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"If we look at casual games in 2015 what's out there is mostly crap"

Binary Family's Thorsten Rauser kicked off Casual Connect with a sobering appraisal of the public's changing view of free-to-play

Casual Connect Europe was give a rousing start by The Binary Family's Thorsten Rauser, who offered a bracing dissection of the ruinous influence of the free-to-play model on the casual gaming sector.

Rauser, who has worked on more than 50 casual titles in a career spanning 20 years, looked back to 2006 as a time when Casual Connect was defined by, "Great games, great concepts. It was full of creative game developers." Companies like PopCap and, as it was then, Big Fish.

If there was any confusion as to whether Rauser has observed a change for the worse, they were quickly dispelled as slides with phrases like "We are fucked" and "Our industry has become a joke" were projected for the audience. To illustrate the last point, Rauser showed a supercut of a recent South Park episode, which neatly skewered the predatory underpinnings of the worst examples of 'casual' free-to-play games targeted at young players - products he described as having, "bad karma."

"We're selling games to children. We sell them $100 packages of fake currency and make their parents pay because we can easily manipulate them"

"If we look at our industry today, there's reason to believe that we are fucked," he said. "The thing is, our industry has become bad; society's view of our industry has become bad. We try to get as much money out of the player as possible. That's what the job of the [casual] game designer has become. That's how people see us.

"If we look at casual games in 2015, what's out there is mostly crap. It's three or four game principles. We use different characters, we use different sounds, we use different setups, but it's all the same thing. What we're doing is selling games to children. I think it's so disgusting. We sell them $100 packages of fake currency and make their parents pay because we can easily manipulate them.

"This is the thinking of the gambling industry, and if you look at the people that have come into the show over the last few years, a lot of those people have backgrounds in the gambling industry. And yes, this is how we make our money these days."

In terms of the App Store - which was absolutely vital to the explosion in popularity of casual games - Rauser believes that the turning point arrived in 2012, when Apple acquired a search-engine startup called Chomp. By the end of the year, something fundamental in the App Store's search algorithm changed.

"If you looked for a Trivia game or a Sudoku game or a Solitaire game in May 2012 you would have Free results and Paid results," he said. "By the end of 2012, there were only Free results... The problem Apple gave us after that initial blasting is that good content became hard to find."

Of course, the obvious counter-argument is that, even if the algorithm didn't prioritise Free content over Paid content, the audience would still be likely to choose whatever costs the least money. For Rauser, though, that position obfuscates the real problem: the casual audience, and specifically the parents whose children play games that incentivise high-value in-app purchases, are steadily losing patience.

"We have to be really aware of that, because with all of the free-to-play crap that we're delivering to the audience at the moment... Yes, we make money, but we make money with a very, very small percentage, and at some point people will get sick of what we're delivering.

"We make money, but we make money with a very, very small percentage, and at some point people will get sick of what we're delivering

"We have lost a lot of them, and over the next few years we'll lose an even bigger part of them. People are not stupid."

This claim, in particular, is difficult to quantify or map onto a graph, but there is a clear indication of its validity in recent court cases, legal settlements, legislation changes and revisions of App Store policy - all around free-to-play games aimed at children.

It's a difficult problem, and one that a significant part of the casual gaming sector is bound up in, but Rauser believes that the same creative instinct that used to be so prevalent at Casual Connect still exists in a huge number of frustrated developers.

"Refusing to make games that manipulate people? I would love to know the solution," Rauser admitted in closing, while also stressing the tremendous business opportunity that the question implies.

"I'll be here, at this show, every year to try and find the ones who have a way to reach the audience with premium content and make a business model out of that.

"And that's what we need. We need premium distribution channels. We had them before, but now they're gone. We need to be on the lookout. The free-to-play ship is sinking. It will not disappear, but it's imploding."

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Latest comments (25)

Adam Jordan Community Management/Moderation 6 years ago
When I read the title, I was ready to give the "Another on the bandwagon" speech but after reading the article, I have to actually agree with him purely because there's no way you can turn a blind eye to the ugly side of the industry.

In majority of cases, free to play is currently - Short term profit.

What free to play should be is - Long term gain.

I am a person who believes premium content and free to play content can co-exist, it just needs to be done right. By all means don't give every bit of a free to play game for free but at the same time, do not monetise every part of the game except registration. Give people a reason to optionally buy items.

