Detractors of free-to-play have been having a good few weeks, on the surface at least. There's been a steady drip-feed of articles and statements implying that premium-priced games are gaining ground on mobile and tablet devices, with parents in particular increasingly wary of F2P game mechanics; a suggestion from SuperData CEO Joost van Dreunen that the F2P audience has reached its limits; and, to top it off, a move by Apple to replace the word "Free" with a button labelled "Get" in the App Store, a response to EU criticism of the word Free being applied to games with in-app purchases.
Taken individually, each of these things may well be true. Premium-priced games may indeed be doing better on mobile devices than before; parents may indeed be demonstrating a more advanced understanding of the costs of "free" games, and reacting negatively to them. Van Dreunen's assertion that the audience for F2P has plateaued may well be correct, in some sense; and of course, the EU's action and Apple's reaction is unquestionable. Yet to collect these together, as some have attempted, and present them as evidence of a turning tide in the "battle" between premium and free games, is little more than twisting the facts to suit a narrative in which you desperately want to believe.
"present them as evidence of a turning tide in the 'battle' between premium and free games, is little more than twisting the facts to suit a narrative in which you desperately want to believe"
Here's another much-reported incident which upsets the apple cart; the launch of an add-on level pack for ustwo's beautiful, critically acclaimed and much-loved mobile game Monument Valley. The game is a premium title, and its level pack, which added almost as much content as the original game again, cost $2. This charge unleashed a tide of furious one-star reviews slamming the developers for their greed and hubris in daring to charge $2 for a pack of painstakingly crafted levels.
This is a timely and sobering reminder of just how deeply ingrained the "content is free" ethos has become on mobile and tablet and platforms. To remind you; Monument Valley was a premium game. The furious consumers who viewed charging for additional content as a heinous act of money-grubbing were people who had already paid money for the game, and thus belong to the minority of mobile app customers willing to pay for stuff up front; yet even within this group the scope of their willingness to countenance paying for content is extremely limited (and their ire at being forced to do so is extraordinary).
Is this right? Are these consumers desperately wrong? It doesn't matter, to be honest; it's reality, and every amateur philosopher who fancies himself the Internet's Immanuel Kant can talk about their theories of "right" pricing and value in comment threads all day long without making a whit of difference to the reality. Mobile consumers (and increasingly, consumers on other platforms) are used to the idea that they get content for free, through fair means or foul. We could argue the piece about whether this is an economic inevitability in an era of almost-zero reproduction and distribution costs, as some commentators believe, but the ultimate outcome is no longer in question. Consumers, the majority of them at least, expect content to be free.
"Among the customers who wouldn't pay $2 for a level pack are probably a small but significant number who wouldn't have blinked an eye at dropping $100"
F2P, for all that its practitioners have misjudged and overstepped on many occasions, is a fumbling attempt to answer an absolutely essential question that arises from that reality; if consumers expect content to be free, what will they pay for? The answer, it transpires, is quite a lot of things. Among the customers who wouldn't pay $2 for a level pack are probably a small but significant number who wouldn't have blinked an eye at dropping $100 on in-game currency to speed up their ability to access and complete much the same levels, and a much more significant percentage who would certainly have spent roughly that $2 or more on various in-game purchases which didn't unlock content, per se, but rather smoothed a progression curve that allowed access to that content. Still others might have paid for customisation or for merchandise, digital or physical, confirming their status as a fan of the game.
I'm not saying necessarily that ustwo should have done any of those things; their approach to their game is undoubtedly grounded in an understanding of their market and their customers, and I hope that the expansion was ultimately successful despite all the griping. What I am saying is that this episode shows that the problem F2P seeks to solve is real, and the notion that F2P itself is creating the problem is naive; if games can be distributed for free, of course someone will work out a way to leverage that in order to build audience, and of course consumers will become accustomed to the idea that paying up front is a mugs' game.
If some audiences are tiring of F2P's present approach, that doesn't actually remove the problem; it simply means that we need new solutions, better ways to make money from free games. Talking to developers of applications and games aimed at kids reveals that while there's a sense that parents are indeed becoming very wary of F2P - both negative media coverage and strong anti-F2P word of mouth among parents seem to be major contributing factors - they have not, as some commentators suggest, responded by wanting to buy premium software. Instead, they want free games without any in-app purchases; they don't buy premium games and either avoid or complain bitterly about in-app purchases. Is this reasonable? Again, it barely matters; in a business sense, what matters is figuring out how to make money from this audience, not questioning their philosophy of value.
"Free has changed everything, yet that's not to argue with the continued importance of premium software either"
Free has changed everything, yet that's not to argue with the continued importance of premium software either. I agree with SuperData's van Dreunen that there's a growing cleavage between premium and free markets, although I suspect that the audience itself overlaps significantly. I don't think, however, that purchasers of premium games are buying quite the same thing they once were. Free has changed this as well; the emergence and rapid rise of "free" as the default price point has meant that choosing to pay for software is an action that exists in the context of abundant free alternatives.
On a practical level, those who buy games are paying for content; in reality, though, that's not why they choose to pay. There are lots of psychological reasons why people buy media (often it's to do with self-image and self-presentation to peers), and now there's a new one; by buying a game, I'm consciously choosing to pay for the privilege of not being subjected to free software monetisation techniques. If I pay $5 for a game, a big part of the motivation for that transaction is the knowledge that I'll get to enjoy it without F2P mechanisms popping up. Thus, even the absence of F2P has changed the market.
This is the paradigm that developers at all levels of the industry need to come to terms with. Charging people for content is an easy model to understand, but it's a mistaken one; people don't really buy access to content. People buy all sorts of other things that are wrapped up, psychologically, in a content purchase, but are remarkably resistant to simply buying content itself.
"I think there's a bright future for charging premium prices for games - even on platforms where Free otherwise dominates, although it will always be niche there"
There's so much of it out there for free - sure, only some through legitimate means, but again, this barely matters. The act of purchase is a complex net of emotions, from convenience (I could pirate this but buying it is easier) and perceived risk (what if I get caught pirating? What if it's got a virus?), through to self-identity (I buy this because this is the kind of game people like me play) and broadcast identity (I buy this because I want people to know I play this kind of game), through to peer group membership (I buy this because it's in my friends' Steam libraries and I want to fit in) or community loyalty (I buy this because I'm involved with a community around the developer and wish to support it); and yes, avoidance of free-game monetisation strategies is a new arrow in that quiver. Again, actually accessing content is low on the list, if it's even there at all, because even if that specific content isn't available for free somewhere (which it probably is), there's so much other free content out there that anyone could be entertained endlessly without spending a cent.
In this context, I think there's a bright future for charging premium prices for games - even on platforms where Free otherwise dominates, although it will always be niche there - but to harness this, developers should try to understand what actually motivates people to buy and recognise the disconnect between what the developer sees as value ("this took me ages to make, that's why it's got a price tag on it") and what the consumer actually values - which could be anything from the above list, or a host of other things, but almost certainly won't be the developer's sweat and tears.
That might be tough to accept; but like the inexorable rise of free games and the continuing development of better ways to monetise them, it's a commercial reality that defies amateur philosophising. You may not like the audience's attitude to the value of content and unwillingness to pay for things you consider to be valuable - but between a developer that accepts reality and finds a way to make money from the audience they actually have, and the developer who instead ploughs ahead complaining bitterly about the lack of the ideal, grateful audience they dream of, I know which is going to be able to pay the bills at the end of the month.