Fireproof: Free-to-play isn't giving players 'what they want'

The Room dev argues that the data points towards a vast number of dissatisfied players

Fireproof Games's Barry Meade has issued a blunt jeremiad to what he sees as a mobile gaming industry hurtling towards creative irrelevance due to its reliance on data.

In an article published on Polygon, Meade lamented the reality that Fireproof's The Room franchise is an extremely rare exception in mobile gaming: standalone experiences that earn good revenue from paid downloads.

"In a market as huge as mobile how the fuck are Fireproof among the only makers of premium games that saw this kind of success?" Meade asked, citing data indicating low levels of engagement (66 per cent of mobile games are not played beyond the first 24 hours) and incredibly small numbers of paying customers (two to three per cent) as evidence that the dominant free-to-play model is not providing quality entertainment to the market

"This is a statistically insignificant amount of happy gamers and nothing that gives you a basis to make claims about 'what people want'. I think it just as likely that mobile's orgy of casual titles is due to simple bandwagon-ism or, in other words, not knowing what people want.

"This is a statistically insignificant amount of happy gamers and nothing that gives you a basis to make claims about 'what people want'"

"So it bothers me to hear game developers talking as if casual games are the new paradigm on mobile when so very few developers are actually happy with the games as they are, and mobile gamers clearly seem to "care" least of all. Free-to-play and casual titles should be a part of a greater gaming ecosystem, but right now they are the entirety of it on mobile."

For further evidence, Meade pointed towards the top-ten grossing charts, which are dominated by an unchanging crop of huge titles that do little more than trade their relative positions of dominance. To the public, however, these "ten cute grinding games that are clones of each other" seem like the best the industry has to offer, and continue to reap the vast majority of the rewards.

"The free-to-play model itself serves a million uses to developers and gamers, I've chucked lots of time and money into World of Tanks, Warhammer Quest and many others myself - the model is not the problem," Meade continued.

"The problem is more general, that taken as a whole the games industry is making mobile games that nobody cares about available to millions of players for nothing. Free-to-play producers chime that quality levels are obviously fine, 'If it's making money it's objectively good, see?'

"Well no, not quite, shit sells by the ton every day. In the real world Burger King doesn't get three Michelin stars. Burger King gets to be happy with its revenue not its reviews, and our industry's inability to see the difference will only pull us further into our creative vacuum."

The dominance of the free-to-play model in mobile continues to be divisive, and there are certainly counterpoints to Meade's take on the matter - most notably from Ben Cousins, who has argued the relative merits of free-to-play both at conferences and in the press. However, Meade is far from alone in his doubt, and that includes developers who have spent years working with the free-to-play model.

"I don't think its radical for the industry to start listening to the 98 percent of mobile gamers out there saying 'I don't care'"

At Casual Connect Europe this year, The Workshop's Laralyn McWilliams gave a talk in which she warned the industry about mistaking data for an emotional connection. "There's no measuring spoon for love. You can't quantify it," she said. "Retention is not the same as happiness."

Meeting with GamesIndustry International after her talk, McWilliams expressed very real concern that the amount of money being made is masking the negative connections created by free-to-play games, and the possible long-term damage that could result from that relationship.

"The moment that you monetise in Candy Crush you're probably extremely frustrated. You want to get past this level you've failed to complete 40 or 50 times, and that's the moment you spend. But mixed into that moment where you spend is that frustration. It's building a bad connection. I'm not monetising at a positive moment."

Meade concludes his argument with perhaps the most salient point of all: "The audience knows better than all of us and if our mobile public truly does signal 'I care' through purchasing, I don't think its radical for the industry to start listening to the 98 per cent of mobile gamers out there saying 'I don't care'."

The full version of the article is over on Polygon, and it's well worth your time.

