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Perils of Whale Hunting: When F2P Players Leave The Sea

How big a problem is it when social games pull the plug on the hardcore players who pay so the free-to-play model can work at all?

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.


First EA caught flack for an always-online SimCity. Now the decision to make SimCity Social always-offline is getting blowback. Sometimes you just can't win.

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 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."

Nick Earl

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."

John Coligan

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.

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Latest comments (9)

Fredrik Liljegren Director, System Software, NVIDIA8 years ago
This WILL become a major issue in mobile as well when the servers starts shutting down that's why at Antic Entertainment we have made it VERY clear to our user base that unless the company shuts its door ALL our games will keep on running. Some of our games has less then 150 DAU but the cost scales accordingly, so WHY shut it down? Unless you build a really FAT back-end infrastructure that wasn't built with both scale up AND down in mind.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 8 years ago
This is why i dont spend money on F2P games, or games that are hosted on someone elses servers or the cloud. This is why I like having a phisical product.. Not virtual not digital. If the company closes down or they deam a certain game isnt making them money, they just close down the server and leave you and your hard earned credits hanging. All that money you spent on the game wasted. i honestly dont like where the game industry is headed. Im seriously doubting If I will continue supporting this hobby. As much as I love it i cant keep throwing away money like that. pet society was the last facebook game I played, thankfully I never spent real money on any of these games. It would have been a total waste. However its sad to see pet society go it was one of the better facebook games.
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James Prendergast Process Specialist 8 years ago
This is why "games as a service" has and always will be complete and utter rubbish. There is no service offered by the games industry. It's "games as access"... I wish more people would wise up.
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Show all comments (9)
Emily Knox Associate Designer, CCP Games8 years ago
Pet Society in particular reads like both a deep and popular game, I wonder if their currency/Paw Points system was adapted or changed much over the course of those five years? It's such a shame to be pulling the plug completely on all those titles.
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Brett Caird Production Director/Founder, 5th Cell8 years ago
"...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."

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James Prendergast Process Specialist 8 years ago
With all due respect, Eric, having worked in several actual "service" industries (from credit, banking and travel), the gaming industry is *not* a service industry. It provides products, not services. Add to this the fact - and I mean this in the literal sense, not the rhetorical sense that it can generally be used for arguments on the internet - the "customer service" in the gaming industry is so poor as to basically not even count as such.

I can literally phone any service industry that I subscribe to, speak to an actual person (though they are making that more difficult these days) and get something sorted out. The gaming industry? I'm lucky if there's a listed email address for me to contact... and then I'm even more lucky if I get a response in under a week. Dealing with a company that is based in a country different from yourself? You're pretty much screwed.

Not to mention that all service industries I've ever encountered are regulated and have high levels of self-regulation regarding how consumers are treated, none of this "thou shalt not own anything you pay money for", "we have the right to rescind content you paid for with no recourse for you" and "no refunds, no resales and no rights" as well as "no class action lawsuits".... Have you READ an EULA recently? I was shocked when I read Moto GP 2007's EULA which stated, in clear (legalese) English, that I couldn't let anyone else be in the room with me to watch or even play the game - only the person who paid for it. I hope no one bought it as a gift!

You may be a community manager but the gaming industry is not a service industry just because it has "customer service" or "community support" - if you can even seriously claim that those exist in even a half-hearted manner.

If you wanted to get technical and be linguistically correct then a service industry is A tertiary sector whereas the gaming industry is a secondary sector.

You can clearly see this in the definition:
Services are not tangible, making it difficult for potential customers to understand what they will receive and what value it will hold for them. Indeed some, such as consultants and providers of investment services, offer no guarantees of the value for price paid.

Games violate all of the above accepted conventions for a service industry.
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James Benn Studying Computer Science, University of Portsmouth8 years ago
Completely agree with you James, I don't like were the industry is headed either. I was astonished to find that one of the games I'd purchased from my Xbox Live account (Dreamfall - The Longest Journey) a couple of years ago had been removed from the UK service. It still appeared in my download history but could not be downloaded. Microsoft were at a loss, refused to re-imburse and blamed the publisher. When I contacted the publisher they claimed to be unaware of the issue and said that they would follow up with Microsoft to restore the game to service. A month later nothing has come of it. It should come as little surprise that I'm deeply skeptical of games as a 'service' and 'always online'.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 8 years ago
Holy cats... I'd seriously forgotten that Dreamfall got an Xbox release back in the day... (checks the library)... *WHEW* I happen to have a physical copy here (thankfully!).

Yeah, that's going to be a HUGE issue unless every new Xbox owner has off-cloud storage space that can be used to save stuff "just in case" (which is shorthand for "we'll delete your old games because they only sold two copies in the past year and hell, no one will miss it, right?")...

Hopefully you'll get it taken care of or at LEAST get some sort of credit for your purchase. It's idiotic for a company to drop a title without letting users know this and allowing them at least a window of time to download it once more before it's gone forever.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters8 years ago
If you're going to close one of your games down, at least give the "whales" some kind of currency/credits to transfer to one of your newer games.
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