Jason Avent seems happy, and that's hardly surprising. As one of the more high-profile refugees from Disney's Black Rock Studios and, since then, founder of the iOS developer Boss Alien, he has negotiated a path from AAA tragedy to a very modern kind of success in less than 18 months. Boss Alien's first game, CSR Racing, was downloaded 2.5 million times in its first weekend, generating more than $12 million in revenue within a month. And it was free.
After 15 years in AAA development, most recently as game director on Pure, Avent has found his greatest success without charging a single penny. As he reads CSR Racing's figures to the attentive crowd of the London Free-To-Play Summit, it's clear that the sheer scale of the game's popularity is still difficult to comprehend. On console attracting two million customers is considered a major success; in free-to-play it's no more than a decent start.
"The overall number of [CSR Racing] users now, I can't give it away, but it's just phenomenal. Bigger than anything I've ever worked on all added up together, and then some," he says. " The addressable market that's out there is mind-boggling already, and it's only going to grow once the devices get cheaper."
In a day packed with talks describing the ways in which free-to-play development is different, Avent's is notable for openly addressing the similarities. The structure of free-to-play games like CSR Racing, he argues, with their tight, engaging gameplay loop and persistent drip of rewards, are essentially the same as any number of retail releases. The difference is the need to monetise, but that doesn't have to change the game's design.
"The principles are the same, and that's the key benefit of my experience as a AAA developer," Avent says when we meet after his talk. "You do have to be creative, and you do have to be clever about the way you do things. The stuff you've learned is the same but in a different context."
"The overall number of CSR Racing users now is just phenomenal; bigger than anything I've ever worked on all added up together, and then some"
Like Forza or Gran Turismo, CSR Racing's success is built on its core gameplay, its production values, and the fact that it features real cars. Unlike Forza or Gran Turismo, players can finish the game and access almost every vehicle without paying a penny, but that didn't prevent a wave of negative reviews; thousands of one-star ratings featuring choice phrases like "Freemium Hell". Even now, Avent finds the frustration difficult to comprehend, describing it as a form of "xenophobia" caused by the rapid changes in the industry.
More importantly, the dissenting voices are the extreme minority. So far, CSR Racing has received 5000 one-star ratings, but its five-star reviews are comfortably north of 300,000. Conventional wisdom indicates that unhappy customers are always a bad thing, but they tell Avent something very important about the game's pricing structure: it works.
"If some people aren't complaining, it's too cheap," he says. "It makes sense. If you take a selection of people, some are going to have more money than others, some are going to want your products more than others. Some are going to complain, and some are going to be very vocal.
"Free means free... You need to be able to finish the game, but by that I don't mean be able to complete the game. You can't have everything if you don't pay."
What that generally means for the frugal gamer is a greater investment of time. As with many free-to-play games, CSR Racing features an 'energy' mechanic in the form of your vehicle's thirsty gas-tank, which refills every two hours. This ubiquitous tactic is a focal point for the debate around the model, but Avent believes it enforces a pattern of play that ultimately benefits his product. For the player, short bursts are more tolerable over a longer period, giving them more time to evangelise the game via the free-to-play world's most important form of advertising: personal recommendations.
"You could give Uncharted 4 away. It would take a massive amount of confidence, but you could give it away"
During our conversation, Avent frequently identifies with the common fears and reservations around free-to-play. He was once a sceptic, but his experience with Boss Alien has given him an insight into how far the model could eventually spread. If some freemium games are crude in their methods now - Avent compares them to used car salesman - that only reflects the industry's understanding of how to make the model work. Looking forward, Avent sees sophistcated techniques that use player behaviour to make monetised content a more coherent part of the experience.
"We're just learning at the moment," he says. "We're trying everything, and as a result I think it can come across as quite crude. Because we can control the universe the player is in, there's no reason why we can't start selling to you based on your previous experience, and the experience of others who have followed a similar path that you have. It feels much more natural, but it's the same thing. In many ways, actually, it's more evil, because it's more psychologically manipulative. But it helps you."
Avent clearly relishes the psychology of free-to-play development, but he believes that the model could already fit a much broader cross-section of the industry's output. It doesn't need to be limited to multiplayer shooters and farming sims. Cinematic action games with lavish production values like Uncharted could employ the model right now. In Avent's view, even a story-driven curio like Heavy Rain could be given away for free and turn a profit, not least because it's aimed at hardcore players who are used to paying for their hobby.
"It doesn't have to be turned into Farmville," he says. "It's a little bit different fitting it into a story-based game, and I don't think episodic content is quite the same, but if you were confident enough that the game was good you could let people finish it for free. I think you'd have to pay to complete it - as in do everything - and then there are other ways of monetising, so you could give Uncharted 4 away. It would take a massive amount of confidence, but you could give it away.
"It's conceivable that single-title free-to-play games will be $100 million businesses. It's gonna happen"
"Let's take Call of Duty 4 as an example, because that was the game of this console generation. It seems to have set the trend. You have a six-hour campaign and that's free: if you want a different perspective on that story you may have to pay for it; if you want to unlock all the guns with infinite ammo you have to pay for it. You could do that with co-op or multiplayer. It's just a question of confidence.
"The fear is that you've spent, I don't know, $50 million on a game like Uncharted, and are you ever going to get that back? You've got to get over that fear. These games make that amount of money. It's conceivable that single-title free-to-play games will be $100 million businesses. It's gonna happen. And beyond, because once everyone's got a smartphone in their hand of some form or another, the addressable market is phenomenally big."
"If you do your freemium right, you can make the same [revenue] or more. There's no reason why all games couldn't be freemium."
The exception Avent mentions is the console. Compared to consoles, platforms like Facebook, PC, iOS and Android are relatively open, an essential component of attracting an audience large enough for the economics of free-to-play to make sense. In that environment a free-to-play Skyrim would be feasible, but a console version would require the majority of the addressable market to play the game. If free-to-play evolves as quickly as Avent believes, Microsoft and Sony will need to make decisive changes to their walled gardens.
"Probably everyone who actively plays their game console bought Skyrim. How many did it sell? 15 million? That's not very much when you look at iPhone and iPad. And people at the time said that it sucked all of the oxygen out of the market. It's difficult to see how you could do that as free-to-play on a games console. It's difficult to see how you could be so generous, and give so much away."