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The Never Ending Industry Delusion
by Johnathon Swift on 08/15/12 02:59:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

I'm not sure there's another major entertainment industry that contains as many thoroughly persistent and majorly supported delusions as the games industry. Then again I'm not nearly as familiar with other entertainment industries; but its hard to imagine that the others, all having lasted decades and centuries longer than games, still have as major problems as the games industry does.

And the biggest delusion of these, the worst offender, can be generally classified as the delusion that there is some easy, surefire way forward towards riches and success. You can see it in whatever the latest darling of the industry is. Over the years has been known as online multiplayer, massively online multiplayer, social games, shooters, you've heard them before.

Or, as Will Wright recently put it, executives look at what is selling big in the last year and say "we're going to make more of this type of game, because that's what people want. But the truth is, its just because a good game of that type came out. Warcraft 2 came out last year, that's why RTS games sold."

Or, to put it another way, emulating success is easier than trying to forge new success. Now this statement should seem both logical and obvious, and it is! But there's another factor that this attitude rules out; and that is that the industry by large is always just copying the latest and greatest success, with those lessons from as little as a few years ago seemingly forgotten.

And the latest of these trends is Free to Play. You can imagine my dismay at hearing well respected developer Crytek "boldly" announcing it would be going entirely free to play. This statement, in and of itself, is a great example of the probem. By implication the statement either posits that any game at all can be Free to Play regardless of design, or that Crytek as a developer will be solely developing games around designs that work with Free to Play.

The first suggestion I find ludicrous. Not to say that Free to Play does not have its benefits, but to say that those benefits are structured around games that fit in with this business model. "Social Games" work well with this, because they are essentially all Skinner Boxes, slot machines in which you put in your input of coin or advertising to your friends and get out a reward the equivelant of flashing lights and chirping sounds. MOBA games, aka "Lords Managment" types such as League of Legends work; because of a relatively low overhead and flat content range. As in, unlocking content via pay is available at any time, and any content you'd wish to pay for would be appropriate.

Now lets examing how this might affect other games. How could you get Crysis 3 to be Free to Play? By making the first hour free and then charging? That's just a demo. By charging for each successive chapter? Most people don't finish games, that's just leaving money on the table. How about multiplayer. Would you charge seperately for that? Why would you when millions are willing to pay $60 for both single play and multiplayer as it is? You just couldn't make it work. How would you charge for Minecraft, by updates? Free updates are what has made it a game possibly set to surpass Diablo 3 as the most purchased PC game in history. Speaking of Diablo 3, how would you monetize that as Free to Play? There really aren't that many classes, and most people would only need one.

So, Free to Play could not, and can not work for all types of games. So perhaps Crytek will restrict themselves to only games that work with Free to Play. But why? They've recently expanded massively, to a large number of studios. I doubt all their developers want to work solely on Free to Play type games for the rest of their careers, and with retention being a large issue for many developers already this is certianly something to take into consideration. Another is just how far the range of games that can work as Free to Play even extends. And with Free to Play games having an indefinite shelf life its not hard to imagine "Just Free to Play" running out of new games to deliver within not too long of an order.

Recently Penny-Arcade ran this comic about EA/Bioware's subscription MMO The Old Republic: http://penny-arcade.com/comic/2011/12/21 . Even as a joke it proved oddly prophetic. And while its prophecy coming true (though in a longer timeframe) has helped prove that business models can be outdated, it's also a lesson that business models are not what a game should depend on. I'd make a wager that eventually there will be another highly successful subscription based game. And that further Crytek will either back off "all Free to Play", or fall into the annals of failed developers.


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Comments


k s
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Well written, thanx for posting.

Curtiss Murphy
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Contentious article! I like it, but the industry disagrees with you.

Will Free-To-Play dominate forever? Certainly the rush to MMOs, social games, shooters, etc was a 'me-too' phenomenon. But, free to play is different. It's not a game-type or genre, it's a delivery mechanism - digital downloads. The cost of distribution approaches zero, because there's no physical product. And over time, competition does it's magic, which drives the price downward. Eventually, this leads to a zero-cost-of-entry model, aka Free-To-Play. Companies have to figure it out (see 'Free - the Future of a Radical Price' by Anderson).

Free-To-Play is not just a problem for game designers. I speak profressionally - game design, programming, life-skills. But, you know, my customers can already get great motivational talks on Ted, Youtube, and Vimeo. Five years from now, there will be 'best-in-world' videos available, on any topic imaginable. And you can watch them anytime, anywhere, for free. Doesn't look promising, but it's not just my problem. This affects hundreds of industries. Anyone that doesn't sell a physical product will be forced closer and closer to free - because everyone knows, it costs zero to distribute something digitally. (Personally, I give my products away and ask users to buy after they finish ... ex 'The Gratitude Habit', iOS).

