replay value. Endless attack mode is perfect for wait-in-the-lobby robot or lizard (depending on the version) killing. 


MADFINGER has two versions of this title in the app store, but the games fall on opposite sides of the free versus purchase models. Both are highly rated and offer an intense third-person shooter (TPS) graphics experience and gameplay that is often compared to Gears of War. The original is $4.99 with an expansion pack as a DLC add-on, if you want to keep the estimated six-hours of content going. SHADOWGUN Deadzone is a freemium title and its "good" rating borders on "tolerable," sine the game is exclusively online multiplayer, and you are likely to get constantly hammered as a noob without IAP-provisioned power ups.


If anime is your thing, this top-down 3D style shooter has a lot to offer for $2.99, with no IAPs in sight. It can become predictable (and monotonous) in a few spots, but it otherwise shines for a lot of great reasons, not the least of which are super action levels and challenges to complete.


A truly unique platform for $2.99, this puzzle solving game is something to behold. It's not for everyone, it may be but worth the price without IAPs. The game almost got a "Great" rating, but it was a little glitchy in a few areas.


The Tolerable Games:

Tolerable games have some of the hallmarks of a good game (graphics, action, or engaging play) but start to stray over into greedville with tactics that push you further toward purchasing up and they may lack good care and feeding from developers. They are still enjoyable..for awhile..


You will need jade to advance in this rather well-done 3D crawler, but you will have a hard time finding any. The in-game currency you pick up does not apply to getting jade either. This is a game teetering on the edge of annoying. It is well done, but with a somewhat fatal greedy flaw that I didn't shine a bright enough light on when I originally reviewed it (though I did mention it).


This is another awesome-looking 3D TPS game that barely skirts the good taste of freemium. The game also gets a wee monotonous, even with the lovely and detailed view of zombies getting blasted to bits in your gun sights. Still, it offers superb graphics and good action for free. The game's bad side shows up when you don't connect to the internet and it slows to a crawl, crashes on you, and then constantly pesters you to go visit the shop for upgrades. I bought something just to try to shut it up. Hey developers, if I want to buy something, I'll go to the shop when I want to go to the shop. Let me grind uninterrupted until then.


The game costs $0.99 with DLC available to buy new tables, which doesn't affect the replay value of buying and replaying old classic tables you knew as a kid. This was DLC that worked well. I say was because the game quality has gone down with recent updates, and is now rather glitchy. Table costs also add up fast, and I must downgrade it because of complaints over excessive crashing. It is borderline tolerable now (getting to "annoying"), but buyer beware. If they fix it, I will notch this one back up to good.


Annoying Games:

Annoying games, in my book, combine the elements of greed and poor game development and stewardship. They often start well, and suck in a large number of active players, only to be abandoned or poorly managed on the back end. They are not "bad" games, necessarily, but they are definitely guilty of bad behavior.


This freemium jousting and middle-ages questing game was great when it first came out, and it seemed pretty balanced in the free-to-play versus forced-to-buy aspects. Like Pinball Arcade, an update evidently destroyed the initial quality, and has some players (many of whom paid for content) upset at the developer. 


I have already dogged this well-done cart race game (in terms of gameplay at least) in a review for being obnoxiously greedy. Requiring players to pay to play (with inferior upgrades), and tolerate time outs is bad enough. Marketing a line of plastic kids toys to make a rotten trick even more rotten is one dirty bird too many, in my opinion, for the makers of the iconic Angry Birds pantheon to be forgiven.


This is a Farmville clone that I was not smart enough to call out as a semi-scam back in 2010, but from my review, it is obvious the idea of constantly paying for in-game currency and waiting for energy didn't sit well at the time. City Story has been since renamed in the app store by adding the word "metro." My original review of this game turned out to be one of the few reviews to get complaint comments from users (for giant charges racked up while letting their kids play unsupervised). 


Never get a bad game again 

Okay, I can't really promise that. The example list I provided above is just that, and I know some gamers that would go crazy for some of the titles that I marked as tolerable or even annoying. These picks reflect only one gamer's opinion. If I had more time and energy, I could have probably added at least another 30 or so games to this list and refined it more (maybe in a follow-up post). Instead, I figured I would rather give our  readers a few key points on buying a good or great game below.


  1. Know what you like-Sounds stupid I know, but first thing is to remind yourself of the qualities you liked in a particular game, and look for similar games. If you like puzzler games with lots of physics aspects, look for similar games. iTunes tries to "suggest" similar games if you scroll down on the app store page a bit. I don't always go with that, of course, but in a few cases I found some decent games/apps/books this way.

  2. Research the game-Logical and obvious extension of number one. Sites like iPhonelife and 148Appsjust to name a couple, offer in-depth game reviews. I never blindly buy anything off the app store without cross-checking it with at least three other sources, and searching out a game video on Vimeo or YouTube. App Store comments and ratings are only the first resource to consider, but certainly shouldn't be the last.

  3. Read the developer comments-I often read what the developers actually did on each update, as it is indicative of how much care and feeding they are putting into a game or app. All apps have bugs, by the way. It is what the developers are doing about the bugs and how quickly that counts. If they add features that users request, it shows they are committed to creating a quality experience worth the money. Developer and IAP details can usually be found by expanding the sections describing the app on iTunes.

  4. Look out for IAPs-You can see if an app offers IAPs in the App store app. The nature and number of IAPs are something to consider. IAPs don't have to be a showstopper, however, but excessive lists of them give a clue to the level of monetization in the app. If you have done all the above levels of research about the game, chances are you will have a pretty good picture of whether the app is worth your time and money.

  5. Make sure the game is designed for your device-This is something you can do that will help the developer. This wasn't as much of a problem back when there were just one or two generations of iOS devices out there, but now there are growing numbers of variations in iOS hardware and software possible. You need to make sure the app is compatible with your device before buying it. If you have an older device, loaded down with little available memory, don't be surprised if you have problems. Do your own due diligence and clean up your device or get a new one, instead of going straight to the rating section and writing a bad review. Certainly ask for a refund or complain if an app behaves badly, but only after you have confirmed it isn't something on your device causing it.

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Author Details

Nate Adcock's picture

Author Details

Nate Adcock

Nate Adcock is a system and integration engineer with experience managing and administering a variety of computing environments. He has worked extensively with mobile gadgets of all shapes and sizes for many years. He is also a former military weather forecaster. Nate is a regular contributor for the and blogs and helps manage both websites. Read more from Nate at or e-mail him at