The free-to-play business model may be extremely popular at the moment, but it's far from easy to be successful with this approach.
This was the warning delivered by ICO Partners Julien Wera at a Gamasutra-attended talk during the Develop conference in Brighton today, based on his experience working with a UK-based team helping developers and publishers better understand the online gaming world.
"Free-to-play is an entirely new way of doing business in games," Wera explained. "I believe it is currently more difficult to be successful using the free-to-play model as our skill set in the West simply isnít yet there. That said, our own experience is that this model is more profitable if (and only if) it is done right."
The key area in which making free-to-play a success is difficult is in the area of user acquisition, Wera argued. "Traditional bricks and mortar video game retailers have been crucial to the industry in the past in that they have provided a place for people to visit when they want to hear about new games and see what they want to buy."
"With free-to-play online, most of the time you donít have the visibility provided by game stores. You have to compensate for this with large amounts of marketing.Ē
Wera urged developers to use metrics to better understand the players best-suited to their game. "Digital distribution allows for data collection that gives you a lot more control over the user acquisition process," he stated.
"This allows you to allocate more money on marketing to users that are, for example, more likely to invite their friends, or spend more money on microtransactions. This information allows you to make fine tuned decisions, giving you control over who you want to attract and how you go about attracting them."
Wera explained how our traditional marketing models are no longer relevant in the free-to-play business model.
"In contrast to traditional boxed product launches, which have a huge marketing budget spend spike initially, and then tail off over time, with free-to-play marketing spend needs to build and grow as the months roll past, and you improve your game based on metrics.
"Free-to-play is all about working on the long run. It's important to create noise around the launch of your game but not too much. In this world, a launch is really just to build the basis of your community in order to gather data to optimize it over the long run."
"As you begin to improve your game you are able to invest more and more resources into the marketing of the game,Ē he continued. ďIt grows because it improves over time. As such, the return on your investment improves with time as you find out more and more about your users and who best to target in the future."
No game is mature at launch, he pointed out. "Before launch you only have assumptions about who your audience might be. You might believe, for example, that girls will make up 50 percent of your audience. But after launch, by using metrics you will know for sure what true percentage of your audience is female, and can then begin to properly market your game as a result."
"You need to interpret the data you receive," Wera added. "Metrics without interpretation is useless and donít allow for anything productive thereafter."
"There is no quick win," he warned, "but there certainly is a quick lose. If you try to market a free-to-play game like it is a boxed game and do a large spend at launch only to realize your monetization and retention are poor, you won't have the resources to make the improvements you need to.
"You have to have the information and then move on it quickly. Three months is far too long to respond to an issue you discover in your metrics. You will lose your audience complete in this time."
Finally, Wera was eager to point put that metrics should not replace creativity. "When you study metrics you only gain data on things you have already tried, not on things you havenít tried yet," he said. "Build a game without any creative risks and it may be robust and sound, but it will likely be boring."