Richard Bartle: "Free-to-play has a half-life"

The creator of the first virtual world predicts the decline of freemium games

The MMO pioneer Richard Bartle has claimed that the free-to-play business model has an inevitable "half-life" that will ultimately see it fall out of favour.

In a session at the Develop conference in Brighton, Bartle staged a vigorous debate with the prominent game consultant and free-to-play advocate Nicholas Lovell. While Bartle acknowledged that free-to-play was a "great revenue model" right now, various inherent qualities would undermine its popularity.

"It will start to tail off because the people who play the games will recognise when they're about to be nickled and dimed, and stop playing them," said Bartle, who was instrumental in the creation of MUD1, the first ever virtual world.

"It will start to tail off because the people who play the games will recognise when they're about to be nickled and dimed"

"It will tail off because there is a fixed amount of people willing to spend enormous amounts of money, and there's too much competition for those people.

"It will also tail off because the type of games people want to play will change. The more games you play the more sophisticated the content of the games you will want. And when you want a more sophisticated game, then the overlay of free-to-play will be more of a problem for you. You will get a more moral sense of fair play."

A common factor to these issues, Bartle said, is that contemporary implementations of the free-to-play model are inconsistent and difficult to predict. A game may task you with collecting 18 items, for example, and only on the collection of item 17 will you learn that the final one requires either a long wait or a cash payment. In another game, the specifics of the obstacle in the way of progress will be entirely different, and each manifestation will offend a certain kind of player.

"Until we normalise, which could take a few years, and we know what's being charged for, then it'll be the wild west," he said.

In response, Lovell put his faith in the creativity of the games industry, which he believes will eventually find solutions to the problems that Bartle fears will drive players away from free-to-play games. There will still be games that allow individuals to spend huge amounts of money, but egregiously manipulative tactics will slowly be eradicated.

"My sense is that the market will keep evolving," Lovell said. "Things that initially work against players will stop working; players will vote, with their attention and with their wallets, for games that treat them more respectfully.

"Most developers want you to play their games because they're fun, not because they subject you to cheap psychological tricks"

"To my mind what free-to-play does is broaden the market by being free up front. It enables creators to keep creating. And I don't think that has a half-life because I think the games industry is endlessly innovative, and the reason why we're at the forefront of making money from digital content when every other medium is dying is because we love tech, we love change, and we love experimenting and tinkering. I'm incredibly positive."

Bartle did not share Lovell's positivity, referencing the interests of another group of people that, until then, had largely been absent from the talk: game developers, who Bartle called, "the most important people in the industry." According to Bartle, the people who actually make games simply aren't happy, "with the kind of games they're now obliged to make."

"I think that new game designers will be less keen on free-to-play as a regular model because they've seen it's disadvantages," he said in summary.

"Most people working in the games industry are there because they like making games. They want you to play them because they're fun, not because they subject you to cheap psychological tricks. They want to say things through their games. They want to make money, of course, but money is a side issue."

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Latest comments (24)

Eric Leisy VR Production Designer, Nike7 years ago
Okay, now this - I LOVE. I love when an issue is so contentious and volatile that you can have two articles on the same front page claiming both that something will be the FUTURE and another article claiming that something is a burning out fad.

Look, I don't say this lightly - but I can't really stand free to play gaming... It's completely manipulative and everything about it's design is geared to empower it's ability to manipulate someone and set off a persons addictive tendencies, and prey on these tendencies. I don't believe that F2P games really make people HAPPY... I believe that they create addicts.

I wish this model would go away- but to say that it will is to say that people will suddenly stop caring about making money.
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Matthew Hardy Studying Multimedia/Game Design, ITT Technical Institute7 years ago
IMHO, the future of consumer gaming will be the Netflix model. There are too many developers making too many great games for the consumer to be stuck with a broken/frustrating piecemeal type of experience. Today, it's bundles - in the not too distant future, I think it'll be "pick from 2000 games, just $7.95 a month." There will be too much choice and no need for "free" games.
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James Brightman Editor, North America, GamesIndustry.biz7 years ago
Matthew, I tend to agree, but it's going to take some time since that model sorta needs cloud gaming to work, and too many people have horrible internet connections still.
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Show all comments (24)
Jamie Read 3D Artist, Neon Play Ltd7 years ago
I think both free-to-play and premium-priced models can coexist happily. Both have advantages and disadvantages.
For me, free-to-play falls down where you are going after these 'whales', which accounts for a tiny percentage of the player base. There are only so many of these people who exist and the more free-to-play games that come out, the thinner they will be spread. Either that or they gravitate towards the same handful of games.
I'm also not mad on the idea that players expect so much for nothing now. The price point of games (mostly on mobile) have lowered consumers willingness to spend any kind of money on great experiences, that is damaging and may be hard to recover from.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jamie Read on 9th July 2014 9:33pm

