Free-to-play in 2013: Nicholas Lovell on winning hearts, minds, and wallets
We spoke with Nicholas Lovell, a free-to-play expert and consultant for many major game publishers about the state of the model going into 2013.
Pocket Gamer: F2P has been criticised in the past for prioritising financial gains over player experience. Do you believe this balance is beginning to change and how?
Nicholas Lovell: All games business models evolve to ensure that companies make money from their entertainment.
Arcade games evolved into multiplayer co-op - Double Dragon, Gauntlet, Time Crisis - so that your choice when shovelling coins into the arcade was no longer "do I want to keep playing?" but "do I want to let my buddy down?"
MMOs encouraged the creation of "grind" mechanics as a way of slowing down content consumption while maximising the length of subscriptions.
Free-to-play evolved for many reasons, but one of them was that in Korea and China, where F2P started early, much gaming took place in online cafes so selling a single game made no sense, but having an account which a player could use in any café, with virtual goods tied to it, did.
In other words, F2P is just an evolution of market demand and market opportunity, like so many other evolutions of our industry before.
Having said that, F2P is changing. Early experiments focused on using psychological tricks to drive monetisation. All games have always used psychological tricks, but up until now they have tended to be focused on retention - keeping people playing, making the game addictive, just one more go - rather than monetisation.
I agree that this 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 by manipulation of our predictably irrational brains.
At the same time, consumers get wise to the tricks and we are reaching the stage where most consumers have played a F2P game, so the pool that manipulative games can fish in is dwindling.
So in essence, both consumer behaviour and competitive pressures are making F2P game designers up their game, which is a good thing for everyone.
Is it important for F2P designs to be player-, rather than profit-centered? Why?
No, it isn't. Games making is a business. In the long run, if you don't satisfy players you won't be profitable.
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.
More accurately, a company that prioritises using spreadsheet-led design using psychological tricks is only good at finding "local maxima". It can do whatever it is doing better and better, even the best it can possibly be done.
The problem is that 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.
Hence it will end up being a gambling business not a games business.
In your opinion, what does 'putting the user first' mean in F2P design?
F2P design is about choice. It is about allowing users to experience the game in their way, whether that be a time choice, a money choice or a gameplay choice.
The number one objective of a F2P game is to keep players playing. A free player is very valuable in four ways: as a potential source of advertising.
As a potential convert - it takes 8-10 plays before a whale spends for the first time, according to Papaya. As a word of mouth channel - players who recommend games are essential in this era of massive consumer choice.
As gawkers, providing the context in which those who will spend a lot choose to spend. That list is probably in reverse order, meaning that gawkers are probably the most important element: players spend for social - broadly defined - reasons.
They spend to stand out - 'look at my cool hat' - to fit in - 'hey, everyone else has that cool hat, I want one too' - to stand out and fit in - 'hey, we're the people who purple and black and look miserable.
They spend to compete - 'I need the multiplier to have a chance to beat Bob's score - to save time - 'I'm loving this game, but I could really do with that thing right now' - to help their buddies out - 'I'm not as good as the rest of my friends in this F2P MMO, so I better make sure I have good kit so I can pull my weight on raids'.
What that means is that the fundamental question designers need to ask about everything they do in F2P design is ask 'how will this make the player feel'. This is a very good thing for design.
For the first time in the medium's history, the lines between conversations about game design and monetisation design have blurred thanks to F2P. Why is this and what are the consequences of this blurring?
I disagree with the premise of the question.
It is the first time in a long time that we have talked about the blurring, which may be because the industry has matured enough to have these conversations or it may be that the F2P shift is bigger than ever before.
I also think that F2P may be the saviour of the industry.
I believe that the triple pressures of technology - making it cheaper and cheaper to share digital content until free is a natural price point - consumer attitudes, such as the number of consumers who think casual piracy is wrong is dwindling, and economics.
Economic model Bertrand competition says that when the cost of making one more copy of something is zero, the amount that you can charge for it tends to zero too. All this will make maintaining a premium price point as the sole revenue source very difficult.
Those games businesses who survive will all follow the same basic model.
Firstly, they acquire an audience who love what they do. This can be done by making a free product that can spread like wildfire or a traditional product that spends tens of millions on marketing or both.
Secondly, successful developers give them a great initial experience. This is more important in F2P than in paid-for games where the consumer has a sunk cost making early abandonment less likely
Finally, top F2P developers allow those who love what they do to spend lots of money on things they truly value.
All parts of that sentence are important. It's what links CSR Racing to Disney Infinity to Call of Duty's expansion packs, map DLC and special editions. The difference is that in the digital world "lots of money" is not "the normal cost, times two". It is the normal cost times twenty, times two hundred, or times two thousand.
The consequences of the blurring are that games are evolving, experiment, growing. For many players, their experience of many great games will be totally free.
For some games that they love they will spend a lot. I suspect that for most players, their annual gaming budget will remain the same, it will just be allocated much more efficiently to those games that they truly get value from. I love this fact.
Many F2P proponents argue against detractors by saying that F2P design is in its infancy, and will become more mature and better designed with time. Do you agree and in what ways is this beginning to happen?
I totally agree. Zynga personified the early "Skinner box" design. Yet we are now seeing games in all genres, platforms and styles emerging that work in many different ways.
We are seeing companies pushing the graphical envelope like Infinity Blade. We have the social fun games like the "with Friends" series.
We have core games like League of Legends and World of Tanks drawing in new users. I gave a masterclass recently where one delegate was adamant that he loathed F2P games. "Do you like Temple Run?" "Yes." "That's F2P. How about Team Fortress 2?" "Yes." "That's F2P. Farmville?" "No, I loathe it. It's not even a game."
That guy didn't hate F2P. He hated F2P as done by Zynga. For many people, Zynga defined F2P. That is changing. I hope they can change too.
Your consultancy advises game makers on F2P design. What is your primary advice for F2P designers going into 2013?
Firstly, focus on how your players feel. Don't think logically about what people need to do, think about how to want them to feel when playing your game.
Secondly, it's about retention, retention, retention. Don't worry about getting customers - you'll have to buy them - and don't worry about making money from them. If you have them, you'll figure it out. Keep them playing and you have a real business.
Thirdly, ethics matter. 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.
Finally, have true fans, not whales. A whale spends $100 and wakes up in the morning regretting it. A true fan tells all their friends about it the next day, with pride.
What changes need to occur in F2P design to win over the model's detractors, many of whom sit within the core game consuming audience?
Everything we've talked about.
Better graphics - I hate it, but it's true. Core gamers have been manipulated by the industry into believing that better graphics equals a better game. It's nonsense, but the marketers at chipmakers and hardware manufacturers have won this battle.
Also, more indepth gameplay, and more midcore games.
But more than all that, it is already happening. Three years ago when I gave masterclasses, I asked people who played F2P games. It was rarely more than 20 percent of delegates. Now it is usually 70 percent or more.
These are developers in house at console development studios and they are all playing F2P games through choice. As these people start making F2P games, they will naturally appeal to the core.
F2P is evolving, and I am delighted about it.
Thanks to Nicholas for his time.
You can buy Nicholas Lovell's latest book 'Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games' - written with GamesIndustry.biz founder Rob Fahey - here.