Games like Halo, Crysis, or Journey may not fit neatly into the 'free-to-play' model. But, our industry is full of creative genius and I'm sure they'll figure something out. In the end, the question won't be whether or not these games can fit Free-To-Play, the question will be - will any other business model survive this cycle of disruptive innovation?

Justin Nearing
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Excellent rebuttal.

I would like to point out that Valve has proven the F2P-FPS model with Team Fortress 2. It is an excellent example of transitioning a Pre-paid game into a Free-to-Play game. The result of which has breathed new life into the game and more updates. In fact, because the game is still making money, the product the customers are consuming is actually getting better over time, something that is very difficult for pre-paid.

Hakim Boukellif
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The costs of packaging and distribution have only a little to do with the actual price of a game, or else games would cost a buck at most. People know they aren't paying $50 for just a plastic case, booklet and optical disc, so the notion that removing those from the equation will inevitably lead to all games becoming free because of market forces is just silly.

Another thing: games aren't toasters. Competition doesn't work the same way for entertainment products as it does for other kinds of products.

"I like it, but the industry disagrees with you."
Isn't that what this whole article is about?

Roberta Davies
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But it doesn't cost zero to distribute something digitally.

Even if we ignore the cost of making the item, the files have to be stored somewhere. The server has to be fed electricity, monitored, and taken care of from time to time. Bandwidth has to be paid for.

As a friend on another forum recently said: DATA COSTS MONEY. SERIOUSLY, THE INTERNET IS NOT MADE OF F---ING MAGIC BINARY PIXIES.

Curtiss Murphy
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@roberta - The cost of distribution is NOT zero, but it's getting closer every day. And even though development costs are real, consumers don't usually care.

IMHO, Team Fortress and League of Legends are great examples of the creative genius of our industry. Quality products with excellent business models. It's a win-win for customer AND for businesses.

Does this scale across the industry as a whole? I don't know. But, I do know that Free is a hot-button for consumers. The disruption has only just begun.

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Eric Schwarz
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"Now lets examing how this might affect other games. How could you get Crysis 3 to be Free to Play? By making the first hour free and then charging? That's just a demo. By charging for each successive chapter? Most people don't finish games, that's just leaving money on the table. How about multiplayer. Would you charge seperately for that? Why would you when millions are willing to pay $60 for both single play and multiplayer as it is? You just couldn't make it work. How would you charge for Minecraft, by updates? Free updates are what has made it a game possibly set to surpass Diablo 3 as the most purchased PC game in history. Speaking of Diablo 3, how would you monetize that as Free to Play? There really aren't that many classes, and most people would only need one."

I am no fan of the push towards excessive DLC, microtransactions, etc. especially as the value equation often gets worse and worse, but all that said, your argument here is a straw man. The very fact that you don't want to alter elements of those games' designs to fit a new business model suggests a sort of closed-mindedness. The reason older games were often so lengthy, for instance, is because content was relatively cheap to produce, and nobody had the Internet to download a dozen games a week. Similarly, what about arcade games? They were eventually beat out by games consoles, but the business model did work for a while, and they only declined because - you guessed it - game design adapted to provide a competitive advantage.

Game design, at least with respect to business models, is an endless process. There are always going to be new platforms, new modes of distribution, new trends in monetizing things, etc. The failure to understand, anticipate or account for this, or the desire to simply outright ignore it, has been responsible for killing many, many studios over the years. Again, that's not to say I like the current trends and models, and if I could make my own dream games they'd be hopelessly outdated for current mass audiences - but I do understand why they exist and work, and what advantages and disadvantages they offer. Maybe you need to re-examine free-to-play options from another perspective and see what benefits they bring gamers versus just the drawbacks.

J Brian Smith
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The problem is that f2p dramatically narrows the world of possible game designs. The diversity and quality of the universe of games available will decline if all games must conform to the the same business model of free distribution. As long as there is demand for the kinds of games that don't work with f2p, it will be irrational for the development community to put 100% of its investment into f2p development.

Toby Grierson
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FWIW, I've also observed this endless parade. It really wasn't that long ago that every other article here was telling us that browsers were going to kill the console, the client app, the everything. In all cases folks brush aside obvious limits of the new whatever.

People still buy games. They might not buy dollar games, but they buy a hell of a lot of games and pay up front. Sometimes it is appropriate to do so.

There's plenty to explore in the F2P space, but never forget the old adage that when you have a new hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Laura Stewart
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I've scratched my head for a few hours, and I can't come up with any other industry that offers actual and genuine F2P content, and which has also survived. Leaving Facebook out of the debate for the moment.

Banks say they offer free checking and free online bill pay, but they get their money by holding yours and out of penalty fees. Mortgage companies and the like might let you pay online and manage an online account, but the cost is rolled into another product they sold to you. In Petco yesterday, there were Angrybird chewtoys for dogs (but not cats!). The ads on Pandora have gotten clunky and constant enough that the program crashes routinely every 15 minutes.

