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What we really need is a free-to-play game jam
by Mike Rose on 02/28/13 09:04:00 am   Editor Blog   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. last few weeks have been quite the eye-opener in terms of where the future of free-to-play is headed. Gameloft wants you to pay to instantly kill everyone in a multiplayer game, while Electronic Arts would quite like it if you'd pay hundreds of dollars to buy a collection of pixels that come together to look a bit like a selection of supercars, please.

But here's the thing: if these companies are implementing awful systems like these in their highest profile mobile games, it must be because it's working to bring in the moolah. In fact, EA said this week that it's planning to include microtransactions in every single one of its games in the future -- and if those in-app purchases are anything like the ones found in Real Racing 3, the future isn't looking bright.

The crux of the matter is that there are people paying absurd prices for in-game content -- a small minority, mind you, but these people are paying enough such that companies like EA are forgoing the desires of the average video game player in favor of satisfying these "whales", as some call them.

This isn't news to anyone. It's how free-to-play has been working for a while now, baiting these loose-wallet players into forking out silly amounts of money -- and while developers will say "we're making games that cater for all players, even those who don't pay a cent", that's clearly not 100 percent true in a lot of cases.

But there's a solution; A method by which the more traditional gamer can make free-to-play work for us. Put simply, we have to once again become the demographic that these developers and publishers are interested in satisfying. If we're the ones paying out the most, then the focus will shift back to us, i.e. back to where the money is.

Logically, it shouldn't be too difficult either. A recent report from Wired found that around 10 percent of all free-to-play gamers account for as much as 50 percent of money made from in-app purchases.

Therefore, if the other 90 percent paid only a very small percentage more than what they currently are in free-to-play games, we'd easily shift the balance in terms of value to publishers. And considering that a huge number of gamers choose not to pay anything at all (myself included), imagine the difference it would make if we paid just $5 each. Suddenly those whales wouldn't look as tasty anymore.

But what exactly is it that I'm proposing we pay for? As evidenced throughout the App Store, Google Play and Facebook, the majority of free-to-play games focus on bait tactics, reeling you far enough into the gameplay such that once you're hooked, you're given enough time or statistic-based resistance to the point that you're essentially forced to pay money.

These aren't the purchases we're looking for. If in-app purchases are going to work, they need to be worthwhile. They need to add value to the game. They need to be the sorts of transactions that we want to make -- we're having so much fun that paying a dollar here and there barely even registered in our minds.

There's already numerous games that do free-to-play gloriously too -- experiences like DOTA 2 and League of Legends have shown that more traditional gamers will open their wallets to free-to-play if offered real gameplay, and a real reason to pay out, minus the cheap tactics.

But more needs to be done in terms of free-to-play research. There's still so much resistance against the movement from traditional gamers because, for the most part, free-to-play developers aren't all that focused on creating fun, but instead have their heads in their bank accounts. It's near-impossible to discover truly innovative and enjoyable forms of free-to-play at a time when so many studios want to make a quick buck instead.

What we really need is a free-to-play game jam. An avenue by which inspirational and creative individuals can attempt to tackle the free-to-play space, and hopefully show the average gamer how free-to-play can universally be done in a respectful and entertaining way.

I've floated the idea a few times in the past on Twitter, and each time there's been a notable number of people who have expressed interest, including both indies and people at larger studios. Unfortunately I personally have no idea where to even begin running a successful game jam, nor do I really have the free time to make it happen.

But I know there are people out there who can, and I know these people would run it so much better than I could ever dream of doing. It would no doubt require sponsorship from an experienced free-to-play intrastructure provider, but if a decent deal could be struck up, just imagine how many indies would take the opportunity to have a crack at creating a true free-to-play game.

And imagine the value that would come out of such an event. It would have the potential to show those gamers who still oppose the movement exactly how free-to-play can be worked to their advantage, and in turn, you'd hope that larger companies would take note and slowly but surely experiment with implementing these varying ideas.

Not that I can guarantee such a game jam would exactly produce satisfying results - but it's worth a try, right? I implore anyone with the capacity to run with this idea to give it some real thought. I'd be more than happy to help find backers for the jam, and assist in setting things in motion / getting the word out.

I could attempt to go into logistics, such as how long the jam could run for, whether it should have a theme, etc, but realistically it's best to discover first whether there's anyone who is actually interested in the idea. All this idea needs is a springboard, so if there's anyone interested in taking part in such a jam, or indeed if there's anyone who believes they have the experience and expertise to run it, do let myself and others know!

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Richard Perrin
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I would definitely take part in this although I have no time to get involved in organising. I have huge reservations about F2P as it is currently being used and would really like to spend some time exploring what else it could be used for. I tried to do it as part of the recent "Fuck This Jam" but was too busy at the time to finish anything.

Mike Rose
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I think one of the biggest hurdles for exploring innovation in the free-to-play scene is that you can't simply sit down one weekend and make a F2P game. It takes time to consider where the in-app purchases are going to sit, decide if you're going to use one of the many available F2P infrastructures available online, work out their API and how it goes into your game, etc etc. You can't just sit down and make a game "Just like that", as you could with a non-F2P game.

That's why I'm very interested in the idea of organizing something like this, as it would afford developers an opportunity to skip some of these issues if there was a dedicated sponsor on-board who could provide the necessary F2P tools, allowing devs to get on with actually making the game.

Simon Ludgate
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Wouldn't a much simpler approach be for the community to identify a game with a "good" F2P implementation and support that game financially to show companies the types of F2P implementations players want to support? In theory, supporters wouldn't even have to play the game, just sign up for an account and buy a packet of virtual currency. The point is voting with dollars, after all.

