Opinion: The Kids are Free to play

Opinion: The Kids are Free to play

By Byron Atkinson-Jones

June 21st 2017 at 3:26PM

Developer Byron Atkinson-Jones recently took a class with students from the Prince's Trust and found a surprising trend amongst the games designed by his pupils

One of my passions is teaching game development in Unity. I’m lucky enough to get to be able to practice this passion of mine quite regularly. The format of how I do it changes based on the students: if it’s a class full of school kids, college level students or a corporate environment, but one aspect doesn’t change that much and it’s the ice breaker where I get to learn who they are and they get to learn who I am.

As it’s a course about how to make games, I start with what games they play and the systems they play them on. The answers are nearly always the same featuring the Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo consoles with the games ranging from FIFA and Call of Duty to obscure Japanese RPG games I’ve never heard of.

What I found strange was that none of them chose to talk about these mobile games when we first talked about what games they liked to play

Byron Atkinson-Jones

I was recently called to help the Nextgen skills academy who needed somebody with Unity experience to help teach a class in game development for the Prince’s Trust. The courses are restricted on how many they can take, so they hold an open day where the students can spend the afternoon to work out if the course is right for them. I went along to find out about the people I would be teaching. When it came to my turn to speak to the students I used my usual ice breaker. Once again the answers were as expected – the Xbox, PS4 and Nintendo DS featured quite high with a couple of people playing on their PC’s. Nothing too out of the ordinary.

When it came to my turn to speak to the students I used my usual ice breaker. Once again the answers were as expected – the Xbox, PS4 and Nintendo DS featured quite high with a couple of people playing on their PC’s. Nothing too out of the ordinary.

Once my segment was over, all the students were split into smaller groups of three to four people and given a task to come up with a game design that they would have to present to the rest of the groups later. The idea is to see how well they interact with each other and to give the students an idea of the content of the course they could end up on if selected. 

The time had come for the groups to present what they had come up with to the rest of the students and take questions. Given the ice-breaker before where they all talked about the console games they were playing I expected to hear about some complex game on the PS4 or Xbox but instead, they began to present a free-to-play mobile game, complete with a monetisation strategy and retention mechanics. The questions the audience asked were even more surprising. None of them were about gameplay mechanics, they wanted to know about the in-game currencies and if you could earn them rather than just buying them.

It wasn’t a one-off, each of the groups stood up and presented a free-to-play game and were asked free-to-play related questions from the audience. I had never come across this before in all the classes I’ve taught and it caught me by complete surprise. You expect to see a mix in the types of games but this was a complete narrow focus onto a platform and free-to-play. 

I began to examine why it was so different here. My feeling is that it’s all down to the demographics of those taking part in the course. The Prince’s Trust particularly deals with younger people who need a helping hand to get a job, and this means that none of them would be in a full-time paying position. Money was not something readily available to them and while they may enjoy playing console games, the prices of those games could mean they were out of their reach. So, what do you play if you can’t afford console games? The answer was obvious looking around the room.

Each of the students had a smartphone. Either an iPhone or some variant of Android. I took the opportunity after the presentations to go around and ask more questions about the games they were playing on mobile and sure enough, all of them were free-to-play. What were they playing? At that time, the game of the day was Bit City by Nimblebit. In fact, one of the students took great pride in describing the game to me in detail despite me saying I had already played it.

What I found strange was that none of them chose to talk about these mobile games when we first talked about what games they liked to play at the beginning of the day. Even more surprising was that to them there isn’t a distinction between the games. All ‘games’ are ‘games’ to them no matter what they are played on or what type of game they are, free or premium. They didn’t talk about mobile games because to them there wasn’t a difference.

Something more surprising was the realisation of my own hypocrisy. In the past, I’ve spoken out about making a distinction between ‘games’ and ‘indie games’ and yet these students not making a distinction between free-to-play mobile games and console games caught me off guard. It seems I had something to learn from them.