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'Reclaiming my soul', or 'Why I quit making free-to-play mobile games'

'Reclaiming my soul', or 'Why I quit making free-to-play mobile games'

November 4, 2014 | By Kris Graft




Telltale Games producer Caryl Shaw told an audience at GDC Next today about how she was able to "reclaim her soul" by quitting free-to-play mobile games and head back to the triple-A development industry.

Shaw, who worked on games including Ngmoco's We Rule and Kixeye's Backyard Monsters, made clear that her talk was her personal experience in reconnecting what she was passionate about in game development -- and not an overall indictment of free-to-play mobile games and the people who work on them.

That said, Shaw said she felt she was compromising a lot of her personal beliefs about game creation by taking part in F2P mobile. This, she said, led her to lose sleep at night, thinking about her career path.

Shaw, who worked at Sims developer Maxis prior to moving into mobile, said, “I developed some concerns [when working in F2P]. It was a slow burn—it took about 15 months of me asking myself questions about what I wanted to do next.”

She showed a slide of Glu Mobile's highly successful Kim Kardashian: Hollywood game, and said if she would still be in F2P mobile, she'd have to play that game and study its design and monetization. That's not something she was interested in.

“I felt disingenuous — I didn’t want to spend my spare time thinking about Kim Kardashian. It just wasn’t for me!” she said. Playing such successful mobile games are more of a study of business, and not game design. For her personally, it's the game design and production that she's most interested in.

She said going back to triple-A let her go back to the roots of why she loved games.

So what were the concerns she had when working in F2P mobile? One is the common lean start-up concept of launching a Minimum Viable Product.

“This is a great way to software, but to me, not a great way to make games,” said Shaw. She wanted to go back to making games that are complete when they launch; something that is ready for critics to examine, and something that is ready for players to enjoy.

She also was bothered by the idea of "fast follows," and the copy-cat practice that is so common in mobile games. Shaw said she would be incredibly disappointed to see games she enjoyed become commercially overshadowed by lower-quality copies.

“I didn’t want to be contributing to a part of the industry that was cheating my fellow game developers out of their creativity," she said.

The focus on whales -- that tiny percentage of players who pay the most amount of money on a free-to-play game -- also was a cause of concern for her. She wanted to create experiences that catered to 100 percent of her customers, not just a sliver of the audience.

Shaw added that the "alphabet soup" of F2P acronyms -- ARPU, DAU, ARPPU, etc. -- and the associated data was interesting at first, but the focus on data-as-a-monetization-tool wore thin after a while. At Telltale, she uses data to inform players. The data feedback is part of the game, and that was more appealing to her. Shaw said she also wants data to inform game design and community choices, rather than using it to drive addictive behavior and monetization.

“If I didn’t have to use the word ‘monetize’ ever again, I’d be happy!" she said.

Even with the concerns she has with free-to-play, she acknowledged that for some people, solving the riddles of that market might be their passion. It just wasn't for her, and game developers should find out what they're passionate about, and follow that instinct.

“I feel like I’m following my passion again," she said. "... When you do game development, you gotta love what you’re doing."

You can catch up on Gamasutra's GDC Next coverage all in one location. GDC and Gamasutra are sibling organizations under parent UBM Tech.


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