Moving consumers from ‘free’ to ‘fee’: Addressing the vexing differentiation and fairness issues in the platform-based market of multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) Games


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Companies in platform-based business markets have widely embraced freemium business models where profit primarily depends on a minority of paying customers. However, the key challenge of these models is transitioning participants from free users to paying consumers. To encourage paid consumption, companies often rely on product differentiation such as providing consumers who pay for products or services with enhanced features. However, limited research has addressed how such product differentiation may convert consumers from “free” to “fee.” Our research examines multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games as a compelling example of freemium platform-based business models. We contribute to the freemium literature by introducing three new MOBA-specific differentiations—character competency, character variety, and character-appearance differentiation. We also extend consumption values theory (CVT) into a dual-path model to unveil the underlying mechanisms through which product differentiation influences in-game purchase. We empirically validate our dual-path model using data from a two-wave longitudinal experiment and three cross-sectional experiments. Our findings support opposing mediating paths for product differentiation in character competency and variety and indicate that these two types of differentiation can indeed undermine perceived game fairness. Conversely, character-appearance differentiation exerts only a positive influence on players’ purchasing of in-game items. Consequently, the findings of this study have important potential implications for platform-based companies leveraging freemium business models that seek to increase their share of paying customers.



Information Systems, 0806 Information Systems, 1503 Business and Management, 1505 Marketing