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.

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