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Free-to-play is the future - Gree

COO Anil Dharni on the advantages of free-to-play and why live ops are critical to a game's longevity

Free-to-play gaming has been on the rise in the West, but for companies from the East, like Japan's Gree, using the business model for its titles has long been a no-brainer. Gree has seen the free-to-play and mobile business evolve over the years in Asia, and the company believes that its Western studios are at a distinct advantage for having that inside knowledge.

For Anil Dharni, COO of US-based Gree International and formerly co-founder of Storm8 and Funzio (which Gree acquired), the free-to-play business model today brings with it many, many advantages that make it a more desirable option for most titles.

"We look at it as the future. So that's the macro view. It's funny that a lot of these console developers are [questioning it], even though they themselves are trying to... introduce micro-transactions in their games. So what is that? If you're letting somebody buy it for $50 or $60 and then you're again charging them more, do you really want to have that argument with us?" Dharni remarked to GamesIndustry International.

"I think the problem is by putting up a $50 gate, a $60 gate, a $100 gate, you are really limiting the accessibility of a game. And that's a big deal. I want people around the world to be playing games, not just people who have the purchasing [power] to buy those games. The same $50 game is $100 in India or it's $150 in Thailand and how many people in India are playing these games? How many people in those markets are playing these games? So once you make it free-to-play everyone can play."

"It's really good to have millions and millions of users that you can present to people, so [F2P] actually adds that scale that you need for these online [experiences]"

Beyond the obvious price barrier issue, Dharni noted that in the mobile market, scale has become hugley important, especially since most games rely on online interactions. Free-to-play makes it far easier to achieve a certain scale that couldn't be attained with a premium priced game.

"The second thing that we realized when we did Storm8, when we were doing Funzio, that accessibility provides a large audience for even the paying players. So when you are a paying player and you're looking, 'OK I need to battle somebody, I need to fight somebody,' ...you're not looking to fight with the same person over and over again. It's really good to have millions and millions of users that you can present to people, so it actually adds that scale that you need for these online [experiences]... these are tiny MMORPGs in some ways," he continued.

"Just thinking about it, if it's getting into the hands of a lot more people, it just means it's growing our business, it just means it's growing the share in the pie of gaming overall. Why would we not want to invest in that?"

Emphasizing his point about how most mobile games are online experiences, Dharni said that providing an ongoing service truly is at the heart of creating a successful game and hopefully a lasting brand. It's what Gree is striving for.

"Madden has been around for such a long time, the real question is can Modern War, Crime City be around as long as Madden has been around? And that's a really interesting challenge for us. We don't want to produce games that fade away after six months. And I think that's what gets those teams really excited; every day I wake up and I come back to work and I'm launching these features and launching these live events because I know my users and my players are coming back, because they actually enjoy it. They want to find out what's happening today on Monday and what's happening today on Friday," Dharni said.

"So it is becoming a huge part - we look at some of the games even in the top grossing today that do not have live ops and we kind of feel 'oh my god, I just wish they had that. I wish they were continuously launching new things for their players, the game would be so much more than where it is today.' So actually I feel like it's really critical and important in order to even just increase the lifespan of your game."

Where a mobile firm like Gree places its bets is also becoming more and more important. In the early days of mobile, it used to be that a publisher could throw money at tons of projects and just see which ones actually succeed. But, as Chillingo's Ed Rumley already pointed out, the costs (live ops included) are becoming far too great to take any chances now.

"[Back at Storm8] was when we could do a game every month. We were launching text-based RPGs and throwing them on the iOS platform and they were taking off. And then it evolved from there to when we founded Funzio, and there the games started taking six months. And now we are between six months to a year it takes to develop games," Dharni commented. "Games development [costs] have gone up, it's obviously more expensive but I think it still has that healthy mix. I still look at these stores and these two platforms, Android and iOS, and I see a healthy mix of 'spray and pray' versus the more mature developers who are very thoughtful about what to take the next bet in."

One of the keys for Gree is that the company's US division believes it has a window into the future of sorts. By evaluating the Japanese market, which has been ahead of the US, the company can take an educated guess at what's about to happen in America.

"In the Western market after Funzio was acquired by Gree, we had a pretty steep learning curve as to what was going on in Japan and how mature their gaming market was and what are the things that they do in their games to retain players for not six months, but they look at a three or four or five year window. And some of those techniques, some of those game design features we brought to the Western market," Dharni explained.

"So that's one really interesting thing that we get because of this relationship with Japan, we know what happened two years back and how the Western market will play out based on how the Japanese market played out. So that has really helped. If you look at modern games like Crime City or Modern War, Modern War was a top ten grossing title in 2013. It was launched two years ago. So it was the oldest app in the top ten grossing. There's a reason and the reason is because we've taken the principles of live operations and how to maintain those games from Japan," he continued.

"one really interesting thing that we get because of this relationship with Japan, we know what happened two years back and how the Western market will play out based on how the Japanese market played out"

Dharni also explained that Gree takes a very localized approach. Players in the West and in the East aren't necessarily going to have the same tastes. That being said, there are clearly some global success stories in the mobile space and Gree remains open to the possibility.

"We tend to launch games here from the US studio, from the San Francisco studio, for the Western market. We actually don't launch games for the Japanese market. Our Japan counterparts mostly launch for the Japanese market and if there is a one-off chance that we see a game that looks pretty good we can evaluate it and say 'OK, it's going to do well here,' then we bring it. It's more a one-off case rather than us trying to launch a global game. But it's a trend we are seeing now. We've seen that with Clash Of Clans, we've seen it with Candy Crush, we've kind of seen it with Puzzles & Dragons, we saw it with a few card battle games where they were able to do okay in Asia as well as in the Western markets. But I think those are much smaller, fewer breakout hits versus something that we think we can just repeat and sustain."

Looking ahead, Dharni said that Gree is "very opportunistic" and he sees the firm in a growth mode. In addition to a second-party publishing business, Gree is looking to three key areas. One is to sustain its key franchises for the long haul, while another is to place a few big bets in order to create more successful, new IP. In fact, Dharni noted that Gree looks to take two or three "really big bets" each year. "These are long term projects, they could be anywhere from six months to a year, what I would call mobile's AAA titles. With strong marketing budgets, strong development budgets, so those are our big bets," he said.

Rounding out Gree's strategy is a more rapid fire approach: "We have our innovation lab or G-lab, where we rapidly prototype stuff that we don't want to wait six months or eight months to find out that the game's a failure. Instead we want to prototype art concepts, we want to prototype gestures, and things that we don't want to take a risk with our existing games, but which could portend what's coming in the future. This is how the user behavior is going to change in the future."

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James Brightman


James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.