Free-to-play stigma unlikely to fade away soon - Celtic Heroes dev

One Thumb Mobile's Paul Simon also sees more and more AAA gaming experiences coming to mobile

For as successful as the free-to-play business model has become in Western markets, the elephant in the room for many players and developers is the perception that freemium is nothing more than a thinly veiled monetization scheme, designed to maximize micro-transactions from so-called whales rather than putting a focus first on fun. This stigma associated with free-to-play was brilliantly demonstrated in a recent episode of South Park, which underscored why the business model still faces an uphill battle for mainstream acceptance.

Speaking to recently, Paul Simon, Executive Producer at One Thumb Mobile, a Scottish studio focused on bringing MMOs to the mobile market, stressed that while things are improving, perceptions can often take a while to change.

"It's unlikely the free-to-play stigma will fade away from Western gamers anytime soon. There's a lot of psychology at play regarding fairness and free-to-play that isn't an issue to gamers in Eastern markets where the model originated," he said. "Free-to-play is changing and adapting for Western audiences. We're likely to continue to see more and more players warm up to free-to-play -- especially since it has become the dominant market strategy, and many gamers haven't known anything else. This has been going on for the last five or so years, and it's unlikely to swing the other way suddenly. People like free stuff!"

"In the next few years... we're going to see more and more AAA-quality games on mobile and a change in core gamer opinions on mobile games"

Simon added that the negativity from players generally stems from games that have been designed unfortunately as "pay to win" experiences. Fairness with premium items is key. "To have a successful free-to-play strategy, players need to see your premium items as fair and obtainable. If you sell the best weapons and armour in your item shop, you might have great short term sales -- but you won't be able to keep players long term without very aggressive content update schedules," Simon added.

Where frequent content updates will help, however, is with the operation of an MMO. Most MMO players are PC gamers by nature, but One Thumb Mobile believes it has an opportunity to attract that audience and remain profitable while doing so.

The mobile MMO Celtic Heroes has been on iOS since 2011 and it arrived on Android earlier this year. Now One Thumb Mobile is overhauling it with a new engine called Destiny, built on Unity. It helps that much of the team isn't new to MMOs in general, having worked on titles like Runescape, Lord of the Rings Online and others.

"Experience from other MMO studios has helped influence our development. Our planning and documentation has gotten much better, and people have brought in tons of great ideas for future development such as our upcoming mounted combat and crafting systems -- both of which have been heavily influenced by sandbox MMOs. Since we're a mobile studio, we're expected to produce content much faster than a traditional MMO. We've dropped the idea of yearly expansion packs in favour of smaller more regular feature releases based on feedback from our players," Simon noted.


A screen from the Destiny engine update

He added that One Thumb Mobile has been incredibly careful with its cost structure, as any MMO project can balloon out of control easily. "MMOs are complex and expensive projects that can cost tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands a month to run. One Thumb Mobile is in a fairly unique position that we're an independent MMO studio. We started off with a very small team and grew along with the success of Celtic Heroes -- reinvesting our earnings to grow from 5 to over 25 employees in three years. Staff should be your biggest overhead, so making sure to get the right people that are passionate about the project and not overspending on large fixed costs like massive server farms or an expansive studio right away can help keep your initial costs low," he said.

While Simon fully acknowledges that mobile MMOs are currently "very much a niche within the mobile gaming market," he's optimistic that more and more players are seeking out core gaming experiences.

"The expectations of mobile gamers changes much faster compared to other platforms. As the power and performance of mobile devices continues to grow, players will be demanding bigger games, better graphics and a deeper experience," he said.

"As this demand for less casual mobile titles increases, a small number of mobile MMOs have found success... we've got a loyal community of players who are looking for a AAA MMO experience on mobile. Our biggest hurdles are convincing traditional MMO players that we can provide a better experience than a desktop MMO and teaching a more casual mobile audience about how much fun they can have with an MMO like Celtic Heroes."

The ever accelerating pace of mobile hardware technology is definitely allowing game developers to create more sophisticated experiences, and that's going to help out studios who want to create core titles, Simon said.

"Once you find something that works, build on it! It's difficult to express how important polish and userflow are on mobile and free-to-play games"

"In the next few years... we're going to see more and more AAA-quality games on mobile and a change in core gamer opinions on mobile games. In the short term, discoverability is likely to remain the biggest challenge. While it can be a curse, it can also be a blessing -- since an indie studio with a really great game can be just as successful as a massive publisher that has for the most part still only dipped their toes into the marketplace because the pace of change is so fast," Simon continued.

Indeed, making a great game remains a crucial factor for indies, said Simon: "My top tips for new indie developers would be: make a great game and don't be afraid to try new things. We've tested many different styles of quests, items, premium items, sales and events. Some of them have been really successful, but you're going to fail a few times before you find what really works for your game. Once you find something that works, build on it! It's difficult to express how important polish and userflow are on mobile and free-to-play games.

