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If you're not in the service economy, games are not a service - Fireproof

Barry Meade on F2P vs premium and how developers must concentrate on creating unique games above anything else

Rob Fahey this week posted a great opinion piece on the reality of mobile development and tangentially, the F2P and Paid models as routes to the market. Yes, yes, that debate again... but before you all start yawning I suggest you read it if you haven't already. It's not what you think.

While I support the broad thrust of Rob's article and 100 percent of its intent, there were some sentences that didn't chime with our experience as developers, and so I thought I would add a comment to the story. But as my comment was so fluffed with waffle, GamesIndustry.biz correctly thought "TLDR" and kindly gave me a platform to post the comment separately and in full - so here goes.

I have to say there's no general consumer backlash against F2P that we've noticed at Fireproof. Dan Gray from Ustwo said they weren't inundated by a "tide" of furious players - merely a tiny sample, whose one-star reviews rang loudly when set against their backdrop of otherwise dazzling consumer and critical success. I'd love to hear positive reasons why premium is eating F2P's lunch but I haven't seen any evidence yet.

"We should always be empowered. Game makers no more have to "service" their audience than an author or musician has to coddle their buying public"

Rob is right that we need to work with the market as is and not how we imagine it. However, I do worry about any advice that encourages developers merely to stick their fingers in the air and go with the winds.

We are not so at the mercy of the market. A game is more than a bunch of content behind a pay-wall, psychological blather notwithstanding. Game creators are more than random scavengers scraping for any digital buck wherever we find it. We do not have to "service" players who have unrealistic expectations, or who don't actually care about our medium at all. And the games we release today absolutely do affect the kind of market we will run with tomorrow.

In fact, rather than bending to it, historically many devs have thought it rather healthy to put forward their own vision that competes with the "reality" of the market as they found it. That's how billion-dollar franchises are made: not by copying what's popular but by dictating what's popular. And this power is not limited to the big boys; it scales with your resources - just ask Notch. The utter magic of the direct-sales digital marketplace - a tool of revolution for developers, lest we forget 5 years ago - is being forgotten and the stinking arthritic carcass of the old industry is crawling back to truss us up all over again. "It's too hard. You'll be destroyed. Don't go your own way. You need us. Listen to the market. Marketing. PR. It's not about games, it's about money." Plus ça change and all that.

In light of the digital market and all the attendant abilities it grants developers, I don't understand this cowering powerlessness that our industry constantly foists on developers, as if our work is not what millions of people are buying. It does us no good whatsoever to dream that we have no agency in the business and no effect on the market. How comforting that must be when contemplating failure! It's a cop-out and a sure way to financial doom. Rather healthier is to look at how the market magically supports developers carving out brand new territory for themselves, time and again, IF the games are good enough and fresh enough.

As a developer if you listen to this logic of powerlessness and underestimate your role in your own success, you haven't got a hope of ever hitting pay-dirt. The supremacy and fundamental necessity of making great software is not something to be forgotten or prioritised down, ever. The top-tier of any creative medium is about winning the crowd to you, expressly NOT about pandering to how things are.

"We all have to earn an audience and we do that by creating the best software our players have ever seen, or unique software they can't get anywhere else. All else is bunk"

The very notion of "servicing" players is linked far more to the F2P casual market where developers have to pressure or beg their players for payments: if you have to assume that posture to get money, it's no surprise it involves bending on one knee to get it. But we must not talk about that thinking being universal - premium is not a service, it's fundamentally a different relationship with the player. It's presaged on the idea that the customer is not always right. The games that inspire me in no way catered to my taste in music or art or movies. I wasn't "serviced" by them. They raised me to their level, rather than lowering themselves to mine. Their very difference is what made them ring out. I aspire to play them. They provided a vision I couldn't conjure on my own, so I paid good money to experience it.

