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Free-to-Play: The Lost Generation

December 4, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next
 

The Implosion

Now here we are, again not being taken seriously. This time, though, it's different. This time it's our fault. We have become so caught up in "playing the game" that we have lost sight of the playing field.

Instead of creating games for people to play, we have begun creating games that play people. If the people are not either purchasing or advertising our game, they're not doing much. Of course, it's been a long road. We didn't instantly jump from $60 works of art like Halo to Eliminate. No, it all began innocently enough.

We decided that developing games independently was important. A large segment of the former "triple-A" set out to create tools that the masses could use. Of course, having tools wasn't beneficial without a way to sell products so we began to covet digital distribution. With these two barriers removed it was finally possible to make a great game with relative ease and reach a large audience.

Years ago, retail space was littered with games of all genres. Often there was no rhyme or reason to the arrangement of boxes at Electronics Boutique. Your best bet as a developer was to make something that hadn't been done yet, or conversely to appeal to an existing audience.

Life is a vector where you compete on either magnitude or direction. To make something new was to compete on direction; to appeal to an existing audience was to compete on magnitude. The higher quality games usually fared better in their respective spaces, but gamers didn't see sales figures on the store shelves, just cool boxes.

On the iOS App Store, though, everything is ranked. This is when we became players again -- competing on a new type of leaderboard. Initially, we charged $9.99 for iPhone games like Galcon and Enigmo. That seemed like a fair price, considering the small screen and limited controls. Then something strange happened. Due to the ranking system, it became exponentially advantageous to lower your price. Whereas before it didn't matter, because all games of a certain caliber had equal footing at retail, now the most-downloaded titles had the most visibility. Games that were $9.99 quickly dropped to $0.99, and lite versions began popping up in order to gain more visibility.

Now, three years after the introduction of IAP, being free isn't beneficial to players or developers. If a game isn't rigged to either charge a user or force them to advertise for the game, it is doomed to fail relative to other titles on the top-grossing list. If a game is rigged with F2P features, then it fails as a work of art, because it is not timeless. Worse, it fails as a game because it is not fun, immersive, or entertaining to make spending decisions right in the middle of a gameplay session.

In four years we have managed to reduce the value of our work to zero -- the only redemption to which is to pelt users who are attempting to enjoy an experience with spending decisions. Imagine a restaurant charging for salt. That's what we're doing, and often it's worse then that.

By now, game development has become a game in which average user spending must be greater than the cost of user acquisition. Yet, with so much supply, users really have little reason to spend money on any one game. Users have an unlimited supply of free games. As soon as one game gets old, they can move on to the next one.

A large part of any game is the initial experience. Whether good or bad, the experience of the theme, controls, and play patterns of any game are the primary assets. Nintendo has never offered free demos of its games because it knows this. In accordance, it also makes sure that every time it charges users for a new experience, it's a good one.

People are now questioning Nintendo's place in the industry yet again. I know I have, since the iPhone came to prominence. Now, I see Nintendo as one of the few companies that will make it though this stage in our industry's evolution. Nintendo has never been driven by metrics. It has always focused on the qualitative aspects of games and they understand those qualities better than anyone on the planet. When F2P falls apart, Nintendo will still be around -- even if diminished by the effects that F2P has on the whole ecosystem.


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Comments


Aaron San Filippo
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Good read! I think it's important to think about this stuff beyond the whole "is it evil or not" discussion.
I wrote up some similar thoughts/concerns on my blog a few days back:
http://flippfly.com/news/some-concerns-about-free-to-play/

Joe McGinn
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full disclosure: I work on a F2P game

Interesting article but for an article discussing AAA and F2P, strangely lacking discussion of the core F2P games like LoL, TF2, and so on. These games show hardcore gaming delivered respectfully. I think it's important to realize that any distaste the West had for F2P is just that, a matter of taste, and it's changing fast. Games have been sold in Asia this way for ten years and the West is now catching up. And to the iPad generation, of couse, it's perfectly natural, and they don't understand why anyone would make a fuss about it.

Aaron San Filippo
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@Joe assuming you were replying to my article - I actually brought up TF2 and LoL specifically in my post. The problem I see is that these are the rare examples in a sea of abusive ones. Maybe the good ones will win out in the end - but right now there's a money vacuum towards maximum profits - that's the trend that's shaping the industry, not the TF2s and LoLs of the world.

The fact that it's "perfectly natural" to expect your games to be free, is one of my other concerns.

Joe McGinn
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That point is easily countered by the Theodore Sturgeon defense. You are claiming that 90% of F2P is crap. I would agree. 90% of everything is crap. There are new core-gamer client-based F2P games announced constantly.

>> The fact that it's "perfectly natural" to expect your games to be free, is one of my other concerns. <<
Why? It works fine in Asia, developers have no problem making a living with the model, and players seem to like it. So why is that a problem?