In other words, don't aggressively monetise, listen to feedback (both positive and negative), be transparent with your community and communicate with your community...that's all you need for a successful free to play game...well all that and a game that people can love of course.
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I disagree, it's far more complicated than that.
Actually nah, I don't and it isn't.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
Positive spin, guys. Crisis means chance. If kids are no longer around, there is always money to be laundered, right?
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Show all comments (25)
Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.6 years ago
Well, you had a premium content platform with a business model but you all abandoned it for the free to play paradise.

Good luck going forward.
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Our industry has just been overtaken with the "strip mining short term profit taking" mindset that many, many other industries of the world have. It's all about money extraction, long term consequences be damned.

Building long term success through hard work, sacrifice, loyalty, quality, compassion, communication is for suckers it seems. These days it's all about get in, exploit, extract, get out.

Its why our world, our economies, our societies are in, or quickly headed into, disarray. This strip mining, this exploitation of people and resources does not allow for a prosperous and quality future for anyone. Short term thinking when adopted by the masses is dangerous.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 4th February 2015 5:04pm

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Alan Wilson Vice President, Tripwire Interactive6 years ago
Well done for putting it out there like that. But, to be fair, it isn't ALL bad. A sector of the industry saw a money-making opportunity, has jumped on it and is busy driving it into a hole in the ground. Short-term profits indeed. But plenty of the industry is still running with some decent values, related to offering players value for money and investing in our own sustainability. It may be somewhat over-shadowed by a fairly mindless gold-rush right now, but that will pass!

[Edit: What Todd said above, about the same time I did]

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alan Wilson on 4th February 2015 5:09pm

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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 6 years ago
Like the "real" gambling industry, this preys on the naive and addictive personalities

The difference is: you don't have to be 21 to play, and you can only lose your house, not gain one

Like with Casinosthere are detailed records of who spends what and how fast. And I think both the existing laws, and new ones should apply to both.

All casinos, who know how much their gamblers make, they ID you automatically when you walk in, and they should automatically flag people losing beyond their means and remove them from the tables, lest they be held legally responsible. A "sir, are you sure you wish to continue" is not enough. Just as a bar is held responsible for continuing to serve a drunk, so should they

These games should offer an unlimited play buyout for unlimited play at a reasonable number, and force one at double that. If you squeeze $100 out of someone for picking Smurfberries, you should feel very pleased with your performance. There's a reason why 2% of users generate 90% of the money, and it's the same reason slot machines make all the money
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 6 years ago
I think you're misinterpreting

Nintendo needs to stop producing hardware. They can very successfully move to a mother app scenario, where you can play Mario on your iPhone. I can buy a movie on Amazon, and watch it on any of my devices. Nintendo makes real games, not slot machines, and the issue is access to the material.

Mobile is just a part of a successful preservation of Nitendo
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development6 years ago
Building long term success through hard work, sacrifice, loyalty, quality, compassion, communication is for suckers it seems.
I can vouch for that. We went that route with Combat Monsters and all we achieved was obscurity mixed with the odd bit of internet hate based on "all f2p is bad". At current earnings it will be several years before we've even got our money back and we think every day about making a version 2 of the game that's designed to "strip mine peoples wallets" and earn us a bloody living from those 500,000 installs.

I do find this navel gazing a bit tiresome. On mobile, premium is dead because "gamers" aren't prepared to spend money on games.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 4th February 2015 8:22pm

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I just think there needs to be a paradigm shift as how casual games get made and funded. I often look to cartoons. In the early 50s cartoons/movie shorts like Tom and Jerry and Bugs etc all but died. Cartoons became to expensive to make plus movies were dealing with a new rival in that TV was catching on, so did the cartoon industry just die and go away? well it came close to except a couple of cartoon vets Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera went out and found a new way to make cartoons and a new way to fund them, and thanks to these two men and Kelloggs ( who sponsored these cartoons), many of our childhoods was filled with cartoon goodness. From Yogi, to Quickdraw to Scooby Doo to the smurfs and all the rest.
While I understand that a niche of casual games have had some corporate backing, sponsorship, product placement in the past and still today, I personally think it just hasnt been advanced enough, or really tried hard enough. Its always seemed to be a little more than an after thought, or half ass effort. I just wonder if there isnt something more here to explore. I mean so many companies are finding and wasting money on old outdated types of advertising. Print media? please.. radio.. again really, anyone with cash doesnt listen to terrestrial radio..TV? ads are more annoying than anything else, just something to fast forward through...internet banner ads? again..really , most users minds are programmed to simply ignore by now.... so why not sponsor mobile casual gaming? Why not a new revolution of good games back by a specific sponsor? or at least lets start thinking about shifting the paradigm to something more long term, above board, and practical.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 4th February 2015 9:50pm

