Free-to-play social games are an interesting oxymoron. Whether you're paying with money, marketing bombardment, or time, they aren't free. And in most cases, they aren't especially social, unless your definition of socializing is pestering your friends for resources and then inviting them over to show off all the stuff you've bought or made with those resources. But going beyond cute semantics, there are some deeper tensions inherent to the genre, ones that have become increasingly clear as the bad news surrounding the sector piles up. The latest evidence of that happened just this weekend, as Electronic Arts revealed plans to shut down all of its Playfish division's Facebook games, including SimCity Social, The Sims Social, and Pet Society.
Like any free-to-play title, Playfish's efforts relied on a minority of users to purchase in-game resources and compensate for the overwhelming abundance of players who never paid a dime. Some refer to them as whales, but we'll opt for the slightly less dehumanizing term "hardcore players." Anyway, these hardcore social players are invested in the game's success in the most literal way possible. They have the most reason to continue playing, the most to lose by walking away from the game. And when you yank the carpet out from underneath these devoted players, you inevitably create ill will.
For evidence of that, just take a look at a few of the 92 pages and 1,400 posts on the Pet Society forum thread announcing that game's closure after five years. Or the Change.org petition to keep it running, which has already drawn 2,700 signatures. It's a mix of intense rage and pronounced sorrow, extreme emotions that show these people care deeply about the game they've been playing.
It's easy to understand their position. After all, they've been playing games built from the ground up on long-term progress, games where players' progress is throttled by design, where half the joy comes from taking a step back and surveying what their months and years of dedication have built. As long as the game is online, that investment is a boon to operators, giving players continued reason to stay engaged with the title instead of leaving the game as an unfinished project. But once it comes time to pull the plug, the full weight of that progress, and how little they have to show for it, becomes clear for the spurned users.
"To be completely honest here, there are times where you just have to sunset a game and there are fans still playing that game."
So how burned are these hardcore players? Do they just find another game and continue spending money there? Do they join the freeloading masses, reluctant to spend money on something they fully understand can be pulled away from them with nothing to show for it? Or do they sour on the genre entirely, swearing off Facebook or free-to-play gaming in the future? At last month's Game Developers Conference, GamesIndustry International spoke with a few free-to-play purveyors to ask about their sunsetting strategies, and how big an issue they think the fallout from closing games really is.
EA All Play senior vice president and general manager Nick Earl acknowledged that shutting down games can burn bridges with the diehard customer base, saying it was a natural result of having a live service business and moving resources from one project to another.
"The strategy that we tend to employ is moving these live services to lower cost centers, so the economic structure shifts in a way that you can support a game for much longer, even though the revenue line is not as strong as it was," Earl said. "So we've got a very strong group of studios in Hyderabad, in India, and it's a lower cost center and will be a lower cost center for the next few years. And to be completely honest here, there are times where you just have to sunset a game and there are fans still playing that game."
While Sega's Three Rings has had to shut down games in the past, CEO Daniel James said the company is especially reluctant to pull the plug.
"Certainly we've had the experience of making games that haven't been successful, and we've been sad. For Three Rings, we've generally tried to keep the servers running. So nearly all of the games we've made are still operational, even though some have very few people playing. The costs aren't very high, just running a server."
"People play on Facebook at their work, on the bus with their mobile phone, and when they get home, they play on their tablet. They're still at those places with those devices, so I think they'll find other content."
Konami director of digital publishing John Coligan said the sunsetting process is not a welcome one, but the publisher tries to manage it well. Players are given advance notice through in-game pop-ups and Facebook posts, and as with the Playfish closures, the company reminds users that the resources are being refocused on other projects for them to play. While some companies have tried to salvage their relationships with affected customers by promising them free items or enticements to play other games, Coligan said customers burned by the closing of one game are unlikely to give the company a second chance.
"Hardcore social players who play this game multiple times a day every day are pretty much committed to that game," Coligan said. "I don't know many people who have a huge affinity for, for example, FarmVille, and also play another game and are just as invested. So I think once you lose that customer, they're gone."
Interestingly, Coligan believes that burnt bridge only extends to the company who shut down the game, and not to the genre as a whole, even though the nature of live service games means they'll all be sunset at some point.
"I think they find something else. Some articles have come out about this. People play on Facebook at their work, on the bus with their mobile phone, and when they get home, they play on their tablet. They're still at those places with those devices, so I think they'll find other content."
Even if those sentiments are accurate, they aren't likely to make long-time fans of Playfish games feel any better. To those upset players who invested hundreds or thousands of dollars on these ephemeral playthings, I can only offer the following consolation. EA paid $350 million for Playfish in 2009, and once they shut these games down, they won't have anything to show for it, either.