More stories

The Room franchise has passed 11.5 million sales

Fireproof Games reflects on one of mobile's few premium success stories

By Matthew Handrahan

The Room franchise has sold 5.4 million

"Without spending any money on marketing or PR or analysts or analytics"

By Rachel Weber

Latest comments (21)

Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief7 years ago
It is a well written article but I don't understand who Barry is aiming at:
- the audience, who are basically refusing to pay for premium games, except for limited exceptions, especially if you exclude ports from the PC like Football Manager, Xcom, FTL and Frozen Synapse (The Room, Ridiculous Fishing, Monument Valley). Well it seems to me as if they are very unlikely to start paying for games upfront en masse again.
- the developers: well, it's not as if there is a dearth of devs dying on their arses by releasing paid games that are "all about the quality" and discovering that the market is really, really, really tough for getting noticed as a paid game.
- the publishers: maybe, but they know that in a crowded market, building an audience who will stick with you for months or years is way more valuable than taking a vast punt on a single pricing opportunity.

I do think we need more creativity. I think we need less cloning. I think we need a better understanding of how we can build great games with a repeatable model that makes money for everyone involved.

But as Barry himself says: it's not the model, it's the implementation.
6Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Just because 98% don't pay doesn't mean that same 98% doesn't care.

Donít conflate non-paying users with unhappy ones ("This is a statistically insignificant amount of happy gamers and nothing that gives you a basis to make claims about 'what people want'").

Assuming you accept the stats in this article, 66%-not-played-beyond-24-hours means 34% did play again. For some games thatís millions of players Ė all happy to play a game theyíre having fun with Ė and mostly happy to do so for free. As for 66% dropping out early, is that surprising in a world where thereís just about an endless supply of free games? It doesnít mean those games are necessarily bad. What it does mean is thereís intense competition.

As members of this industry we all want to make money out of it, but itís wrong to assume that because the majority of your players arenít paying, theyíre unhappy. Quite the opposite for lots of them IMO.

The real statistically insignificant number: people making good money out of paid games.

Congratulations and good luck to Fireproof / The Room, but by enjoying success in premium-mobile theyíre in a tiny minority and thatís not about to change.

Free is where itís at - embrace it, improve it, itís not going away.
6Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Matthew Handrahan European Deputy Editor, GamesIndustry.biz7 years ago
As the comments here start to warm up, I'd just like to encourage everyone to read the full version of Barry's article. As Nick points out, it's very well written and certainly provocative, but I wasn't able to articulate all of his points or, indeed, all of the figures he uses in his argument.
5Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (21)
Mark Hardisty CEO & Founder, No Yetis Allowed7 years ago
I'm sure when I played The Room, (which is a great game by the way) that the first version I played was a Lite (free) version - with a 'buy to unlock the rest' structure...... Has my memory got the better of me?
Surely, that's a f2p version?

(I may be wrong of course - and just straight up paid for it - but my memory still says "Lite version")
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd7 years ago
I agree with Nicholas, I'm not sure who this article will change. But it does voice a frustration I have as a person who regularly looks for great mobile games and comes away disappointed. At the end of the day yes, I have found some awesome experiences on mobile (World of Goo, The Room (1 and 2), Osmos, etc), but if you asked me what my top 20 mobile games were not a single one would be F2P. Nothing feels more disposable or less meaningful to me, and I find that sad, because that's clearly where the industry is.

So sure, maybe he won't change anything, but I'm glad to hear my frustrations articulated so well. My interest in mobile games continues to die faster and faster as the market becomes more reliant on frankly terrible F2P money sinks. I just have no interest in experiencing more of these games.
5Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
F2P done well will do well, everything else will probably be tasteless like ash :)

I like this quote of many quotable quotes in the full article
The irony is that the very people who tell you your game won't sell are exactly the kind who will copy the shit out of it once it does. They donít deal in dreams, imagination is not their forte. Are we really surprised that they cling to numbers?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dr. Chee Ming Wong on 12th May 2014 3:36pm

2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd7 years ago
@Nicholas - I think it's aimed at developers and publishers who have perhaps taken on board the Everything Has To Be Free mantra without weighing up the pros and cons for their specific situation.

That list of exceptions is starting to sound like the old "what have the Romans done for us" sketch, isn't it? Players are rejecting premium games except in the exceptional cases where they're well made ones that offer something they want. (Surprise!) Over a million downloads for The Room (which is by no means the best performing premium mobile game) sounds like a pretty sizeable audience to me.

