Something's rotten in the state of free

Something's rotten in the state of free
Oscar Clark

By Oscar Clark

July 18th 2014 at 12:00PM

Oscar Clark looks at the current state of F2P, and what the future should look like

Seems that this year’s Develop Conference reignited the spark of the debate over the longevity of the free-to-play model; something I personally found a bit depressing. Sadly I missed the session between professor Richard Bartle, game researcher and author of Designing Virtual Worlds, and Nicholas Lovell, Gamesbrief founder and author of The Curve.

However, it seemingly led to some great headlines and ferocious discussions in the bar. Combine that with the ASA findings regarding the EA game Dungeon Keeper and it paints a troublesome picture. Perhaps free-to-play has really become a form of digital pollution which is “slowly and methodically suffocating everything [we] love about video games”. All this melodrama has the sting of some Shakespearean tragedy.

Don’t get me wrong it makes a great headline and on the surface does seem to hold up. We only have to look at the charts for the at least the last 12 months and we see that the gross revenue charts has largely stagnated and estimates show that the same three-to-four games have taken a vast lion’s share of the app revenues; leaving only a fraction of the crumbs for the rest of us.
 
We have also seen a huge number of look-a-like apps come in trying to jostle for position to replace these games; but many seemly failing. Games with the same escalating consumable revenue models seemingly designed to optimise the flow of cash from your wallet. Only a few of these games are even breaking even. Does this mean that Richard is right that the ‘stain’ of free-to-play will be washed away anytime soon?

Though this be madness, yet there is method in it

The trouble is when you talk to people playing who aren’t in the industry they mostly wouldn’t even consider playing a game which wasn’t free. There are the exceptions of course. Games we all love which have hit the zeitgeist like The Room or Monument Valley, but when I’ve asked people (particularly younger players), they have to be asked if they have bought a paid game before they mention these titles. Don’t get me wrong, these same players also complain about the games trying to exploit them; but they see it as a challenge to play as long as possible without paying. Perhaps that’s an even sadder indictment on free?

Is that simply because people want to exploit the creativity of game developers? Or is there something more fundamental at play?

It won’t come as a surprise to many people who had read my work before that I believe there is more to the free-to-play model than we are seeing today.

First though we have to accept a universal truth. Just because we put effort in to our game doesn’t mean it’s worth a given amount of money. Your game is worth what people are prepared to part with to obtain it. It also turns out that if we have to communicate the value of our game clearly and make it easy to purchase; whether inside the game or in advance.

In the retail world that was fairly simple and the economic principles were left to the retailers/publishers; supply and demand. Publishers had to make only as many copies of the game as the retailers thought they needed. If you made too many you would have to bury the remainder in a secret location in New Mexico (okay that was Atari – but you get the point).

Supply in the digital world is different. Not only is distribution and packaging essentially free; but our content is infinitely copy-able. That fact is not lost on your players. But in games there is also more (good) content than we could possibly consume in our lifetime.

Thinking that this oversupply won’t have an effect on price is utterly naive. Like every other industry where supply rockets faster than demand, the price collapses. Instead we have to think differently and particularly about how players value our game.

Take arms against a sea of troubles

The funny thing is that we also covered this when I was doing my classical marketing training when supply exceeds demand, goods end up becoming a niche or a commodity. If we offer a unique experience that players anticipate the value of then we can charge an upfront price – but by doing so, are we inherently making it a better experience for the player?

It is true that the player is free to enjoy their purchase without having to further consider the monetary impact of the game and that is not to be underestimated. However, it also means there is no incentive to continue to invest in the game over time; doing so actually costs the developer.

Ultimately, this also costs the player too as they won’t see the developer's investment matching their patterns of play.

Free doesn’t have to mean the current energy-farming monetisation models. It just has to be free at the point of access. I continue to argue that we have an amazing opportunity to rethink the design role of monetisation techniques and to find out how we can better satisfy our players.

Assuming we accept that we not ‘entitled’ to an upfront payment then we can consider the options more freely. Indeed we can make the monetisation process a question of design and if we do we have to consider what’s in it for the player. What would they really pay for?

For me, friction is not something which delivers delight. It prevents us from progressing at best, or encourages us to skip the essential gameplay at worst. I’ve been warning about this for around three years and we have seen the damage this did to Facebook games (although it wasn’t the only problem of course).

I’m not saying never make money out of friction, or that we shouldn’t have friction, however, I think it has been over-used and may even be something which players are starting to identify early, and reject the game as a result.

Convincing players to spend through a sense of ‘Immediacy’* does work, but how does this make them feel about the game; especially in the long-term?
 
What about ‘Personalisation’? Having my own unique outfit is all well and good; but what does it do for me? How much social capital is there really in having a second or third outfit? Will anyone else care? Will it give me them new abilities or gameplay powers? How about ‘Patronage’, won’t my players want to invest in my game because they think I’m a really cool guy because I am a game designer?

To Thyself Be True...

The reality is players don’t spend money because they are happy; they spend it because they anticipate some future value. Oh! And you have to show them what that value is and make sure that they will care; something which will only happen if you communicate effectively with them.

More importantly, we have the potential to create an ongoing immersion sustaining player experiences over time and importantly recognising the value of non-paying players too. Non-payers are ignored by the premium model.

They are excluded from playing and as a result the momentum they offer to other players who are willing to pay is ignored too. It’s expensive to obtain customers, especially through adverts. So why waste the chance of losing them on an upfront purchase before we have had the chance to show them how much fun our game can be.

Instead, let’s focus on delivering delight with meaningful moments of play which players want to show off.

For me it’s important to recognise that new ‘content’, such as levels, is usually more valuable to retain an audience than as a purchase item and that the energy/friction mechanic is usually more valuable as a way to encourage players back to the game than just as a source of income. Retention is the best source of profit because it gives us the chance to find out what they value most.

Where we make money should be in how we empower players to make the game ever more their own experience and in a style which is true to the needs of the specific game. Let's stop thinking linearly where everything gets broken into a binary win/lose – and instead look at how we can empower players through uncertainty, new strategies, customised experiences and the ability to do more of what motivates them to play the game.

Of course the real problem with free-to-play is that you can’t just copy what other people have done before because we are still breaking new ground. If we simply take the model of Candy Crush or Clash of Clans we will fail because that’s already been done and there are now so many games like that it’s hard to stand out from the crowd.

Rather than copying the games, we should be thinking more like the Supercell team, who I know focus unerringly on finding the fun; not on squeezing out the money. If there is a backlash coming, it’s because we haven’t taken a stand to design better games.

Don’t be deceived. Free isn’t going away. It’s going to evolve, and I for one can’t wait to see what will come next.

[Oscar Clark is a consultant and evangelist for Everyplay. You can find him at @Athanateus]