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I think Mathew is exactly right. The game service platform I think is where the industry hopefully goes.
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Jamie Read 3D Artist, Neon Play Ltd7 years ago
How would the money go back to the developer on a subscription-based game service platform?
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Rusty Buchert Executive Producer, WhiteMoon Dreams, Inc.7 years ago
Probably a timed catalogue/guarantee system similar to Netflix. They carry your content for x years/months and you get y dollars. If usage hits a certain amount/percentage over time additional performance payments. Thing is that this rewards megahits/big budget titles. As with a lot of the video platforms the little guys will get lost in the mix.

Other thing is that you will have content jumps between platforms like Netflix has had in the past. Why renew when you can get a better guarantee/performance payments else where.
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Kieren Bloomfield Software Engineer, EA Sports7 years ago
Netflix works because the content producers have made most of the money they'll make from their content before it gets released on Netflix. If everyone stops going to the movies and cancels their cable subscriptions (which some people are already doing) the whole thing will come crashing down. Sure it's currently a good deal for consumers but you can't sustain a system where the content producers can't earn a living. Take the arguments from artists about how much they get paid by spotify as an example. Do you think videogames could survive that?
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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext7 years ago
I truly enjoy articles like this... but not for the reason you would think.

Here we have respected sources providing what appear to be educated forcasts of what will happen in the future. Overall, I can follow thier logic, and understand why they feel that X or Y will happen, and what the variables are that will determine the result.

Here is the fun part (and why I like these articles). They have made a very logical case using facts that they did not know were incorrect, and nobody bothered to tell them. It isnt that they didnt do an excellent job of putting the pieces together, and coming to a conclusion that helps move the discussion forward... it is that they did all of this without being aware that their foundation concepts were wrong (and as such didnt have bearing on the end result).

Let me give a simple example. Developers dont decide business model. Consumers dont make that decision either. Business model decisions are made by the financial backers. Sure, they can listen to the developer, and they can take consumer feedback into consideration.... but they dont actually have too. If someone has the money to develop and publish a game, they can decide that thier business model is to publish the game in latin, and only accept gold as payment for the game. The developer will laugh and make the game. The consumers will laugh and never buy it.... but this only happned, because the person with the money made the decision.

Today games are (mostly) not made by self funded development teams. There is a need for capitol investment, and as such, someone other than the developers gets to make the rules. It is silly to praise/blame the developer for the choice of business model, as they are very seldomly the person actually making the decision.

There are similar misunderstandings of why consumers desire F2P, and what makes it financially viable. If someone sat down and explained all of these things to Mr Bartle, it is likely that he would come to a different conclusion.

I am sure most of us can agree that F2P is a hot fad right now... and that there is bound to be some correction (I am a firm supporter of F2P, but even I can see that some people have gone over the edge). However, the question of when this will happen, and what the results will be still seem to be unclear. If people had a better understanding of the facts, it might lead to better forecasts.
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Shane Sweeney Academic 7 years ago
eSports future is probably steeped in F2P. That's the killer App of F2P design currently.

Not sure I've seen many other examples that benefit the game design though. Maybe the Unfolding genre? I'm sure their will be others.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Shane Sweeney on 9th July 2014 10:23pm

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Matthew Hardy Studying Multimedia/Game Design, ITT Technical Institute7 years ago
For shits and giggles, let's do some overly simple math and assumptions. A million subscribers at $8 a month with a 50/50 revenue split. $8 million/2000 games*0.5 = $2000 per game per month. A Dev with 3 games in the system would make $6000 a month/$72,000 a year. Not enough for a team of more than 2 to live on but decent for the former.
A better revenue split, less games, more subscribers, and/or charging extra for new releases could make that system viable. It certainly seems a better model than the bundles model, IMHO.
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent7 years ago
I agree with Bartle, and with Eric up there.

The primacy or ethos of F2P is not enjoyment, but to create a normative state of addiction, a state in which the human brain is willing to bargain cost versus one more BF Skinner food pellet. It uses powerful psychological models to hook, addict and manipulate its victims––

victim – ˈvɪktɪm
a person who is tricked or duped.

