Free-to-play (F2P) is coming into its own. Indeed, some proponents of F2P believe in a few more years that revenues generated from the business model will actually surpass that of other more traditional models in the games industry. Veteran developer Steve Meretzky (now with GSN Games) discussed the evolving F2P market at GDC recently and he spoke with GamesIndustry International about his observations.
"The F2P industry is really maturing. It's pretty young - obviously in Asia it's a little older - but in the North American market it's only a business model that we've seen in mass market games for six or seven years, and yet it's already reaching a point of relative maturity. We're seeing the same sort of characteristics in F2P that we've seen in other business models after they enter a period of maturity: rising production values, rising costs, a sort of increasing conservatism by management and other financial stakeholders, and finally a kind of dampening of innovation. So you see fewer new genres, smaller change over time within established genres and fewer new entrants coming into the space," he noted.
While many developers and publishers have doubled down on the genres and play mechanics that have proven successful in F2P, players unfortunately will see little in the way of innovation. Meretzky looked at the top 25 lists on the four major F2P platforms - Facebook, iPhone, iPad and Android - and he saw only four out of those 100 slots occupied by games that didn't fit into one of four categories: social casino, invest and express, midcore, or a saga game.
"I think there are dark clouds in terms of that limiting of innovation, and I think that's likely to continue"
"Looking at it from a player point of view, I think there are dark clouds in terms of that limiting of innovation, and I think that's likely to continue... there's [still] probably going to be more chance of innovation or chance of a disruptive new entrant, but it's lower than it was a year or two ago and in another year or two it will probably be lower still," Meretzky cautioned.
It's not as if the console industry is faring much better when it comes to innovating with new genres, Meretzky said: "If you look at consoles, the diversity of genres has gotten worse over the last 20 years. At least the cost of entry on the mobile market is still fairly low, particularly on Android. Discovery of course is a problem, but I think there's at least the hope that there are enough little indies and garage companies and stuff out there feeding interesting things into the mobile ecosystem that every now and then one will bubble up and become something very different and then itself become the source of the next round of cloning."
Speaking of cloning, Meretzky said that we're beginning to see a reduction of the cloning problem in F2P, one of the positive aspects of the market's maturation. Meretzky reiterated a point that Gamehound's Dave Rohrl made during GDC: essentially, clones are failing because "they're not at all attempting to differentiate or innovate or advance the art at all."
Indeed, Meretzky pointed to cloning as one of the biggest mistakes that developers make in F2P, and that was particularly true a few years ago. "I'd certainly point to that as one mistake that people often make in F2P, especially in the early days when development costs were so low and development time was short; cloning was so rampant and when there were so many companies that didn't have a lot of experienced game development and design staff and they were really just relying on basically looking at other games' blueprints and copying them without understanding what made them tick. I feel like in general the industry has gotten better and that something like cloning of Clash of Clans is, while still prevalent, not as prevalent as it was four or five years ago," he said.
As F2P has become more widely used across platforms, some in the traditional games space have voiced concern or even resentment. Meretzky said he just doesn't understand the accusations of F2P being "evil," whether that opinion comes from developers or gamers.
"It's always struck me as a little odd how resentful players are in the F2P business model...when they don't think twice about paying $50... There's such a psychological break there"
"It's always struck me as a little odd how resentful players are in the F2P business model about paying a couple dollars when they don't think twice about paying $50 for the same amount of fun or the same amount of gameplay time or whatever. There's such a psychological break there," he remarked.
As for developers, Meretzky feels that some have made the perception about F2P worse because they've been going about creating games the wrong way. That is, they've been looking to give "whales" a reason to pay even more.
"I think that in general across the entire F2P industry the companies have been much too focused on tuning their experiences for the big payers," he said. "I always thought five or six years ago when F2P started taking off - and we were seeing the one to two percent conversion for payers - I thought 'well it's all so new and they are just being exposed to this idea of paying for virtual goods or payment as an optional way of participating more deeply in a game.' And as people become more familiar with it and more cozy with the idea of paying for their entertainment that way that percentage of payers would gradually rise. We haven't see that at all. I think perhaps one reason for that is that game designs had been tuned not to make it more likely that a player would turn into a payer but designed much more with a focus on turning a payer into a big payer."
So how can developers succeed in the F2P space? Well, for starters, a game has to be fun. The days of pure metrics-based design are over.
"There was obviously a lot written about companies [in the early days] and Zynga being the main poster child that you could basically A/B test your way to a good game. I feel like that whole philosophy has been pretty discredited and I think it's now accepted that task one is producing a fun game and then task two after that is A/B testing it into perfection, but you can't start with A/B testing," Meretzky warned.
He also believes that the "fast follow" strategy is not a bad approach. As long as you're not outright cloning another game, if you look to some of the top performing titles you could gain some inspiration.
"Doing something similar and finding a few key areas to innovate on and differentiate yourself, I think that's actually a pretty good place to be, especially if you're a developer or publisher with a fairly small portfolio and you don't really have the luxury of spreading your bets from very cloney to very innovative," he advised. "I think the sweet spot is to take a successful game or successful genre and not completely clone, which I think is a pit of death, and not innovate too much."