Traditional games are the real bait-and-switch - Cousins

Scattered Entertainment GM says critics of free-to-play ethics driven by fear and snobbery

The free-to-play business model has become increasingly popular in recent years, but it has no shortage of detractors in the industry. In an editorial posted on Polygon today, one of free-to-play's most vocal supporters, Scattered Entertainment general manager Ben Cousins, likened the attacks on free-to-play to past moral panics over pinball, rock n' roll, or the telephone. And just as those uproars seem silly in retrospect, so too will the accusations against free-to-play games be laughed at in the future, Cousins said.

"The attacks and criticism of free-to-play mechanics are often unfair and selective, and leave questionable but traditional business practices alone," Cousins said. "This is snobbery, evidence that the old guard is scared of where the industry is headed."

One accusation Cousins singled out was that free-to-play games participate in bait-and-switch tactics by offering a download for free but putting paywalls in players' way once they're into the game. However, Cousins said the traditional games industry, where people pay $60 up front and have no ability to get refunds, is the bigger bait-and-switch.

"Publishers often ask the press to hold reviews until the game has been released; the publisher is often trying to sell the game before poor reviews hit," Cousins noted. "Publishers routinely offer exclusive in-game content for digital pre-orders. Digital copies won't sell out, but the push remains to lock in consumer money before independent reviews hit. Get the player invested and spending before the game is released with the promise of 'rare' or 'exclusive' items."

Kickstarter games are even worse, he said, as developers could deliver something that isn't what they promised, or nothing at all. By comparison, at least free-to-play gamers have tried the game before they decide whether to spend money on it.

"When something is new, when it isn't aimed at you, when it is created by strange people in strange places, when it breaks established norms and when it is becoming hugely popular... it's scary for the establishment," Cousins said. "The ethical critique is an easy way to fight these changes, a call to protect the children or protect the irrational people who obviously can't like these games on their own merits. We begin to sound as reactionary as the ban on pinball or the fears over jazz music corrupting the minds of our youth."

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Latest comments (16)

Nick Wofford Hobbyist 5 years ago
I can't say that his arguments are very persuasive on traditional games or Kickstarter.

For traditional games, he seems to really not understand that trade-ins are a thing. So you can very well get a "refund" of sorts on that game. As for "promised" "exclusive" (his words, hence the quotes) pre-order content, his point only matters if the content isn't delivered. Is there a case of a free weapon, skin, etc... not being delivered? I can't think of any.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 5 years ago
Mmmm... Disingenuous. Saying some other product is worse doesn't make the thing you're selling good (either morally or financially). It just makes it better than the thing you're comparing it to. It's like saying the original Dungeon Keeper is better than the mobile reboot, purely and simply because the manner in which you buy it is different.

Also, let's face it - if companies wanted to give refunds on broken/substandard products, they could. Consumer and industry apathy is to blame for that, not anything else.

Edited 4 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 9th April 2014 11:01pm

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Isaac Kirby Studying Computer Games Development, University of Central Lancashire5 years ago
Ben Cousins makes a valid point about Traditional Games. The furore over Colonial Marines still rings true, bait with nice adverts, switch to poorer game. Even more recently we have had the Battlefield 4 debacle of online playability.
He is also correct about the pre-order culture being pushed more and more.
But Morville makes the best point. Consumer Apathy should shoulder some of the blame. When was the last time you knew of someone download a demo? I know I haven't used a demo since the days of getting a demo disc with my PS2 magazines. Possibly why my PS2 game collection is still 3 times bigger than my PS3 one. I had to take fewer risks because I could try more before I bought.
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Caspar Field CEO & Co Founder, Wish Studios Ltd5 years ago
I am so bored of the free-to-play crowd using this tired, old 'snobbery' line. It's just an attempt to paint their critics in a certain light, in order to better position themselves in the argument.

Here are the synonyms of 'snob' according to my dictionary: pretentiousness, condescension, affectedness, pretension, elitism, snobbishness, arrogance, pride, haughtiness, airs, airs and graces, disdain, disdainfulness, superciliousness, exclusiveness; informal snootiness, uppityness.

Is that the most mature, considered contribution to the debate that Cousins et al can bring to the debate? Like I said: boring. It's also notable that rather than actually tackling and discussing any criticisms of free-to-play, Cousins attempts to sling mud back over the fence - lots of 'you do it too'. It's like reading the transcript of an argument with a teenager.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 5 years ago
f2p is far from being the only business model which has to fight an uphill battle against consumers. $60 are just better at it due to decades of experience.

