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Fishlabs' Michael Schade: "Eventually, you have to go free"

Fishlabs' Michael Schade: "Eventually, you have to go free"

Wed 03 Jul 2013 6:48am GMT / 2:48am EDT / 11:48pm PDT
MobileDevelopment

A triple-A mobile pioneer on why free-to-play won him over

Fishlabs Entertainment GmbH

With an award-winning portfolio of premium titles such as the AAA open space shooter Galaxy on Fire 2...

fishlabs.net

Once the very epitome of the AAA, high price-point mobile ethos, Michael Schade's Fishlabs has recently taken the plunge with the free-to-play approach which so dominates the mobile market. With new games on the way which are planned to take advantage of the new business from day-one, and a new team making them, Fishlabs is certainly embracing the switch, but why did it take so long?

"You can't deny that we were very late in the game in turning to F2P," CEO Schade tells me. "As much as we are ahead of the curve in terms of graphics or high-end gameplay, deep engagement, we were certainly behind the curve in terms of f2P monetisation.

Galaxy on Fire 2, Fishlabs' high-end 3D space-faring title was expensive, but justifiably so, a game which really showed off just how good a mobile experience could be. It was designed to be consumed in chunks of hours, not minutes, to be an activity, not just a diversion. For Schade, this approach is still a valid one, but needs reassessment in the face of new challenges.

"You have to understand, the core Fishlabs team is formed of all core console users, used to paying up front, willing to pay for quality. We also had a single-player, story driven game, which is very hard to monetise for free-to-play. However, even a paid title, even with all the features we got from Apple - I think Galaxy on Fire 2 HD has been featured consistently for 18 months now in various categories, we can't complain - but still you see revenues go down. You can play with price point, have regular price cuts, but still the revenues are going down, down, down.

"Eventually, you have to go free. So we did that. First we tried it with the legacy SD version. When we flipped the switch, we didn't throw it in your face like some games do, and I understand why they do it, and we did four million downloads in two months or so, without any marketing behind that. We timed it so we were around at Christmas, at the end of November. We saw good revenues coming in, so we were still seeing a couple of hundred thousand coming in a month. But. If the game had been designed as a free-to-play game from day one, I would say that we would have made seven digits a month."

"If the game had been designed as a free-to-play game from day one, I would say that we would have made seven digits a month"

That's true of the end of the tail of the game, I argue, but does Schade feel that overall profit would have been higher for the game over its entire lifetime, especially Galaxy's high launch price of $9.99?

"Absolutely," Schade replies without pause. "We watched what people were doing in the game. They just buy credit once, at the beginning, then the game becomes so easy they don't need to buy any more. The amount of people who bought add on was just too low for the full free-to-play approach, too.

"So that was why we said, with our strategy game Alliances, that we needed a game that people were playing for a longer time, where they're really engaged and challenging each other. Where there's a reason to spend money. Of course, you have to be careful that you're not overdoing it, that you're not monetising too steeply or doing pay to win. At the end of the day it's always a trade-off between time and money. No matter what you do, no matter how clever you are, it's always that trade-off."

Both of Fishlabs' Galaxy titles were hugely ambitious, making real the oft-promised and rarely fulfilled dream of the console approach to mobile development. They took a lot of time and a lot of money. Is it worth approaching free-to-play in the same way?

"If you talk to other developers or even publishers who have, potentially, bigger funds, they will all say that if you do a mobile game that takes longer than six months then you're crazy. It's so hard to predict where the market will be." The chatty German pauses, weighing something up.

1

Full HD mobile games were once a dream, says Schade, so don't limit your imagination.

"To a certain extent, I do agree," he says, eventually, with a smile. "However, if you aim for something that everyone can accomplish, then you're going to end up in a very competitive marketplace.

"When we started doing 3D games on feature phones people thought we were crazy. The smallest resolution was 128x128 pixels. Today that's the size of an app icon on an iPhone 4. But we were right, we saw where the market was going. So while others say limit development to six or even twelve months, we'd rather shoot for 18 or 24 and spend a couple of million.

"Bear in mind that the rendering power of smartphones is doubling every year, so in three years time it's going to be where PS4 is today. So few developers are working on anything of that quality and depth. Apple and the other manufacturers really want to show off what their devices can do - if that's your game, then a featured spot is almost 100% given, if you don't screw it up.

