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Winds of Change: Ben Cousins on Today and the Future

March 15, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

Ben Cousins has been a staunch advocate of the free-to-play and freemium models for quite some time, and he's not shy about his prediction that F2P will eventually sink the traditional console market.

His studio, Scattered Entertainment, has bet the farm on core-oriented mobile free-to-play, so it's no surprise that Cousins is all-in with the idea. And he has an answer to my every challenge. What of precision issues? Cousins says mobile is potentially more precise than consoles. What about regressive monetization schemes? Cousins says we're beyond them. What about browser and Facebook games? Cousins says their time has passed, along with Flash as a platform for building games. And the traditional publishers get no love, either. Cousins says a new model will rise to take their place.

We spoke with the always-firey Cousins about all these issues, how how he feels they may shape our industry in the years to come.

Sometimes I wonder how some of these free-to-play games make money. Jetpack Joyride, for example, is a well-designed, contained experience that I can just keep playing through, beating challenges and such.

I've never once been compelled to spend money; I get enough in-game money through playing to buy items and whatnot. How is it consistently a top grossing app? It doesn't make any sense; there's no need to spend money.

BC: When you look at those types of mobile games, the more casual mobile games, a very, very small proportion of the audience are spending money. It's a tiny bit of portion of the audience, and they're spending like 20 bucks a day or something like that. So there are these outlying players whom, for them, their entire hobby, their main hobby in life is Jetpack Joyride. There are these kinds of people with a real passion, and it's unusual from a statistical point of view maybe, but it actually drives the whole game, kind of.

What you see in core freemium games is a much higher rate of people converting to spend, and those people are spending a lot more money. So it's a lot more analogous to a traditional model, where if you're playing the game, you know a lot of people who've spent money, and it's much more acceptable and normal to spend money. I think for games like Jetpack Joyride, Temple Run, a lot of the iOS games, they are not doing a great job of monetizing, because they've got great user volume, but they're not concentrating on adding monetization in a way that really adds value to the game, in my opinion.

So for me, one of the big goals with freemium is to get the user volume that you get on social games and mobile games, but with the monetization rates that you get on core games. And at that point you can basically start spending a hundred million dollars a year, like on Call of Duty. If I can download a game for free, which is as high quality as Gears of War, then I'm more likely to monetize it. But it's not that -- you can't really start to spend that money until people are monetizing it. And when I talk about monetizing, this is consumer-driven behavior; we're past that stage of cynically manipulating people, I think.

I would say the better games are. Some companies are still definitely trying to manipulate people.

BC: Don't get me wrong -- when I say "we" I'm talking about those of us that have been doing it for five years. We're past stage 1, 2, 3, and 4 of monetization, and we're thinking about how we can really create a positive value out of the experience for players. The game that we're working on, you can't directly purchase any content in the game -- you have to play to get the content -- and the monetization is around speeding that up and making it more convenient. And that would be one of the stages that we're getting to.

Yeah, time and convenience certainly seems like the thing that people have been doing, but I'm not a big fan of that, so I hope there will be a next stage beyond that as well.

One thing I've been watching... core games have traditionally been about control and ability. You know, "I have the reflexes and the foresight to do this move at this time," and it's been very difficult to replicate that on mobile so far, Super Hexagon aside.

What I've seen when people do is games with a core-oriented graphic style andsimilar mentality, but they don't have the mechanics that a core player might expect. How could that be achieved in something that is as imprecise as gesture and touch?

BC: I actually think that, in some respects, gesture and touch is more precise than a joystick. You've got a very -- I don't know the exact resolution of the touch grid on an iPad -- but if you think about any shooter, being able to shoot almost every single pixel on screen with a single touch if you were doing a tap-to-shoot mechanic, that's much more precise than having to use a spring-loaded joystick to kind of drag a gun over to the top left hand corner and shoot.

So it's kind of roundabout; there's a balance between a lack of precision on one hand and then an increase in precision on another. I just think that we're at the stage where people are still learning how they're going to do this, and I think that we're realizing that virtual sticks -- and to a degree virtual buttons -- are not the correct way to do it. I think that something like Infinity Blade is a starting point; definitely not a perfect implementation of how you do that, but it's definitely a starting point.

One of the things that we're doing on our project is trying to do exactly that. And it's a skill-based game, so we are betting a large degree on the ability for us to pull off a skill-based scenario used to describe the sort of thing that you could post a video on YouTube about and people would be extremely impressed by it, by just using touch. I think it's just not been done; no one's done it yet.

And the analogy we always make is around shooters on console, that shooters on console were not very successful, apart from GoldenEye, until Halo. But GoldenEye still controls really fantastic, and Bungie made a big investment on R&D and also in usability testing in order to create a control system for shooters to ensure that product would be a success.

And everyone else has stolen, maybe not the button mapping, but the way that the relationship between stick movement and camera acceleration and sticky aiming and all those other things; and reduced field of view, only two weapons, rechargeable health. And I think that we're going to see some tent pole titles on mobile which define how you do shooters, how you do Diablo-style games, how you do RTSes, et cetera.


