Indies need to drop the snobbery and monetise for success, argues Fraser MacInnes

Sustainable success is not a sin

Indies need to drop the snobbery and monetise for success, argues Fraser MacInnes
Fraser MacInnes is a mobile games industry professional who cut his teeth writing for Pocket Gamer.

He's now working for Danke Games, a new gaming start up based in the heart of the Black Forest in Germany.

This week, Stuart Dredge penned an excellent and much needed call for reflection on the subject of free-to-play gaming for The Guardian.

The piece was prompted by a comment from Ridiculous Fishing developer Vlambeer. "It's almost impossible to do free-to-play in a non-evil way and without sacrificing the elegance of your game design," said the team in a post on Reddit.

Dredge's take on the contentious business model was essentially, "hey indies, calm down, free-to-play isn't evil – look at these great examples that prove free-to-play monetisation can be done fairly and compellingly."

At the same time, Dredge also addressed free-to-play evangelists, saying something along the lines of: "calm down, free-to-play isn't the right business model for every game under the sun".

Paraphrasing is dangerous, so I'll just say, go and give it a read. For me though, this debate around free-to-play and indie development teams bleeds into a broader, even more uncomfortable topic.

Why do indie developers so often have to behave like snobs?

An uneasy relationship

There are many vocal indie studios quite unapologetically peddling free games with in-app purchases that they know have low monetisation potential. They designed them that way because, they say, free-to-play is evil.

Yet, it's not uncharacteristic to hear such studios talk euphemistically about how they hope to 'scale' (read: become more financially successful and thus grow) so they can keep doing what they love – making games.

It seems that the mobile indie development scene has an uneasy relationship with success.

It's time to start calling this out. Claiming an unwavering commitment to artistic integrity as a reason to forgo a sensible approach to making money with games and building a business is frankly, risible.

It's been said before and I'm happy to repeat it – many smart indie studios have solved free-to-play monetisation for some amazing games, providing fair value and choice to their consumers.

Branding a business model as a sleight on otherwise 'pure' gaming experiences is just high-minded, self-congratulating nonsense.

Learning is harder than finger pointing

Failing to learn from the indie outfits that make use of smart pricing and long-tailed monetisation is an opt-out.

Where does the 'indie and poor' honour badge come from? Why is it not celebrated when an indie studio makes it its business to acquire an expert level of knowledge in monetisation mechanics, bad and good, in order to avoid and deploy accordingly.

Where's the community honour badge for that? Since when did it become a sin to make money in the games industry in the first place?

Snootiness and holier than thou attitudes are pervasive in the games industry, whether it's the garrisoning of 'real gamers' or a crusade for a preferred platform.

It's a necessary evil - evidence of the passion that simmers in the games industry's heart – a desire to espouse the value of the medium but with an energy that sometimes finds purchase in a blinkered topic.

Job one – stay alive

In order to dedicate your working life to creating games, you have to care deeply about them. But these passionate indie outfits ought to realise that, in order to keep doing what they love, their first duty is to stay alive. 

And that means staying in the black.

Of course, there are many who would assert that an indie developer's first duty is to its audience and I wouldn't disagree with that.

The problem comes in the assumption that the best way to fulfill that duty is to deliver a portfolio of thoughtfully crafted games at an unsustainable burn rate for the people making them.

Nobody wins in that scenario no matter how principled it might make one feel.

What sense is there in attempting to garner customer loyalty for a studio brand through building great product, without making provision for that customer's long-term relationship with that brand?

It's not like the talented team behind The Wire would make and then give away the first season if that meant it couldn't subsequently create the remaining four.

Smart monetisation breeds creativity

I'm currently working for a start-up and every decision we make has a significant bearing on our long-term financial outlook.

Far from turning our team into a class of bean counting cynics, I think this forces us to rely more heavily on our creative instincts and to be even stricter when it comes to product standards – especially when it comes to monetisation.

It'd be great if we could all make games for free, just for the sheer fun of it. Unfortunately, until an enslaved population of robotic servants frees us all up to lead lives of leisure, that isn't going to happen. 