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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 6 years ago
It's iteresting you bring that up

Doritos sponsored games on Xbox, and turned out two real winners:Dash of Destruxtion and Crash Course

The second was so popular they made a sequel that was f2p

The servers were shit doen inside a year, sadly. Had they just charged $5 for it, they probably would have pulled a healthy income. Instead they made the endgame almost impossible to finish without coughing up

Too bad, great game. I'd recommend using branding to make the game cheaper, or introduce a fun theme.
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American McGee CEO, Spicy Horse6 years ago
The industry has little room left for idealists, and the Old World markets (US, Europe) contain the last dying enclaves for premium content. Here in the New World (Asia) there's zero talk of the industry being "fucked." Why would there be? There was never a premium market here, and never will be. This problem is one of perspective.

Children playing F2P games? In Asia there are functioning regulations in place to effectively combat that problem.
Thinking taken from the gambling industry? Psychological manipulation of audiences? Is there marketing an any industry (or religion) that doesn't employ these proven tactics?
Consumers getting sick of it all? "There's a sucker born every minute."

These aren't just game industry problems. These same problems are faced by every consumer industry in the world.

Every time someone stands up to tell us all how bad things are, and how much worse they're going to get, there's always a distinct lack of solutions proposed to solve the problem. Thorsten offers nothing on this point. Comments here in GI offer nothing. Heck, when customers playing my company's F2P games complain about this stuff, I tell them there are literally billions to be made if they could invent that 'kinder, gentler way' for funding development and extracting payment from customers. Silence in response.

So we either embrace the reality or go extinct.

I say all this as a 20+ year veteran developer of PC, console, mobile, online, and F2P titles. The artist in me would much rather be making premium, story-based, single-player, AAA console/PC titles. The realist would like to put food on the table.
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Shane Sweeney Academic 6 years ago
Let's hope audiences/parents get more savvy. If things get a lot worse regulation is in our future.
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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios6 years ago
Hi American McGee, good to see an industry veteran post here, and contribute to the discussion.

You said you have to be a realist, and pay the bills etc rather than doing what you really want to do. Everyone is different, but for me, I think video games have become so boring, that I really want to continue making my game (Xbox shooter) even though I can't afford to eat. etc.

I mean, there are games now where you press X to sleep, where you just watch cutscenes, in the new Metal Gear game you put enemies on a balloon and make them go up into the air. Just an example.

Because, I'm thinking about the consumer first, not me, I really want to give people something fun, made from the heart, with lots of action (like Metal Slug in 3rd person) But, people have families etc and need to earn money (hence the mobile route)
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 6 years ago

Thunder cats was actually given away free to stations. They just had to carrry one ad for the toys per commercial break. Transformers and GI Joe and He-Man were the result of a change in regulations that prevented such advertorial programming. Thunder cats was the truly revolutionary one though, from LJn, maker of the worst licensed games ever.

Captain Power was Mattel's attempt to duplicate it. They made a great and memorable shoe, but the toys were awful, so a ratings success was cancelled.


Different models work best in different cultures for sure, and as you mentioned, there are strong regulations to protect people we lack in the west. If people want to drop $50/$100 picking Smurfberries, they can, it's when it gets to $1000/10,000 that we start talking exploitation of a mental disorder, and that's where I have a problem. It's the difference between addicting gameplay and addictinon
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Thorsten offers nothing on this point. Comments here in GI offer nothing.
offer nothing? just off the top of my head I suggested perhaps more sponsor based game creation could be a way forward. It gave us great cartoons for 40 years. As others have suggested, using mobile games as a way to market a specific toyline or product may be a way. Many times we have spoken about a model of game services, in which you subscribe to a game channel or site in which once a subscriber you are free to play any and all the games they offer. Seems to work for other forms of entertainment quite well.

This F2P nonsense is not a long term solution. It will either be burned out by players tired of nickel and diming and worried about small print and the games which are not really games but money extractors, or by developers tired of creating "games" which the goal is setting up toll booths and grinds to be paid to be avoided ( oh boy just what every game makers dreams about creating) , which ultimately will push most if not all the game making talent out since you are not really making games. Point is IMHO there is going to be a big reset, that much is certain, the only question is what comes next.

Edited 7 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 5th February 2015 5:59pm

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Alex Rigby Creative Director, Playdemic Ltd6 years ago
American - spot on.