––and like other historical instances in which initially impulsive, subsequently compulsive tendencies are manipulated by unscrupulous profiteers, it's only a matter of time before a line is drawn by the affected. A line that falls short of profitability.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters7 years ago
@Brian Lewis - Unless they find another publisher or go to Kickstarter.
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Tuomas Pirinen Head of Design, Remedy Entertainment7 years ago
I think it will be interesting to see at the end of this year if the popularity of World of Tanks, LoL, DotA2, Clash of Clans, P&D and other high-profile F2P games has gone up or down, and how the overall games market is trending. Will be interesting to see how accurate Bartle's predictions are.
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Bartle talks some good common sense, for those that can afford with disposable income vs teens/younger kids...there will be tiers of apps/games that appeal.

I am HAPPY to pay for a good quality game, with ZERO barriers to access within the game.
If there were a great high quality Free to play game that can do well in the long term, but we have yet to see any really decent ones without artificial monetization barriers. Perhaps MMOs are a good field to expand F2P. imagine if Final Fantasy online was F2P!
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Christopher Bowen Editor in Chief, Gaming Bus7 years ago
@James/Matthew: Wasn't the "netflix" model already tried? Didn't they call it GameTap, before GameTap started to suck?
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@Tuomas: With that short a time horizon, I think we can pretty definitively answer that question (up or down) now, there's nothing that's going to happen in the next 6 months that's going to alter the trend line. And you can't really judge on individual games, but the F2P category as a whole.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Jon Kimmich on 10th July 2014 7:30pm

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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 7 years ago
When making arguments like this, it's always good to look for things that appear to contradict your conclusion in some way and see whether in light of these your conclusion needs revision, or whether there's an explanation for the existence of these apparent contradictions.

In this particular case, I think the argument he was making (wittingly or not) was not about F2P itself, but F2P in MUD games. If you look at another genre, PVP combat, you find large contradictions. (I'll use World of Tanks as an example, because that's the F2P PVP combat game with which I'm most familiar.)

1. "...the people who play the games will recognise when they're about to be nickled and dimed, and stop playing them."

WoT doesn't nickel-and-dime you, except perhaps in the one circumstance where you're a poor player and trying to compensate with a lot of premium ammo (which incidentally will not give you enough of an advantage to beat players better than you). Any decent player in WoT will never need to spend gold (which costs real-world money) on consumable items because in the course of normal play you earn enough credits (in-game currency) to easily buy all the consumables you need and more. The only things on which you'll need to spend gold instead of credits are a premium membership (if you wish the 50% XP and silver earnings bonus) and for premium tanks, which are one-time purchases. (Incidentally, again, premium tanks are generally less powerful than the standard tanks in the game.)

WoT does regularly sell consumables packages (including both consumable items themselves and the credits that can be earned through play), and these are widely considered amongst good players to be poor purchases, simply because they are utterly unnecessary except to help less-skilled players "catch up."

2. "...there is a fixed amount of people willing to spend enormous amounts of money, and there's too much competition for those people."

The underlying assumption here is that you need a fair number of players who spend a large amount of money. This doesn't appear to be true for WoT, where $200/year (the price of three or four AAA games) will get you what's basically the "deluxe" edition (a year of premium membership, a tier VIII premium tank, and a handful of lower-tier premium tanks). Spending more rapidly leads you to the point where you have nothing left on which to spend your gold: there are only so many premium tanks in the game (perhaps $1000 worth) and, as above, buying consumables, unless you're a very poor player, will simply leave you with large stocks of them that you can never hope to use in a reasonable length of time.(I've personally hit very nearly this point with WoT, and I've spent $1200 or so on it in the past two and a half years.)

This point does depend, of course, on what you consider an "enormous" amount of money. $200/year is a large amount compared to what you normally spend on AAA games, but then again, it's easy to put more hours in to WoT in a year than in to four or five traditional AAA games, so the cost seems comparable.

3. "...when you want a more sophisticated game, then the overlay of free-to-play will be more of a problem for you. You will get a more moral sense of fair play."

WoT is a clear counter to this.

First of all, it's a very deep game; I've heard it characterized as "the chess of shooters," which is not at all unfair. To think of the game as being about aiming and shooting is akin to thinking of soccer as being just about kicking the ball: it's a necessary skill, but not what wins or loses games. WoT is very much about thinking ahead and having your tank in the right location and doing the right thing, and what that is varies hugely depending on what tank you're driving, just as the roles of chess pieces differ.

Second, because of the massive advantage to be gained from being more skilled in positoning, increasing the capabilities of individual tanks does not help you much, if at all, against a superior player. In fact, superior players in low-tier light tanks are already beating players in high-tier heavy tanks (with far more armour and hit points, and which do far more damage) simply by manoeuvre, tilting the battlefield situation in their favour. In WoT you can pay to win a little bit more than you otherwise would, but no matter how much you spend, you're not going to get far unless you learn to play, and if you know how to play, you don't need to spend at all to win consistently. (You need pay only to more quickly have a greater variety of tanks to play with, not there isn't already a huge variety you can easily unlock in a short time without paying a cent.)