So, until we're faced with that technologists' moral quandary, let's bury the one about fairly and transparently making money out of games in the sand.
You can follow Fraser's industry commentary on his blog, or else grab bite-size rants via Twitter.

PocketGamer.biz regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.


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Fraser Ross MacInnes Product/Design Director at Danke Games
Hey Dene. I wouldn't say monetization first - I'd always say intrinsic player value first, but I think intrinsic player value is defined by more than just the quality or entertainment value of the content and is also partially bound up in the way the game charges for that content.

On that same token, I think there are plenty of games out there that are not right for F2P and setting the correct level of intrinsic player value may well involve taking the decision to make the game a premium title - if that's the case with any given indie's title, then more power to them.

I think you are right about the fact that the level of pressure being placed on indies to adopt the F2P monetization model to the exclusion of all others is not necessarily a good thing - I can see how that can easily stifle creativity and it doesn't foster an environment where fledgling developers go out and learn about the minutiae of monetization and then make their OWN decisions.

My main beef is with indies who's products would benefit from deft application of F2P as a business model (and I don't just mean benefit financially - I mean the experience as a whole), but who opt not to on moral grounds - that's just blinkered and dare I say it, lazy, to me.
Dene Carter
Hiyo, I'm the sole developer at Fluttermind (Incoboto).

I know Fraser's not really having a go at indies, but a general reluctance to go F2P/money-focused shouldn't be equated with laziness. There are many problems to be solved during development, and in cases like mine, you're literally the only person working on a project, there are only so many hours in the day, and - frankly - I'd rather build more content than a new purchase-tracking system.

Solving the monetisation issue largely means going F2P, otherwise you're wasting your time. Why choose a second-best compromise? If you're going for the cash, go for the model with the biggest yields.

Going F2P largely means adhering to the best practices that we all hear about at every conference and in every blog and from every industry adviser. They inevitably begin to shape your game more than your ideas.

Had I chosen this mindset while developing Incoboto there'd be no Incoboto. It would have been something considerably more crass. That might sound like snobbery, but it is undeniably true. Incoboto was better for NOT considering the monetisation first.

If I were a short film-maker, people wouldn't call me a snob for refusing to make a reality TV. I think there's a parallel. For now, I'll carry on making games for an audience I like and understand rather than pursuing those who treat games as something with less worth than a newspaper Sudoku puzzle.
Fraser Ross MacInnes Product/Design Director at Danke Games
First off, I'd be the first to say that Stuart does a far better job with this topic than I do from a journalistic point of view. I'm not a journalist and I'm coming down one one side of the debate rather than presenting an overview of the discussion. This is an opinion piece from a guest author after all.

Also, let's not forget, I'm not having a go at all indies - I am distinguishing between those that attempt to apply their skills to solving the monetisation problem and those that opt out of it altogether, citing artistic integrity/purity as the reason.

This isn't about being pro F2P or anti indie, this is about attitudes. Is it not the implication that indies that disparage F2P think their contemporaries that make use of the model are somehow lesser creators? That's something that should be challenged in my opinion.

2012 was the year we stopped discussing if F2P was here to stay. The battleground now is getting over the idea that it universally degrades the artistic or entertainment value of a game. Yes, as some people have mentioned, this is sometimes the case - but so are other, much more established models.

If you are an indie, you should be encouraged to make use of every tool possible to make artistically interesting, entertaining, financially viable products - not made to feel like a sell out for your choice of business model (assuming you deploy it sensibly). Surely that's not something you could disagree with?
Oliver Birch Hothead Games
At last someone spoke up with a common sense view point!

Props to Stuart Dredge too for his well though out article. Journalists also have to see that F2P isn't evil and his industry insights, this one in particular, have echoed my feelings and opinion.
James Coote
The real problem is that F2P means your game is a service not a product. As an artist, you don't paint a couple of pictures, then spend the next two years running the art gallery. You sell them, move onto the next painting.

Having a go at indies is just journalistic low hanging fruit. Next time, why not explore the reasons for the gulf in opinion when it comes to monetisation? Or why some people in the games industry feel the need to make art.

