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Why I don't want every game I play to last forever

Why I don't want every game I play to last forever

Mon 16 Sep 2013 7:00am GMT / 3:00am EDT / 12:00am PDT
Development

CEO of nDreams writes for GamesIndustry International on the problems with free-to-play

For the last couple of years, free-to-play has been the buzzword of the industry. And now traditional publishers have woken up, and, scared of missing the boat, have leapt in with both feet.

Free-to-play can be great. Free-to-play (by which I mean being able to play a whole game without having to pay) works brilliantly well for games that players will play for 20+ hours. Most of the big free-to-play successes have been games designed with that in mind; games that encourage repeat play day in-day out over a long period of time. And with those games, free-to-play has generated huge amounts of revenue - so much so that some people have declared the battle over - free-to-play will take over and become the dominant model for all games. End of argument! Why consider anything else?

"The cracks are starting to show as traditional games try to embrace the free-to-play model and struggle"

But I believe the cracks are starting to show as traditional games try to embrace the free-to-play model and struggle. There are a large number of amazing games which simply don't and can't work when you try to make them last more than 20 hours and start thinking about retention loops, energy mechanics and daily bonuses. Narrative is highly incompatible with free-to-play, and a large proportion of the highest rated games over the last decade have been based around strong storytelling and great characterisation.

As publishers try to 'convert' these fantastic 8-hour experiences to free-to-play, I think you'll see the cracks grow even larger. I dread the day that I see Call of Duty or Tomb Raider going free-to-play. I don't want every game I play to last forever and require me to come back every day. I don't want every game to be devoid of great narrative with a powerful ending. I don't have the time to play more than one or two 'retention' games at a time. But I'll happily play many more fantastic games that last 6-12 hours and give me a euphoric ending and the feeling of satisfaction you get from having participated in a fantastic experience. I don't think I'm alone.

At the moment, console games, handheld gaming devices like the Vita and 3DS and PC games are still dominated by games which are not free-to-play. I think that is because people love playing those kind of games - and it's hard to find those experiences on mobile devices. So I think either those kind of games will come more frequently to mobile, or PC/console/handheld devices will continue to have a strong and passionate user base, and make the kind of money that allows Rockstar to spend $250 million developing a non-mobile game.

1

I suspect when TV soap operas arrived, people thought that this new format was going to take over TV. And soaps are still incredibly popular and addictive, getting viewers back five days a week every week, every year. They're great. But TV isn't back-to-back soap operas. People still love to watch (and pay for) films. They watch a series that has an ending. They go to the cinema or watch NetFlix. Reality TV was the same - everyone flocked to it for a few years, but it has settled down now as part of the mix. People love variety.

Plants vs Zombies 2 might be one of the first big examples of how free-to-play can go wrong. The first game was one of the best game designs ever made. Absolutely, bloody perfect. But EA decided that it needed to be free-to-play. Plants vs Zombies wasn't designed to be played for 20+ hours. It was a fantastic game with a core mission mode that most players could complete in 6-8 hours of solid play. But the sequel struggles in no-mans-land, torn between delivering overly hard levels (to require players to spend money), and being too easy to grind through. I strongly suspect, given its position in the 'top grossing' chart, that PvZ2 is way below the revenue targets that EA/Popcap had set out for it.

In some ways, I think free-to-play has become a sticking plaster for the App Store pricing model. High quality games simply can't make money being sold for 99c (69c after Apple's cut). And you can't charge 35 on the App Store yet. So free-to-play is a good solution for this problem. But it isn't the only answer. It works for some games really well; I'm still playing Simpsons: Tapped Out pretty much every day. But it simply doesn't work for many games. And too many publishers and developers seem to be falling victim to the hype and believing it's the only option moving forwards.

"Free-to-play has become a sticking plaster for the App Store pricing model"

I strongly suspect we're going to see many car-crashes over the next 18 months as traditional publishers bring existing franchises to free-to-play and watch them fail to generate the revenue they need.

Let free-to-play game designs use the free-to-play model . Let games that people play for 20-40 hours or more use the free-to-play model if it works for them. But don't pretend that all games need to be like this from now until the end of time. For other games, monetise them the way that suits them best. Give people free demos, show them your amazing game, then allow them to buy the full experience with in-app purchases. Or let people pay up-front, and allow mega-fans to buy bling show-off items in-game if you want to. But don't make your game free-to-play and start encouraging short daily bursts and putting in energy mechanics unless it's right for the game.

