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The Shame Game: An Interview With Jesse Schell
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The Shame Game: An Interview With Jesse Schell

July 16, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

I like looking at the relationship between core players and free-to-play stuff right now because there's a sense on their part that free-to-play is taking away from the experience that they want to have. I've thought about this a bit. It should really be about the ecosystem of games getting larger than this combat between free-to-play and premium paid games.

There is a little truth to them losing the content they like, simply because of where the money is going, and companies not quite having the resources to do these full, classically-defined retail experiences versus the money that they get from free-to-play. I hadn't quite thought about it that way before, where the money is going is almost proving those core players correct right now. They're upset that free-to-play exists entirely. It bothers them very much.

JS: Don't play the game.

But what I'm saying is that because so many companies now are feeling like they have to chase that, there almost is a reallocation of resources...

JS: Right. No, there is because it works better. There's a real tension there because we know there are many contexts in which free-to-play makes more money, right? And as a developer, you want to make more money.

But we know that also the free-to-play mechanics have a certain interruptive quality which can spoil the play a little bit. So there are things on the ends of the spectrum where it's very obvious. Skyrim should not be free-to-play.We get that. It would really ruin it if we don't get that.

And then way on the other hand, you have these little potato chip games where it's like, yeah, it totally makes sense that this game is free-to-play. But it's the stuff in the middle where we're like, "Which way should this go?" Dungeons & Dragons Online, should it be free-to- play? How should that work? That's kind of where the tension is.

But this isn't a new idea! If you look at the history of amusement parks and theme parks, they've gone through exactly the same tension and evolution, and I think it's instructive to look at that, because I think the way things are going to end up is going to be very similar to that.

Disneyland started with a microtransaction model. It was 10 cents to ride each ride, 35 cents to ride each ride. And then '71, Magic Mountain opens, and they say, "Screw that, one price, pay five bucks, get in, ride everything you want." It's simpler, and it has a magic feeling. Like, "Oh my God, this is great! I make a sacrifice to enter utopia, that feels like a naturally human thing to do, and I can do whatever I want." It's a magic feeling.

Disneyland realized they should do the same thing, and they did it, and it worked really well for them. Did that mean that the free-to-play model went away for [amusement parks]? It didn't, because if you look at county fairs, it's still what they do. Because a county fair can't afford to put up a big paywall and say you can't come in here if you don't pay, because they're a lower-end thing. So I think the same thing is going to happen with games. We're going to have these lower-end experiences where you can do that if you want. I don't think free-to-play is going to kill the "pay one price to get in" games.

But I think what we're going to see is a gradual separation. I think there's going to be more on the ends and a little less in the middle. It does mean that the games where you pay one price, they're going to have to be fricking great. So I therefore predict the quadruple-A title. That my prediction. Quadruple-A development is what's next.

That is amusing, but I think really what should happen is there should be a redefinition of triple-A. Because we don't even have double-A or single-A in terms of how people talk about stuff.

JS: Yeah, we used to. The time was very short when we talked about A and double-As.

With that kind of stuff, it seems clear that developers sometimes don't know what is going to incite the ire of their fans. Like Dead Space 3... They have something where you can pay for additional resources like ammunition and such. That is very abrasive to a core player who wants to perceive skill and their ability to manage resources as something to be prized. And that kind of microtransaction, putting that in there is just going to upset that core group, and that is who that game is targeting. I think those kinds of choices, as people kind of feel out what works and doesn't work... They're very interesting to look at.

JS: Yeah, it's a lot of awkward fumbling. One of the things that I think is true if you already have a game rolling with a certain system, any significant changes that you introduce to the financial model are very likely going to upset some people.

It's very hard to take a pre-existing model and inject microtransactions to it without upsetting the applecart. Much better to start over from the beginning, and then you're in a better place. And I think there are some people doing really well. The Dungeons & Dragons guys, they figured out some psychological aspects to make free-to-play work.

They have a really clever way of turning on its head. The reason it feels bad is because in a normal game, it's like, well, if you go, and you earn your weapons, and you've earned them, and then you go and use them, and you earn more stuff, it just all feels earn, earn, earned. And then you get microtransactions, it's like, "Hey, yeah, you want to kill that dragon? He's really tough. You should probably buy this battle-axe. It's $5." And you pay the $5 and you feel like a loser because I didn't earn it.

They do it differently in Dungeons & Dragons Online. What they say is, "Yeah, you want to go fight that dragon? The dragon adventure costs $5 to go on. I don't know if you're good enough to do it. You can pay $5 and try it." I'll put my $5, I'll try it. And then you go and kill the dragon, and it's really hard. And at the end, what's in the dragon's hoard? Awesome battle-axe. At the end of the day, you paid $5, you have the battle-axe, and you've killed the dragon. All the same event. But like you feel like you earned it. And it's just better psychology. There are ways to make it better.

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