When my parents were dating, they sometimes went to Disneyland. No season pass, no bank robberies to pay for a night in the magic kingdom. It used to be pretty cheap to enter Disneyland. $3.75 to get into the park in 1971. (For comparison, a movie ticket averaged $1.65 at the time. So Disneyland has always been pricier than a movie, but not eight times as much!)
Now to enjoy some attractions, that required more money. Like a carnival, you bought tickets, then walked around and made your choices. The best rides were E-tickets, and you paid the most for those. The Matterhorn, the Monorail (zooming around the park at 40mph!), and the Submarine, each cost 90 cents! If you wanted an A-ticket ride (the smallest experience), 10 cents got you on.
But Magic Mountain, a competing Southern California theme park, changed the amusement-park-pricing game when they opened in 1971, charging a flat $5 entry fee, which let you go on all the rides. Pay more than Disneyland to enter, but once you're in, you're in. A decade later, in 1982, Disney did the same thing. And people were willing to pay the higher entrance fee. Disneyland, world-renowned, became a premium commodity just to enter. Since then, every year the prices have risen, nonstop.
The game industry is going the opposite way with pricing. Lower and lower prices, but more of them to contend with. I would say this is because there are now hundreds of thousands of games to choose from. There are mega blockbusters, oldies are being brought onto new platforms, and there are indie efforts that we each feel so personally invested in, knowing that we as an individual, are valued by the maker. Oh, and there are casual games, mods, movie tie-ins, awesome student-made games, serious and political games, and probably several other categories I'm ignoring!
With so many choices, maximizing number of players is more important than anything else. Get as many people into your carnival just to see the rides. If they haven't heard of your ride, why would they pay beforehand? Once they arrive, show them your cotton candy and awesome spinny-death-cage. In this age of anything, everything, everywhere, getting thousands of people (or millions! [Nice job, Temple Run]) to even try your game seems to be the important part.
People are willing to pay for value, but they have to be aware of it. With so many games to choose from, how do you find and decide upon value? Free seems the way to do that. Temple Run's successful methodology says that players will love the game once they play it, and then enough players will lay down money for additional value. Goodwill adds even more value to their coins; they already got enjoyment for free. Angry Birds is famous, they don't need to give the game away because people know through others that the value is there. (Though they also have the free version to further entice uncertain gamers.)
So where do we go from here as individual developers? What do I take from the concept of free to play? The idea that there are thousands of games to choose from, thousands of carnival rides, and why not offer a free spin on mine to nab more players? Is that good business-sense? What's expected of a game that I put out for free? And why put out a game for free?
I believe that offering your professional game for free is so radically generous, that you as a developer have the right to do whatever you want to a player before the pay-wall. After the pay-wall, you have a responsibility to your player, they are choosing to be a paid customer, and freemium core loops that abuse the player for money are seedy and despicable. But before a player has paid, you can do whatever the heck you want. You might risk your player/developer relationship or the chance they will want to pay you in the future, so be wary, but before the pay-wall the player has not supported you yet, it is completely your choice.
I know some developers who were discussing limiting a game option in the free version (such as being unable to turn music off). Pay the dollar, and, in addition to a plethora of other tools, you can also turn music off. Another developer thought this was aggressive and confrontational to the player. Yes, I agree, but the game is free, the developer is under no obligation. I am planning on making a free game soon to promote myself and to test a gameplay idea. This upcoming free game is going to have prominent main menu promotions for my other games. Because it is free. Perhaps if it is received well I will offer a paid version with cool gameplay options and removal of ads, but the free version is as much a testing ground for me as it is an advertisement for my paid products. Who knows if it will even work for me? I may return to this blog bitter and broken and wrong.
This new world of free is strange. We have these massive digital carnivals with slides and swings and haunted houses and you can run right up to them without paying the Disneyland entrance fee. But carnivals are annoyingly hit-or-miss, and most don't seem very lucrative. If you want to succeed, pay close attention to how much you give away and whether your premium rides are worth the E-ticket. You want players to return, with cash in hand.
Randy is an indie developer/artist who just finished Waking Mars (due out March 1st!) with Tiger Style Games and also makes his own games, namely his iOS masterpiece Dead End, which you should totally buy for a dollar! You can also follow his rambling on twitter.
Some interesting sources/reading material on Disney ticket history: