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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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