Free-to-play. The very phrase can often make core gamers shudder, or shake their heads in disgust as they envision publishers milking them for every penny through micro-transactions. It doesn't have to be that way, however. In advance of her talk at GDC next week, Emily Greer, co-founder of GameStop-owned Kongregate stressed to GamesIndustry International that free-to-play game makers can indeed serve their interests as well as their players' - in order for this to take hold, however, Greer believes a sweeping change in mindset amongst free-to-play publishers will be necessary.
"What I'm really focusing on for this talk is looking at free-to-play games not in a 'are we making money today?' context, but looking at them as franchises that can make money and delight players for a really long time, decades even," she began. "Free-to-play is pretty new... It's really flowered in the last few years but I think there's been a kind of short-term focus in terms of monetization and building games where you build it quickly and see if it fails; you take it down, you're trying to make your money back in six weeks."
"But if you look at the broader history of games and the broader scope of games, World of Warcraft has been going really, really strong for a decade now. It's no longer at its height, but that's the level of revenue and player base that almost anybody in the free-to-play industry absolutely envies," she continued. "Even games like Ultima online or EverQuest, they still have player bases and are doing updates. If you think of the console space, even something like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty or Madden - essentially the same games repeatedly - those franchises have lasted a really long time. So I want to think in the free-to-play space about metrics in a long-term manner and sort of lay out why making your money back in the first week shouldn't be the priority. That can really hamper the long-term monetization."
"You have to consider elements of game design and company structure and mindsets that are important to be thinking about in order to build a game that will last two years, five years, 10 years. We have games [on Kongregate] that are coming up on their two-year or three-year anniversary. These are big games that are making just as much money now as when they launched, so we should delve in and take lessons from those and from broader games on how to build something that's going to last forever. It's hard to make a game and it's hard to build a connection with players; they're not disposable at all. I'd like to feel a little bit of change in mindset for the good of players and developers."
For Greer, the key to optimizing a game is to invest completely in building up a relationship with players - doing that will lead to huge rewards in the long-term. "My general rule of thumb is if you still have someone playing your game at six months, you can have them at six years or as long as there is anything to do in the game," she said. "I'm sure you've read all the stories about how expensive player acquisition is in mobile. The most valuable thing a game can do is have a player, and if a player is dissatisfied and is not having fun and feels like the developer is just taking advantage of them, that will only work for a little while. Ultimately people leave that relationship, and if people left your game feeling dissatisfied you are never going get to get them back. We look at Kongregate games that do the best and make the most, it's generally the games that have the best player retention; if somebody leaves your game they can never spend again. Goal one should be keeping a player happy and enjoying the game, in every way from word-of-mouth to retention."
"With online games there is a lot of danger in creating sequels, just straight-up sequels, because it's a problem of fragmenting your player base"
Publishers will have a much easier time of getting around the stigma of free-to-play if they simply respect the relationship with players. As much as some gamers will whine about a game taking their money, many more are actually sensible and understand that companies need to generate revenue to stay in business, to keep making games or improving existing ones.
"Game developers do need to make money, and players understand that a massive game and massive service can't come altogether for free, but as long as the developer monetizes in a way that's fair to the player and fair to the game and is respectful of the relationship, then the players can be very accepting of it and not feel sort of taken advantage of," Greer emphasized. "A company that does really well at that is 5th Planet Games, which has something like 25 percent of its staff devoted to community management. They have these elaborate player councils, where a couple times year they bring in their high-level players from the game, including non-spenders, to their offices to spend a weekend talking about the game and brainstorming. Those games have great retention and monetize really well and have really high player satisfaction."
"All the effort that they put into making sure the players feel that they really care about them and that they care about the game is rewarded in the long-term... If you think of it like any store, you want your customers every time that they buy something to come away from the experience feeling like they made a good decision and that they're happy with their purchase, because if they do that they are much more likely to buy again. The games that do the best are the ones that have the highest repeat purchase rate; not necessarily the highest average prices, but highest repeat rates. If you pay $20 a month for two years and you're playing three or four times a day, you've definitely gotten your money's worth; per hour it's definitely been cheaper than a console game and the developer has done well also," she added.
Observing that relationship with players - and the relationships they've made with a game's characters or worlds - can also be valuable in determining whether or not to pursue a sequel to a particular title. In many cases, it's just not worth it, Greer said.
"With online games there is a lot of danger in creating sequels, just straight-up sequels, because it's a problem of fragmenting your player base," she explained. "Somebody has gotten used to something - they are used to coming to your game, they formed connections - and if you release a sequel, especially for something really deep multiplayer, a lot of what you gain from the fresh experience is lost in the fragmentation of existing relationships. People have made investments in their accounts, in their characters, and that's true whether it's in Farmville or a WoW character - if somebody put so much time into something, it's pretty hard for them to move to a totally separate game where they're starting over from scratch."
"I think mobile's got tons of potential to be as large if not larger [than our website business]"
"I think there are definitely situations where a sequel makes sense, but you have to expect that a lot of people are going to want to stay and will have a hard time letting go of what they already built up. In general, the better way to go with an online game that people are still heavily playing is to continuously expand and release new content, release new modes and build on what you have. The more single player a game is, the more sequels make sense. The temptation to scratch a code base and develop something new is probably something developers should fight a little bit more. It's like a massive website like Digg that goes through a redesign; good things can come out of it but you may endanger your existing player base. That relationship and that experience needs to be respected."
Going forward, Kongregate has big plans for the mobile space, which isn't very surprising given industry trends. The company recently announced a $10 million fund for mobile games, but it's also intent on growing its web presence.
"I think mobile's got tons of potential to be as large if not larger [than our website business]. We've been growing well on the web side and we want to keep up that trajectory, but we definitely see, amongst ourselves as well as our players, that people are more and more switching back and forth; they're gaming between mobile, their tablet and PC. The types of games that do well on Kongregate are very much the type that do well on mobile," Greer said.
Kongregate believes one of its advantages in attracting players is how the portal acts as a curator of top games, and that's something Greer sees translating to mobile too. "We think there's a real role for us with developer distribution partnerships and also to help discovery for players. Millions of people have been coming to us every month to find out what games they should be playing but we think there's a real role for us to continue to do that on mobile, so I'm really excited about the team we've got working on it," she said.
We asked Greer if Kongregate might consider using cloud technology to make for a seamless experience across mobile and the web. After all, if players are invested in a title on the PC, wouldn't it make sense to allow them to continue where they left off by logging in on a mobile device? "I don't want to make any particular promises but we want to make the games the best experiences they can be in whatever environment you are, and being able to switch back and forth between devices may be an important part of that," she acknowledged.
First things first, however, and Kongregate needs to build up its mobile presence before anything else. "The response that we've gotten from developers after our initial [mobile fund] announcement has been tremendous almost to the point of being overwhelming. We've got a bunch of good deals that are in the pipeline, and we'll be announcing those soon," Greer concluded.