4. "...contemporary implementations of the free-to-play model are inconsistent and difficult to predict. A game may task you with collecting 18 items, for example, and only on the collection of item 17 will you learn that the final one requires either a long wait or a cash payment."

This is obviously false with WoT. You can always see exactly what you're going to get if you pay or don't pay.

There are of course types of games where F2P is probably a poor fit for trying to recover your development costs. (EA's recent Dungeon Keeper debacle is a good example of how F2P can make a game go wrong.) That doesn't mean that F2P isn't a good fit for other areas. For a PVP battle game like WoT it does seem a good fit as it's both easy to set up attractive things on which to spend money without giving significant gameplay advantage and the much larger audience you can attract is a clear and direct benefit from the game itself. (You might actually think of most players in WoT being "paid" to play the game, albeit paid in entertainment value, and that non-paying majority being part of the product==a large and vibrant community--that's sold to the smaller number of paying players.)

The success of other F2P PVP battle games (such as DOTA and Team Fortress 2) supports the idea that in this area, F2P can work, and work well.

Incidentally, that his argument should be so poorly supported or argued is pretty shocking for a university researcher.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Curt Sampson on 10th July 2014 7:48pm

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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext7 years ago
@ Dave Herod

Publishers are a source of money, which tends to follow the same line of thinking... what business model will get me the best returns on my investment. Historically this has not worked well for many developers, as the publisher takes control of the game, and does what they will with it.

As for KickStarter. it is a great way for developers to both get money for thier product, as well as get word out about it. However, it has its own downfalls: There isnt any gaurentee that you will get what you want (pay first, chance of product later), and most offerings highly favor big spenders, so even if you do get what you wanted... you may find yourself unhappy with it, because of what others got.

The bottom line is that the market is self correcting. Companies that dont make money go under. Those that do survive. Eventually the companies that follow practices that are sustainable will dominate the market. We are seeing this in the market right now.

F2P, P2P, etc are business models. They are methods to get money for a product. They dont determine the quality of the product. The right match of business model with the produt/service has the best chance of making the most money.However, it doesnt really change the quality of the product.
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Eric Leisy VR Production Designer, Nike7 years ago
Hmm. I have a little trouble with your line of thought that says the F2P business model doesnt influence the product. This is where my issue with F2P takes hold, I do believe that F2P influences the quality of a game. Some examples of this in action are games that start out subscription based, say Bioware's Starwars MMO - and then later transitions to F2P: It makes for a rough transition because the idea of monetarily gating a game / narrative experience that was not structured for F2P becomes awkward and unnatural . It takes a LOT of work to ret-conn these experiences.

F2P inherently influences the pacing of a game in some shape or form. It influences so many aspects of a game. As a developer, if I'm figuring out how to gate access to material, create situations that would influence the player psychology and make it worthwhile for the player to spend additional current- thats time im not spending on enriching the game world.
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One has to factor in that there is an entire generation of gamers who have already grown to expect games to be free. I'm talking about kids aged 7-15 who play mostly on mobile and for them F2P is the norm. In their experience 70 EUR for a game upfront seems ridiculous. In 5-10 years those kids are 20 somethings that make up the most active segment of gamers.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Kim Soares on 11th July 2014 10:39am

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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game7 years ago
Apart from all the 7-15 year olds playing Minecraft? Obviously there are a lot of kids only playing free games, but it's not the whole generation. There are a lot of kids in that age group who not only want the paid for Minecraft, they will also buy the tablet (£4 so premium for mobile) version on top of the console/pc (or in some case both) versions.

I also know a lot of kids in that age range playing a range of console games, although I wouldn't point my 9 year old towards CoD, a lot of his peers do play it. He loves the Lego games, which he knows aren't free. On tablet he mainly does get free stuff, because he has to jump through hoops to spend his pocket money on the device.

Children are used to some games being free, but all the ones into gaming as more than a time waster know that not all the games they want to play are.
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Ultimately F2P is never free, it has to monetize or crumble. And that in itself means there will be barriers to full Acess to a game that can be had paid up front

Why not go the guild wars approach . Small affordable up front fee forever
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Tuomas Pirinen Head of Design, Remedy Entertainment7 years ago
Guild Wars 2 has a cash shop in addition to the up-front cost. Just to clarify, is this the model you are advocating?
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