Remy Trolong
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I think the main objective of the article is not saying F2P is crap, it's more about a turn about video game perception by players.
We used to have video games about scoring, and others about stories. F2P assume a never-ending storyline, with a consuming aspect.
It's like if 10 years ago games were like movies, and now like a SOAP drama tv show. There are good tv shows, but you can't wait the same things as a movie in cinema. (Maybe the metaphore is not so good but nevermind ^^)
As an indie dev and (of course) player, i don't like this aspect of F2P. Now you don't know where you're putting your money. You pay for a "full experience", but as it never ends, is it really a full experience?

Aaron San Filippo
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"Player's seem to like it." <-- I would say that in general, players seem to tolerate it.

I "like" TV despite the commercials - but you can't convince me that it's the same experience as going to a movie theatre and watching a movie uninterrupted.

Joe McGinn
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Aaron - that seems to me to be nothing more than a generational gap. People under 18 (I call them the iPad generation) haven't got the slightest bit of our distaste for F2P. And even older gamers are seeing the benefits when they play one of the good ones. In 20 years it will be impossible for just about anyone to comprehend why you find it distasteful, the change is that universal. Furthermore, and more important in so far as making predictions about how things will go, and this is key: F2P is how the internet works.

There is an infinite variety and quantity of entertainment on the web, and the agreed-upon price is zero dollars. If you can find a way to work with that, rather than against it, you ought to do well.

Joe McGinn
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P.S. - Interesting that you mention TV, the most popular form of entertainment in the world for the last 50 years ... if there was ever proof that people will gladly accept a F2P business model (as long as they get value from it) you don't really need to look further than that.

Florian Garcia
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I've been in China for 6 years now and yes the model works. In fact, it's the only model they've ever known due to heavy piracy of about everything digital.
It works as it would work if you were taught to eat burritos every day at 6 am since you are born. You simply wouldn't be able to consider eating cereals or eggs or anything else.
Another reason of the model success is the number of players but you simply can't ask all the country to have more or less 2 billion citizens.
Now when looking at the games on the market and comparing them to the standards I have been use to, I would say that most are at best mediocre. They are money generating tools and nothing else. Done on the cheap and flooding the market so that they're sure people will use their billing system rather than the competitor's. It does not matter which game they play as long as it runs on their system.

Saying it works without explaining how it works is too easy. You just hide behind numbers as most money hungry people do.

As a mass media, we have responsibilities of education and teaching about the value of things is one of them. I guess it was my own responsibility to explain the catch behind "it works in Asia" :)

Alexander Symington
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As a Japan-based dev, people here report the same kinds of criticisms of F2P that are frequently seen in the west. Granted, with a history of console game development, Japan might be seen as a special case within Asia, but that may indicate that, rather than being cultural, acceptance of F2P over upfront fees is related to a country's level of economic development. Core gamers I know in China tend to opt for Blizzard and BioWare games over F2P MMOs when both are accessible, and friends who grew up in China and then moved to Japan as adults ended up buying Nintendo consoles.

How a player's financial contribution to a game is paced - whether that's a single upfront fee, small payments after each section, or viewing advertisements as an alternative to a monetary fee - can very reasonably be considered a matter of taste, and the analogy to the TV model versus the movie model holds up very well there. But cases where microtransactions provide players with arbitrary in-game advantages, which includes even TF2 and LoL to a certain extent, is something else entirely, and has no meaningful parallel in other media. It's a logical design and balance problem that I don't think can be dismissed as culturally relative. Sure, there will be some players in any country or age group who aren't invested enough in the game or medium to mind this much, and a small minority who relish the ability to pay to win. But I'd bet that there will always be plenty who, supposing they can afford it, are willing to pay to maintain an even playing field, and for the game they're playing to be the best that it can be. Kickstarter alone shows that there is no consensus on the Internet that videogames should be free.

Aaron San Filippo
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Nobody's arguing that the model doesn't work. And nobody's arguing that it's not what the majority of people are asking for, or the most profitable, or where the future probably lies for much of the industry. Again with the TV analogy - clearly people consume more free television than movies.

What I'm saying is: None of this means it's universally a good thing, or that there aren't negative side-effects. People demand cheap fast food and fast food brings in much more revenue than healthier alternatives - but that doesn't mean it's universally good.

You can't argue that it's not fundamentally changing game design.
You can't argue that the monetization-filled experience isn't inferior to the monetization-free one.
You can't argue that it doesn't split developer focus, where with a non-F2P game he or she would be focused on the game's design.

I just think we need to dig a little deeper than "Hey it's what people are asking for and it's making lots of money, so it must be good."

Florian Garcia
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I would be careful about "that's what people are asking for". No they're not. They want games. Fundamentally and it goes for every product ever conceived by men, free is more attractive than paid.
Hell, who wouldn't want a free bottle of wine with a caviar toast. Of course I'd ask for more free wine but it doesn't represent a trend of me asking for a specific kind of grapes that allows to make free wine. In the end, it's purely: Free + wine = I like.

By the way, am I the only one here not watching TV because I believe most of the programs are crap and that I feel that it makes me become stupid? (This one's easy).

