Like the goblins of Gringotts, free-to-play developers have to be both clever and calculating when it comes to handling people's money. There is a delicate balance to strike when it comes to monetising mobile users -- especially younger players -- as too aggressive a tactic will see your retention plummet, and your revenues along with it.
The majority of free-to-play games are primarily a marriage of compelling game mechanics and monetisation options that give players the ability to enhance their experience. But with Jam City's Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, there is another pillar at play: the narrative.
Far from the only free-to-play title to take players through an ongoing story, the Harry Potter tie-in is arguably one of the more ambitious, styling itself as a full-blown RPG that stretches across an entire seven-year stint as a Hogwarts student. At times, it feels like this could have been a premium title, perhaps in the vein of Telltale's games, but Jam City opted for a free-to-play experience to target the broadest possible audience -- and this raised eyebrows in the run-up to launch.
"When the game was first released there were a lot of questions about free-to-play and the narrative structure, how that would all come together and whether it would deliver on the expectations of Potter fans," the studio's president Josh Yguado tells GamesIndustry.biz.
"I would say, broadly, it has. After the game was first released, as people began to really get into the game and spend time with it, the reviews went from mixed to very, very good. The depth of the content and the quality of the writing has really made for an experience that fans have really, really gotten into."
Jam City's figures certainly seem to back that up. As of March 2019, less than a year after launch, Hogwarts Mystery had accrued 45 million downloads globally and exceeded $100 million in revenue -- the fastest game to do so in the company's history.
But, as Yguado says, there have been questions about the way it monetises. Our sister site Eurogamer ran an article shortly after launch, highlighting a prime example: your character becomes trapped in Devil's Snare early on, and you need to spend energy to complete the scene and free them. As with all free-to-play titles, there is a limit to how much energy you have available; to refill it you either wait for the time to run down, or pay to top up.
In Eurogamer's example, this means you are essentially forced to wait or pay to stop a child from being strangled. That's an odd way to start a game targeting children (while Harry Potter's first fans are all grown up, it remains primarily a children's or family-friendly property).
"We're creating an experience people can enjoy for years -- and frankly, we need to buy ourselves time to continue to create great content"
Yguado is confident this is narratively justified: "We've tried to create a game and write a story that has stakes, that has dramatic moments that reflect the level of drama and emotion that you see in the films and the books. I don't think being in a perilous situation is unique to our Harry Potter game when you compare it to the films and the books.
"I don't think our game is more violent or more scary than any of the other Potter [stories]. Without a doubt, we leave you at a cliffhanger... It seems like if a book's chapter ends at a dramatic moment, sometimes a dangerous moment and then continues after that, we're okay with it. If a film scene or even a television scene ends at a dramatic moment, and then the next episode or scene resolves that scary scenario, we're okay with it. I'm hoping we can also measure our game by the same [standard]."
Sounds reasonable so far, but the Devil's Snare also epitomises a stumbling block of the narrative Jam City has tried so hard to craft. By the very nature of the energy limit, players are unable to progress at their own pace. Each time they reach a story beat, the action comes to a hard pause while players arbitrarily tap on parts of the scene to fill up bars until the game is satisfied that you're allowed to continue. Run out of energy? Pay up or come back later.
In any other form of storytelling, this would be a deal-breaker for audiences. Stories lose all momentum and become far less compelling if the plot suddenly comes to a halt. Aside from the fantasy of being a Hogwarts student, much of the game's appeal relies on telling an authentic and original Harry Potter story -- but perhaps that conflicts with the business model. After all, the goal of a free-to-play game is to monetise its audience.
"The way I see it is there's slightly different writing styles required for film, TV, books and games, and you have to tell a story in a particular way for a free-to-play narrative that goes on for a very long time," says Yguado. "I personally think our writers have done an amazing job coming up with an unexpected, fun, exciting story in this game.
"And I don't think it conflicts with the business model -- in the same way that Dickens wrote for magazines before he wrote for books, or television writers write for seasons, we're writing for interactive episodes and chapters. That requires a different type of writing with a different cadence that I believe can be true to the world of Harry Potter."
The pacing also slows as you progress further through the story. When Hogwarts Mystery first launched, I was able to make it through the first year within a couple of weeks, reaching a new story beat or key scene every day or so. By the end of year two, some tasks -- mostly the lessons that grant XP -- actually require a full energy bar before you begin or it will be impossible to complete them within the time limit. This means it could be weeks between chapters, weeks spent playing the same energy-guzzling lessons over and over again to improve your character's level or meet the requirements to unlock the next scene.
"The business model and how we've implemented it in Harry Potter is thoughtful, reasonable and does not take advantage of our players in any way"
This is, in part, by necessity. Only five of the seven years have been added to the game, making it likely the story will be complete by the end of 2019. Hogwarts Mystery has been designed to last beyond that. If players are able to blitz through the story in a matter of months, what's left for them to return to?
Yguado admits it's "honestly really tricky" to balance between in-game tasks and the narrative, and to find the right rate of progression. He adds: "I won't say that at any point we have it right, I think we're always trying to get it right.
"In order to create really good content, which includes writing, art, music, it takes time. If everyone were able to get through all the content in a week, they wouldn't have a game to play over the next year. We're dropping new content almost every week, and to a certain extent you have to give people and fans some tasks other than reading through the content, otherwise they would complete the experience very, very quickly.
"It's important for us to create an experience that people can enjoy for years and years -- and frankly, we need to buy ourselves some time to continue to create great content."
Given that Harry Potter appeals to such a young audience, Yguado assures that Jam City "takes monetising responsibly very seriously" and maintains that free-to-play is actually a "very fair business model," emphasising that it is possible to get through all Hogwarts Mystery content without paying.
"If you'd like to go through it quickly you can pay to do that," he says. "Not everyone who plays our game pays -- in fact, I'd say the majority don't. The business model and specifically how we've implemented it in Harry Potter and our other titles is thoughtful, reasonable and does not take advantage of our players in any way.
"I think you get very good value for money -- think about a film, where you may pay $5 or $10 to get two hours of entertainment, or a book where you spend $20 or $30 for a few hours. I think you get a lot of hours of enjoyment in our games for a very, very reasonable price."
The success of Hogwarts Mystery so far has cemented Jam City's current games strategy, and while other studios might be encouraged to seek out more licensing opportunities, Yguado says he plans to maintain a 50/50 balance between original IP and games based on franchises like Harry Potter.
The biggest takeaway has been that a story-driven proposition is the best way to engage a larger audience over a longer period of time, and Jam City plans to explore this further in future.
"There was never a narrative RPG like this in the mobile market before," Yguado concludes. "It's given us confidence in the genre and we plan to eventually pursue more titles like it.
"We've realised the importance of deep story in our games. I think you'll find in many of our existing and future titles, narrative becomes an even more core element in games that aren't necessarily narrative-driven titles -- like puzzle games, strategy, and even casino and parlour games."