How fucking horrible would it be to benefit from 20 years of amazing gaming visions only to turn around, when you have the chance, and make designed-by-data, unoriginal turgid junk for a nebulous audience which you then have to hock without any spirit or meaning or belief? Exactly who benefits in this scenario? Wonder away but it's not the developer or the gamer - the failure of 95 percent of F2P titles is a testament to that.

We should always be empowered. Game makers no more have to "service" their audience than an author or musician has to coddle their buying public. You can choose to do it, it may even make you more successful if you hit, but it's short-term thinking weighed down with compromise and danger. From the start it puts you to the back of a very, very long queue of similarly bloodless but cut-throat-desperate peers and brings pressure to change/degrade your work until it's as inoffensive and risk-free as possible - so your flavour as a developer gets ironed out. You are merely one of thousands now, so good luck with that whole standing-out-in-the-mobile-market discoverability nightmare.

The difference in mindset between making a F2P casual game and a premium game is more stark than our industry lets on and it's sometimes frustrating to read well-meaning articles like Rob's that talk about 'the market' as an umbrella term. Lots of terrific-sounding, smart advice for F2P games will fucking murder your chances at premium and vice versa. Making a F2P casual game generally does not - unless you are Supercell - involve learning how to execute on a unique vision nobody has seen before. Premium, on the other hand, broadly is about that; it has simpler goals but wider visions - and therefore the discussion around paid games cannot constantly reference the free market and the tricks employed by all the biggest casual games out there. And to confuse the audiences, to assume that people who play casual games for free, for nothing, will somehow magically be interested in paying for premium games is a further form of suicide. Cater for that, sure, but don't plan business around it.

I would hope startups don't listen to anyone who says you can buy or copy your way to popularity, or ingratiate your way into a wallet, or that making your game more like other games is the same as standing out. We all have to earn an audience and we do that by creating the best software our players have ever seen, or unique software they can't get anywhere else. All else is bunk.

I find it a hoot that that idea is treated as naive or overly simple. It's quite fucking clearly the hardest thing in the world to pull off.

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Latest comments (22)

I think the word service is used because in software as well as the business world, the golden goose is " reoccurring revenue".

Business software gets it, its about time game software companies do. It need not effect how a game is designed, just monetized.

Example. EA could sell NFL Madden football as a service not a single product game each and every year. Users pay a yearly 69 buck license, and for that they get the new Madden software each year , the get updated rosters, they get timely patches, etc etc. This way EA can just automatically bill each user each year, instead of trying to chase down and constantly finding customers and reselling their individual product each year.

Re occurring revenue truly is the golden goose, its about time game companies understand that.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 2nd December 2014 7:50pm

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James Prendergast Process Specialist 6 years ago
Fair point, Todd. However, I feel I have to point out that just because you stop paying doesn't mean you should lose access to what you already paid for - which can often be how "service" software works.
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James,
I guess that would depend on the game. MMO's turn your access off completely, something like Madden could just turn off support, updates,online leagues, and of course future product updates. The point is, and the focus must be, on your paying customers. Making it painful decision for a customer to leave is actually a good business practice.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 2nd December 2014 9:13pm

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Show all comments (22)
Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 6 years ago
Making it painful decision for a customer to leave is actually a good business practice.
Mmm, but let's not ignore other aspects of business/consumer relations. Making it easy for them to leave is bad business practice, but all-too-often done: bad QA, announcing a new product before the old one is fixed, dropping prices too quickly. There needs to be a respect for the customer, even if it is "just business". Which is one of the things I take away from the article, actually - more thought must go into actions and decisions.