Jay Anne
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@Aaron
You are either seeing through rose colored glasses or you are intentionally ignoring many things about games prior to the F2P change. Remember when arcade games would kill you to get your quarters? Remember when MMORPGs worked to keep you paying a subscription for dangerously addictive and repetitive Skinner boxes? When 8 out of 10 Xbox game is a shooter? When only a tiny handful of huge budget games can compete for shelf space and the holiday season? Game design has never been about singularly making the best experience possible, and will never be in the future. Wherever you go, there you are.

In addition, if the non-monetized experience is SOO much better, then surely gamers would pay enough money to buy it, right? Let the market decide? Well, the market is deciding, and they seem to be proving you wrong.

Aaron San Filippo
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@Jay: I call strawman. I'm not ignoring anything. Of course there are other abuses and issues in the industry. But I think you're generalizing with your insinuation that "that's just how it was before the F2P change." - that's *still* how it is, and F2P didn't "fix" any of the issues you mention.

I also disagree that game design has never been about making the best experience possible - it still is for some of us.

And lastly - I don't think non-monetized games are universally SOOO much better - rather, I think F2P it's a subtle set of compromises that have slowly degraded the purity of the artform. You can't take marketing data to prove that F2P games are a better experience, just like you can't take marketing data to prove that a Big Mac is a better meal than a salad.

Show me the (successful) F2P equivalent of something like Portal.

Jay Anne
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@Aaron
Yes, I agree that F2P doesn't fix any of those. I hope nobody was ever arguing that. Purity of the artform? My first point was that it was never pure. My new second point will be that if you are concerned with art, you probably shouldn't have been working within monetization schemes in the first place. If your concern is the sanctity of artistic expression, you're entirely in the wrong discussion (and probably in the wrong industry altogether).

I think the discrepancy here is the concept of value. Games often revolve around monetary value. Is this arcade game worthy of my quarters? Was this PC/console game worth the cash to buy it? From the standpoint of many people, F2P is great because they get to play many great games for free. 10% of gamers are subsidizing the cost of gaming for the other 90%. In that respect, it improves things greatly. It may be hard for older gamers to come to grips with this, especially ones with disposable income.

It also appears that you may be focused on mobile F2P, which can be very different from PC F2P. Joe McGinn is spot on with the Theodore Sturgeon defense, and that is magnified in the mobile world, where I would say 99.9999999% of mobile games are crap. But I would argue that has more to do with the lowered barrier to entry more than anything else.

What is the Portal of F2P? That is a question that can be taken many ways. If you mean "a well executed experience that is respectful to its players", it's probably League of Legends. I dare you to try to talk a LoL player into thinking their experience would be better if they paid a monthly subscription in order to access all of the skins and champions.

Aside from that though, there's a bunch of other things. F2P means a service-oriented game can be created. You don't get a console game that updates with new content 2-3 years after release. F2P means the game's currency has real world value. When you earn things in-game, it feels different to know that it was worth real cash. F2P has meant role-playing elements are added to most games (which is great if you love role-playing elements). F2P has meant more games are oriented around playing with your friends (which is great if you have friends). F2P has meant games have tons of interactive virtual objects to collect (which is great if you are collectionist).

Stop living in the past, Aaron.

Stock Watcher66
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@ Joe McGinn Quote: "Games have been sold in Asia this way for ten years and the West is now catching up."

No they are not, nor will they ever. And that is the crux of the issue. Western and eastern markets are distinctly different in business models when it comes to gaming. Just because a game's design can apply globally, does not mean the business models can.

Secondly, F2P is not a matter of taste among customers. I have talked and surveyed hundreds of them and that statement couldn't be an farther from the truth. In all honesty, customers are disgusted with the F2P MT cash shop business practice in general (yes, I used the word disgusted). It only seems to be working because game companies are leaving little other choice. I can't wait for the day an MMO company comes along with a quality title and fair business model (for both them and the customers) and kicks the shit out of the rest of this industry as a result.

I will argue this point constantly, because unlike most companies, I have actually done the research with the customers themselves - not some pretty powerpoint slides of regurgitated data put up by so called "experts".

Svein-Gunnar Johansen
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Interesting viewpoints. The most worrying implication I can see as a result of the current "FreeToPlay" wave is the devaluation of work put into making games. Games are getting very cheap these days, which is awesome for me as a consumer in the short run. This was however what brought about the US video-game crash of 1983. It was so easy to churn out shovel-ware that too many were doing it, and prices subsequently went too low to justify the cost of production of the good stuff.

Alexander Symington
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I don't think the fact that centrally-controlled online games have finite lifespans necessarily means that they are lesser art. Many activities that I think we would clearly agree are very worthy art, such as theatrical drama, are far more transient still.

For me, the issue wouldn't be whether the game itself disappears, but what it leaves behind with its players when it's gone. And that is where, as discussed in the second half of the article, so many free-to-play fall down, by sacrificing the integrity and range of expression of their systems and fiction to maximise in-app purchasing rates. This approach seems incredibly unhelpful for the long-term health of the medium and industry.

Great conclusion with some practical ideas to tackle the biggest problems facing videogames today.