Kris Graft
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Yo Simon! This sure is a passive approach that doesn't seem like it would benefit anyone at all, aside from the people who made the chosen "good" F2P game. Something like a jam would be beneficial because it's collaborative, it's creative and provides an environment where new ideas could emerge. It's much more proactive, and in theory, I like the idea.

Mike Rose
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The issue with this approach is that you won't be encouraging innovation - rather, you'll be telling publishers "here, this is the approach that we hate the least - please do this more."

If instead you bring numerous different implementations to the table, then there's a much better chance of finding multiple methods that work, and therefore much more variety. Put it this way - one implementation isn't going to work across all genres, right? So if you choose one or two "good" implementations from those that we already have, they're still going to feel out of place when it comes to certain games.

Mitchell Fujino
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Developers already do that (@Simon). They look at the success of games like League of Legends and then decide to copy their implementation (whether or not it's actually a good fit for the game they're making).

That parenthetical is actually the problem. Different kinds of F2P work best for different kinds of games. The best monetization is customizing what can be paid for to work well with the kind of game you're making and the type of audience you're after.

There is no one solution here, and forum goers who rage against one type of F2P will be replaced by different ragers who hate your new form of F2P if you change your game to suit those specific people. (And in the end, there's the people who hate all F2P and will join your forum to complain even if your only monetization is a tip jar.)

Simon Ludgate
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While I certainly agree a jam would be creative and collaborative and proactive and all that, it doesn't seem like it would be productive or effective in changing the behaviour of the big companies or alter their current bad F2P models. When publishers look at what to produce, they're going to look at where the money is, not at the ideas some enthusiasts came up with at a jam.

Not to downplay the efforts of the jam or anything, but the huge majority of players with money to spend are too busy making money to spend time jamming. The most practical solution seems to be the one that requires the least amount of inertia: nudging those spenders towards the games we want to see propagate versus trying to steer them around completely towards small and marginally entertaining proofs of concept.

It is a bit of a chicken/egg problem. The big publishers won't change their tactics until they have concrete proof that other models are better. They won't have concrete proof that other models are better until existing other models greatly outperform their models. Existing other models won't greatly outperform unless the game to which they are attached is good enough to justifiably outperform.

I think that's really the crux of the issue: you can come up with a better model, but until you have a good enough game to attach it to the model itself will never take off. That's why I think that, at least at this early stage, the thrust has to be based on existing games rather than new ideas.

As I see it, we start by promoting the best existing ideas, then when the big publishers are ready to look for new innovation in F2P, that's when we not only provide them with the jam, but get them to back the jam too.

Ultimately, we have to show the big publishers they're doing the wrong thing before we can show them the right thing to do.

Mike Kasprzak
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Business Jams are tricky. We do one every October with Ludum Dare, but compared to our main event we only ever see a fraction of the finished games (last time: 63 vs 1327). Business isn't easy, which is why I run this jam (to teach this). I completely agree we need more iteration in F2P. The problem is that jams typically produce small games or prototypes that one wouldn't even think of putting a price tag on. There's also the issue that setting up to be paid requires much work, which is why the October Challenge is a month long. Finally, even during that month timeline, most people are still overwhelmed by the need to ship in the first place, to add on top of that iterating the business model would have them miss the ship date.

I'm not against the idea. I just think it needs to be hammered on a bit more to figure out how to make it work.

Emppu Nurminen
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I think it's odd that "bad" freemium-models are considered, when developers want to limit the full access of the intended experience, yet "good" freemium-models are just glazing on top of the cake. Should that tell more about how the vocal audience (note; not the majority) is actually suffering mentally, when they can't experience the whole thing right away? Shouldn't that be more troublesome than the 10% of whales spending their excess money on something they want to actually engage with?

Edit; I would love to participate that sort of jam, but then again, I don't want to please people, who want everything instantly.

Simon Ludgate
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I think there is a mistake or misconception here. A bad freemium model isn't one that limits the experience, but one that exploits the user. A good model isn't one that gives you everything instantly, but one that respects you as a player and a human being rather than a wallet that can click a mouse.

It's like going to a good restaurant: a good restaurant will give you great food and great service before fishing your wallet out of your pocket. A good restaurant focuses on repeat business: you coming back again is more important than how much you paid or tipped for that specific meal.

A good F2P model treats you like a gamer: they want you to play their game, they want you to have fun playing their game, and they want you to keep coming back and bringing your friends.

A bad F2P model treats you like a freeloader: they want to make sure you don't get away with having fun until you've paid your dues, they don't want you to come back unless you're prepared to fork over more cash, and they want to get you hooked like an addict so they can milk you for all they can get.

Ultimately, the major division is one of fundamental perception between the producer and the customer: is it one of respect and trust, that the customer is doing YOU a favour by being your customer; or is it one of abuse and mistrust, that YOU'RE doing the customer a favour by ALLOWING the customer to buy from you?

There are psychological theories about people being motivated to maintain a balance and avoiding a cognitive dissonance. When you pay but you don't want to pay, there evolves a dissonance where you have to find some way of balancing the fact that you paid, such as by complaining about the thing you paid for.

On the other end of the scale, when people are given more than they deserve they feel compelled to give back somehow, such as by buying extra microtransaction goods or saying good things about the game.

The thing that make 'good' F2P models 'good' isn't that they're necessarily more effective or profitable, but that they focus on that inherent 'good' side of cognitive dissonance, just in the same way that a 'good' restaurant compels people to both leave a big tip and be happy about their experience.

Emppu Nurminen
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True, but I wouldn't call it misconception necessarily; I don't get, why that isn't a problem with casual games. I mean, why HC-gamers are somehow so picky consumers, when casual gamers dance around the business model with no problem (it's quite obvious for lookin the percent of paying customers to non-paying).