I think also that the definition of F2P is also used so broadly that it does encourage a lot of delusional thinking. Any game that offers microtransactions that Ive followed over the past 3 or 4 years have gotten progressively closer to the point where they are not playable for free. A competitive ranking on Sorority Life for instance will cost you $300- $500 *a month.* And the majority of these games advertise themselves to new player as free... which they are for the first 3-7 levels.

Companies might be able to extend a game's lifespan by moving from pre-paid to F2P, or make a name for themselves with a few free ("free") games, but the industry has to come up with the lunch money somewhere. And stop using the term "free" like store bought cookies calling themselves "homemade."

Kevin Nolan
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I'm not sure you will ever find utterly free services. Municipal parks are maintained by our taxes. There's free-to-watch comedy shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, but they rely on donations at the door. Some musicians give out free CDs but these are to drum up interest in their live performances. Most of Google is free but ad-supported.

I don't find anything wrong with calling these free, as it's easy to say and understand, but sure the canny customer has to understand this really means "Supposedly free but we'll get money for this somehow because we need to make a living".

I think I've had a happier experience of F2P games than you have - I'm loving the range of 'em on my iPhone.

Laura Stewart
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@ Kevin: Free is easy to say, sure, but inside the industry I think there's a problem with equating true F2P games and micro-transaction free-2-download games. I think it's better to recognize them as different financial models, especially considering the development constraints microtransactions place on gameplay.

I would also point out that I never discuss any level of satisfaction with F2P or F2Download mobile games, nor the number of them I have on my DROIDX. So where you find any data for a comparative evaluation of our "happiness" eludes me.

Matt Robb
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I'd like to second Laura here. If you're really going to call it "Free", you should be able to actually play it for free. I can get on League of Legends or the latest Tribes and play as long as I want for free. But so many of these others just say they're free when they're actually a demo or badly crippled in some fashion.

I actually enjoyed Lord of Ultima for quite awhile, and it claims to be F2P, but if you actually want to compete, it's effectively a subscription game with extra pay-to-win fees. You need to hire "ministers" each month to get all the automation capabilities, without which you'd have to sit on the game 24 hours a day to keep up.

Frankly, a lot of the supposed F2P games out there flirt dangerously with false advertising, but since they don't make you pay, I suppose there's no way anyone could claim damages.

Roger Tober
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Part of the f2p phenom is that we're still in a slow economy and people would rather be in more control of their expenses rather than contracting for so much a month. That doesn't mean they won't sign on to a monthly fee if they consider it a value deal, like Netflix. Games are starting to look expensive, even though, for the work involved, they are probably worth the cost. The question is, do we need bigger and better, or should the costs be lowered for not so great graphics but new story and environmental material? Whether it's f2p or some other model, people will be looking for value for their dollar for a while.

Matt Robb
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I'd say the success of games like Minecraft support your notion. Production quality is great, but a fun, interesting game is better even with simplistic graphics.

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Kevin Nolan
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Interesting article. However, I can think of a fair few ways to make Crysis 3, Minecraft and Diablo 3 Free To Play without changing them too much. Pretty much any game with customisable classes, skills, loadouts, inventories, crafting systems and other expanding features could take inspiration from Tribes: Ascend, Team Fortress 2 and various MMORPGs out there (or, preferably, make their own pioneering FTP innovations). And these games are certainly not mere Skinner boxes or MOBA clones. Well, I would also argue that a lot of social games are not mere skinner boxes either, I've found plenty of emergent strategy in 'em!

Julian Gosiengfiao
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"Why would you when millions are willing to pay $60 for both single play and multiplayer as it is? You just couldn't make it work."

It's the F2P Spending Curve. Someone's always willing to pay a little more for a little more content/efficiency/functionality. People have made it work, and it's simply a question of doing it right.Even if it's seemingly minor, or just very cleverly handled - There's no reason to not give access to multi, then sell progression boosts or server/customizability options. Totally locking Multiplayer instead of offering added-value services misses the two points of F2P completely: Price Discrimination and Accessibility. (and to be frank, is a bit of a strawman argument.)

Narrative-driven SP is definitely more of a difficult proposition to do F2P with positive production ROI, but design is ever-evolving.

That said, I can definitely feel & relate with the frustration in your article - there once were simpler times indeed, where games were stress-free playgrounds for the mind.

F2P could be a trend to pass indeed - but it's one that was economically superior to the status quo, and is now supported heavily by platforms like iOS, and will remain dominant until someone walks in with a better model to execute Price Discrimination and Accessibility.

All we can do for now as an industry is try to do F2P right.

Matt Robb
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"Narrative-driven SP is definitely more of a difficult proposition to do F2P with positive production ROI, but design is ever-evolving."

One would think if you can film an episode a week or so of a TV show and make money at it, one could do something similar with games.


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