"You have a very short window to sell your game, and you're probably not going to get a second chance. If you have new, innovative ideas, test them out with a small prototype and analyze the player reaction and uptake."

And if the experience is really solid, marketing will almost take care of itself. "For the first two years of development, we didn't do any marketing or user acquisition for Celtic Heroes. All of our users were organic and 'word of mouth' downloads. We focused on what made us stand out from the crowd: a true 3D MMO that rivals desktop gameplay and fits in your pocket. If you can bring something new to the platform and create sticky gameplay, it is much easier to get downloads than if you were to stick to an existing game formula," Simon said.

More stories

Hyperbeard pays FTC penalty for using kids' data without consent

Full $4 million penalty reduced to $150,000 due to Hyperbeard's inability to pay

By Matthew Handrahan

Playrix acquires Croatian PC developer Cateia Games

Cateia shifts to mobile development, rebranded Playrix Croatia

By Haydn Taylor

Latest comments (6)

Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext5 years ago
I am not sure that any 'stigma' for F2P is valid. I would compare to the 'stigma' associated with sugar. Sure, too much of it is not good for you, but it is consumed by the mass market as a regular part of their diet. Any business model can be bad in extreme... but with a little moderation (and/or common sense) a business model can be a good thing for everyone.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Jeremiah Moss Software Developer 5 years ago
You know, I don't think the stigma was really ill-deserved. A lot of F2P games really were bad experiences, and yes absolutely going F2P fundamentally changes the game design. It had a rough start, and it's very tempting to let monetization be the basis for all of your decisions.

I've got a character in World of Warcraft (WoW). So I know what it's like to play a game that isn't F2P.

I've also played games such as World of Tanks (WoT), Clash of Clans on my iPhone, Farmville on Facebook, etc, that are centered around the F2P model.

The difference is very striking.

In WoW, leveling is actually surprisingly fast. Some players made it to level 100 within 24 hours of the release of the newest expansion, Warlords of Draenor. Most players can probably crank out a level a day, so you can probably hit max level in a couple weeks.

In addition to that, we have what's called a "Garrison," which has a lot of content for professions, a follower mini-game of sorts, and acts as a quest hub.

In the F2P games, all of the Garrison features would be wrapped into a dual currency system, with lots of stuff locked behind the for-pay currency. Also, with F2P games, I would be leveling at an absolutely abysmally slow rate unless I paid for boosts with cash. I've been playing World of Tanks for over a year, and have yet to purchase my first tier 10 tank.

With World of Warcraft, it's a different story. There is no for-pay currency. Garrison items are all reasonably priced with the in-game currency. Leveling will probably be a couple weeks for most people, and Blizzard has prepared end game content for those who hit max level. I personally am at level 99, and will likely hit 100 tonight.

Basically, I've "pre-paid" for all of my content, so Blizzard isn't compelled to wrap the entire game up in a monetization scheme. Which, to be honest, is very refreshing because I can play the game without being constantly reminded of "HEY LOOK AT ALL OF THE PREMIUM STUFF YOU ARE MISSING!!" all the time.

Sigh - you know, it would be nice to sometimes just have the option of bypassing the entire F2P model if you agree to pay for the game. Maybe more F2P games should consider the option of a monthly payment for unlocking everything and suppressing all of the advertisements for premium stuff.

Indeed, it's amusing to me that everybody is claiming to care about the "long tail" of their games, while forgetting the longest tail games we have to date: Blizzard games.

Blizzard makes 10+ year games.

It's not an exaggeration, either: StarCraft lasted 12 years, and World of Warcraft will celebrate its 10th anniversary in a couple days. Many of their games last much longer than competing games.

. . . and I have to think that it's not just that they're great games. I think their monetization makes sense for a long lasting game. It's completely predictable, it doesn't interfere with the way the game plays, and you don't have to obsess over whether you made the right decision to spend more money on premium content in the game.

Honestly, I feel like I'm fighting with the monetization model in many F2P games. Especially if I choose the "free" route, because let's be honest: Businesses aren't making any money if I'm not paying. They don't want me to take the free route.

So, honestly, I'd just like to pay for my games. Even if the game is technically F2P, give me the option of just paying for it up front. Thanks.
9Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Matt Jeffries Senior Producer, Telstra5 years ago
A primitive version of "free to play", in that players had to pay to progress unless they were highly skilled, has been with us since the early days of the first arcade machines: "Insert Coin To Continue".

Every time you saw the end game message "Insert Coin To Continue" when you ran out of lives was a primitive version of this model.