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Comments


TC Weidner
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HUH, BFH ( Battlefield Heroes) was shaping up to be something special, then it went all in on the monetization kick in late beta, then went into a soft launch, and the game never reached its full potential. So please, BFH is a prime example of what monetization does to kill a sound design and fun game, it alters it and slowly strangles it.

Curtiss Murphy
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When done poorly. But when done right? Well, you get products like League of Legends.

TC Weidner
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problem is LOL is a rare exception it seems. There many many many more examples of it done poorly, than done right. So its not some 50/50 proposition.

And I bring BFH up because Ben Cousins was a lead designer on that.

Luis Guimaraes
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"And everyone else has stolen, maybe not the button mapping, but the way that the relationship between stick movement and camera acceleration and sticky aiming and all those other things; and reduced field of view, only two weapons, rechargeable health. And I think that we're going to see some tent pole titles on mobile which define how you do shooters, how you do Diablo-style games, how you do RTSes, et cetera."

That's exactly what I say to our team all the time.

"Sure, there's that precision potentially, but with touch you necessarily have to block what you're doing -- you have to get in your own way."

Like in all console FPS and TPS titles that obscure half the 60 fov screen with ADS or the character's backs.

Dave Long
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Aye, but they don't obscure where you're actually aiming, there's a big difference ;). I think it's great that tap-to-shoot games are taking off, but I think there's no way they'll be more than a niche entry into the shooter field. With a controller or mouse/keyboard you can have easier to intuitively understand implementations of recoil, switch rates of fire, reload, all sorts of things without having to obscure the screen. On mobile and tablet (less of an issue on large tablet screens, of course), you have to give up screen real estate the more complex a game gets. Playing a PS2 game like SOCOM would leave you with an eighth of the screen for the actual game, and fill the rest with controls!

Aaron San Filippo
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So.... Everyone else is still in the dark ages with monetization, but their team's doing it right... By providing excessive grinding and letting you pay to skip ahead?

Really? This is the future of monetization this F2P visionary sees as the way forward?

It doesn't come through in the text of the interview, but I sort of get the impression there was an awkward silence after Brandon's comment there :)

Lewis Wakeford
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"We make the most money, therefore we are the smartest and the bestest!"

Honestly this whole frustration based Free 2 Play thing irks me. I can't really articulate why exactly, but something about it just seems wrong and a bit scummy.

Aaron San Filippo
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Maybe I read into that one a bit wrong. Still...

Robert Green
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That's definitely how I saw it. When someone says "the monetization is around speeding that up and making it more convenient", I think it only begs the question - why make it slow and inconvenient in the first place?

Jamie Churchman
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" why make it slow and inconvenient in the first place?"

Sup Rob. Because without that inconvenience of a grind you have a boring game. If you can get everything you want there is no tension, no struggle, no fun, no game. Its like being full and showered with candy. So you need to stagger the game and pace out the candy rewards... the unlocks, the attaboys, the new features. As soon as you add F2P to it, this appears arbitrary deliberate design decision to enhance profit. If you make it premium it appears a genius design decision to enhance the flow.

This is what I struggle with in the case of Ridiculous Fishing, for all intents its the perfect free to play game design. It even borrows what appears to be freemium consumables such as the 'head start' but puts it in the context of a premium game. To me that game could retain all of its game design decisions but equally exist as a F2P game. However I think the perception of the games deliberate grinding aspects would suddenly appear a bit more nefarious. You could make this 'grind' easier if you could pay money to unlock the infinite fishing line straight away, and thus the game is deliberately slowing your progress with a paywall.

Robert Green
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"Because without that inconvenience of a grind you have a boring game. If you can get everything you want there is no tension, no struggle, no fun, no game. Its like being full and showered with candy."

I think you're confusing grind with challenge. All games should have some level of challenge, but it's only considered to be 'grind' when you're being asked to repeat the same tasks over and over before the game will allow you to 'continue', whatever that means in the context of your game. In a typical JRPG for example, most of the combat is roughly the same task, being repeated over the course of 20+ hours. This is not considered grinding by itself though. When people consider it to be a grind is either when too many similar battles are strung together in a row without advancing the plot, or when a really tough boss is thrown at you, forcing you to seek out random battles just to 'level up'. Grind is not just repeating gameplay, grind is repeating gameplay to the point where people feel like the only reason they're doing it is to make the game last longer.

I've been playing Ridiculous Fishing too, and one of the things I like about it (other than just that the core elements are fun) is that you always seem to be one or two games away from unlocking something new. Sure you could have made this freemium, but if people can always get something new with one or two more games (and there are no consumables that I can see), then why would anyone spend money on it? This is essentially what happened to Punch Quest. They released a good game into the world, with an ingame store, but balanced in such a way that you were unlocking content at a rate that nobody found annoying. So they never had a reason to buy coins. The same thing would happen if Ridiculous Fishing were freemium too, unless, like Mr Cousin's suggests, they were to balance it differently in order to be able to monetise speeding it up. And by different, I obviously mean worse. Less enjoyable.