Kyle Redd
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I do not agree with the comparison to theatrical drama as another "transient" form of art. A theatrical performance can be recorded and preserved in high-quality audio and video, so the entirety of the experience can thus continue to be enjoyed by everyone forever. In fact in some circumstances (say, seeing the live performance with a terrible seat versus watching it with a tricked-out home theater system) the experience on video would be significantly better.

On the other hand, once the servers for F2P and most other online-only games are taken offline, that "art" cannot be appreciated by anyone ever again. That is the problem, one that I think is going to get a lot worse once more narrative-focused single-player games transition to F2P (or online-only DRM) as well.

Can you imagine not being able to play games like Grim Fandango or System Shock today (had they been originally released as online-only games), because the servers were taken offline shortly after achieving only mediocre sales?

Vin St John
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@Kyle - That theatrical performance can be recorded, but that is a close facsimile to the performance itself. It is not the actual performance. We can record video of games, too.

The theatrical performance can also be 'recreated' with the availability of scripts, sets, etc., within reason.

However, both of these scenarios are only generally true (in the big commercial spaces anyway) IF the creator of the art allows it. They often don't (or don't until it's significantly lucrative for them again because they've withheld these performances for several years). This is exactly what happens when an online game is taken offline.

That being said, I agree with Jeremy's follow-up point that the intermingling of the business model with the design diminishes its value as art. I'm never comfortable saying it's "not art" - but it's probably so un-arty that it's not worth discussing as art.

Kyle Redd
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@Vin

Regarding a video recording as a "facsimile" of the real thing: I take your point, but isn't that kind of splitting hairs? If I fire up a game of Duck Hunt on an emulator, I'll probably have to use the mouse to aim instead of a light gun - Not as "genuine" as the real thing, but at least I can still play the game. I'll still have about as much fun as I had with the real thing back on my NES two and a half decades or so ago.

I also purchased City of Heroes not so long ago. Can't do a damn thing with that game now except admire the box it came in. It's worthless. And browsing gameplay videos on Youtube isn't the least bit satisfying to me or anyone else who loved that game. Would you not agree that there's a pretty massive difference between watching a football match on TV and *actually being on the field*?

On the other hand, I'm just about done with my third playthrough of System Shock via DOSBox. I don't have the permission of the IP owners, by the way. No one could possibly get that permission right now because no one knows who actually owns the game. Regardless, I bought it at retail, I have the disc in my Blu Ray drive, and the game runs wonderfully. +1 for art that doesn't expire.

Alexander Symington
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It's fortunate that with modern technology we are able to record theatrical performances, although that wasn't practical for about 95% of the period that the medium has existed.

My view isn't that being able to preserve a work in perpetuity isn't a benefit, which it of course is. Rather, my point was that whether or not we currently have the ability to do seems to be irrelevant to the innate quality of that work.

Kyle Redd
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@Alexander

Yeah, I think I went off on a tangent that was somewhat unrelated to your initial point. I guess I'm not so much concerned about the relative value of art that only exists temporarily to that which is more permanent. I think it's sort of secondary to the idea that no art should be temporary in the first place.

It's rather saddening that as books, movies, and music have all progressed to a digital format that allows them to be preserved in perfect condition for eternity, games are actually moving in the opposite direction. To anyone who believes games deserve recognition for their artistic and historical value, that should be an incredibly alarming trend.

Christian Kulenkampff
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The idea art has something to do with archivability is absurd. Art is independent of the medium. Volatility might even add something to a piece of art.

Matt Robb
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I really disagree with the lumping of the mobile F2P games in with everything else in analysis articles like this one. While I'm sure there is some overlap in audience, the market for these games involves an entirely new audience, the money chased them like it chases any new market.

"iPhone...sim tap-and-wait games" are not competing for time with the console and PC games. When the same individual plays both, the former take up otherwise wasted time, while the latter have time set aside for them. The majority of mobile games are just toys. When we charge a dollar or less for the product, we can certainly expect the quality of toy one buys at a dollar discount store.

Rather than trying to come up with some system to find the gems, just let the price differentiate between premium quality and cheap toys. As with any product, charging a higher price provides the perception of "getting something more". Get some exposure in the same way any other "real" game uses. Now that the race to the bottom has been completed, if you charge what you believe your product is actually worth, the price alone will catch attention, which you can use to drive potential customers to whatever marketing you have to prove your case.

Aaron San Filippo
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So... Just make your app $10 and people will buy it, simple as that?
Hmm..

Matt Robb
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No, make your app *worth* $10 and charge $10.

Kyle Redd
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Mr. Alessi said he spent $20 on Eliminate, a purchase which ended up being a complete waste. $20 is a premium price for a mobile game, isn't it?

Jeremy Alessi
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Thanks for the comments! Live theatrical performance is one art form that I found to be an interesting comparison. However, I think the value propositions are completely different from an artistic point of view. Let's face it, the goal of live theatrics is a unique once in a lifetime experience while f2p games are monetization machines, not unique artistic performances.