(Great article, btw. :) )
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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext6 years ago
I was writing a long commentary about how I wanted to love this... but could not, because of its clearly flawed, and biased stance... then I watched this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Et9Nf-rsALk

This is on book publishing.... but I think it is just as true for game publishing, and carries the true sentiment.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Brian Lewis on 2nd December 2014 11:20pm

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Nick Parker Consultant 6 years ago
@Brian - many thanks for the link. I urge you all to watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Et9Nf-rsALk
Capitalism controlling creativity? Not sure we're there yet but budding developers see the success of Fireproof and think "if they can do it, so can we" and put financial reward aspirations before the desire to build a great ground breaking game, thereby self-propagating the capitalist ethos. Business does not have to be exploitative, it can be just a pragmatic way to cover costs and earn a little profit on the way and if that means resorting to some of the old industry publishing structures in the digital world, so be it.
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As I hope was obvious the post was dealing with paid games and wasn't an attempt to give bad or ignorant advice to those of us making free or casual mobile games, which I know zilch about except as a player. I'm not delusional and don't believe Fireproofs story has answers for the majority but I think its healthy to weave alternate experiences into the tapestry of stories that make up our industry, which does have a tendency to be one-note about what success looks like. As to bias, sure I'm biased but only as biased as the last or next developer is.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd6 years ago
Interesting stuff. I'm not sure why "service" is being seen as a dirty word though. Some of the best and most influential premium games have essentially been entrance tickets to on-going services - from Doom and The Sims to Call of Duty and Minecraft.
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Jason Avent Studio Head / Creative Director, TT Games Publishing6 years ago
Good stuff Barry. :)

Quality is the best business model.

Being completely new and different can be risky but if you don't evolve, you die. There's a balance between the innovator's dilemma on one hand and copying everything that's been successful in the past and expecting the same success while being late to the market.

There's a cliche in the F2P design chatter about +1. So you make a game that's like another successful game but you do one significant thing that's different and better enough to convince players to come and take a look. That's worked pretty well for a lot of people.

Shooting for Minecraft levels of originality is far more noble and exciting. But it's also incredibly risky. I guess that's where developers need to agonise most.
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief6 years ago
Barry, I loved your response to Rob's article, but I think you have a very specific definition of service: it's what you think F2P casual devs do, and not anyone else.

I think George R. R. Martin services his readers (and so do his customers). He writes Game of Thrones the way he wants to write it, not driven by metrics. But he uses every tool at his disposal to craft amazing stories (and then make his readers scream "No!" at him, even as they love him).

That is a form of servicing his readers. Delivering what they actually need in their fiction, not the cosy fantasy they think they want.

So I 100% agree that you should put telling awesome, creative stories first. But if you run a business, you have to think about your customers too.
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Jason Avent Studio Head / Creative Director, TT Games Publishing6 years ago
Robin and Todd - I read 'service' as meaning games as a service initially but that's not what Barry means. He means 'to service a player's wants or needs' when you design a game. I don't think there's any doubt that's it's desirable to create a game that can keep people interested enough to keep paying over a long time. Listening too much to what players 'say' they want can be misleading. That's what he meant I think. Henry Ford used to say, 'If got my customers to tell me what they wanted, they'd have asked for a faster horse.'
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Good points all. Making a fabulous game that people love is already 100% about making an audience happy. In my view, user-data driven design or making a Candy Clash Saga-'em-up is in no way any better or more canny an example of being commercially aware than attempting to make a novel game nobody has seen before. The failure rate in F2P/casual games is horrendous just like it is in paid games, however it is a much easier sell to dollar-eyed investors and publishers and in my view this accounts for the ridiculous amount of love the model gets from 95% of the mobile games industry. All things being equal, success in games remains a battle of ideas but you would never believe it from most of the conferences I've been to.
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Andy Payne Chair/founder, AppyNation6 years ago
Long live Sir Barry of Fireproof. I love you. There are a number of business models, but quality must always be the key. Creating something special is hard and special. More power to the creative ones.
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Robin and Todd - I read 'service' as meaning games as a service initially but that's not what Barry means. He means 'to service a player's wants or needs' when you design a game.
words matter, he should of used the word "pander" then.