Jamie Churchman
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Yeah, grind is the wrong term to use.

My point is largely that developers have control over the rate of progress and its required to slow this rate down. If its freemium this rate tends to be viewed cynically as a way to force a sale, if it's premium then its accepted 'as the game'.

Punch Quest is a great example that's almost self consciously free. Its rate of unlock was at the point it didn't give me a chance to fully master or understand each new ability before being given another one. That's a problem that exists regardless of monetization. To label that as 'the reason' it didn't sell well is probably ignoring a few other factors.

A counter example is JPJR, designed as premium and switched to freemium without altering the game unlock structure to force more sales (as far as i know?), and still sits in the top 200 grossing of most territories. There are not many success stories like that, but to say you need to shove a spanner in a game to make freemium work is not correct.

Robert Green
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"My point is largely that developers have control over the rate of progress and its required to slow this rate down. If its freemium this rate tends to be viewed cynically as a way to force a sale, if it's premium then its accepted 'as the game'."

I'm really confused about this one. Why exactly are premium game developers required to slow the rate of progress down? The only time I can imagine this being true is if they didn't have the content required to fill the duration of time they wanted people to play their game, but even then it's a choice, and not one that many players would thank them for. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I don't recall ever reading a review where the writer said "I'm glad that game really dragged on so that it lasted 12 hours instead of 8".

There may have been other factors in Punch Quest's story, but I'm basing my comments on their own words:
http://penny-arcade.com/report/article/when-a-huge-audience-isnt-
enough-how-punch-quest-tweaked-an-economy-into-pr
Everything in there suggests that the real solution to their monetisation problems was to drastically increase the price of the early items, making for more repetition without new content, and hence more of a grind.

Jetpack Joyride is an interesting case. I don't know if they changed the economy, but they did add many new expensive items, in addition to having a 90 metacritic score, a million paid downloads and tens of millions of free downloads. I'm also pretty sure the amount of time you'd have to play it to unlock everything would be far greater than Ridiculous Fishing, based on what I've seen thus far, so the comparison isn't a great one. If you're trying to claim that the kind of game that can get great reviews and a million paid downloads doesn't have to be as much of a grind as one that can't, then I'm not going to argue.

Bob Johnson
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Grinding is what happens when you've mastered the challenge or got over the initial novelty of a mechanic and you are just asked to do tasks just to do tasks. It is when a game becomes tedious. You are filling out an order form at this point.

I don't think it is viewed more negatively if it is free. Probably the opposite actually.

Who wants to pay a lot for a game that is padded with lots of grinding? You can forgive it if the game is free.

Plenty of folks complained that WoW was too much of a grind, for example.


Jamie Churchman
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"I'm really confused about this one. Why exactly are premium game developers required to slow the rate of progress down?"

So you are not enveloped by every level, ability, weapon, puzzle, and piece of content at once.

Robert Green
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Oh... well I guess if you start with every level/mechanic/character/etc in the game all at once, then yes, you would be required to slow that down.

But then your comment makes no concession to the idea of good or bad pacing, the idea that new content can be delivered at different rates, and the reality that if you're selling the ability to speed up this delivery rate, then by definition you have an incentive to make it slower than you otherwise would.

I don't think it's being all that cynical to recognise that incentive, especially when so many of the most successful social/freemium games are explicitly based on real-world waiting periods.

Alexander Zimdahl
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"but if you think about any shooter, being able to shoot almost every single pixel on screen with a single touch if you were doing a tap-to-shoot mechanic, that's much more precise than having to use a spring-loaded joystick to kind of drag a gun over to the top left hand corner and shoot."

If you think about it, the spring-loaded joystick is more realistic than point and shoot. In real life, you would have to drag your sights across the field to focus on your target. Your wouldn't just shoot on point from where your eyes are looking. You have to physically drag your weapon so that your arms meet your gaze, and then you shoot. Also, if you were to slow your head and eyes down, you would see that they drag from Point A to Point B, and not jump from Point A to Point B, i.e. touching the screen and your character suddenly focuses on that point, without taking the road from Point A (where the camera was looking) to point B (where the camera is now looking).

So is Cousins correct about his point of precision? Absolutely, but the reality factor kicks in, which is a major factor in getting gamers to relate to their character and immerse themselves into the game.

Steven Day
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I'm really don't see the 'pay to speed up rewards' style of monetisation lasting too long. It starts to feel too much like 'pay to win' which is a non-starter for most people.

Ultimately, I think in-game adverts will prevail and it's probably the best solution. I don't mean a pop up mid game, I mean within a game, a billboard that's running an advert - or in a racing game, the bridge has an advert on etc etc etc - advert space assigned in game and dynamically loaded according to who's paid for a slot. It needs to be done right still, I mean a billboard advertising washing up powder as you walk into Orgrimmar might impact the immersion somewhat :)


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