I'll concede that the number of those niches is finite and the risk is typically greater, but you've said yourself that the platform holders feature premium games disproportionately often, compared to where they appear in the Top Grossing charts.

I think the level of fear, uncertainty and doubt dominating the discourse (most loudly by those focused on short term gain - analysts, the tech press) is disproportionate. The fact that the same arguments are being made as a couple of years ago when the mobile market reorganises itself every few months also makes me think a lot of this is conventional wisdom formed when F2P was the coming wave rather than a rising crapflood.

I do disagree with the assertion in the article that the F2P model intrinsically has to clash with the design of the game. Some of the most successful F2P games have a very light touch to monetisation. And as Pete says, the free players that stick around are having fun. And I think that making things free has a lot more value that Barry assumes, if you aim at trying to engage an audience rather than churning through users blindly. (In Minecraft's case a lot of the initial buzz and momentum was undoubtedly helped by limited/alpha versions being available free early on.)

We're going to carry on making F2P mobile games in the main, and would only consider premium in exceptional circumstances - but those circumstances do exist. And as the PC gaming resurgence continues (which also blindsided most analysts), I expect the viable options will become more diverse.

It is a lot easier for some random entrepreneur with no games experience to commission yet another Clash of Clans clone than it is to make a game that requires original research under any monetisation model. If we remove this large band of random noise from our picture we'd get a much more useful idea of what works.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
My main point is about bad mobile games and the rot they can cause and not actually about f2p, beyond saying f2p as a process helps spread these really bad games very far and wide and yes does drown out superior games. I dont believe something making money is automatically better than something that does not, most especially if its been given away for free in order to kill the urge to pay for a rival game that might look better. Free wins every time, we get it. But the overall effect is that statistically nobody thinks mobile games are now something worth paying for. You know, like they pay for paper clips, or post-it notes, or music tracks on itunes. Culturally, mobile gaming is where video games were in 1970.

I don't feel the need to write yet another article celebrating this, I read too much of them already.
27Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Rob Dodd Technical Director, Fireproof Studios Ltd.7 years ago

You're probably thinking of The Room Pocket, which was the iPhone version of the original game. You're right - it was free with IAP after the tutorial to buy the rest of the game.

The reason for that was purely technical. The App Store didn't let us prevent people buying the game on the iPhone 4 (which it doesn't work on), so we made it free to prevent anyone spending money on something that they couldn't play. We'd much rather have made it premium (or, as we did with The Room Two, Universal)

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Rob Dodd on 12th May 2014 5:11pm

5Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext7 years ago

Thank youy for clarifying. I think we would all like to see great games.

As for F2P. It is as much a marketing strategy, as it is a business model. It helps games get more visibility, but it doesnt affect the quality of the game. Perhaps there should be better filtering mechanisms (than just sales) for games based on quality.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Neow Shau Jin Studying Bachelor in Computer Science, Universiti Sains Malaysia7 years ago

I don't have an Apple device, but how does the IAP works? if it is just one time payment to unlock the later level of the game, then I wouldn't lump it into Free-to-play, it is a free trial/demo that can be upgraded to full version of the game, a model that exist long before free-to-play.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Andy Payne Chair/founder, AppyNation7 years ago
I read Barry's article on Polygon and thought it was well written and well meant. I agree with most of it.

But my simple rule in life is that there is no 'one' way of doing anything really. F2P can work on a small(er) scale than conventional wisdom suggests, depending on what your expectations/needs are, but you do need vast amounts of players and you need to keep them entertained, else it is all a waste of breath. And getting players is a challenge without a decent budget.

Equally, there is a paid game market in mobile and I would like to think over time that also becomes viable for players who are payers based on the game's reputation .

We need variety, choice and originality. Digital distribution gave us all that. I am sure it will continue to do that, whether it is on mobile devices or bigger screens.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
I find that mobile games...are just too small on the current form factor to be fairly enjoyable, whereas the phablet or a ipad mini is just about right for a portable game
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Kevin Corti Product Manager - Games, Mobile, Odobo7 years ago
I worry that when we debate the state of mobile gaming and F2P that we often make the error of mixing up 'gamers with mobile devices' (a small % of the market by user numbers) and 'all people with mobile devices that also use them to play games'. The variation in expectations, desires, requirements, game literacy, reasons to play and propensity to pay are huge.