$60 game con: make a bad game, toss it out there without a demo.
$60 market reaction: a ton of magazines trying to tell you what's worth your money and what's not.
$60 counter reaction: embargo dates, PR campaigns, dirty reviews, a world of smut.
$60: flawed assumption: you need the game at release day. The entire PR counter strategy to prevent losses due to having informed customers revolves around making them conditioned impulse buyers.
$60 cure: you don't. wait for a review, then buy the game. also used games seem to be doing fine.

f2p games will establish the same sort of battlefield of interests. Already, you can hear certain arguments over and over. But it is a fact that monetization heavily focuses on whales. It is a fact that PR speech usually begins when the term "free" is being leveraged over and over. It is not the moral high ground to tell players to focus on "free" and not worry about the whales. That it a moral attitude more reminiscent of the age of slavery, when the privileged were also reminded not to worry about the slaves. After all, you are not a slave, are you? You still play this great game for free, right?

I do not pride myself in wanting to buy shoes made by child wage slaves in east Asia. I am not interested in saving a few Dollars on a smartphone and have the result being somebody jumping off a roof. I do not want that from my products. So when I look towards my gaming products, I do not want them to be exploitative towards other users, or its developers. It is certainly a naive wish in many ways, but there is no reason to turn into a cold-hearted cynic about it. Instead, speak out. f2p developers will have to learn to live with it.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.5 years ago
Ben Cousins, likened the attacks on free-to-play to past moral panics over pinball, rock n' roll, or the telephone.
And Mr. Cousins fails to understand those were moral panics over the content and devices themselves, not the business model behind them. Rock N Roll is a genre of music, not a sales model of music.

This is one of the more poor attempts to demonize the supporters of the standard sales model I've seen yet.

Does bait and switch happen with the standard model on some games? Sure, but it's built into the entire sales model with free to play. One requires a conscious decision by the publisher to trick gamers (bullshots, embargoed reviews, etc...), the other requires you to bait and switch by default as part of the sales model itself.

No sale, Mr. Cousins. I'm not buying what you're trying to sell me.
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This is a bait and switch commentary glorifying F2Pay
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Alex Comer Games Developer 5 years ago
The main problem with free to play is it places severe limitations on your game design, which don't exist when the player pays up front. That's nothing to do with moral panic, and it isn't snobbery to say wonderful games like Papers Please would never work with the F2P model. It's also clear F2P can be used to sell very good games, if the model is woven into the design with care.

The 'moral' problem is less clear cut: F2P sales techniques get some people to spend vastly more on a game than they would if they were asked to pay up front Ė vastly more than the $60 price of a traditional game. We must not stick our heads in the sand and assume these customers are all wealthy people who make a rational value judgement. Nobody would pay that much up front. For F2P to make money, it absolutely depends on the value proposition being obscure, and that surely can't be ethical.
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Dan Wood Visual Effects Artist 5 years ago
Well, I'm no industry-old-guard snob... I'm just a hobbyist with a passing amateur interest in game design.
I would consider myself a strong critic of "Free-2-Play" though (even the irritatingly euphemistic term itself)

I base my criticism not on fear of change, but on the plain and simple fact that so far, the vast majority of F2P games I have tried place "monetization" far ahead of actual game design when designing a game. Exceptions certainly exist - I had a blast with Hungry Shark Evolution, and felt like the monetization was definitely a secondary consideration behind actually making an engaging game... but the exceptions are very few and far between.

The whole unending debate surrounding F2P seems only to confirm the problem with it - it is a business model, and only a business model. The problem is that most people talking about it are holding it up as a way to design games. It's a complete fallacy that it constitutes an alternative way to design games. All it consitutes is a matter of choice for businessmen on how subtlely or aggressively to hamper game design. At the more intrusive end of the scale, it even starts to resemble something akin to negative design, as the aggressive monetization actually begins to inform the design process in place of game design, rather than just placing limits on it.
There is certainly cynicism in the "traditional" games industry too... plenty within the mega-publisher AAA world. But even at their worst, those practices seem to have far less direct effect on game design. At most it results in some content being culled and packaged as DLC.
(Then there's SimCity, where they actually did allow their cynicism to directly dictate the game design, and look how that turned out for them!) Even considering those caveats, in general there's still a much greater focus on actually making games as games, as opposed to cash-extraction-devices.

This argument is nonsense. Of course you can point to the worst examples of the model you're seeking to discredit and find fault. The problem with F2P, and the reason it attracts so many vocal detractors, is that even if you took an example entirely at random, the chances are high that it would typify everything that was wrong with it as a way to design games.
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I sure wished Cousins's Battlefield Heroes would of been a traditional pay game, that game had a TON of potential, but its focus and need to monetize every thing IMHO destroyed that game, (at least for me and my gaming buddies)

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 11th April 2014 4:07pm

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Caspar Field CEO & Co Founder, Wish Studios Ltd5 years ago
Matt! Someone beat you to it! :)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Caspar Field on 11th April 2014 5:29pm

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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext5 years ago
I often get the impression that many people donít really understand how the games business works. On this site (specifically) we should all be gaming professionals, and as such have a higher than normal understanding of the industry.