Alexander Symington
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I agree with this point in almost all existing cases. The games I had in mind when making that comparison were things like Dark Souls or Journey, which use online transience for creative purposes rather than to impose artificial scarcity. While it's not entirely inconceivable that titles of a similar quality might be developed under F2P, I don't think it's a coincidence that these used an upfront fee model.

Curtiss Murphy
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What is the take-away? The article sort of falls apart near the end. I still enjoyed it cause it got me thinking.

The race to the bottom is over. And yet, sometimes I buy games for $4.99. Maybe I'm curious. Maybe I want to try something different. I don't know.

But, I do know that the old-days are gone. Technology is increasing at a double-exponential rate - aka HELLA fast. Whether we pine for the days of art-long-gone or strive to dominate with shovelware. Our ideas can only have a real impact if our companies stay alive - which requires $$. That's the challenge.

Jeremy Alessi
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Is that Curtiss Murphy from Norfolk?

Thanks for the comments and sorry about the ending. Christian and I actually talked about the fact that I didn't make a definitive point in the end. We went through with it for the exact reason you mentioned though, to get people thinking.

Curtiss Murphy
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Aye. Need to post a picture. And even with the wondering ending, it's still a good article.

I think about F2P a LOT. Say I come up with some new content. Do I make it free or charge? Is it super compelling? Does the app work without it? Inevitably, I get to this point where the new content is good, but monetizing it changes everything! It's a hard problem.

I have learned one thing: MORE products is better than one GREAT product. It's an out-of-the-box way to address 'whales'. If my customer likes one product, they'll buy others. So, I make products as fast as I can, while still focusing on quality. Which means smaller products. That let's me repeat the cycle faster: Try; Fail; Improve; Repeat until too good to ignore.

New products give momentum to the old ones and customers finding the old ones try out the new. Some products I charge, some are free, ... still working out the right mix.

Luis Blondet
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Jeremy,

Your argument about the finite nature of F2P games and how they are doomed to shut down eventually, never to be experienced again, has converted me from being a F2P advocate. F2P games need to always be tied to central servers. When those servers stop, the game stops, leaving me only with memories. With a P2P game, you pay and you keep the memories you have as well as the physical game to revisit or perhaps share with your future children or grandchildren. Everyone that paid for a golden cartridge of The Legend Of Zelda and a NES can share it with the next generation. It certainly will have a better impact than to have them play it on a ROM.

This article has changed my thinking completely and i just wanted to thank you.

Please keep up the good work.

Jeremy Alessi
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Wow! Thanks for the kind comments Luis.

Vin St John
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Please keep in mind that taking issue with "games that can shut down" is completely different from taking issue with "games with microtransactions." It's natural for the two to go hand-in-hand, but there's nothing keeping a F2P single-player pet-raising game on iOS from removing its dependency on a server before it shuts down said servers, other than time/money. This is true for many online games that are NOT free to play.

Matt Robb
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Removing the dependency on the server requires effort, which translates to money. While, sure, a company could decide to take this effort out of kindness, it's pretty rare. So for all intents and purposes a "game with microtransactions" is a "game that can shut down".

Chris McLeod
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I think it's a really good idea to spend the time to make the game run without your severs. Getting as many people to play your game as possible, online, offline, seems like a fairly inexpensive, worthwhile thing to do.

Vin St John
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@Matt Robb my point was that F2P games are only a subset of "games that can shut down." Any game with an online component - Madden, WoW, even a game that just requires an online connection for DRM - can be shut down.

Simon Ludgate
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As a critic of temporary art forms, such as fireworks or food, where the art is inherently expressed in the destruction of the art medium, I can accept that some art forms can be temporary. But few art forms are made better by being temporary, and many efforts to temporalize art fail to please.

Once I was asked to critique a contemporary art piece consisting of many beautifully carved soap statues placed around a large mirror-finish wash basin. The catch? People were asked to engage with the art piece by washing their hands with a piece of soap, eventually eroding the statues away to smooth lumps and leaving the pristine water in the basin ever murkier. I reluctantly participated and left the art piece feeling dirtier after washing than I had arrived; the soap scum in the basin clung to my hands and I had to wash it off. I had participated in the experience, had become a part of the development of the art, but the whole experience was not one I'd wish to repeat.

Without geting too deep into art metaphor, F2P is like that dirty wash basin. The more people buy from app stores, the more muddied the market becomes with competitors looking to cash in. The more people rub in-app purchases into their games, the less beautiful each game comes, smoothing down to a thinly-veiled attempt to evoke the core desire to spend. When we finally step away from this "F2P revolution" we'll realize we've been soaking our hands in muck and we'll have nothing but worn down husks of things that could have once been called "art" littered around us.

Curtiss Murphy
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Nice metaphor. Poignant and yet, disgusting.

Zoran Cunningham
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This is undoubtedly one of the best comments I've read all year.

Steven Christian
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Reading this on a work computer and I logged in just to like this.

Jay Anne
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Yes, because the gaming world was filled with such beautifully carved artistic pieces prior to F2P.

Stock Watcher66
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Well written metaphor. In complete agreement.

Tadhg Kelly
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" Once the technology was in place, we weren't taken seriously because we didn't have complex characters and stories. We overcame that."

