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Free-to-play: Shut up about money, talk about games

Free-to-play games have an image problem - and always will, until we stop talking like accountants and start talking like creators

Allow me to state what is probably the most controversial opinion in the video games business right now - I think that free-to-play is a really useful model for certain situations, but I don't think it's the solution to all our business problems. Boom - in one fell swoop, I have alienated both sides of a ludicrously, childishly bitter argument, and I fully expect the warring factions to descend upon me and rend me limb from limb. Should I escape, it will only be because they realise that they despise each other more than me, allowing me to crawl out between their legs as the regularly scheduled hair-pulling and eye-gouging between the two camps resumes.

"If consumers could see just how nasty industry professionals get over new business models, their blood would run cold"

Honestly, if the kind of consumers who engage in regular drive-by flaming of the owners of rival console platforms on web forums and YouTube comment threads could see just how nasty industry professionals get over new business models, their blood would run cold. A 14 year old may seek to calm his raging hormones and dull the emotional pain of his unsightly acne by questioning the sexuality and parenthood of someone dull-witted enough to buy hardware from a different corporation than the one he chose to spend his mum's money with, but that pales in comparison to the sheer acid vehemence with which 34- and 44-year-old advocates of F2P and those convinced of its intrinsic evil lay into one another. On the one side are parasites, philistines and soulless monsters whose eyes are blind to art or beauty even as their fingers scrabble for pennies in a greasy till; on the other are dinosaurs, dreamers and outdated, outmoded idiots whose stubborn insistence on the old ways will run the games business in to the ground.

It's all rather playground. It's also all a consequence not just of a genuine resistance to new ideas (which does exist) or of genuine flaws with the F2P model (which also exist), but of some insanely poorly considered communication. Advocates of F2P, and I cautiously include myself in that bracket, are fairly rubbish at speaking a language which game creators understand or can identify with. There's a shared vocabulary up to a point, because everyone has an interest in a core thing - "making games, and making enough money from them to keep a roof over your head" - but beyond that, the focus of communication gets lost. We peel off in wildly different directions. Game creators want to talk more about making games. F2P advocates, it seems, prefer to talk about making the roof over your head fancier, attaching chandeliers and perhaps putting in a rooflight. Made of diamonds.

As such, they end up talking up F2P using a language which is utterly alienating to many creators. There's a relentless focus on monetisation, emphasising the ability of F2P models to efficiently and effectively extract the maximum possible money from an audience - especially from the "whales" at the high end of that audience. There's talk of how traditional models involving up-front payment leave money on the table, letting players go on forever without paying another cent, when some would be more than willing to continue pumping cash into the game. In business terms, it's all terribly inefficient, the advocates enthuse, conjuring up what seem to them to be irresistible images of games shaped and moulded by data analysis into perfect engines for wringing money out of players who are fed into the machine in droves at the other end by the attraction of free games on the App Store.

"People working at a creative or management level in a games company are not financially motivated. If they were, they wouldn't be working in games"

There's a nugget of truth in all of these things, and even of harsh reality - it's even a very big nugget in some cases (especially the fact that traditional games do leave money on the table, and at the AAA end of the market, can no longer afford to do so). However, these nuggets are about as appetising to a game creator audience as McDonalds' nuggets are to vegans - it's simply the wrong audience. Why? Because on the whole, game creators - a term I'm using in a very broad sense to encompass the majority of people involved in the games business on every level - aren't primarily motivated by money. Yes, they want to keep a roof over their heads, but that is not the thing that gets them out of bed in the morning. Their motivations lie elsewhere.

That's a very broad, sweeping statement, but it's one which I think is backed up by even a cursory examination of reality. Game creators are talented, bright people. Some of the best programmers, artists, animators, sound designers and the like work in video games. Game designers themselves are, often without realising it, incredibly well versed in all manner of fields largely focused around human psychology and behaviour. Producers and studio managers are the world's most proficient herders of cats, displaying extraordinary people-management skills in bringing together these diverse talents and making them - broadly speaking - hit deadlines. Ultimately, just about any one of the people you find working at a creative or management level in a games company is provably not financially motivated, because if they were financially motivated, they wouldn't bloody well be working in games. (Indeed, many of the industry's technical staff, in particular, have a habit of buggering off to work in vastly more well-paid jobs in other sectors once they're in their thirties or forties and starting to worry about mortgages, children and all the rest of it.)

To those people, the utterly relentless focus on monetisation does exactly the opposite to what F2P advocates imagine. It turns them off; it's not why they're working here. Worse, it conjures up the worst stereotypes and examples of abusive F2P. The conversations all too often end with an F2P supporter finding themselves backed into having to defend an egregiously unpleasant F2P game which genuinely is all of the things F2P's detractors claim about the business model as a whole - an exercise not in fun and reward, but in frustration and compulsion, honed to extract payments from those with the lowest impulse control and poorest ability to delay gratification. As soon as the old arch-capitalist arguments roll out ("they're adults, if they want to spend $2000 a month on buying virtual gold from badly animated goblins who are YOU to say they shouldn't?"), you've lost the argument entirely. It's an adult's right to buy all the virtual gold they want, but you can't force a game creator to want to sell it to them. Neither can or should you convince anyone that your hard-nosed commercial reasoning is more valid than their artistic ideals - because beyond the aforementioned roof-over-head test, it's not more valid to value money over creativity, and you're an awful human being for trying to force such a deeply personal value system on others.

