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If you're not in the service economy, games are not a service - Fireproof

Barry Meade on F2P vs premium and how developers must concentrate on creating unique games above anything else

Rob Fahey this week posted a great opinion piece on the reality of mobile development and tangentially, the F2P and Paid models as routes to the market. Yes, yes, that debate again... but before you all start yawning I suggest you read it if you haven't already. It's not what you think.

While I support the broad thrust of Rob's article and 100 percent of its intent, there were some sentences that didn't chime with our experience as developers, and so I thought I would add a comment to the story. But as my comment was so fluffed with waffle, correctly thought "TLDR" and kindly gave me a platform to post the comment separately and in full - so here goes.

I have to say there's no general consumer backlash against F2P that we've noticed at Fireproof. Dan Gray from Ustwo said they weren't inundated by a "tide" of furious players - merely a tiny sample, whose one-star reviews rang loudly when set against their backdrop of otherwise dazzling consumer and critical success. I'd love to hear positive reasons why premium is eating F2P's lunch but I haven't seen any evidence yet.

"We should always be empowered. Game makers no more have to "service" their audience than an author or musician has to coddle their buying public"

Rob is right that we need to work with the market as is and not how we imagine it. However, I do worry about any advice that encourages developers merely to stick their fingers in the air and go with the winds.

We are not so at the mercy of the market. A game is more than a bunch of content behind a pay-wall, psychological blather notwithstanding. Game creators are more than random scavengers scraping for any digital buck wherever we find it. We do not have to "service" players who have unrealistic expectations, or who don't actually care about our medium at all. And the games we release today absolutely do affect the kind of market we will run with tomorrow.

In fact, rather than bending to it, historically many devs have thought it rather healthy to put forward their own vision that competes with the "reality" of the market as they found it. That's how billion-dollar franchises are made: not by copying what's popular but by dictating what's popular. And this power is not limited to the big boys; it scales with your resources - just ask Notch. The utter magic of the direct-sales digital marketplace - a tool of revolution for developers, lest we forget 5 years ago - is being forgotten and the stinking arthritic carcass of the old industry is crawling back to truss us up all over again. "It's too hard. You'll be destroyed. Don't go your own way. You need us. Listen to the market. Marketing. PR. It's not about games, it's about money." Plus ça change and all that.

In light of the digital market and all the attendant abilities it grants developers, I don't understand this cowering powerlessness that our industry constantly foists on developers, as if our work is not what millions of people are buying. It does us no good whatsoever to dream that we have no agency in the business and no effect on the market. How comforting that must be when contemplating failure! It's a cop-out and a sure way to financial doom. Rather healthier is to look at how the market magically supports developers carving out brand new territory for themselves, time and again, IF the games are good enough and fresh enough.

As a developer if you listen to this logic of powerlessness and underestimate your role in your own success, you haven't got a hope of ever hitting pay-dirt. The supremacy and fundamental necessity of making great software is not something to be forgotten or prioritised down, ever. The top-tier of any creative medium is about winning the crowd to you, expressly NOT about pandering to how things are.

"We all have to earn an audience and we do that by creating the best software our players have ever seen, or unique software they can't get anywhere else. All else is bunk"

The very notion of "servicing" players is linked far more to the F2P casual market where developers have to pressure or beg their players for payments: if you have to assume that posture to get money, it's no surprise it involves bending on one knee to get it. But we must not talk about that thinking being universal - premium is not a service, it's fundamentally a different relationship with the player. It's presaged on the idea that the customer is not always right. The games that inspire me in no way catered to my taste in music or art or movies. I wasn't "serviced" by them. They raised me to their level, rather than lowering themselves to mine. Their very difference is what made them ring out. I aspire to play them. They provided a vision I couldn't conjure on my own, so I paid good money to experience it.

How fucking horrible would it be to benefit from 20 years of amazing gaming visions only to turn around, when you have the chance, and make designed-by-data, unoriginal turgid junk for a nebulous audience which you then have to hock without any spirit or meaning or belief? Exactly who benefits in this scenario? Wonder away but it's not the developer or the gamer - the failure of 95 percent of F2P titles is a testament to that.

We should always be empowered. Game makers no more have to "service" their audience than an author or musician has to coddle their buying public. You can choose to do it, it may even make you more successful if you hit, but it's short-term thinking weighed down with compromise and danger. From the start it puts you to the back of a very, very long queue of similarly bloodless but cut-throat-desperate peers and brings pressure to change/degrade your work until it's as inoffensive and risk-free as possible - so your flavour as a developer gets ironed out. You are merely one of thousands now, so good luck with that whole standing-out-in-the-mobile-market discoverability nightmare.

The difference in mindset between making a F2P casual game and a premium game is more stark than our industry lets on and it's sometimes frustrating to read well-meaning articles like Rob's that talk about 'the market' as an umbrella term. Lots of terrific-sounding, smart advice for F2P games will fucking murder your chances at premium and vice versa. Making a F2P casual game generally does not - unless you are Supercell - involve learning how to execute on a unique vision nobody has seen before. Premium, on the other hand, broadly is about that; it has simpler goals but wider visions - and therefore the discussion around paid games cannot constantly reference the free market and the tricks employed by all the biggest casual games out there. And to confuse the audiences, to assume that people who play casual games for free, for nothing, will somehow magically be interested in paying for premium games is a further form of suicide. Cater for that, sure, but don't plan business around it.

I would hope startups don't listen to anyone who says you can buy or copy your way to popularity, or ingratiate your way into a wallet, or that making your game more like other games is the same as standing out. We all have to earn an audience and we do that by creating the best software our players have ever seen, or unique software they can't get anywhere else. All else is bunk.

I find it a hoot that that idea is treated as naive or overly simple. It's quite fucking clearly the hardest thing in the world to pull off.

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