No we didn't. We just tell ourselves we did.

Tadhg Kelly
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More roundedly, I think what Jeremy is driving at is a lack of culture in f2p games, and on this I'd agree. They often don't have much soul, and in part this is because of applying the mechanism just a little too robotically. However the solution is not to go back to AAA.

The thing is: AAA games didn't start to wane because of a lack of innovation. They started to wane because of a lack of profitability. The audience expectations for a AAA game in terms of graphics and polish are basically HD-movie quality or better, and that costs an absolute fortune to create. More, in many cases, that the size of the game's audience can viably support.

Free to play became very attractive because developers could see what was happening in Asia, where not only did some games make big money, they made *repeatable* money from an audience over time. That is the attraction of f2p in a nutshell, just as it was the attraction of the arcades years ago, or subscriptions with MMOs. It's basically a way to extend the life of a game and its audience, and maybe therefore build a studio that endures (which retail is not able to do any more).

Does that make f2p inherently less artistic? No. The argument that some games don't endure is no different to the argument that games expire because backward compatibility dies. There is an issue, I agree, with archiving some of this content for the future, but that doesn't mean the audiences playing those games today might not find them personally expressive or meaningful. Many are the FarmVille players who are very proud of the personal garden creations in that world, even if we don't quite relate.

Nonetheless, as I said at the top, I think culture IS an issue for f2p games. I also think that (given time) we will see games that start to exhibit a sense of culture. Just as we did in the arcades, and now fondly remember many key releases that took all of our lunch money when we were kids.

Dave Blanpied
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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.

Clement Bommelaer
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As much as I enjoyed the read of this thoughtful article, I find myself disagreeing on some points. I feel like Jeremy is blaming the F2P for some points that are in fact related to online multiplayer games. Once the population dwindles, or the game gets too old, the experience changes dramatically and sometimes servers are shut down. Even World of Warcraft, or its successor League of Legends will die one day.
Does it mean that those 2 are not art? A lot of people see LoL as F2P done right, but its heritage and long term existence will face the same problems as WoW, which is P2P.

Of course, I know that you are also making reference to games that may be single player games, and still require us to be online, or connected to a network to be able to play them. Those games might one day disappear for the sole reason that the company making them is losing money maintaining the game. And that is OK to me. Here is why:

I was disagreeing at first with the comparison Matt Robb made with theater. But both the game and the drama are unique creations that can be reproduced. If you have enough documentation on how the game was made, you could code or emulate it again. Intellectual property laws will stop you from doing that, but I think this is just a symptom of the youth of video games. Is has only been a few decades since people started playing.

Your main criteria here to qualify games as art is "timeless". But so little time has passed... Would you really say that Halo is "timeless" because you remember it fondly 12 years after? Your article is interesting because it reaches to the grander scheme of things that is art, but I think that you lack perspective in your analysis.

Until our time, what normally constitutes art is what survive the trial of time. What remains once the fad has stopped, once the fashion has changed. There are two problems with that today.
One, life is led faster than it has ever been.
Two, video games, if they are art, are of their own form of art and comparisons can only lead us so far. Multiplayer games are an experience enjoyed for a moment, limited by their very nature. Single player games are medias that have a beginning, an end (most of the time), and require from their 'consumer' way much more than any other form of art. It makes them less universal and more personal then other forms of art.

Ironically, singularity is viewed as a good thing in video games nowadays, whereas universality, which can be described as an essential characteristic of art, is assimilated to product for the masses, that do not serve the cause.

I realize that I may not really be making an accurate point here, but I will say as a conclusion that timelessness should not be the only criteria to define games as art, especially that soon after the birth of gaming.

Matt Robb
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Thanks for the name drop, but I wasn't the one with the theater points. Believe you were looking for Alexander Symington.

Nikki Wardhana
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While the use of the term "art" is questionable to me (I prefer the term craft myself), this generally describes the concern with games as a service model and not the F2P model itself.

And I agree with it. Having developed a few F2P and service model games before, it baffled me how much experimentation is discouraged in favor of metrics-based design.

Adam Peck
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Really well-written and thought-provoking article!

As an aspiring game designer, I'm in the camp that believes games can be art, especially now in the age of the app store where a multi-talented solo indie developer can make a game as a personal hobby project by night, pay very little for development costs, and still potentially reach a large audience. Ultimately I think the basement visionary has a greater chance to create a game that rises to the level of art than the mass-market corporation fueled primarily by profit.

The over-saturation of free-to-play games made as "merely revenue vehicles" is disheartening, but as you've described, follows the natural evolution of the industry. But yet, while "users really have little reason to spend money on any one game" because "users have an unlimited supply of free games", I'm optimistic that one could draw a similar connection to books; readers have an unlimited supply of reading material on the internet and an unlimited supply of books at their local libraries, but books - both physical and digital - continue to sell, even in the age of the internet, movies, and mobile devices.

Similarly with games, despite the race to the bottom in the app store market, gamers continue to shell out $60 a pop for the latest AAA titles, as well as $10-$20 for console arcade games. While freemium games benefit in downloads by reducing the initial price hump, I think consumers will develop an understanding over time that in games, like everything in life, you get what you pay for.