I think in a perfect world, everyone would shoot to make their dream games, this aint a perfect world, far from it. I'm all for innovation,
The game Im most looking forward to is Hello Games No Man's Sky. I'm just a realist and know the suits have the money, and the talent doesnt, and its been like that from day one. Whats most disheartening, is once talent does get some money, its seems to drain their drive and talent. Its why most movie, games, music,TV products stink. Not all, but assuredly most.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 3rd December 2014 5:43pm

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Kostas Zarifis Managing Director, Kinesthetic Games6 years ago
They raised me to their level, rather than lowering themselves to mine. Their very difference is what made them ring out. I aspire to play them. They provided a vision I couldn't conjure on my own, so I paid good money to experience it.
Loved this line. Keep preaching it Barry, the industry needs more people like you.
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Shintaro Kanaoya CEO and Founder, Chorus Worldwide Limited6 years ago
We all have to earn an audience and we do that by creating the best software our players have ever seen, or unique software they can't get anywhere else. All else is bunk. I find it a hoot that that idea is treated as naive or overly simple. It's quite fucking clearly the hardest thing in the world to pull off.
Therein lies the issue. The VAST majority of games don't achieve the high watermark that Fireproof, ustwo, Notch, Supercell, et al reach. Most developers can't reach that, and it's not necessarily fair to expect them to. What's tough right now is that the financial drop-off from top tier to solid, second tier, is like falling off a cliff, where it would be nice if it were more of a gentle slope.

There are thousands of indie devs right now that can't break even so are forced to either a) seek gainful employment elsewhere (probably at somewhere doing F2P) or b) seek investment. There are few places offering investment for anything other than the F2P model, because the risk/reward ratio is geared highly in favour of backing F2P over premium. We can't blame users for wanting something for nothing, and we can't blame investors for wanting to maximize returns.

There seems to be a feeling that it's ultimately easier to keep your head above water with F2P than with premium. Both larger download numbers and investment into F2P titles seem to point to that being true, and therefore, a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, by gods (old and new), do we need to keep funding and supporting the creation of new, riskier, innovative, art-for-art's sake titles - if only to remind ourselves that games still have one foot in the art world and can continue to push creative, not just commercial, boundaries.
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James Prendergast Process Specialist 6 years ago
I agree on the chat around "service" meaning "pandering too much" - whether that's to metrics or users. However, I just wanted to speak to Todd's reply to my previous post:
Making it painful decision for a customer to leave is actually a good business practice.
Actually, that's not always true.

I have quite extensive experience in service industries (guest houses, phone centres, point of sale) and I can 100% guarantee that making it hard for customers to leave will make them hate you as much or more than giving them poor service whilst they're using your product.

As a customer, sometimes being able to leave without hurting yourself in the process makes you appreciate the company you're dealing with even more and increases the chances of repeat business from those customers in the future.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Prendergast on 4th December 2014 9:26am

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Rafa Ferrer Localisation Manager, Red Comet Media6 years ago
@James - I read that as the user "feeling sad" for leaving - painful as in emotionally painful - because you offer a product he loves, rather than making the process a living hell, much like phone carriers do.
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Alex Rigby Creative Director, Playdemic Ltd6 years ago
Couple of points from me maybe not addressed so far. First, to assume (maybe you don't but you allude to it) that F2P studios don't focus hard on quality and innovation is more than a little misguided, and you're genuinely welcome any time up here at Playdemic to prove that point. We care more about quality and the player experience than anything else, bar none. We're in a space where quality and differentiation is critical to our success. More than that though, we are game developers who care passionately about the games we craft.

Second point, I get a little frustrated by hearing phrases like 'designed-by-data' thrown around in a derisory way. If you really care about quality and player experience, then live metrics and analytics can be one of the most powerful tools in your box, whether you are free, f2p or perimium. Why? Simply because it is instant player feedback. It sits comfortably next to focus testing and interviewing players to find out what they love, and what they hate. It's just another communication method between you and the player. We have to move past the 2009 notion of what it says about your game if you use live data to inform creative decisions, because it ain't all bad.

Last point - and a direct question for you Barry. How successful do you think a premium product can be without feature-level support from the major App Stores?

