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An adventure cut short: The human cost of a canned F2P game

An adventure cut short: The human cost of a canned F2P game

At the beginning of October, Japanese RPG Rune Story was pulled from the App Store in Western markets.

A localisation of White Cat Project, a huge hit for developer COLOPL in its native Japan, it lasted less than one year on the market.

In the world of free-to-play mobile games, we barely bat an eyelid at such things. It's a necessary part of the business, after all.

If it can happen to Marvel: Avengers Alliance 2 - a sequel to a successful title, backed by the might of Disney and the Marvel brand - then no game is safe.

However, there is a risk of us becoming desensitised to something that, for players and developers alike, can be a real emotional wrench.

Inevitable conclusion

Personally, I was sad to see Rune Story go. I'd enjoyed it immensely for a short while after its launch, and really wanted to see it succeed. 

The reality, though, was that my dwindling interest in Rune Story over the past few months was a microcosm of the wider picture for the game.

It peaked at #16 in the US App Store downloads chart shortly after launch, before suffering a sharp decline. In the grossing charts, meanwhile, it peaked at #296 before effectively disappearing before January 2016 had even come around.

For a game that had been a top-grossing stalwart in the Japanese market for years, the fall was stark. COLOPL NI CEO Jikhan Jung's short statement to PocketGamer.biz sums things up pithily: "Nothing much to say. It was just not successful."

Rune Story peaked early, and never picked up in 2016

But with the sheer number of players required to make a free-to-play game profitable, even an unsuccessful title is likely being played regularly by a sizeable group of people.

And indeed, on the forum thread announcing Rune Story's closure, there's a twelve-page outpouring of sadness from the game's loyal player base.

A shaky investment

By my reckoning, there's about 360 comments on this thread. Now, even in the massively unlikely event that these were the only ones left playing regularly, that's still a lot of people losing something they care passionately about.

The potential for investment, both financial and emotional, can be higher than in boxed products.

Because the barrier of entry is low for free-to-play mobile games, there's a misconception that the players somehow care less. In fact, the opposite is true; the potential for investment, both financial and emotional, can be much higher than in boxed products.

A cursory glance at the comments beneath COLOPL NI's announcement provides ample evidence of this.

"This is the third game that I played that is shutting down, and I am tired of this happening," wrote a user named 'Karis', neatly summing up the difficulty of investing in a hobby as fast-moving and unpredictable as mobile gaming.

Another user, 'Rangris', explores this further:

"Let's face it," they wrote. "All of us are shareholders of this game. We subtly know at the end of the day, a game is a business and it can collapse at any point in time.

"And yet, [we] chose to take the risk out of love for the game. It is what defines us as gamers tied to a game. A community."

The glory in failure

Sometimes, the mobile games industry is guilty of valorising the process of canning games. Removing a game from the app stores, and particularly doing it early like Supercell does, is applauded as a refusal to accept anything but the very best.

Of course, I am not for one minute suggesting that it's a decision Supercell or other companies take lightly.

"Some say we celebrate failure, but we don't," said Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen on this issue at his BAFTA Games Lecture.

"We celebrate the learnings from the failure, which are so valuable that they're worth celebrating."

Supercell's graveyard of canned projects, as featured at the BAFTA Games Lecture

Knowing when to pull the plug is essential for those in the business, and it's a valuable skill.

However, the impact of such an action shouldn't be underestimated. Even if a game's only getting a relatively small number of DAUs compared to some of F2P's big hitters, it's worth remembering it's still people who stand to be affected.

It's easy for us to look at such stories and dismiss them, with a shrug of "well, nobody was playing it anyway." But "nobody", in free-to-play terms, can still encompass a great number of people.

Developers aren't charities, and this isn't a case for them continuing to run unprofitable games just to keep their players happy. Rather, as these closures become the norm, I'm just keen for us not to forget what's truly at stake.

Let's remember each game closure for what it is: a mini tragedy for each of its committed players.

Features Editor

Matt is really bad at playing games, but hopefully a little better at writing about them. He's Features Editor for PocketGamer.biz, and has also written for lesser publications such as IGN, VICE, and Paste Magazine.

Comments

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Sim Jing
Hello, first off, I'm flattered my forum ign, Rangris, is involved in the making of this article.

Here are some facts you've missed out. What actually caused many players to leave the game at some point during December and onwards is due to Colopl nerfing the rewards from the guild contest. This factor made many players unhappy and they left feedback to Colopl NI. However the developers further nerfed the rewards which caused many to quit as they felt their feedback were left unheard. Many ran back to WCP Japan, taking the original game instead of the global localization.

Another big reason why many players left the game is due to the abundance of cheaters and modders in the game. The modders make it so that they can kill every monster in the game with just one shot, they barely require any good characters or weapons and therefore discourages many to buy jewels from the developer. While Colopl did make efforts to ban such players they kept returning in alternate accounts. The lack of reinforced security on every app update worsens the situation as the cheaters can simply get back to cheating within leas than 24 hours of the patch being live.
Matt Suckley Staff Writer
In the case of Rune Story, players can still technically play the game - it's just been removed from the stores, will no longer be updated, and the jewel stores now offline. So you can technically spend any currency you already bought (for a short period at least).

This seems to be common across the board. But not much comfort to those who thought they were investing in a game that would remain active and healthy for a long time!
Christian Brandoni
How do companies handle recent purchases and left hard currencies when shutting down a f2p game. Do these usually get refunded?
I understand you can't refund everybody but if I started playing recently and did invest some money in a game that would then soon shut down I would be very pissed at the devs.
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