'Free-to-play games poisoned my turtle'

Oscar Clark on dealing with anti-F2P outbursts

'Free-to-play games poisoned my turtle'

Just as I think we are getting somewhere, another stupid attention seeking headline pops up to ruin my weekend.

Wow – what a surprise some other consultant or designer decides it's time to make a stand against the terrible evils of free to play and how a business model is capable of destroying our purity.

Let's get something straight before this turns into a rant. I am not a fan of badly implemented games. I'm also not suggesting that every game has to be free to play – I've even found myself on a few rare occasions advising against it for specific games.

However, I have yet to find a genre that I can't find a way to make a free-to-play version that is at least as delightful as a paid equivalent.

There are some stupid lazy implementations, but they are rare. More often the problems are mistakes than deliberately 'evil' attempts at manipulation.

Early days

In UKIE's response to the recent OFT investigation into in-app purchases, CEO Dr. Jo Twist explained the realities eloquently:

"Done responsibly, micro-transaction based business models give choice and value for both players and businesses. Flexibility for companies to operate different business models is crucial, and it is good to see the OFT recognise this."

It's not the business model that makes sucky games. It's not even necessarily that designers have misunderstood what the model is about (although many have – including writers of columns with headlines like this!).

The implementation of the model is still evolving. We are learning and exploring the long term consequences of design decisions. That has consequences.

The internet is abuzz (if that's a word) with the massive success stories and the legacy of VC funded super-start-ups. It is any surprise that the money guys want designers to focus on revenue. On top of this natural influence we also have to remember that 'gold rushes' also tend to attract less scrupulous individuals - not just people who want a good return.

I'm not against making money, but I know that a focus on short-term gain kills long term stability.

It's also the case that bad F2P is not just about bad game mechanics, it poisons the well; leaving players disappointed and unwilling to spend again. That's hardly a good commercial decision from the money guys perspective.

Open your eyes

Squeezing users through frustration mechanics destroys long term lifetime value. It's given some developers a fast buck but they pay for it in the end.

There used to be a novelty factor combined with the ability to easily acquire a huge scale of users, but that time is essentially over. Ignoring what your player's value in a game leads to disaster in the end. Look how many F2P games have fallen flat in recent times.

If you want to still be making games in a year's time you have to buck up and stop whining. You don't you will end up like those music labels who tried to ignore Napster and Spotify.

The world is changing and we have the chance to make that a change for the better as long as we don't sit there with our eyes shut and fingers in our ears whining about how terrible everyone else is or how great it used to be when we could buy a disk in a retail shop.

Are you really saying you aren't good enough to make better use of these new ways to connect to

About two years ago I tried to stop talking about free-to-play and instead changed to talking about Games-as-a-Service. This approach allows us to change the focus away from the money and instead on the long term relationship with the player.

It allows us to recognise that players have a lifecycle and that their needs and wants change over time and that our games should respond to that.

Not just because that means we will earn more money, but because in doing this we have more chance at sustaining their interest longer and that leads to a lifetime network value. I use the work Network there deliberately as we can also recognise the value that players bring in addition to direct spending; something the premium model entirely ignores.

We don't have to obsess over everyone spending something because they enjoy our content. We can recognise their potential for both virality and in leveraging advertising (assuming that's a tool you want to use).

On that subject, we could employ smarter strategies with advertising too when it comes to Games-as-a-Service.

Eye on ads

Look at the way opt-in video ads (like GameAds from Everyplay) work.

Players who want to extend their use of your game decide to watch a gameplay video in order to gain an incentive (such as coins) which can only be used in the game. This keeps them playing longer and allows them to trial your games in-App purchases without the risk of spending real money but with an appreciation of the value of your currency.

This is not a cynical way to get more people looking at ads. Indeed, used well it delivers value at the right stage of the life-cycle, benefiting both the player and your income.

Repeatable emotional engagement makes for deeper relationships with players and can allow us to make better games with larger more mass-market audiences. We don't have to infantalise players or dumb down experiences, but we do have to listen to players and deliver on-going delight.

This mindset changes everything we do from design to production to operational support and even helps us spread the risks of development; something that the traditional hit-factory approach can't do.

This way of thinking isn't going away. The rapidly rising cost of acquisition is a symptom of the gold-rush attitudes and designers will have to make the most of every customer.

That means finding ways to sustain your relationship with them ever longer and you can't do that by squeezing them for every cent or by having paywalls or try-before-you buy business models. You need to be able to sell players things which they anticipate will deliver them extra delight – not which simply unlock friction.

That's not just a guess or an opinion. It's something which has evidence to back it up. Check out Bong-Won Park, Kun Chang Lee: Exploring the value of purchasing online game items. Computers in Human Behavior 27(6): 2178-2185 (2011). (Thanks to Berni Good for introducing it to me.)

I could continue to talk about price elasticity of demand or buyer remorse and a ever growing list of topics but I'll leave you to research those topics for yourself. Let's just leave this by saying that going free is not enough to succeed – you have to embrace games as a service.

No turtles were harmed in the writing of this piece...oh and turtles are great!

Oscar Clark is evangelist for Everyplay. To find out more about what Oscar is evangelising about go to blog.everyplay.com.

And if you are interested in finding out more about Games-as-a-Service, his first book is due for release shortly and can be pre-ordered here. You can get a 20 percent discount if you use the discount code FOC20 before its release.

If you would like to attend the UK Launch party for the book, go to Eventbrite where you can meet the author and listen to a live podcast recording with Jon Jordan, Guy Cocker and George Osborn.

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.