Yet here's the thing. I like F2P games - some of them, anyway. Puzzle & Dragons, for example, is actually one of my favourite games of the past few months. It's not deep or meaningful, and when I come to make a mental list of the games which justify my decision to continue devoting a good portion of my life to working in and around video games, it's not likely to feature anywhere on the list. It is, however, well designed and good fun, and it's engaged me for 20 minutes or more on a daily basis for the past three months, which is actually pretty impressive given my short attention span. It's also engaged about ¥2000 of my money (about $20), which is probably the most I've spent on an F2P game. I'm perfectly happy with that sum - it's fair, reasonable, good value and I don't begrudge it in the slightest.

"There are tens of millions of people out there who can be reached and engaged by developers working on free games. That's exciting from a creative standpoint"

The reasons why I, as a game player, like F2P games are utterly disconnected from the monetisation drum which so many experts keep on banging. I firmly believe that F2P has a lot of interesting things to offer game creators - partially in terms of keeping rooves over their heads, but also in terms of a different and interesting approach to designing games and engaging with consumers. Few people in F2P seem to want to talk about that (there are several great exceptions to that, I should add), perhaps because it doesn't fit the hard-nosed-fast-talking-business-guy image so many of them have slipped into by accident or by design, yet it's truth - there are ideas inherent to F2P that can actually improve games, not break them. I'd go so far as to say that it's not F2P that ruins so many free games, but the relentless focus on monetisation and the pursuit of the "whale", often to the point of genuine immorality, that ruins them.

F2P changes the transaction and relationship between creator and player in ways which can be positive. For a start, it's clearly and provably an insanely powerful way to get your game out in front of a huge number of people. It reaches vast audiences to whom payment - any payment - is a significant barrier, yet for many of whom significant investment of time is no barrier at all. There are literally tens of millions of people out there who can be reached and engaged by developers working on free games, yet who are totally out of reach of any developer working on a paid game. That's exciting - thrilling, in fact, from a creative standpoint. Reaching that many people with your work is a dream of many creators and it's suddenly within reach.

But once you've got them, don't you need to aggressively monetise them in a cynical, nasty way in order to keep the roof over your head? No. Here's an interesting thing - the Asian markets from which F2P sprang, so often quoted as proof of the longevity of the model by Western F2P experts, are generally far less focused on monetisation than Western models are, or rather, they're focused on it in a different way. Western F2P pursues increasing the maximum spend of top players; Asian F2P pursues expanding the conversion rate, getting more players to spend a little money rather than trying to pump extra cash out of big spenders. That's a huge generalisation - there are games on both sides of the world which buck the trend - but it's a general trend, nonetheless, and it's worth echoing other F2P advocates here by pointing out that in Asia, F2P is far from a flash in the pan. Perhaps some of its stability and longevity can be attributed to this willingness to keep sharp objects away from geese that lay golden eggs.

None of this is to say, of course, that there's anything wrong with having a clever monetisation strategy. You do want your best fans to spend more - you want them to be happy, delighted in fact, to spend more money, but there's a clear difference between a fan who happily injects $50 of his disposable income into your game because you've added some awesome new items or collectables that he simply must have, and an obsessed player who unknowingly fritters away next month's rent on virtual gems to feed a cynically honed compulsion loop. I know which one makes more money, of course, but I also know which one is, when deliberately implemented, a disgusting business practice - and don't give me the "he's an adult, who are you to say..." line. Not all legal, above board ways of making money are equally moral and easy to stomach, as is easily proved by the fact that Piers Morgan doesn't live in a cardboard box under a bridge.

"Western F2P pursues increasing the maximum spend of top players; Asian F2P pursues expanding the conversion rate"

Within F2P, then, there are a whole host of interesting ideas that aren't focused exclusively on monetisation. There's the notion of pleasing your true fans, allowing them to engage more deeply with the game (spending more money, yes, but in ways they actively want to spend it) and demonstrate their fan credentials. There's a whole host of interesting intermeshing game-meets-business mechanics around retention, the art and science of building a game which keeps people coming back to play again and again - of constructing balances of challenge and reward, of giving players control over their own playing schedules and giving them clear objectives to ensure that a game becomes part of their daily schedule. The whole knack of taking a player who downloaded your game for free because she was bored and turning her into someone who comes back for 20 minutes every day because she's having a great time is a glorious, lovely piece of design and psychology that's absolutely free of the cynical trappings of leeching money from whales, and deserves to be seen for what it is - a genuinely useful and interesting addition to the toolbox of game creators everywhere.

F2P advocates need to understand their audience better, and need to understand that while a relentless focus on the bottom line may appeal to executives, it will never meet anything but hostility further down the ladder - among people who work at creating games precisely because the bottom line isn't all that important to them. This shouldn't be a hard transition to make, because in my experience, most F2P advocates and experts are genuinely game fans in their own right. They see F2P as a way to secure the future of video games, to build it into the universal medium it deserves to be - but to do that, they need to stop talking about how much money we could all make, and start focusing on what's good, interesting and exciting about F2P for creators, not just accountants. Then, perhaps, we can move past the playground insults, consign some of the more awful F2P monsters to the dustbin of history, and start thinking about how these clever new techniques can genuinely improve the industry for creators and players alike.

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Rob Fahey avatar

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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