I strongly suspect that games (taken across all platforms) will settle into a healthy mix of business models. And when the mist clears, I think free-to-play games will account for 50 per cent or less of that final mix. Variety, not uniformity, will win the day.

26 Comments

Not a lot to add apart from, agree with all that.

Posted:A year ago

#1

Jason Avent VP, Studio Head, NaturalMotion

143 177 1.2
Popular Comment
I agree too I but I think the real fault is the industry's inability to be creative when it comes to business models. The approach shouldn't be to carbon copy the business practices from one type of game and imprint it on another type. The approach should start with the question: 'how might we create a free to play model from scratch that works for the type of game we're trying to sell?' Or at least the question: 'how might we get money for our games in new ways now that they're free to manufacture and distribute?'

I'm really happy to see the emergence of new ways of paying for downloadable games on console. The new subscription services seem pretty good. I think that's an example of progressive and smart thinking. Downloadable games shouldn't cost as much as retail games because there are no distribution, warehousing, manufacture or stock costs. What other try before you buy methods might there be? How else might we encourage some players to pay more so they subsidise those who don't pay?

Paying players have always subsidised pirates and those who trade games in.

Posted:A year ago

#2

Wesley Williams Quality Assurance

133 72 0.5
The trend towards a lack of endings has been bugging me for a while now. It's perfectly exhibited in the "endless runner" genre, where I find may really cool games that I'd love to play, but after five minutes I delete from my device because I realise there's never going to be an end and so what's the point? Completing goals is fine, but there has to be an ending and it has to be attainable by the majority, without taking a bazillion years to get to. You want me to keep paying for your games? Make them smaller, with a start and a finish, then follow it up with a sequel in short order.

Posted:A year ago

#3

Eyal Teler Programmer

93 99 1.1
F2P is not the solution for everything, and I don't think it has been applied as such. This is unrelated to game length. There are many games without F2P which are 20+ hours, and people love them. RPG's are a good example, as are strategy games. There are many mobile games which aren't F2P either, and although it's common for mobile games to offer in-app purchases, they're often not mandatory.

F2P is a matter of implementation, that's what makes it palatable or not. It's also a matter of taste. I'm sure we'll see publishers going this way and that, trying to find what works best. I'm sure some players like the F2P nature while others like it less. As for game length, some people do want their experiences to last forever. That doesn't preclude having an ending, and continuing to play another story in the same universe, or just playing multiplayer.

Posted:A year ago

#4

Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief

211 254 1.2
"how might we get money for our games in new ways now that they're free to manufacture and distribute?'"

This, +100

F2P is just a tool. It is a tool to address that question.

Posted:A year ago

#5

Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief

211 254 1.2
More broadly, the challenge we face is this:
- Commercially, it is getting harder and harder to get people to pay full price for all but the most exceptional games. And with open platforms, a race towards free is common, making players accustomed to free games.
- Design-wise, F2P does make changes to the game, and it is often badly done.

I disagree that F2P will < half the market. I do agree that some people should "let people pay up-front, and allow mega-fans to buy bling show-off items in-game if you want to." The debate often gets polarised by people thinking that F2P = Farmville style design.

More broadly, I agree that there will be many business models. Almost all of them will allow people who love what you do to spend lots of money on things they truly value.

Posted:A year ago

#6
Nicholas - I'd love to see some comparison data with estimates for the total annual game revenue being made on App Store, Google Play, Steam, PSN, XBLA and retail stores. I've heard anecdotally that Steam is doing over $1bn per annum. Has anyone had a stab at this?

Posted:A year ago

#7
Is the 'race to free' a reality outside of the AppStore?
I noticed that, for example, digital music sales were up from $5.2 bn to $5.6bn in 2012. So singles and albums (both primarily digital with no fixed manufacturing cost) are still making significant amounts of money, and record companies aren't giving them away for free in order to sell much more expensive items to true fans.
Movies and TV series are also still generating big money - both from Netflix type subscriptions, and physical/digital sales. They're not being given away for free anywhere I can see (you can't count piracy!).
I'm not sure games are so different, which is one reason why I'm a long way from being convinced about the 'race to free' for digital gaming.

Posted:A year ago

#8

Jason Avent VP, Studio Head, NaturalMotion

143 177 1.2
Spotify and Netflix are effectively free. The subscription cost is so low that on a per view/listen basis, I consider it free. That's progress in my book. As long as the artists and studios generate enough revenue to make the next great product. Seems like they do. Maybe not as much as they used to with the same volume of users but they're doing good numbers. And this is kind of the race to zero really. You pay for the service but get the content for free. In both cases the cost of a monthly subscription is half the cost of the real world product. (Although I have no idea how much a CD or DVD costs now because I haven't bought one for years because of these services).