I agree with everything you say about quality, innovation and how hard those things are to achieve. They are the things that matter no matter what business model you operate in.
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James Prendergast Process Specialist 6 years ago
@Rafa, Ah, that could be me misinterpreting the sentence in the context of Todd's first post. Apologies, Todd, if I got the intent wrong. :)
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Hullo Andy,
My post was originally a specific comment on an article so it doesn't cover all bases of what I think, when GI reposted it I prolly should have done more to explain my thoughts on f2p/premium and be less vague. But I accept that when writing about aspects of the industry I disagree with, unless I spell out the contrary somebody somewhere will take it as a direct attack on their mother. So let me address that directly: in my view your mother is a marvellous lady and a great game remains a great game no matter how the players pay for it.

But on this topic I do have a view. And while I sympathise and celebrate with anyone working hard to make great stuff, man successful F2P developers are the last people who need my support. If you make these games then the entire industry already reflects your point of view. I don't feel the need to reinforce it even where I agree with it - a better use of my wheezing, limited energy is to discuss aspects that I think are hurting us and might do us some good to air.

On that, you're not the first to say that by pointing out the group think I see regarding casual F2P mobile games, I'm thereby saying that even fantastic F2P games are somehow rubbish. My intent was kind of the reverse - I'm trying to make the case that creating original stuff like most premium games attempt to do has always been a route to money too, arguably THE route, and sometimes to preposterous oceans of money. I'm trying to fight the idea that makers of premium games aren't chasing success or care less about their audience, are not commercially aware or are somehow making irresponsible choices, or are doing it for arts sake, for fucks sake.

In terms of support, our industry insists that free casual games are *the entirety* of what 1.5bn mobile players want and will want for the future. With this mentality it's no accident that all the breakthrough premium games are from independent teams, often working alone and with backbreaking budgets. That's what I meant by a 'servicing' mentality going too far, we've strangled even the *belief* that on a platform so vast, there might be new territory to be won, even when its obvious that creatively the industry is wilfully repeating itself.

I don't believe even a player really knows what they want until they see it, and I say that as a highly informed one of them who who turns into a twelve year old when a great new game comes along. I draw on that and the last 20 years of gaming and our $55bn global industry as evidence that interactive games can move people in many ways and that there's gold in them thar hills. And I don't want to see highly skilled developers reduce an infinity of options, ideas and designs to those tiny few that chime with their game-illiterate investors cashing out after 5 years.

We've had, justifiably, a few years where nobody knew what a mobile games could look like and in those recession years that encouraged us to make the same successful games over and over. Sensible enough in hard times. But we need to move on from that and start thinking about the future and what else is possible on the platform. I'm not arguing we throw the baby out with the bathwater. But I am saying if we want to grow our audience and our returns long term our industry has to stop pointing at four or five top F2P casual games and saying "make that" to every developer that comes along.

Lastly your question about the app store featuring. There's no better platform to push your game than app store featuring. Apple are an amazing help to our industry in pushing what they perceive as quality work, as are Google and Amazon. But I hate to break hearts out there - the common belief that featuring will make or break your game is just that - a belief, and these days, a bit of a myth. If you get a banner it is is a statement of faith from the store owners. Powerful, ego-boosting, but it remains an act of faith and that's all. At Fireproof we've learned of developers who get featured only to watch their games sink into an abyss taking jobs and companies with them. The same featuring gets results that are hugely varying. The fact is, just as a huge marketing spend does not turn a bad game into a good one, your game has to have traction on its own merits or featuring won't make the difference you need either.

However there's other questions orbiting your one: how the fuck did we get here in the first place? It's actually a sign of how bullshit a situation we are in that it's down to platform holders to show any love at all to premium games, and give them even a fighting chance. We might well ask - why isn't our own industry backing these amazing games such that they can exist outside the wings of hardware manufacturers? What could successful premium devs achieve if our industry believed in us, and our platform, like they seem to believe in even the most miserable poxy rip-off no-chance-having F2P game?
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Greg Scheel Executive Game Designer and Producer 6 years ago
Amen
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