"Max out the platform and get featured. A feature from Apple is worth...a couple of million, if you want to put it like that, if it's a free game. So yes, we'd shoot high again and anticipate where this moving-target market will be in two years time.

"Would I recommend it? If you have the budget, and the internal tech and tech team - because you're trying to do something that isn't anywhere else, you have to have your own tech team - but if you have all that, then yes, absolutely. If you've got budget, tech team and you're in that hardcore, high-end niche, do it. Do something really brave."

19 Comments

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

961 1,760 1.8
+1

I made a blog post about F2P, featured by gamasutra: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/PaulJohnson/20130702/195491/Ranting_about_Free_to_Play_its_not_what_you_think.php

There is a bad smell attached to F2P. Some of it is justified by some companies who overdo it all, but that doesn't mean the whole model is broken!

Posted:A year ago

#1

Samuel Verner Game Designer

131 243 1.9
Popular Comment
but the whole model IS broken... at least from the customer and quality point of view.

Posted:A year ago

#2
Interesting that these guys are going FTP, though their games cost a lot more to make than most apps so p'raps they need ubercash to survive. I'd imagine GOF can be turned FTP fairly easily, its deep and long but it's still basically a series of short missions.

Posted:A year ago

#3

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

961 1,760 1.8
Samuel, sory but it just isn't. You mean you don't like it. Many actually do, and they're the people spending money (at least on mobile).

Just as consumers vote with their wallets, developers vote with their sales models.

Posted:A year ago

#4

Samuel Verner Game Designer

131 243 1.9
i never said that i don't like it. it pays my bills. but i don't have any illusions about the model, because i know exactly what kind of impact it has on the game experience. if you don't know what i am talking about, then you have a lot to learn about this model.

saying that consumers vote with their wallet is an empty platitude. most of the mobile gamers just don't have enough experience with games and don't know what f2p does to the game experience.... and they simply don't have much choice because the market is very narrow in the offered content. this will change slowly over time and the demand for more quality will increase. in some years it will be very similar to the core gamesmarket (pc / consoles) - lots of people are willing to pay a lot of money for a complete and high quality AAA experience, because this is the real deal for gamers.

Posted:A year ago

#5

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

961 1,760 1.8
>> "most of the mobile gamers just don't have enough experience with games and don't know what f2p does to the game experience..."

This is very true. But they should not be required to either know or care. They ARE the market, it's for us to go where they want to be.

I don't feel that AAA is a hiqh quality experience either ftr. They have plenty of spectacle but it seems to me they are just cookie cutter asset swaps. They are pushing NO boundaries at all.

Posted:A year ago

#6

Samuel Verner Game Designer

131 243 1.9
with other words you think f2p is to sell shit to people with no taste. i agree with that.

its just not made for gamers / people who enjoy real games. all those f2p mobile games are just some tricky sells platforms to nickel and dime the players to death. most of this crowd dont know anything about games and think this shitty approach to get their money is normal and so they learn to not care much about games. they consume some crappy games for some clicks and to kill some time while they wait for something. if the industry is teaching this "market" of very fresh and new customers that games are no fun, then it is of course difficult to sell them high quality products. but its not the demand of the market to be flooded with crap. the market does not have any choice at the moment.

but i think the whole f2p thing on mobile devices will go the same route like the one of zynga after a while. at some point "these" people and "this" market will change, because they are fed up with this kind of rip-off games and a lot of studios will close.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Samuel Verner on 4th July 2013 11:17am

Posted:A year ago

#7

Samuel Verner Game Designer

131 243 1.9
That said, as mentionned in this article, the mobile device technologies improve drastically each year, and I believe that was not really the case of FB either.
and this affects the market for f2p mobile games how? once the players are fed up by this kind of games, then it doesn't matter how much the technique improves.
Remember one thing, the more developpers and publishers produce F2P games, the more friends you are making yourself in the industry by spitting on them and their work.
i doubt that anyone can be proud of developing f2p games. you can be proud of increasing the growth of your company, or of steady increasing revenue, but not about the games itself. its not like you are developing a piece of art which is completely designed to blow the player away, to deliver him a great entertaining experience. f2p games are just sells-platforms and i never met a designer or artist in the industry who wouldn't rather work on a nice AAA title instead. not a single one. so its not spitting on anyone's work. its just pointing out the reality. f2p is (at the moment) great for the business, but a terrible disaster for the games market, the culture of gaming and an over-exploitation of them.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Samuel Verner on 4th July 2013 2:40pm

