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Free-to-Play: The Lost Generation
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Free-to-Play: The Lost Generation

December 4, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Is the free-to-play push hurting games and gamers? Experienced smartphone developer Jeremy Alessi investigates whether the business model has done harm to the art of game development, and where that leaves us.

The entire game industry is going in the direction of free-to-play. PopCap is embracing the model, laying off workers in the process; retail-focused console makers are opening up to the business model; some of the best designers around are singing the praises of this new era for games. In spite of all these trends, there is a huge elephant in the room: Traditional pay-to-play games live on as art, but F2P (free-to-play) games do not.

Need an example? Ask and ye shall receive. Let's roll back to November of 2001. There was a new system coming out. It was an unknown quantity from Microsoft we now know as the Xbox. Along with it, a new game called Halo arrived.

What some may not recall is that Metal Gear Solid 2 actually came out at the same time. I picked up my copy of MGS2 (for PlayStation 2) in the afternoon and picked my Xbox with Halo up at a midnight sale later that night. I will never forget my first few minutes with Halo.

I was pretty skeptical of the new Microsoft console initially but as I trudged through the lush environments, admired the picturesque ring encircling the planet, and fired upon surprisingly smart aliens, I realized that I was enjoying Halo as much as MGS2 and possibly more! In the end though, both were works of art that I can appreciate as much today as I did over a decade ago.

Now, fast forward to the summer of 2009. I was an iPhone developer for nearly a year when Ngmoco released a new game with the potential to turn the entire industry upside down. The game was Eliminate, and it was the first F2P iPhone game to utilize Apple's iOS 3.0 and a new in-app payments system.

The game was brilliant, especially for a mobile phone game. It was fast, fun, and multiplayer from anywhere at anytime. Even better -- the new business model worked. Eliminate became the top-grossing iPhone game and managed to stay in the charts much longer than similar, premium-priced titles.

I played and enjoyed Eliminate. I even tried out out the new IAP system and spent $20 on the game. I was enthralled at the possibilities of our latest technologies, just like every other developer. I looked at Eliminate as something to aspire to. Was it art to me like Halo or MGS2? Maybe -- but unlike Halo and MGS2, I can no longer play Eliminate, and I never got to enjoy the in-game currency I purchased.


In fact, I can safely say that Eliminate was not art. It was a great vehicle for new technology and for a new business model, but it failed to become art because it was not timeless. Due to the fact that Eliminate's business model and gameplay were entangled, it required an expensive backend infrastructure to run. Once that infrastructure's cost exceeded the game's income, Eliminate disappeared. This is not to mention the fact that the mechanics of entangling currency with gameplay forever change what the game is.

Abandoned Art

There are now literally thousands of examples of games that have been eliminated (pun intended) from the current generation of games because they are merely revenue vehicles. For a long time, the big question within the game industry was "are games art?" It's ironic that we should have an exhibit dedicated to the art of video games in the Smithsonian at the same time as the industry's most talented individuals have abandoned the pursuit of art in pursuit of the latest trend that may land them at the top of the charts.

So what is the game industry? Are we artists? Are we engineers? Are we investors? No. While our industry contains all of those roles, at its core the game industry is composed of players.

The problem with players is that they are always looking for a goal or a challenge to overcome, and they run directly at that goal until they smash right through it. Then, it's on to the next thing. Initially, games weren't taken very seriously because the technology was limited. We overcame that. Once the technology was in place, we weren't taken seriously because we didn't have complex characters and stories. We overcame that. Once we had complex characters and stories, we weren't taken seriously because we weren't making art, as it were, compared to other more established media forms.

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