A central issue, for me, is that the distribution and discovery channels are aimed at the mass audience (where data-driven, design for volume, F2P and mass marketing always win) whereas the channels for discovery of games that would suit those people who are more 'hardcore' (in a very general sense) gamers don't really exist. Certainly there is/are no 'go-to' channels where the more educated/selective gamers the world over would know to use. If we can provide 'gamers' with a better way to find what they want (e.g. to be confident of a novel, high quality experience, challenging game-play, premium pricing and/or no advertising perhaps), then developers that want to specifically target those audiences could do so. Right now that is exceptionally difficult and hence causes an awful amount of frustration and anger among developers and some players.
6Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments7 years ago
I think we made a major mistake even allowing HTML5 games to be classified as games.
Of course they're games. The term is perfectly broad enough to encompass them. The issue is the one Kevin Corti highlights - allowing discovery of games at both ends of the spectrum.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd7 years ago
Excellent insight Kevin. A separate level of discoverability is really needed for enthusiast gamers who aren't looking for Bejeweled and Temple Run clones.
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
"Certainly there is/are no 'go-to' channels where the more educated/selective gamers the world over would know to use. If we can provide 'gamers' with a better way to find what they want"

I used to read gaming magazines when I was a teen, as did all other gamers. My teenage kids do not read any gaming magazines, not in paper, not online. They might pick up a new game from some Youtube video, like PewDiePie. Mostly it's word of mouth that gets younger generation to download a game and I would argue that's increasingly true for adults as well.

I see very little benefit in having your game in Pocket Gamer, 148Apps etc. as majority of people do not read those. It's sad in a sense, but I do not see it changing back to the way it used to be in the olden days.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
As a business decision it would be quite a leap of faith to make a premium game for mobile platform. Just look at the rankings. In US AppStore Blek is top1 paid in all categories, including all apps / overall. You cannot get any better than that. In top US grossing... Games 73, Overall 90. Even if you have the best selling paid app, it will barely get you into top100 grossing.

There are many examples of paid games making it big, but even the biggest paid games do not come even close to the F2P.

It's same with the music, people hardly pay anymore, maybe for a Spotify subscription but that's it. Who pays for daily newspaper to be delivered to home? People read their news online and do not want to pay anything.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 7 years ago
People are starting to get wise to FTP and the inevitable IAP it hides. Instead they simply waiting for those extra lives to regenerate or for that power bar to re-fill. They are also tuning out far quicker when hit with those "Buy extra lives to continue" screens that manifest. Uninstalling soon after seeing the all too inevitable game over screen due to a lapse of luck and not skill.
It's like any find the lady con. Eventually enough people get wise to it that they start to spread the word. "IAP is evil. You are throwing your money away!" is the cry of the once bitten housewives and casual gamers these things depend so closely on. The days of free money from free to play are dwindling faster than a ice lolly in the Sahara. Investors in the likes of King will soon be either bailing for their lives or handing in the shirts they have lost.

Still....the con has a year or so left in it before it's milked dry and it's not like anyone doing free to play with IAPs (note I'm deliberately not including those that are ad supported) has a conscience in the first place. After all it's their livelihood to sell you the emperor's new clothes again and again with cries of "WHAT!! You're naked you say! Gosh my fine gossamer weaves of gold must have simply blown away in that breeze, so fine was the matter I have another you may buy!"
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
@Peter: F2P and IAP are not going away. Not in a year or so, not ever. The genie is out and you cannot, even if you wanted, put it back in the bottle.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Rogier Voet IT Consultant 7 years ago
I don't think F2P is going away. The biggest risks for F2P is legislation, because it's very easy to mislead customers. The part that most game company's tend to ignore is the brutal rule: if the majority of games is free, your game won't stand out because it's free. And if the most of the game industry keeps focusing on F2P-games it will create the dangerous sentiment that games is entertainment you don't have to pay for. That trend destroyed the sales of music and it will destroy the sales of paid games.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.