Posted:A year ago

#8

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

961 1,760 1.8
You are speaking to one right now. I've avoided so called AAA for my entire career quite deliberately. Both myself and our games designer love designing our FTP game. Because he's not a bad workman he doesn't have to blame his tools, which is also a plus.

Posted:A year ago

#9

Samuel Verner Game Designer

131 243 1.9
you are not a designer or an artist, but you assume that your designer prefers to work on free2play instead on AAA games. i am pretty sure you are wrong on this, even if your designer wouldn't admit it. for "business people" its just some product and noone on the business end really cares about the quality as long as the revenue goes up. but as a designer you start to work on games because you love games. you want to create something awesome. something which makes really fun to play; a piece of art and you always have some great game experience from some famous titles in mind, when you decide to work as a designer. but you cannot have that if you go f2p, because a f2p design is always flawed. you always have to sacrifice a lot of quality when you go f2p. if you think you have a great f2p game, then its just a shadow of what it have could been, if it was designed as full-price title. that's why i wrote that f2p is broken.

that's also why nearly all (only 3-4 exception among tousands) competitive f2p games are pay2win games. nowadays everyone tries to tell you their game wont be pay2win, but if you take a look on internal statistics, then you know it better. the only reason why f2p isn't completely screwed, is because the market still believes in some of the marketing lies. but the number of people who are critical about the model and who see trough the marketing bullshit is increasing among the gamers and after a while this will dribble down to the non-gamer too. the mainstream media covers from time to time this topic and this will increase more and more.

think about the beginning of gaming. everyone has thrown his coins in these extremely hard to beat arcade machines. like in f2p nowadays. that was the market, but the demand changed and the same people started to spend hundreds of dollars for consoles and later for the pc to get a deeper and satisfying experience. history will repeat and its just a matter of time.

Edited 4 times. Last edit by Samuel Verner on 4th July 2013 5:48pm

Posted:A year ago

#10

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

961 1,760 1.8
I suggest you stop. It was his idea.

But if you actually want my opinion, there's a feature blog by yours truly right here that addresses all of your business "insight":
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/PaulJohnson/20130702/195491/Ranting_about_Free_to_Play_its_not_what_you_think.php

Posted:A year ago

#11

Samuel Verner Game Designer

131 243 1.9
yeah, i read it before. the article sounds to me like you are trying to convince yourself that you are not a bad person (i am not saying you are!). :-)

the article is backing what i wrote - your point of view is centered around the fact that you see a game as a sale platform and not as an product with the purpose to entertain.

Posted:A year ago

#12

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

961 1,760 1.8
No, I'm trying to convince others of that. Why I just don't know, I guess my out-of-proportionometer overloads some times with all the hate drivel, and I need to let off steam.

Those that are against it hate it with a religious fervour that's massively out of proportion to any imagined offence, so they couldn't back down even when they finally ran out of easily refuted garbage assertions. And you know what's at the back of it all?

"This is new. I don't like it. So burn the witches". Gimme a break.

Posted:A year ago

#13

Samuel Verner Game Designer

131 243 1.9
"This is new. I don't like it. So burn the witches". Gimme a break.
this shows that you just don't even understand what problems the f2p model is creating and why it is broken. i don't have a problem with it if someone says, "we like it because we know how run our studio profitable with it", but saying the valid and solid arguments against it are just some stupid excuses for witch hunts sounds to me like you are jumping on a hype-train without really knowing what all this fuzz is about.

Posted:A year ago

#14

Samuel Verner Game Designer

131 243 1.9
@eric

yes, we know you defend f2p because its what your company does. i am sure they also know that you are burning for it and they will give you a cookie next monday. great. so now you can move on to somewhere else if you don't have anything useful to add to the discussion why f2p is broken or not...