For all the talk of manipulation of gamers and psychological tricks, I don't see much evidence of this in the real world. I see a lot of people who play games that never played them before. I see a lot of people playing famous f2p games like Clash, Candy and Real Racing, sometimes paying and sometimes not. I don't hear of people becoming destitute because they became hopelessly addicted to these games and running up massive bills. I sometimes hear of kids spending hundreds of dollars in a game by mistake, which is almost always refunded. More often than not that happens when parents don't control security settings, not because the game is manipulative.

As for mental disorders @John Owens, I don't know of many whales that spend 000s on f2p, but the two I do know do so of their own volition and well within the means available to them, which is significant. What's wrong with that? I know of people who spend similar on handbags and shoes with scant physical value but huge price tags - is that also the sign of a mental disorder? It's socially acceptable to make and sell them, that's for sure.

We need to ditch the sweeping generalisations of f2p painted in articles such as this. It's unqualified and untrue.

(By the way, my own recollection of CC in 2006 was that the place was littered with cheap $20 remakes and sequels, and a lot of frustration from indies being squeezed hard by those controlling the major premium portals of the day. A far cry from the idealist image of innovation and great games painted by the article.)
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief6 years ago
Couldn't agree more with Alex. But fundamentally F2P is a response, not a cause. The cause is digital distribution: when it costs zero to give away another copy of your product, smart companies will do so, and figure out how to make money elsewhere. It happened to music. It happened to news. It's happening to games. It's coming to Steam.

By all means, waste your time and effort and energy bemoaning changes wrought by iron laws of technology and economics. I'd rather spend my time figuring out how to delight players, profitably, with free-upfront games in two decades time.
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief6 years ago
Also, what a weird keynote of Casual Connect: dinosaur moans that mammals have turned up and taken his evolutionary niche; wishes he could stop the asteroid from having hit.
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I am still eagerly awaiting to chuck some good money at a mobile/tablet game.
Maybe a homeworld remastered or casually masterful type of game.
Just make it solid. Quality and paid up front!
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief6 years ago
The fact that you haven't paid any money for a mobile game, Chee, might be why there are so few paid games.

Try Xcom.
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Spencer Franklin Concept Artist 6 years ago
Perhaps when the majority stop making re skinned slot machines, and start actually creating ENTERTAINING games, things will begin to change. F2P, buy it's name alone, is a deceptive thing. Don't offer your game as FREE, and then feel cheated when no one actually wants to PAY for it. Instead, focus on making something APPEALING, and offer it at a fair price, then perhaps you will earn a fair profit. There are few games offered on mobile that are worth the price of admission, even the ones that may actually be fun to play, simply because developers don't even give the option to BUY the game...they don't want to sell it, they want to do just as the article say, extract as much money from the players as they can. How much profit is enough? Seems many developers have over valued their games by a big margin. Seems many are more interested in selling virtual currency than actually creating a compelling game.

I am more than willing, and have already, purchased games that were entertaining and offered at a fair price (xcom, Fate Forever and others) and will do so again. I have also dropped games that I found entertaining, but realized after looking at their in app offers, that they were seeking to extract an unreasonable amount of money, and have forever removed those games from my devices. and once a person gets a bad taste from a developer, it's really hard to win that person over again (thus the persistent hate that some developers receive, even if they make changes).

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Spencer Franklin on 6th February 2015 1:00am

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Matt Jeffries Senior Producer, Telstra6 years ago
I disagree with some of the propositions in this article, but if you would like to know more then please purchase the "Full Answer Pack" and receive one free totally unbiased opinion as a bonus.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development6 years ago
Perhaps when the majority stop making re skinned slot machines, and start actually creating ENTERTAINING games, things will begin to change.
No, they won't.

I do find it odd that developers get blamed for most of these sorts of "problems". The market makes it's presence felt and developers respond to it. The way it is now is how the market wants it to be, same as in any sphere. App Stores are making record-breaking takings so there are no problems with customer happiness, spending levels, etc. Just developer perception of "how things should be to suit us"
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I still blame Apple. I strongly suspect they knew this outcome, obviously didn't care and leveraged it.

Any pretense that Apple make "money" off the AppStore or software can be stomped. They use the mass of "free" software as extra enticements for consumers to buy their overpriced hardware. You just have the look at the profit for the last qrt ($18bn!!).

Imagine if there were 2 "free to air" channels the world over, and people had to pay to watch stuff. Most of the shows are free of course. Thousands and thousands of them. You just have to make a one-off $500 purchase to get a set...


Regulation is inevitable. As a parent with small kids, there is no way I'd let my kids play any FTP without parental or currency control. But its not really an issue - they have plenty of 3DS & WiiU games to play, and YouTube for watching. :>
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