In order for games, at least some of them, to exist outside the rat race and be taken seriously as art, it will take game developers valuing their creative goals over the trending attraction of in-app profits. I think that if a developer is drawn to make a game for the app store solely because they were lured by the perceived gold rush or the desire to "win" at the app leaderboard, their game will lack the spark - the soul - that divides art from consumer goods.

The games I love, from indie to big budget, all have evidence of love built into them: a dignity of craftsmanship, care, and character that come only from true artists, whether their medium is digital paint strokes or elegant code. As long as these creatives continue making games for reasons deeper than dollars, games as an art form will survive the app store wars.

Perhaps the mobile gold rush will end the same way it did in California: after a massive influx of miners (profit-driven developers), the landscape will be so worn (over-saturated with free games), that there will be little to nothing left to gain, and the profit-seekers will move on to pursue other trends. But like the lasting effects of the California gold rush, the positive effect has and will be the communities of game developers formed around the app store and other game platforms: people who are content to settle and continue working in the space despite the profitless conditions. These will be the truly passionate game developers, the artists who establish their roots in the medium and help games continue to grow as a form of art and culture.

Andrew Dobbs
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More than even craftmanship, care, and character, what games really need to be art are more dinosaurs.

Jeremy Reaban
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City of Heroes shutting down a year after their F2P switch made me wary about every spending money on a MMORPG again. I spend $120 unlocking lots of character slots and superpowers, only to have it be for nothing a year later.

Even when games are apparently profitable they can still be shut down with little warning.

Natascha Roosli
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What an amazing article - and finally someone who I can agree with whole-heartedly. It's so incredibly disheartening if you are an indie trying to make a proper console game at this point in time. Something ambitious and pretty. You get shut down due to risks, costs and exactly the reasons you mentioned.

We are however stubborn and try to make it work. However, unless the publisher and investor do what you suggested and stop priorizing numbers and rankings that won't happen and I don't see that changing. It's just not economical and logic for someone who makes decisions on what to spend money on based on risk evaluation.

It's ironic though.
It feels like most platform holders except Nintendo destroy the merit if their own hardware by pushing towards f2b and mobile and low cost titles as well.

Matt Robb
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Honestly, I think game development will likely follow the patterns of the music industry. Publishers work like major music labels, pushing out heavily-produced products similar to established hits. Indies function similarly in both, often working a day job to get by or living off savings from a previous job.

That said, Kickstarter is having an interesting effect on this pattern. I'll enjoy seeing how that plays out.

Christian Kulenkampff
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I think game-as-a-service developers should just publish code/assets under a "noncommercial" license to the paying community, when they want to abandon their product.

Matt Robb
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Would be nice, but those things have value that may be used again later. Donating them to the customers is nice, but makes little sense economically aside from some positive press.

Christian Kulenkampff
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It might increase the willingness to pay in item shops. You know your investment will at least earn you a noncommercial licence for a game you liked to play. The fan community can then implement a free shard. I don't see how this licensing affects the ability to reuse the stuff in a commercial project.

Christian Kulenkampff
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Regarding devaluation of games: It is only natural that easily copyable digital products loose value in a market that is oversaturated (just look at music). *-as-a-service and volatile experiences are the only managable answers to this problem.

Emppu Nurminen
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Unfortunately you are trying to advocate high culture entertainment to things that are more suitable for low culture entertainment. There's a reason why people watch more Youtube videos than complete episode or seasons. There's a reason, why funny pages contains only strip comics and not pages of graphic novels. Because they are perfect for the situation they are presented in while high culture products needs more attention to be understood and appreciated.
Please, go and find the most crowded street and walk it from one end to another while playing the best immersive game you have on mobile. Hard ain't it? Do you really understand that all the people don't play their game on own solitude, right? With doing games that are more suitable for being played on own solitude, will always be is a niche business with mobile and handhelds.
I'm quite irritated how people assume that making for niche way of playing games is the "only way", when I constantly see how many situations people actually play their games. After all, won't you be much happier if the game is played and appreciated than not be played and under-appreciated? I'm not saying that people should give up on what they believe to be good games, I'm just saying that trying to distribute their own creating from every possible channels is simply shooting in own foot with a bazooka.
The solutions for App Store are good and should be done, the problem is still that those highly immersive games won't be played a lot after the bought because it is against the nature of how many situations people play with their mobiles. That is far sadder story as in such idealistic perspective you are looking it.

Hakim Boukellif
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Whether it's "high culture" or "low culture" or other such nonsense has nothing to do with it. Had Tetris, pretty much the poster child of games that people like to play on a portable device when they have a few spare minutes ...or hours, first come out today, it would no doubt be only available as a F2P app that would stop being playable the moment it ceases to be profitable and would have all sorts of impurities in its game design to make IAP viable and the game, the artform and the industry would be lesser for it.

