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Free-to-play format still evolving - Schubert

Ex-Star Wars: The Old Republic lead designer says customers will drive devs to adopt a more effective billing model

During a presentation at the Game Developers Conference earlier this month, Boss Fight Entertainment's Damion Schubert suggested the industry to drop the term "whales," calling it disrespectful to the heavy spenders that make the free-to-play business model possible. As an alternative, he proposed calling them "patrons," as their largesse allows the masses to enjoy these works that otherwise could not be made and maintained.

After his talk, Schubert spoke with GamesIndustry.biz about his own experiences with heavy spending customers. During his stint at BioWare Austin, Schubert was a lead designer on Star Wars: The Old Republic as it transitioned from its original subscription-based business model to a free-to-play format.

"I think the issue with whales is that most developers don't actually psychologically get into the head of whales. And as a result, they don't actually empathize with those players..."

"I think the issue with whales is that most developers don't actually psychologically get into the head of whales," Schubert said. "And as a result, they don't actually empathize with those players, because most developers aren't the kind of person that would shell out $30,000 to get a cool speeder bike or whatnot... I think your average developer feels way more empathy for the free players and the light spenders than the whales because the whales are kind of exotic creatures if you think about them. They're really unusual."

Schubert said whales, at least those he saw on The Old Republic, don't have uniform behavior patterns. They weren't necessarily heavy raiders, or big into player-vs-player competition. They were just a different class of customer, with the only common attribute being that they apparently liked to spend money. Some free-to-play games have producers whose entire job is to try to understand those customers, Schubert said, setting up special message boards for that sub-community of player, or letting them vote on what content should be added to a game next.

"When you start working with these [customers], there's a lot of concern that they are people who have gambling problems, or kids who have no idea of the concept of money," Schubert said.

But from his experience on The Old Republic, Schubert came to understand that most of that heavy spending population is simply people who are legitimately rich and don't have a problem with devoting money to something they see as a hobby. Schubert said The Old Republic team was particular mindful of free-to-play abuse, and had spending limits placed to protect people from credit card fraud or kids racking up unauthorized charges. If someone wanted to be a heavy spender on the game, they had to call up customer service and specifically ask for those limits to be removed.

"If you think about it, they wanted to spend money so much that they were willing to endure what was probably a really annoying customer service call so they could spend money," Schubert said.

The Old Republic's transition from a subscription-based model to free-to-play followed a wider shift in the massively multiplayer online genre. Schubert expects many of the traditional PC and console gaming genres like fighting games and first-person shooters to follow suit, one at a time. That said, free-to-play is not the business model of the future. Not the only one, at least.

"[I]t turns out project management in games is something the big boys don't do very well, much less these guys making their first game and trying to do it on a shoestring budget."

"I think the only constant in the industry is change," Schubert said when asked if the current free-to-play model will eventually fall out of favor. "So yeah, it will shift. And it will always shift because people find a more effective billing model. And the thing to keep in mind is that a more effective billing model will come from customers finding something they like better... I think there is always someone waiting in the wings with a new way of how you monetize it. But I do think that anything we're going to see in the short term, at least, is probably going to start with a great free experience. It's just so hard to catch fire; there are too many competitive options that are free right now."

Two upstart business models Schubert is not yet sold on are crowdfunding and alpha-funding. As a consumer, he has reservations about both.

"The Wild West right now is the Kickstarter stuff, which is a whole bunch of companies that are making their best guess about what they can do," Schubert said. "Many of them are doing it very, very poorly, because it turns out project management in games is something the big boys don't do very well, much less these guys making their first game and trying to do it on a shoestring budget. I think that's a place where there's a lot more caveat emptor going on."

Schubert's golden rule for anyone thinking of supporting a Kickstarter is to only pledge an amount of money you would be OK losing forever with nothing to show for it.

"At the end of the day, you're investing on a hope and a dream, and by definition, a lot of those are just going to fail or stall," Schubert said. "Game development is by definition R&D. Every single game that gets developed is trying to find a core game loop, trying to find the magic, trying to find the thing that will make it stand out from the 100 other games that are in that same genre. And a lot of them fail. You've played 1,000 crappy games. Teams didn't get out to make crappy games; they just got there and they couldn't find the 'there' there."

"Early Access actually started in my opinion, with MMOs, with the brightest of hopes and completely and totally clean ideals."

He wasn't much kinder to the idea of charging people for games still in an early stage of development.

"I'm not a huge fan of Early Access, although ironically, I think the MMO genre invented it," Schubert said. "But on the MMOs, we needed it because there are things on an MMO that you cannot test without a population. You cannot test a 40-man raid internally. You cannot test large-scale political systems. You cannot test login servers with real problems from different countries, server load and things like that. Early Access actually started in my opinion, with MMOs, with the brightest of hopes and completely and totally clean ideals."

Schubert has funded a few projects in Early Access, but said he wound up getting unfinished games in return. Considering he works on unfinished games for a living, he doesn't have much patience for them in his spare time, and has since refrained from supporting games in Early Access.

"I genuinely think there are very few people in either Kickstarter or Early Access that are trying to screw customers," Schubert said. "I think people in both those spaces are doing it because they love games and want to be part of it, and it's hard for me to find fault in that at the end of the day."

Latest comments (2)

Tiego François-Brosseau Programmer / Developer 2 years ago
I'm sorry in advance for saying this, but it's actually true.

When I read the title, my brain read: Free-to-play format still evil
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Pete Thompson Editor 2 years ago
I didn't think I'd ever say this, but I am becoming a fan of F2P console games. World of Tanks on X360 and Warframe on Xbox One are excellent games, and worthy of supporting via ingame purchases. I'm also looking forward to SMITE and the next Fable being F2P aswell as Neverwinter, which was very enjoyable to play during the recent Beta.

I'm not a fan of retail priced games with in-game purchases, as that just rubs people up the wrong way.
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