The Darling Diaries: Free-to-play games are driving quality

The Darling Diaries: Free-to-play games are driving quality

By David Darling

August 28th 2012 at 6:05PM

Kwalee CEO David Darling looks at how the notion of F2P titles being of poor quality compared to their paid-for counterparts is false

One might assume that a game that someone pays £40 for should/would/is/must be better quality than a game that costs nothing. But, oddly, that isn’t necessarily the case.

In fact, there are a handful of reasons why it’s the exact opposite and why we are seeing free-to-play games like Agent Dash, Battle Nations, CSR Racing and Dead Trigger.

1. Affordability and accessibility

Not to buy, but to develop and publish. These days it is possible to become a global publisher for the investment of just $99 with Apple for the rights to use the App Store.

It is also possible, especially using tools like Unity, to write a game in as little as a day that will pass Apple's submission procedure and be published on the App Store.

This increased accessibility is great news for developers and, on paper, for creativity in the games industry. But it also means that, inevitably, there are now thousands of free-to-play games (good and bad) all over the App Store and Google Play.

This proliferation of games equals increased choice for gamers, which equals choosy users, which means developers need to work harder to create titles that stand apart from the poor ones; games that gamers will choose above all others.

2. Transparency

As if the sheer quantity of free-to-play games wasn’t hard enough for developers to compete with, the unavoidable location of customer reviews at the point of purchase makes it doubly tricky to sneak a poor game past a browsing gamer.
 
Put yourself in his/her position: they arrive at your game page on the App Store and can instantly see from its reviews whether your game is worth investing time to download.

And even if they do download it, chances are they have also downloaded a handful of other titles. After all, we are talking about free-to-play games here.
 
That user takes a quick look at the games they’ve downloaded and instantly deletes the ones he or she doesn't like, sometimes after just a few seconds.

After all, why waste time playing a free-to-play game you don’t like when there are so many other similar titles available?


 
Eugene Evans explained it perfectly when he said, in the August issue of Develop: “I’m a big believer in free. For me that really started when I saw Blockbuster begin renting games. I would go and rent ten games in a night and give them all a try, to separate the junk from the good titles. Think about what they did for the quality of games.”
 
This is all brilliant news for the gamer. Is it really such good news for the industry? And what does it mean for developers? It means that developers simply cannot underestimate the immediate look and feel of a free-to-play game.

They say that first impressions count. In this case, they really do. Get this wrong, and you might as well forget about having the most amazing gameplay or design. Your potential customers won’t even get that far.
 
It couldn’t be more different to the experience gamers have with boxed games. In this instance, the customer is making a £40 investment, an investment they are choosing to make in a title over and above any number of alternative sources of pleasure.

After making an investment of this size, your customer is not going to discard the game after just a few seconds. They may even play it for a couple of hours or more, so the initial look and feel doesn't matter as much as it does when you are ‘selling’ a free-to-play iPhone game.

On the other hand, many games turn up for sale second-hand the day after release because the customer realises they have wasted their money and wants some of it back. Which brings us neatly to:

3. Customer retention

Compelling gameplay is vital when developing a free-to-play game. Why? Well, as developers, making games that gamers actually want to play has to be our priority, our reason for being in the business.

Second to that, compelling gameplay keeps gamers in the game longer, and the longer they stick around, the more likely they are to make in-app purchases: the main source of income for these games. Forget about the gameplay and you may as well throw your development budget down the drain.

Fun, quality gameplay is the key to keeping customers onboard. This is why good app developers use metrics to make sure the user is getting the best possible experience. It is also why they constantly update their games to tailor the experience to the customers' needs.

With consoles, the developer moves on to creating another £40 product almost immediately, rather than supporting and nurturing the players. It is little surprise, then, that so many console games are short experiences as publishers want to get players to keep moving onto the next new thing.

With mobile free-to-play games, developers need to have a much closer and more supportive relationship with their customers. Games are services you provide to the player which can go on for years.

You can achieve these relationships by making your developers more aware of marketing, or by involving your marketing people more with development. Ideally both.

4. Consumer reviews

A side effect of these huge differences between free-to-play games and boxed games is the importance of journalist reviews. With boxed console games the review is immensely important because it informs a fairly big spending decision.

With iPhone games the initial spend is often zero, so while a trusted critic might save you time when buying a console game, on the App Store users are empowered to try before they buy and even write their own reviews, and we all know how important word of mouth is as a marketing tool.