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Fallout Shelter shatters the dogma of core gamers hating F2P

If the brand, the game and the business model are right, core F2P can be just as successful in the west as it has been in Japan

Core gamers don't do F2P. They think it's exploitative and underhanded, and they're real gamers who know what they want, so they're not about to get caught by the kind of cheap monetisation tactics that casual gamers fall for every time. They're above that. Well... Okay, there's League of Legends. But that's an exception. And sure, there's Hearthstone, but that's an exception too, because... reasons. Anyway, those are PC games, it's not like you're going to get core gamers playing F2P titles on mobile, are you? Well, okay, now there's Fallout Shelter, but... but...

As each of those games has been released and become immensely successful, the goalposts have been hurriedly shuffled across the field. The dislike of the F2P model and the inevitability of its failure among core gamers has become less a piece of common sense and more an article of faith, the core belief remaining intact even as the evidence shifts from underneath it.

Fallout Shelter is a cool little game. It's entertaining, endearing, very true to the franchise from which it springs, and quite reasonable in how it applies the F2P business model. It is, however, by no means entirely a "light touch" in its monetisation; it may lack the energy mechanisms which core gamers so often rail against, but so too do a great many modern F2P games (or at least, their constraints are so high that an ordinary player will never reach them in a day's play). Instead, the game pushes players to acquire good items and characters by buying "lunchboxes" which contain items that are extremely rare and difficult to acquire through ordinary play - effectively the "gacha" model of monetisation which core gamers find so repulsive when it's used in casual games.

"The article of faith, the dogma that mobile F2P doesn't work for the core, must be defended! Who cares about facts!"

This is not a criticism of Fallout Shelter; I think it applies the F2P model it has chosen extremely intelligently and fairly. It soared up the top-grossing charts, which means that its monetisation is working, and yet the game manages to achieve the balance all such titles desire; leaving players feeling like they want to spend money, not that they're being forced to do so in order to continue playing and enjoying the game.

Rather, it's a criticism of the double-think which scrambles frantically to explain Fallout Shelter as an anomaly, to find all the ways in which its F2P business model is very different to other games' use of the model (which it absolutely, categorically is not) in order to justify its success among core gamers. The article of faith, the dogma that mobile F2P doesn't work for the core, must be defended! Who cares about facts! You can prove any old thing with facts!

The facts, you see, are that Fallout Shelter isn't even the first good F2P game to engage the core. Hearthstone and League of Legends are up there, certainly, but you'll also find a pretty solid core audience engaged with plenty of other mobile F2P titles. I know plenty of PC and console gamers whose commuting time is filled with Marvel Puzzle Quest, for example, and lots of card battling games were holding core interest and attracting core money long before Hearthstone was even a twinkle in Blizzard's eye. Indeed, the same games lambasted as money-grabbing casual titles also enjoy plenty of core players - how many of the players standing around waiting for a bounty to spawn in Destiny do you think are fitting in a cheeky round of Candy Crush Saga? I've always argued that the division between core and casual is more to do with assumed online identity than actual consumption of media, and the arrival of "core-friendly" F2P games, with the right brands, the right themes and the right names behind them, has only emphasised how blurry the lines between different realms of gaming really are.

Look to the east, and you can see where this model leads us. There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth among soi-disant core gamers in the west over Japan's movement towards mobile gaming in recent years; and indeed, while console gaming is far from being on its deathbed in Japan, mobile games are absolutely the most vibrant and successful side of the market now. In part, that's a movement driven by casual players; but Japan's most successful mobile titles, the ones that pull in the really big bucks and have the kind of Average Revenue Per User figures that make western gaming executives' heads spin, those games are solidly in the core. They're deep, involved, stat-heavy games with lots of advanced tactics to master and vast collections of enemy and ally cards, creatures or units to learn. Games like Puzzle & Dragons, Monster Strike and Final Fantasy Record Keeper earn their keep by enthralling a devoted core audience for months if not years on end; sure, there are casual games alongside that as well, but it's the core titles that are uniformly at the top of the iOS charts in revenue terms.

It's no accident, I imagine, that Fallout Shelter (and games like Marvel Puzzle Quest) utilises broadly the same monetisation model that these games have hit upon. Core gamers don't like energy mechanisms - this much is true - so most of these games use a very lenient energy mechanism in order to place some control over player progression rather than trying to use it to generate revenue. Instead, they ask players to pay money for card packs, or their gacha equivalent; or, what I suspect to be the best money-spinner of all, they charge a small amount to expand the number of cards, monsters, characters or whatever you can store at once. Core gamers seem much happier paying lots of money for a bigger inventory or a pack of random cards than they are paying for a consumable item or an energy refill; it's still F2P, and not even an innovation on the F2P model (it's been around for years), but it certainly seems to be the style that fits the core best.

"A joy of today's world is that there is a business model to fit every style of game and type of audience, if the developer is only canny enough (and sufficiently open-minded) to figure it out and fit it adeptly to their game"

To be clear, I am not for a second arguing that abusive, cynical F2P games do not exist; they do, they're all over the App Store and Google Play, and the black-hearted worst of the bunch are those which ply their mucky trade by shoe-horning F2P mechanisms into children's games. However, there are some really good F2P games as well, both casual titles and, increasingly, core titles, and I object strongly to the religious rejection of F2P by those who claim to speak for the "core gamer"; who in a single phrase dismiss players of casual games as mindless sheep (who are you to judge the value someone else places on their entertainment?) and deny the increasingly obvious truth that core gamers are engaging with well-made, carefully targeted F2P games in greater and greater numbers.

Nor am I arguing, as some might, that all games in future will be F2P; that's ludicrous and blinkered. F2P is a good fit for some games; subscriptions fit better in other cases, paying up front often fits better, episodic business models work for some games, crowd-funding or Patreon funding works for more esoteric titles... A joy of today's world is that there is a business model to fit every style of game and type of audience, if the developer is only canny enough (and sufficiently open-minded) to figure it out and fit it adeptly to their game.

I simply believe that Fallout Shelter is another powerful argument for doing away with this article of faith, that F2P has no place with the core audience. If the brand and the game are right, if the monetisation fits people's expectations and value systems, then F2P can work perfectly well for a core audience. Getting that balance right is no mean feat, and Bethesda deserves enormous praise for being so successful on its very first outing in this realm; but their success confirms what we should already have known long ago - that F2P, and mobile platforms, are perfectly viable and realistic approaches for talented developers targeting core audiences.

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Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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