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Samuel Verner on 5th July 2013 6:15pm

Posted:A year ago

#15

Samuel Verner Game Designer

131 243 1.9
The F2P model is built around two assertions or two smallest common denominators:
1. The end-user license is free for the user
2. The access to the servers is free for the user (the online parameter is an obvious condition of the F2P concept as we know it in the context, otherwise it would be called freeware)

That is all that is required to say about the F2P model at the end of the day and I fail to see what makes it a "broken business model".
there is something called "demo" or "trial" and there is no need for (user) testing purposes to have a f2p game. when it comes to the "free"aspect of paying, then free2play games are far more expensive than fullprice or subscription tiles. so taking a look into a game with some kind of demo or an extended trial version would have the same effect for the user like f2p. it just suggest to the user that he can save money, but there is nothing to save, if he wants to have fun with the game. its just much more expensive for him and he has to think about every cent he wants to sent or not to spend in this black hole. from this point of view there is no need for f2p and your argument is invalid.
Now if you wanna talk about Microtransactions specific policies, influence on game experience or game design, influence on customer services, etc. those are totally different topics that cannot and should not be analyzed as a general or generic statement over the model itself, because it has nothing to do directly with it and are more related to either companies's policies or product specifics.
there is no specific example needed, because generally the design for a f2p game is always flawed because of the requirements for the business model. it always scarifies - a lot of quality up to a substantial part of the - quality to make the f2p monetization possible. there is no way to prevent that, but many to hide it by empty marketing promises.

Posted:A year ago

#16

Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.

2,287 2,507 1.1
Greetings, Eric.

Last year, I played Edgeworld for while. I was level 150 or so when I quit playing. Not a bad game in itself but it was way too easy to get wiped out by stronger players. And he only way to really grow or defend yourself is to play...a lot. Or pay up.

I think this might be what Samuel is trying to get at. You either invest a lot of time or a lot of money. Either way it's an investment that felt like it cost more than it should have. Either the time frames were way too long or the financial costs way too high. While that is specific to Edgeworld, it's a common theme among F2P games. I eventually lost interest when it began to feel like I had no goal other than to be as strong as possible but which required either all my time or all my money. It started to feel like the game had a bigger goal for my wallet than the goal I was present with as a gamer.

Now maybe there is still a huge market for that kind of game design/business strategy, but I do agree that it seems the market is getting very crowded and it's possible that that approach will lose its newness as the market starts to feel as I eventually did with Edgeworld.

Posted:A year ago

#17

Samuel Verner Game Designer

131 243 1.9
i decided to ignore eric from now on, cause he clearly has no clue what he is talking about and just repeats empty marketing phrases for the stupid masses, instead of taking part in a real discussion. i am not a member of your community who needs to be managed. i design this kind of stuff and selling me some stupid phrases does not work and is no ground for a discussion about it. bye.

Posted:A year ago

#18

Craig Burkey Software Engineer

234 459 2.0
For F2P games to lose their stigma IMO I'd like to see maximum spend caps be implemented and make less use of physiological tricks used to hook people into spending money. My experience with F2P games are limited to

Star Trek - Online which I paid 250ish at the when it was first released to be a permanent gold member, F2P allow players like me to engage with a more populated world than I would of before but the last time I was on it was plagued by awful gamble boxes with a notification someone had won every 3mins
Candy Crush Saga - Play it during adverts and haven't spent a penny but it does irritate me with forcing me to pester by facebook friends and vice versa and repeatedly prompting for microtransactions.
Angry Birds - I didn't feel to pestered with this, just had adverts
Draw Something - I didn't feel to pestered with this, just had adverts (oh and coins but I never bought more)
Simpsons Tapped Out - Alot of free game, but a awful lot is locked by the paywall, and the pricing escalates massively, to buy all premium content must cost a fortune. Still playing the free stuff though on this

So for me the only F2P game I've made any payment to is the one that let me pay upfront a flat fee and that was mainly due to my dislike of the monthly sub model. I just want to know upfront what I paying and what it gets me, I just as a customer fear death by a thousand cuts when I hear F2P mentioned.

Personally I can't see why F2P can't Co Exist more often with other models.

Posted:A year ago

#19

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