After getting first contact through these services, fans go to concerts, buy DVD's for the films they discover on Netflix and buy merchandise. That's a good parallel. The great benefit we have in digital entertainment is that we can sell the merchandise directly within the first contact product.

Posted:A year ago

#9

Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief

211 254 1.2
@patrick
For Music, YouTube and Spotify free.

Posted:A year ago

#10
But Spotify has paid out around $1bn in license fees to record publishers?!
And on YouTube, this week's hot song/video', Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball", has had 105 million hits, with a 20 or 30 second non-skippable advert at the beginning. I suspect the revenue made is quite significant and definitely not 'free'.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Patrick O'Luanaigh on 16th September 2013 1:57pm

Posted:A year ago

#11

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing

1,183 1,267 1.1
f2p has become a glorified term for what basically is a demo for a game which uses old arcade style monetization schemes mixed with mechanics of a lottery. Only difference being that neither arcades nor lotteries ever were this disingenuous. It was simple Game Over, bend over, put in quarter. These days f2p games tend to offer you the option to totally waste your time until you realize you treasure your time more than your money and finally depart with it.

Ultimately, the insatiable appetite for hunting whales will be a evolutionary disadvantage of f2p. Players will grow tired of core gameplay loops being stretched to the breaking point and repeating themselves across different competing games.

As the article pointed out, f2p has a few no-go areas which classic sales models can leverage to be large advantages over any f2p experience.

Posted:A year ago

#12

Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd

1,021 1,470 1.4
@ Klaus and in an arcade you could make it to the end, even if you had to put in more quarters to do so. I lose interest in an autorunner after 15 minutes, and then I play it once per month when I happen to be stuck in a situation when I have nothing else to do. I know I'm not alone on this. People aren't playing these games by choice. They aren't sitting at home going "Yeah, man, I could be watching TV/movies or playing console/computer games but instead I'll pull up Temple Run."

The problem with games that are endless and repetitive is that they are endless and repetitive! This isn't good game design. I'm not saying there aren't good uses of free to play, but I haven't seen it in a singleplayer experience to this day. It's logical for League of Legends, Dota 2, or MMOs. It's not even a little logical for Plants vs Zombies 2. That's monetization driving design, and as long as we allow that to happen we are compromising the art of the industry.

Posted:A year ago

#13
I think this article should be on a FAQ

Posted:A year ago

#14

Robert Ilott Build & CM Engineer, Criterion Games

27 52 1.9
"Plants vs Zombies wasn't designed to be played for 20+ hours."

Then why does my Steam account say 90+ hours?

Posted:A year ago

#15

John Cook Senior Partner, Bad Management

29 13 0.4
Very sound, as usual Patrick!

Posted:A year ago

#16

Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,196 1,176 0.5
They aren't sitting at home going "Yeah, man, I could be watching TV/movies or playing console/computer games but instead I'll pull up Temple Run."
Heh... nope. That's why I still own portables like the DS and Vita. I won't go near an endless gamed again unless I get REALLY desperate and whip out my Master System and Transbot (yuck!)...

@Robert Mott: Well, falling asleep in front of your PC while the clock is running doesn't count (ha ha ha)... ;^P

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Greg Wilcox on 16th September 2013 11:53pm

Posted:A year ago

#17

Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd

1,021 1,470 1.4
@ Eric None of those games are repetitive, because they have an element of human challenge and socialism. Again I refer you to my point that these design sensibilities are fine in multiplayer. The burden of proof, sir, lies on you. Show me good game design built around F2P in a singleplayer experience. Don't just say "You're wrong! It works fine!"

Posted:A year ago

#18

Saehoon Lee Founder & CEO, Pixellore

60 41 0.7
Amen to all of that.

Posted:A year ago

#19

Tat Wei, Yeap Master Degree in Environmental Planning.

13 1 0.1
"When the product is free, you're not the customer, you're the product" - Excerpt from the internet

Personally, I'd like to see an online game with an end as well, not unlimited grind work, something with more story...more depth...I'm wondering sometimes if I'm asking too much. Wait a sec, hmm....Arenanet....GW2 models?....i sense the cricket singing...
While most "F2P" online games today are targeting audience at age 10 - 18, I know because I met them in the game.
I played a F2P game coughs* "online-ninja-suit thing" coughs* recently and met some kids who had no idea what is Google but had a paid avatar, he is 10 years old. Sure "F2P", and your glorious "micro-transaction" sells..for now...had the business analysis today actually look at a long term gaming model? Have you look at your game and say, hmm how to improve our user-base retention and returning players?