Emppu Nurminen
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It has, if the basic assumption is that you need such massive, complex infrastructure more common to core games to have your game on the App Store or Google Play. None said you have to build your game on external servers to be completely functioning on mobile. It's really odd comment considering that there have to be quite many MMORPG's that never made it and had to be killed. I really wonder, how this kind of situation differs from those, because building the game experience that relative to community itself always has that risk.
It will be interesting to see how these games like Candy Crush or Bubble Mania will evolve, when they aren't profitable for their owners, but they are fully functional without social interaction. That's also case with Tetris, and that's why if Tetris ever will be a freemium game, it won't kill the initial experiences unless the core mechanics are involved with features needing external server.

Diana Hsu
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I think these are important things to talk about, and personally, I do believe that the financial viability of non-FTP games will severely limit the chances of highly funded games without strong FTP monetization elements from being made in the future. The fact is, all else being equal, games with FTP monetization elements make more money than one time purchase games.

That being said, I believe that game development is just like any other kind of industry that could be considered an art/craft -- illustration, furniture making, sculpture, writing, etc. For the most part, game companies will be worrying about monetization from the start of pre-production.

But you also have your indie game developers who are making games for the sake of the craft, for the sake of making a wholly enriching game experience that is untouched by monetization game elements that are, by necessity, infused into the game experience in FTP games.

Stock Watcher66
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@ Diana - Please give me one title that has done that because my research has shown it to be completely untrue. Especially with most MMOs geared towards more mature audiences. More importantly, give me one F2P title that has GROWN revenue consistently over say a 12-24 month period. F2P usually gets a bump right after converting from another business model but then tends to track consistently downhill from there.

In this market, WoW, at eight years old, is still the dominate moneymaker.

All F2P does is increase the average revenue of those that decide to play. In other words, to survive they need customers to spend more than the standard $15/month.

I will agree that the sub model is dying or dead - but F2P MT is not the future either. It may work in the short term, but it also creates serious brand devaluation (due to the massive loss of customer faith) and long term survivability.

There are other business models that can be explored (I made a list of them on another topic on this site) and, like the staleness of copied game play mentioned in the article, the same can be said of the business model.

Jeremy Alessi
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How about this... Now when you apply for a game design position, companies don't care if your design input makes the game more pleasurable to play. Instead "game designer" now really means "bean collector". I've experienced this first hand, which in part is what inspired this article. If that's not a very scary indication of the road we're on then I don't know what is. This more than anything demonstrates why this is different from MMOs or other limited time sever based experiences. At least the experience was still paramount to the design process.

Emppu Nurminen
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You have to acknowledge that freemium is a business model to begin with, and while others can rely on niche audiences because of their genres, casual games can't do that because it's not in their nature to be for niche audience. When you can rely that there is niche audience, you can rely on certain freemium models easier than others and have more conservative attitude to develop the business model you have.
With casual games, there is the three months time to make it or break it, and that creates tremendous pressures to develop the best possible freemium model. The problem is that you don't know does it work or not until it's out there, and therefore it's an real issue, if the business model development is left too high in the management hierarchy to decide what to do, when game designers themselves are at it already to give the suggestions for that.

John Krajewski
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I don't understand your argument. Why does the fact that a game is no longer online mean that it isn't/wasn't art? Plenty of art is temporary.

Jeremy Alessi
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Others made that same point (and it's true). I think the last post I made explains my thought process a little deeper. The fact that they disappear is just one part of the problem.

Christian Kulenkampff
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So artists have to be ethical people who don't care about money? Art has nothing to do with monetization. I can create art only for the sake of money. This focus on monetization might affect my art, but it is irrelevant to the classification as art.

Geisha shows, richly ornamented gambling machines, contract portraits, money eating F2P games: there is no way to simply disqualify them from art. Art is the result of creativity, interpretation _and_ performance.

Jeremy Alessi
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I think art can be a business but there's a continuum. There's a fade over which the business exacts too much control upon the art. Because it's a continuum it is still art but it is art manipulated by the restraints of the business model. To that end I'd say Nintendo's games are for example a purer form of the art than some others. When I play a Nintendo title the last thing I think about is my wallet. Obviously, there are many great brands on both sides of the continuum but Nintendo is my go to brand for such a point.

Christian Kulenkampff
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So a movie where you have to pay a huge amount per minute (you see a money counter under the screen) is less art? Can't we consider the business model as a legitimate part of art?

Thinking of money may affect your feelings towards the piece of art, but this feeling is just part of the experience (maybe even intended by the artist). A skull encrusted with diamonds is also because of its huge value interesting as art.

You may say you don't like the feeling of getting milked like a cash cow, but the game can still be a wonderful piece of art (enjoyed only by the rich and/or insane).

The value of things always had a huge role in art.

Jeremy Alessi
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I think the act of a monetary transaction interrupting the experience is unpleasant.

Stock Watcher66
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Excellent point. Which also tends to be a point that aligns with a lot of customers in the MMO space.

Can't wait to see a company able to provide a quality experience with a fair business model. The entire game industry seems to be lead by a bunch of business folks who haven't a friggin' clue about their customers.

John Owens
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Great article


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