In the gaming industry, we develop/publish games in order to make money. Most (if not all of us) get paid to do the things needed to provide gaming entertainment. Most (if not all of us) are not getting rich doing this. We (the industry in general) put in many long hours, for low pay, all because we truly enjoy what we do. There are a lot of really great people in this industry, just trying to get by, and produce something that they can be proud off.

Having said this, the goal of any business is to make money... not lose it. This means that they employ busines models (P2P and F2P for example) in order to achieve this goal. If they didnít have to pay any employees, then they could surely achieve this goal without being as demanding on the customer.... but like I said earlier, most of us get paid (or try to) for this.

Free to Play works on a very simple principle. If you expose your potential customers to your product, they can judge it on its merits, and are more likely to spend the money. Building a free product creates extremely low cpa (but no ARPPU). The quality of the experience determines the ARPPU.

Pay to Play works on a very simple principle. If you convince your potential customer that your product is desirable/needed, they will pay you for the right to find out for themselves. Strong marketing provides the best/fastest returns. Word of mouth only becomes a factor in secondary sales, and only in proportion to the initial sales. (Most) games as a product have a short shelf life, and strong initial sales have a huge impact on the total sales of a game.

Both P2P and F2P have advantages/disadvantages. Competitive markets require that companies put monetization at the top of the list regardless of the model chosen. Companies that do not make enough money, do not last long enough to make a second game... or often support the first game. Making/Publishing games is a high risk business, and many companies fail.

P2P and F2P can both be great for the product, and the consumer. However, years of abusive P2P publishing models have created a consumer base that is highly motivated to try F2P games... specifically because of the 0 cost buy in. The vast majority of these consumers do not spend in F2P games, but the games themselves can still be profitable. No matter how much 'better' someone may believe P2P/F2P games to be, there will always be someone else that will disagree. The current push towards F2P has been driven by abuse from P2P games (conveniently forgotten). Some time in the future, there will be a pendulum effect caused by abuse from F2P games (and so on and so on). However, the reality is that a large portion of gaming content going forward is going to be F2P.

The last thing that you need to remember is this. The shape of F2P for the future will be determined by those that embrace it. As F2P is not going away, your options are to fight it (and have no say) or to embrace it (and shape the results).
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Dan Wood Visual Effects Artist 5 years ago
Most arguments I've seen in favour of F2P seem to rest upon the same fallacy that you're using here, namely that the old business model yields too little money for beleaguered devs who want only to pour their efforts into development, but can't afford to chase their dreams because they need to think about feeding their families first... and the answer to this is the mad-dash gold-rush that is the F2P business model!
What amounts to a cash-grab does not magically constitute a more sustainable long-term development environment. In the short term, it may very well pad the bottom line a little more effectively, and allow companies to continue to pay wages and have more left over at the end. But it has already created a even more ruthless and creatively-barren environment that the one it is claimed to be rescuing.
The demo/full-product model worked well, the shareware model worked well, and both gave the same benefits you claim is the big selling point of the F2P model, without the necessity to dictate and hamper the creative process. The prominence of F2P has nothing to do with providing customers this supposed benefit over the existing model, and everything to do with trying to squeeze more cash out of each customer, while doing everything possible to convince them it's for their own benefit.
I'm all for "embracing" a new model that provides either a genuine, tangible benefit to the consumer, or a genuine, tangible benefit to the developer, but F2P provides nothing besides short-term profit at the expense of creative freedom and long-term stability.

F2P is not a guaranteed new-age which people have to lovingly embrace or die stubbornly fighting. Every sign I've seen so far points to it being an ever-growing house of cards looking ever more likely to crumble and leave a hell of a lot of the developers, whose families its proponents so considerately claim to be helping feed, out of work entirely, and depending on the level of industry-wide adoption, potentially en masse too.

If you're in a creative industry, putting business before creativity is a very good way to rapidly end up creatively bankrupt, and financial bankruptcy is only a matter of time after you've spent all of that resource.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Dan Wood on 11th April 2014 9:37pm

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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany5 years ago
"critics of free-to-play ethics driven by fear and snobbery"

Only actual snobbery I see here are his words towards those critics. I also see lack of professionalism there.
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John Doyle Director, Game Services, United Front Games5 years ago
Hyperbole aside, neither retail nor F2P models are either inherently ethical or unethical. Any business model can be abused by the unscrupulous and I can point as many instances of misleading trailers and boxes in retail as I can to deceptive practices in F2P games. One thing that makes F2P games fundamentally different than traditional retail is that we, as developers, are working for tips. If you like the game, spend some money. If it doesn't catch your attention, you'll likely move on. That means successful F2P games require a dedication to the ongoing gamer experience that is quite rare in the retail space.
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Caspar Field CEO & Co Founder, Wish Studios Ltd5 years ago
It's not really about business, all this. It's about game design, and the affect F2P has had/ is having on that. But that's the conversation the F2P people don't want to have, and when you do try and have it, they start hurling insults like 'snob' around to avoid the discussion. Which I think is rather telling in itself...
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