F2P model today are doing something similar to agriculture called "slash and burn", if you don't know what slash and burn is... I had bad news for you.

Posted:A year ago

#20

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing

1,183 1,267 1.1
@Eric:

being able to access all the content is the classic f2p spurious argument. It is an extension of the marketing speech "it's free". We know it is not free. On average, all users pay some money, the sum of that money recovers costs of development. It's either that, or bankruptcy.

The narrative of f2p marketing is hellbent to direct our view towards those users who pay nothing and give speeches aimed at leaving us with the aspirational feeling that we will be those players. This is the same fake fluffy feeling you get from watching some casting show with scripted reality component. You too can be Britain's next top talent. In this regard, f2p marketing is like a street magician. Direct attention to the left, do the dirty deed on the right.

Two things are objectionable. First, it is the initial marketing offer trying to lure us with the promise of free gaming and a "let others pay" attitude. That is basically the same justification piracy uses: you pirate for free, some schmuck will buy it, in the end, it even out.

Secondly, behind the facade of feel-good play for free advertisement, there is a dark side of cost recovery aiming to exploit any psychological weakness that can be exploited in a human being. All of that with the "why do you care, you can play for free and they are happy paying" attitude. That is not at all how we should look at fellow human beings, lest the games industry becomes something called "digital drugs", where some consume for free, blissfully ignoring those who are exploited in exchange.

While f2p is a broad enough term to include good and evil business strategies of recovering costs, the f2p games who make it to the top all look have at least some moral grey area no representative will ever publicly comment on. Compare that to indy gamers staking their house against the success of their game, or ask for money on kickstarter. You can clearly see, which "gaming culture" you want to be an evangelist for.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Klaus Preisinger on 17th September 2013 9:59am

Posted:A year ago

#21

James Prendergast Research Chemist

740 437 0.6
The problem with games that are endless and repetitive is that they are endless and repetitive!
Well, I wonder why people are still playing poker, chess, tennis... and so on and so on and so on. This is not only an old debate (a subjective one by the way) but it is also pointless because repetitiveness is precisely a fundamental principle of games (call it loop, call it as you like) and this not only in our narrow views of and on digital gaming but also as you may observe it in the physical world and in the nature.
@ Eric Pallavicini:

I think the conversation around this point is getting stuck on different definitions of "endless" and "repetitive". Chess, poker, tennis all have an end-point and so are definitely not endless. They are also not repetitive in the sense of the word that I think was being applied to games in what we would normally refer to as "grind". i.e. Hitting the same or similar enemy type in order to advance arbitrary numbers (see cow clicker).

Those games you listed are very popular because they are not repetitive because humans are not repetitive - at least not in the identical sense. The analogy to your counter point is 1) playing chess against a computer opponent that always plays the same opening, or 2) playing tennis against a ball launcher that does not vary its launching velocity or direction. If those were the only manner in which you could enjoy those two games then I can tell you in all certainty that they would not be as popular.

Posted:A year ago

#22

James Prendergast Research Chemist

740 437 0.6
If a tennis ball throw, a pawn move opening could be different from one another because of the human initiating the action, why it couldn't be the case with the programming of a game?
I think you're missing the point, Eric. They can - gameplay in these games tends not to be - hence the specific analogy. I mean, if you've ever played a chess computer/AI you know they don't only use one opening (unless asked to for practice!) and the better tennis launchers randomise their output as well...

Posted:A year ago

#23

Jason Avent VP, Studio Head, NaturalMotion

143 177 1.2
The race to free doesn't mean zero associated revenue for the artists/developers/manufacturers/marketers. It means that consumers or players don't have to pay (unless they want to). So Spotify, YouTube and debatably Netflix all qualify as successes in the race to free in other media.

Posted:A year ago

#24

Felix Leyendecker Senior 3D Artist, Crytek

184 204 1.1
All players on this platform have several other revenue streams, including licensing deals, radio, and brick-and-mortar sales.
I don't see how you can compare this to a digitally released game.

Posted:A year ago

#25

James Prendergast Research Chemist

740 437 0.6
@ Eric - Yeah, I'm not sure why you're arguing with (at?) me because I was just pointing out a very small part of the larger conversation that I though people were getting mixed up in. I didn't touch on anything else in your post just now. :)

Posted:A year ago

#26

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