It'd be a lot more interesting than hearing about why one side is better than the other, especially after drawing off the Guardian article that effectively sums up as "there is no right or wrong answer"
Andrew Lim
Re: "Sustainable success is not a sin." Most of the criticism from indies is not directed at sustainable businesses but at the obvious exploitation of gamers using free-to-play.
Andrew Lim
Re: "Sustainable success is not a sin." Most of the criticism from indies is not directed at sustainable businesses but at the obvious exploitation of gamers using free-to-play.
Phil M
The point I would like to make is that F2P is not only here because of it's supposed evil psychological tricks, but for many other reasons.

People who are against F2P never seem to have an answer for the fact that many many games in the past, that were pay for up front were a complete waste of money! Yeah we all have "classics" that we all know and love, but even if you combined all of the games we would call great from the past, just how much of a percentage would that be of the overall amount of games that were launched over the past 30 years? 10%? ok let's say 20% of games we all can agree on were great, that still leaves a big majority we all spent money on that we wish we hadn't...but it was too late, because you paid up front...

Next, again for haters of F2P, they just seem to not understand how games have changed with the advent of the internet, large harddrives and so on. Games now really are services, yeah there might be a core mechanic which is very similar to games of old, but around that will be services/new content etc that needs to be created over a period of time far greater than just the launch of a game. In the past the launch of a game was the end of the line for developer involvement, these day's it's just end of the beginning, and that continued development costs money, it takes continued investment. Where's that going to come from? or should we be charging players $300 up front for games?

3rd, you have discovery issues, and distribution issues both of which are mitigated somewhat by making a game F2P. In a world full of 1000s of games available instantly to the player, you want the player, playing/experiencing your game and not thinking about whether it's worth the payment or not.

F2P is a natural evolution of the old payment models brought about by modern technological advancements in the gaming business.

Now having said all that, of course there are situations where there can be a gameplay mechanic which encourages people to spend money which is complete unrelated to any kind of progress or enjoyment of the game they are playing, and I would totally agree this is not a good thing for the players or the gaming industry. But just as there were many games released in the "old days" that were shall we say "not as advertised" but the player didn't realise that until they had already paid their money, there will be miss-uses of F2P as well.

To paint the whole concept of F2P as wrong/evil because of those miss-uses is to me missing the point.
Fraser Ross MacInnes Product/Design Director at Danke Games
Hi Caspar - I don't agree that indies are the only development groups fighting for games from an artistic position, but I'm not trying to make the point that artistic vision should take a back seat behind monetization - I thought that was clear.

Also, I'm not attacking indie developers for trying to realise an artistic vision - I'm attacking them for opting out of the hard work of making artistically interesting games that have financial viability (more often than not, via F2P). As I said in the piece, great interactive entertainment and F2P are not mutually exclusive ideals - lots of great indie studios have made games that do a great job in both areas. So when you say, making F2P games that don't let their monetization model compromise gameplay is the really interesting and exciting challenge, I think we're in agreement there. I think that goes for the last point you made too.

I don't see how my piece falls into the sideshow you mention - if anything I'm at pains to communicate the points you've made in your comment. The thing that really galls me, as the title suggests, is the snobbery that comes with taking an anti commercial stance. It's so often paired with the view that lack of commercial viability instantly guarantees artistic credibility and to me, that's the sort of attitude I'd like to encounter less often.

Caspar Field CEO at Wish Studios
If the Indies are not fighting for games from an artistic position, who is? To my mind that's part of what makes them 'Indie' - it feels a bit like you're attacking them for being true to themselves. There's lots of time (well, maybe not if you're approaching 40 like me) to 'sell out' and go mainstream, just as in the music industry.

No-one's suggesting anyone should work for free, or that it's wrong to make money. They're not questioning F2P for that. They're questioning it because they're concerned about what it does to gameplay. That's the conversation that we should be having - that's the really interesting & exciting challenge for anyone making a F2P game. You can't just dismiss people for not agreeing with you, life's not like that.

For me on a personal level, all this back-and-forth about what position each side is taking and 'who said what when' is just a sideshow - and one I'd hoped we'd left behind in 2012. F2P is here to stay - let's talk about how we solve its challenges so that we can employ it in flowing, beautiful, charming, thrilling, deeply-engaging games.