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You don’t have to spend to enjoy these Freemium iPhone games

by David Lister

Freemium games, those that are free to download but offer in-app purchases to somehow enhance the gaming experience, have entrenched themselves in the App Store (and on its top grossing games list), though not without controversy. In February, the Washington Post reported that an 8-year-old girl racked up a $1,400 bill playing Smurfs’ Village, and more recently Apple has been sued over its in-app purchase policy.

While freemium gaming may sound like more trouble than it’s worth, the market apparently strongly disagrees. Games such as Smurf’s Village, Tap Zoo and many, many others boast some of the biggest iOS gaming communities, and are among the App Store’s most profitable games.

Controversy aside, the following games have mastered the freemium gaming model, offering many gamers an experience they can’t get enough of as well as a way to give away their product and still make money.

Smurfs’ Village

When one thinks of Capcom, games like Mega Man, Resident Evil and Street Fighter likely come to mind. But the company’s breakthrough app for iOS devices has been something of a departure from those hits. Smurfs’ Village is a FarmVille-like game featuring the lovable little blue guys. For the most part, this freemium game is more free than premium – you can grow crops, build your village and play mini-games ranging from baking goods to mixing potions. All the favorite characters from the cartoon make appearances, and the game’s vibrant cartoon graphics are both impressive and fitting for a game that will appeal to younger audiences. The premium part of Smurfs’ Village is mainly smurfberries ($4.99 to $99.99), though there is some exclusive content to be had for the right price. Smurfberries act as a ‘turbo’ of sorts, allowing you to complete a task immediately instead of waiting. Gamers can receive free smurfberries through free daily gifts or inviting friends, but it’ll cost you to build up a healthy reserve of the delicious – if fictional – fruit.

Tap Zoo

The popularity of Tap Zoo is most certainly due to the fact that it’s a fun, functional game with wide appeal. Of course, it also has one of the most fiendishly ingenious premium content models, but more on that later. In this game, you create a zoo by purchasing animals, breeding (and cross-breeding) and collecting money from visitors. There a more than 50 animals to choose from and numerous attractions, so there’s no shortage of replay value here. Basic graphics and gameplay mean this game will very much appeal to younger audiences, though anyone who enjoys Sim-style games can enjoy this one. But, to truly enjoy the game it will cost you. Customers can purchase both coins and stars, with different animals being available with different types of currency. It’s a clever way to boost in-app purchases from a game that’s surprisingly clever, though potentially pricey.

Zynga Poker

Essentially, any game by Zynga could make this list, including the Facebook-turned-iPhone-hits FarmVille and Mafia Wars. But the current leader from the leader in freemium games is Zynga Poker, a Texas Hold Em’ app that is heavily reliant on in-app purchases. You get 50,000 chips for free when you download the game, and there are numerous tables and seemingly thousands upon thousands of people to play with at all times. The game boasts your standard overhead camera view of the virtual table, and other popular features such as in-game chat are included with this game. For those who burn through their initial offering of chips, there are daily lotteries and you can have a friend gift you some. Of course you can also buy 60,000 more for a measly 99 cents (or a staggering 30 million for $99.99), hence the premium content. While Zynga Poker may not be any better than any number of other Texas Hold Em’ apps, its huge gaming community and Facebook integration make it the App Store’s most popular one.

Kingdoms at War

Thinking Ape’s Kingdoms at War is, first and foremost, a MMORPG full of treachery, bloodshed and conquest that just happens to have some exclusive content thrown in for good measure. The game begins with you creating a kingdom and an army of soldiers and spies. Users can then earn money by attacking and defeating other kingdoms, or by having a spy steal from them. Strategy plays a large role in the game as well, as you can buy and sell allies and form clans to aid you. While the graphics are somewhat minimal, there’s a ton of content here, and not the kind that will cost you actual money. In-app purchases include things like nobility points and health crystals to help build or heal your kingdom. More so than the previously mentioned games, however, you can dive right into Kingdoms at War without spending a dime – not that doing so won’t help your cause.


Even though Grand Theft Auto has made its way to the App Store, no game glorifies violence quite like iMobsters from Storm8. This multiplayer online game has you complete tasks such as robbing stores and stealing cars before moving on to attacking actual, virtual people. The missions you complete boost your inventory of weapons and, maybe more importantly, cash, which you can then use to buy all the guns and bullet-proof vests your heart desires. As you progress through the game the stakes get higher and you unlock more features, and like Kingdoms at War the in-app purchases seem more aimed at people looking to reach the elite levels of the game and aren’t as necessary. That’s not to say buying some favor points (from $4.99 to a whopping $99.99) won’t help, but it’s nothing that a little time and mob know-how can’t do by itself.