Life after Farmville: The secrets of free-to-play success in 2013
The changing face of a business model
2012 brought with it a significant advance for the free-to-play business model in video games with more titles than ever allowing players to download and experience a game gratis in the hope that they will later reward the developer with micro-transaction payments.
Spurred on by the success of some high-profile success stories, game-makers are adopting the model in droves, seeking to earn revenue via in-game goods or currencies, a less-straightforward but apparently no less effective way of charging players to enjoy their work.
But free-to-play has many detractors, many of whom argue the business model soils the purity of game design in order to facilitate profit making.
Where once designers needed only consider how to make their designs enriching, rewarding and challenging in the hope doing so would make the game lucrative, now these architects must build profitability into their systems a shift that, to some, can only result in a weaker game from the player perspective.
Proponents of the business model counter that free-to-play is in its infancy and that as its design develops, so the games will improve.
Nicholas Lovell is a consultant to game publishers.
"Free-to-play is changing," he says. "Early experiments focused on using psychological tricks to drive monetisation. Video games have always used psychological tricks, but up until now they have tended to be focused on retention - keeping people playing - rather than monetisation.
"I agree that this [shift] can sometimes feel grubby. However, companies start to realise that it is better business to make players play, spend and talk to their friends about their games because they are actually enjoying them rather than because they are manipulated into them."
Lovell notes that players are "getting wise" to the design tricks inserted into free-to-play games in the past.
"In essence, both consumer behaviour and competitive pressures are making F2P game designers up their game, which is a good thing for everyone."
David Marsh is one of the founders of Nimblebit, one of the most successful independent free-to-play game studios working on iOS, whose title Tiny Tower saw widespread success in 2012.
For Marsh, the more designers of different types of games engage in free-to-play, the stronger the output becomes.
"I think more games from all genres and of all types are beginning to figure out how to exist in a free-to-play context," he says.
"So more and more fresh free-to-play games are bubbling up and disrupting the oily surface of isometric decoration games. I think the experiences will become more comfortable over time as developers and players figure out what some standard best practices are."
One or the other
Marsh argues that the question of whether to be profit-centered or player-centered in designing free-to-play depends on your core motivation.
"If you are making games that you would like to play for yourself, you probably need to put a lot of focus on the player," he says.
"If you are just trying to maximise the revenue a game generates like it is just another form of investment, then you should focus on profit."
Marsh believes Ninblebit falls into the latter camp in putting the user first. "We playtest our games start to finish from the perspective of a player that is not spending a lot of money in the game. So anything that is personally annoying, or feels wrong to us as players, doesn't get into the game."
Simon Read is the British creator of one of 2012's largest success stories on iOS, New Star Soccer. While his game currently uses a paywall, Read plans to remove this shortly and is "fully committed to the F2P model."
For Read, placing players first is crucial to successful free-to-play design in 2013.
"Certain game genres fit the free-to-play model seamlessly which is great," he says, "but for some devs it's a struggle to find the best way of monetising in this new world. I believe the solutions will be found and slowly everyone will follow, whatever the game type.
"As the free-to-play model matures I think we will see games that try to monetise too aggressively losing out to the friendlier alternatives."
Getting your priorities right
Lovell is quick to point out that satisfying players is the key to making profit in the games business.
"In the long run, if you don't satisfy players you won't be profitable," he says.
"Equally, if you are not profitable you won't be around to satisfy players. You need to satisfy both constituents the consumers and the need to make money to be successful."
For Lovell, some proponents of the free-to-play model have managed this poorly: "The company that prioritises using spreadsheet-led design using psychological tricks is only good at finding local maxima.'
"When players inevitably get bored with that experience, the company doesn't have new creative ideas to attract new players. Zynga is suffering from this problem: it is so good at doing what it does well that it doesn't know how to manage the random, frustrating, unpredictable process of creating a successful creative business."
For many core players, it's the blurring of lines between conversations about game design and profitability via free-to-play that are especially galling. But Marsh argues that this has always been a concern for game-makers.
"This isn't the first time in the medium's history this has happened," he says.
"Not by a long shot. I'm sure there have been plenty of discussions about the difficulty or psychology of arcade games in order to increase the number of credits used by the player.
"I have personally worked on games in the past where we put in an obviously sub-par multiplayer mode into a game so that we could sell the game for more money. Many games leave room for DLC to sell later and monetise.
"Free-to-play is not really pioneering the marriage of monetisation and game design at all. It's just making it more obvious."
Eye on Zynga
For Lovell, it's damaging practices that have given free-to-play a bad name, rather than an issue with the broader concept.
"I gave a master class recently where one delegate was adamant that he loathed free-to-play games," he says.
"I asked him if he liked Temple Run? He replied: 'Yes.' 'How about Team Fortress 2?' He replied: 'Yes.' I pointed out both of those games are free-to-play. Finally, I asked him if he liked Farmville. 'No, I loathe it,' he said. 'It's not even a game.' That guy didn't hate free-to-play. He hated free-to-play as done by Zynga.
"For many people, Zynga defined free-to-play. That is changing. I hope they can change too."
Read agrees that focusing on giving the player the optimum experience is crucial.
"First and foremost focus on making a fun game," he says.
"Don't be afraid of going F2P but at the same time don't over do it! Try to be flexible so you can delight your players." It's a point of view Marsh shares: "Make an awesome game, and put in monetization methods you are comfortable with. Put in mechanisms that let your fans and passionate player support you."
Lovell agrees that delighting players and creating true fans is, as ever, the secret to becoming profitable in the business.
"The ethics matter," he says. "Don't be greedy. Make your players love you and they'll want to give you money. Few people want to give Zynga money these days."