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Opinion: The magic of free-to-play

Opinion: The magic of free-to-play Exclusive

July 18, 2012 | By David Edery

In this reprinted article from Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, Spry Fox CEO David Edery (Triple Town, Realm Of The Mad God) addresses the criticisms facing modern free to play games, and argues his case for why this model is actually good for the industry.

The first successful free to play games -- aka "games whose primary revenue source were in-game purchases" -- hit the market over a decade ago. Now they're everywhere. They account for eight of the top 10 grossing games on iOS as I write this. Rumor has it that all the major consoles will support free to play games in the next generation. Even our industry's most prominent, respected developers (i.e. PopCap, Valve, etc) have begun to embrace the model.

And yet there are still many game developers in the West who have mixed feelings about free to play, worrying that it is "evil" or that it perverts gameplay. But free to play is just a tool, and like any other powerful tool it can be used to create beautiful things or it can be used to create ugly things.

Let me tell you what free to play represents to me: an opportunity to bring entertainment to billions of people without relying on advertising revenue or government subsidies. An opportunity to embrace players who want to play our games but can't (or won't) pay, instead of forcing them to become pirates.

An opportunity to stop making disposable entertainment experiences and instead create games that live forever, supported by devoted fans who happily spend money to keep their favorite hobby alive.

For the first time in the history of mass media, we can entertain huge audiences without first bombarding them with advertisements for sugar water and corn flakes and without making them pirates. How is it that some people don't see the beauty of this?

(Note: I'm not personally opposed to advertising in games. But I find it puzzling that so many developers accept advertising -- aka psychological manipulation of consumers " as a given while decrying in-app payments.)

Any good tool can be used for evil

Yes, you can build free to play games that resemble slot machines and are designed to prey on people with addictive personalities. This is also true of card games (i.e. Blackjack), but you don't hear people protesting against all card games (i.e. Dominion or Solitaire) as a result. So please, stop confusing the bad things you could do via free to play with everything that can be done via free to play!

Here's a challenge for every curmudgeon out there who hates free to play games: start thinking about them as a form of progressive taxation, and allow your mind to expand from there. That's right: a system that subsidizes the poor via the willing and gratefully-made payments of the relatively wealthy.

Think it can't be done? Check out Triple Town and Realm of the Mad God. Both heavily favor skilled play over "purchased" advantages; unskilled, wealthy players absolutely cannot purchase their way above skilled players on the leaderboard. Neither contain systems that encourage insane levels of spending, though large monthly expenditures are possible. Nothing beyond the level of what an enthusiast might spend on a favorite real-world hobby like RC cars, golf, gardening, etc.

RotMG as progressive taxation

Realm of the Mad God generates revenue primarily via the sale of "character slots," which allow you to play more than one character at a time, and "vaults," which allow your characters to squirrel away more loot. Neither of these things are required to play the game and both can essentially be acquired for free by creating additional free accounts, though that's obviously not as convenient. A large additional source of revenue comes from the sale of "keys," which are instant portals to dungeons that must otherwise be sought out in the game. Again, buying keys isn't a precondition to playing the game or even gaining access to dungeons; they are simply a convenience.

What's particularly interesting about the dungeon keys in Realm of the Mad God is that they are, in many ways, the purest incarnation of the idea of free to play as a progressive tax or social good. Players want to plunder dungeons because they contain good loot. But buying a key just gets you a chance to earn that loot; you still need skill to actually earn it. And because the most lucrative dungeons are also the most deadly, wealthy players who buy keys have an explicit incentive to invite along other players, lest they die alone and lootless in their own private dungeon.

Rose-tinted glasses

It always amuses me when people pine for the "good old days" of game development, when designers weren't concerned with base financial considerations. The arcade games that many of us grew up playing were explicitly and pain-stakingly designed to munch quarters every few minutes! But many of us still fell in love with Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Street Fighter, and were inspired by those games to become the developers we are today.

Even modern games have been impacted by their business model. Whether it's DRM in PC games or unnecessary "online-only" features in console games intended to deter their resale, developers are constantly struggling with business challenges imposed by consumer desire for a cheaper (or free) product. There's also the common player desire for online games to live forever, even when those games require servers and other expensive infrastructure. So why not embrace those desires?

Signing off

I'm not suggesting that free to play is for everyone. There are many amazing games that would be difficult and perhaps impossible to make as free to play games. So yes, if you love those games, keep making them. Just understand why the rest of us have chosen a different path. We've chosen the opportunity to entertain millions of people, for free, often without any forced advertising or government support, for years and years to come. It's an amazing thing when you stop to really think about it.

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