Its just been updated for today's players and platforms.
4Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (6)
Jed Ashforth Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe5 years ago
@Matt - Someone always raises that point in these discussions, and I've done it myself, but the more I think about it, the more I think it's not really that useful as a comparison or that we can learn much from it as an observation. The similarities in most case are only skin-deep, as the value propositions to the customer are very different.

It's worth remembering (of course!) that the old arcade model of 'insert coin to continue' was superseded in popularity by the 'Pay once, play forever' option that home consoles and home computers offered as their unique selling point back when arcade conversions were popular. The arcade model never really recovered from that, and was never able to match the kinds of deeper, more interesting long-form games that subsequently grew out of that new sales model and those platforms.

Arcade games also tended to reward skillful play as you say, but crucially against the game's systems rather than another player - the game would get more difficult as you progressed, meaning you could improve your skills to play longer. Many F2P games that come under criticism aren't skill based at all, and you're often not paying to be able to continue past a point where your skills came up short; instead you're either paying to close the gap on competitors who have played longer or spent more than you, or to jump the queue wait and play again before a cooldown timer runs out. I'm sure Kevin or others here could provide insight on this, but I'd speculate that the majority of arcade revenues have always come from 1st coin drop, rather from continues?

Again, this is a different model and I'm not sure they're directly analogous. The arcade player has already weighed up the value proposition and decided to drop at least 1 coin into this game before playing, and that's often the crux of the F2P resistance - "I don't want to start playing your game in case I get hooked and you later reveal a high cost to continue playing". It's a business model that by it's nature can't really offer any clues up front as to it's eventual cost or utility to the player. It makes some players resistant to start playing before you start paying because there's no transparency of how much this thing is going to cost you in the long term or how much fun it's going to be. 'Fun' and 'addiction loops' are often separate and discrete things - you're taking a gamble. With F2P there's naturally more suspicion that the game is preying on addiction in a different and arguably more mercenary way. With an arcade game you knew they all cost the same (roughly) and they all offered about the same 3-4 minutes of fun for an unskilled player so the player had already come to terms with that initial spending decision before entering into play. Adding another coin to keep playing was always an option, but it wasn't the only option - you'd get more of that same gameplay, but easier, if you just dropped that coin and started again from the top.

There's a lot of reasons why 'the first hit is free' can be seen as a dangerous business model for addictive goods and services from a consumer point of view, but a fantastic model from a sales point of view. I wonder how differently the arcade market would have turned out if the first play had been free, and only then would you have to feed the meter to continue - I'd imagine it might have attracted tighter regulation from the Gambling Commission for one thing, and that could have restricted the growth of the medium significantly.

I personally think customers would be happier with a choice of two simple purchasing options - Play forever for X up front, or keep paying installments of Y amount. I can't think of many examples in F2P games that offer this, and I can't think of many analogies in the real world that don't offer consumers such a purchasing choice - Contract or Top Ups; Individual DVDs or a box set. Monthly debits or save money by paying it all up front. F2P games are designed to sell as much stuff as possible, and starting out you have no idea whether you're going to need those items or not, or how many of them, so the value proposition can be very unclear. At least with 'Insert coin to continue' you knew the cost to continue; with F2P you often have no idea of even this basic fact without committing deeply enough to the game to understand the mechanics and economic systems - at which point, you may well find yourself already caught up in those addiction loops.

To me, at least, It all feels like a very different and more complex proposition than just being 'Insert Coin to Continue' updated to the modern day.
4Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
very well said Jed, Let's also remind our younger members that arcades also gave their users the ability to experience the very best in gaming during its hey day. Not only did that insert quarter allow you to play a game, it allowed you to play and experience the very best in gaming with regard to graphics, sounds etc..

So IMHO, arcades and the "insert coin" has very little to nothing to do with the f2p price schemes of tacky mobile games.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 21st November 2014 4:35pm

3Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext5 years ago
The original arcade model was based on P2P, not F2P. You paid (first) then were allowed to play the game. The content that they were selling was usually 'lives' of some sort that if exhausted, had to be repurchased (i.e. another quarter). The reason that arcade games were P2P was because the key restriction to the game was access (controls/screens). It didn't make sense to give this away for free, when doing so might block another customer.

With the advent of multiplayer online games, where connections/hosting was cheap, it makes sense to give access for free as a marketing method to encourage players to pay for the game. The modern day online version of the game would allow anyone to play online for free (with limited lives) and then when you die, you could either purchase more lives, watch an ad, or maybe just wait until it regenerates. This puts the point of sale AFTER the game experience (F2P) rather than before (P2P).

You have to remember that in the western market, the original online games were free download + pay per minute. Then came direct sales (P2P) + the monthly sub (retail sales + all you can consume). Then came F2P (replacing retail sales) + optional monthly sub (service upsell). Then came P2P/F2P + Micro transactions.

None of this has happened overnight, and all of these changes were made in response to consumer demand. I would not expect it to be any different now.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.