The future of free-to-play games may look more than a bit like the past of premium. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at the Montreal International Game Summit this week, Glitchsoft CEO Andrew Fisher said he sees the industry shifting away from the consumable energy schemes popular in many free-to-play games, and toward a model that sounds more than a little like the old PC shareware model.
"You're going to start to see a pattern where they are starting to move more to durables," Fisher said, noting that publishers like Disney Interactive, Gameloft, and Electronic Arts have already taken some steps in that direction.
"[W]e can still fan it out as premium, but to hit the numbers we're trying to hit and the objectives we have with Marvel, really we want to start ratcheting it up into a different model."
Fisher said many publishers are already backing away from the consumable approach to free-to-play design, where users' purchases provide temporary boosts, like shortening timers or providing more health for characters. Glitchsoft's own Uncanny X-Men: Days of Future Past game launched earlier this year as a premium game with no in-app purchases, but an update next spring will see the core game made available for free, with additional expansion packs available for fans who want to pay to play through other storylines from the comic series.
"We still make money every day as premium," Fisher said. "It's not like it's not selling. And every market we take it to, we get a very warm response. So we can still fan it out as premium, but to hit the numbers we're trying to hit and the objectives we have with Marvel, really we want to start ratcheting it up into a different model."
Fisher said the approach has proven popular with fans. Even at its current $2.99 price point, Days of Future Past maintains a 4.5 star average customer rating on the App Store, with plenty of raves not just for the game but its lack of in-app purchases.
"What we're building is more of a chasis for us to be able to allow fans to experience different storylines within the X-Men universe, and the core fans are happy to pay for those things," Fisher said. "They don't want to be nickel-and-dimed. They don't want consumables, power-ups, energy, or gas. But when it's a value pack that gives them more experience for a one time [purchase]..., when you look at the reviews, they all say, 'We'd be happy if that's how you augmented your model.'"
"You can try [our model] with a minimum viable product, but I think what you're going to find is you're going to get lots of great data and lots of great fans, but you're not going to convert probably anything."
Beyond its fan-friendliness, the approach has other benefits for Glitchsoft. Without having to worry so much about monetization, designers can just focus on making the game fun. And while this durable free-to-play approach means the studio's minimum viable product might have to be a bit more fully realized than with a standard free-to-play title, it does relieve some of the live operations headaches, like doing early launches in a handful of countries to work out the monetization kinks.
The downside to the try-and-buy model is that it requires a significant investment in content up front. When Days of Future Past switches over to the model, it will have more than 5 hours worth of gameplay available in the initial free download.
"You can't just have an hour of (free) content," Fisher said. "You can try it with a minimum viable product, but I think what you're going to find is you're going to get lots of great data and lots of great fans, but you're not going to convert probably anything."
Fisher sees the move to free-to-play as just another strategy to overcome the big challenge in mobile: Discoverability. When the company launched in 2009, they worked on original intellectual property, and found that the games simply weren't getting enough attention to be successful. So they switched approaches, and began seeking high-profile brands to work with on licensed games.
The first of those licensed titles was He-Man: The Most Powerful Game in the Universe. It would eventually launch in October of 2012, but first Glitchsoft had to convince Mattel to entrust the studio with the brand.
"They really wanted to see that you understood the brand, the canon, the context, the system around the brand," Fisher said. "It's not just a guy running around with a sword. You have to understand the story, the context."
"Most of the brands we're going after are character action IPs, and that's not their core value point, to be exploitive."
To show Mattel just how well the studio understood that context, Glitchsoft put together an exhaustive 120-page proposal for the game.
"We provided them an incredible amount of detail about what we knew about the brand, how it would best be represented on mobile, and how we could leverage our skillset--both from an art style and gameplay perspective--that would map to those things," Fisher said.
Glitchsoft got the job, and switched its business model in the process. Fisher said the company may dabble in original side projects here and there for morale purposes, but the next 2-5 years is all about "helping brands engage in mobile." After He-Man and X-Men, Fisher said the company has a third such game on the way, one which has him working with his personal dream licensor.
In working with these licensors, Fisher says he's seen how sensitive the brand-holders are about their image, and how aware they are that exploitive mechanics may not be the best fit for their properties.
"Most of the brands we're going after are character action IPs, and that's not their core value point, to be exploitive," Fisher said. "In fact, the ones we tend to appreciate more as kids are the ones that have a classic good versus evil [theme]. And I would argue the exploitive monetization is the evil side, and the good monetization is something that treats your fans with respect."