'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.


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Oscar Clark
Doh the last section was supposed to read If you want a (little) calmer perspective... silly me for typing comments with a mobile phone
Oscar Clark
@Rob hopefully when I said those things I did make a point event at the time I wasn't entirely serious... although I'm a little more generous I still only rarely find a business reason to go Premium. I think at the time i said there would be 12 AAA premium games a year; which has obviously not come true. However I dont think any game design will be unaffected by what is happening with F2P.
However I found the articles i read the weekend to be essentially emotional cheap shots. I'm happy to adjust my thinking based on sound thinking or evidence. I do that all the time but I also think this stuff deserves serious discussion. Not trivialisation. Let there be arguement, even use hyperbole. But based on on sound principles not *just* emotional ranting which if I'm honest I am partially guilty of in this. However in my defence i believe i have come back with reasoned argument all be it laced within a rant if only to try to make it entertaining. I hope it's taken in that way... hence the silly references to Turtles. If you a (little) calmer perspective want an alternative look at this with another article on another online magazine I write for. Best regards
Darren Williams
I'm not going to comment on the article per se but instead comment on why I think the anti F2P chorus seems louder than usual. And in doing so I'll repeat Rob Dodd's point almost verbatim ;-)
A saying I heard a long time ago was to be nice on the way up otherwise people will be a little harsh on you on your way down.
In short the crowing and subjective comment of some of the F2p advocates during the last 3 years (premium is dead! Pay up front is for dinosaurs! F2P is the future!) crossed the line from interesting topic espousing a new approach to being a zero sum, polemical witch hunt. Those on the F2P side displayed almost Tea Party (UKIP!) like fervor and an intolerance of dissent. Even recently Jon Jordan (who's brains and insights intimidate me thoroughly, such is the outstanding depth of his knowledge) seemed almost insulted that GTAV had the temerity to sell millions of copies - "last twitch of a dying model" was the headline as I recall. So invested were the F2P guys in the idea of F2P being the only way that anything challenging that view was to be attacked.
Meanwhile, 75m Steam accounts and over 4m PS4 sales later there's a dawning recognition that perhaps all that is happening to gaming is that quaint, almost old fashioned phenomenon of segmentation. Lots of different people playing lots of different games in lots of different ways.
I find the idea of stating that F2p is the sole future of gaming about as credible as saying that Jonathan Nolan will never have another hit movie because of the rise of Lena Dunham.
Rob Dodd
"I'm also not suggesting that every game has to be free to play"

Good to know you've pedalled back a bit from your previous stance of "If you're making a premium game, you're the living dead." "You're basically dead, you won't be here in a few year's time, and if you want to live you'll have to adapt." (http://www.develop-online.net/news/making-premium-games-you-re-dead-says-oscar-clark/0113307).

I think a little less attention-seeking from both sides would be a good.