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Is monetisation more important than good game design? The debate rages on...

Is monetisation more important than good game design? The debate rages on...

The final keynote talk at this year's Develop Conference in Brighton saw Barry Meade of Fireproof Games - the studio behind the award winning The Room- play down the need for developers to focus on the business side of games development.

According to Meade, developers should stick to what they know, noting that far too many studios get fixated with how their going to monetise their games rather than focusing on delivering good gameplay in the first place.

Similarly, he added that Fireproof hadn't gone the free-to-play route with The Room simply because no-one at the studio knew about free-to-play.

So, we asked our Mavens:

Are developers wrong to devote time to monetisation, and does doing so risk good gameplay taking a back seat? Or conversely does ignoring the business side of development risk landing a lot of studios in financial trouble?

So fruitful were the Mavens' replies that we split this week's piece into two articles. You can catch up with part one here.

 

Brian Baglow Executive Producer Team Rock Games

This debate is happening at the same time in the music industry, the film industry and the rest of the creative world.

If you're creating something or working in a creative sector as your livelihood, then at some point you're going to need to get paid.

I can introduce you to the actors I know who are getting asked to perform for nothing (the crew will get paid though), or the musicians who are giving their music away and lamenting the fact that Facebook likes don't equate sales.

Or the screenwriters who are creating pitch after pitch, for free, only to have their work turned down and then given to other people.

The creative sector is full of people with passion for making something they're passionate about. Which makes it easy to perform/act/make a film/game and give it away, because you want people to see it.

If you're doing this for love, that's great, but then you're not a professional independent game developer. You're a hobbyist. That's nothing to be ashamed of. But let's not pretend that it's more noble or indier-than-thou to be above paying your rent.

Thomas Nielsen Osao Games

I very much like how our business is a mix of artists and business people.

When you combine people who are passionate about experiences with people passionate about driving revenue, you can make magic. That's what keeps me working in this space.

Artists sometimes have a habit of thinking they are better than the business people, because what they do is creative, artsy, and you know, that's something to look up to. And sometimes, it is.

Other times, they are just so caught up in the experience of creating something that they lose sight of what actually counts – has value – in what they are making. And then you run a huge risk - what you thought was gold, the rest of the world may think is worthless.

Being a work-for-hire studio, we've done lots of games that weren't necessarily games we would have made on our own.

We've done games in genres we at first didn't understand and would have never touched. We've disagreed with clients on lots of direction. We've seen success and failures. But we have shipped tons of games for many happy clients, that millions of gamers have enjoyed and paid money for.

Every time, we've learned new things, tried to outdo ourselves, and have improved at what we love to do: making games.

If you insist on only making things you think are cool, by your definition on what is good and bad, fine. You'll be making games for your own sake, and you probably won't move forward much. But if you can read and understand the market, and consistently produce products that gamers will find relevant and want to pay for – then you're an artist.

Any serious, commercial developer should devote a lot of time to understanding the market – which includes user acquisition, monetisation and retention. If you can't balance those things with gameplay, you're not good enough at what you do.

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

The points that Barry Meade makes is a classic case of survivorship bias. Fireproof survived, so in hindsight he can tell everyone what he did and that it equals success.

The same can be said about all those companies that pat themselves on the back and proceed to tell everyone that freemium is the way to succeed, that analytics are important or that winging it is the only true way to connect to your audience. It's all a case of self-important bullshit.

If you can't balance user acquisition, monetisation and retention with gameplay, you're not good enough at what you do.
Thomas Nielson

All in all I suspect that Barry got invited to do a talk so he did it and came up with something to tell everyone. I mean, it would be a short talk if he told everyone that he was just in the right place at the right time.

I will say one thing though: many people underestimate the challenge of freemium. I would put our team more in the camp of Fireproof, in that it seems simpler for us to just focus on the game and not deal with the extra burden of balancing our monetisation.

That type of balance takes time and resources and it also takes a different skill than just straight forward game design.

You can't just stick a timer in your game and expect it to make money. You can't just add a button that automatically 'brags' a player's achievements on Facebook and Twitter and expect your user acquisition to work like a charm.

Some people are good at accounting. Others are better at traditional game design. There is no right answer.

Scott Foe Chief Product Officer Ignited Artists

Do you focus purely on fun? Or do you temper fun with commerce? It's the great "indie" versus "entrepreneur" debate...again.

An indie studio is a person or group of people who can focus on entertainment value without worry for paying the bills. In short, an indie studio can make whatever the hell game it wants to make, leaving a handful of indie darlings "fooled by randomness" into preaching what they did "right,".

Then there's a veritable elephant's graveyard piled to the sky with the bits, bytes, and half-cooked ramen noodles from projects that failed, for whatever true reason, to find the hearts and wallets of consumers.

Commercial game projects (regardless of scope, size, organisation) are classical exercises in entrepreneurship, "moving resources from low-yield activities to high-yield activities."

Every new commercial game project is a search for repeatable, scalable business; every new commercial game project is a startup business, and to ignore this reality is no less than a gross violation of fiduciary duty.

Yes, to put pizza on the table in the evening, fun must be tempered with commerce.

Are you an "indie?" Or are you an "entrepreneur?" Most games fail, and either strategy carries with it a risk profile that would send the world's brashest hedge fund manager crawling under mother's covers for solace in the silent hours of the night. Still, you need to pick a strategy...

If you don't have a strategy, you can't fail, because you weren't trying to accomplish anything in the first place.

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

It's not correct that people who design games based only on what they think is cool will not move forward.

That's like saying Quentin Tarantino shouldn't have grown in success because he only makes movies based on what he thinks is cool. Likewise, because Uwe Boll only makes whatever movie someone pays him to make, his work should be like an oasis in amongst a creative desert.

When it comes to games, music, movies, television and books. The standout pieces are always based on the core sensibilities and vision of the artist first.

If you don't have a strategy, you can't fail, because you weren't trying to accomplish anything in the first place.
Scott Foe

If you are designing to the sensibilities of another, you may very well learn lessons and end up creating a competent piece, but it will never be a culturally important work.

That's the other dimension to this debate. Are we just in this business to make money? Do we just want to create a business that pulls in more revenue than we spend? Or are we trying to create culturally important content? If you were a band, are you trying to be the next Beatles or do you just want to be a studio musician?

I think a majority of developers get into the game industry because they want to be the next Beatles, Nirvana, John Carmack, Will Wright, or Tim Schafer. If creating a name and then a legacy is the long term goal then game design needs to be the primary driver.

Monetisation is necessary in order to weather failure and to stick around long term, but the industry won't remember your bank balance. It will only remember your games.

Jared Steffes Co-founder Muxy

I am glad you brought up "classic case of survivorship bias", Dave. It's always on my mind when I read an article or hear a talk.

Scott. This is so true and becoming a standard. "If you don't have a strategy, you can't fail, because you weren't trying to accomplish anything in the first place."

The International Game Developers Association in Chicago used to invite all the studio directors once a quarter to a dinner to talk about our schedule for the next quarter.

The indie guys there looked like lost sheep because they often had no metrics to shoot for. I remember the question, "What's your goal for your game?"

The answer was, "Hopefully we can pay rent, eat, and buy some cool stuff." I replied, "I guess their rent and cost of food is their success metric."

Jani Kahrama Founder Secret Exit

I understand the necessity of making money to pay the wages as well as everyone else here, but I can't agree with how casually many are ignoring the effects the free-to-play business model is having on the diversity of game design.

I'm still waiting to see the first game that's genuinely improved by the business model. Will we regard them as true classics in 20 years?

Joony Koo Head of Business Development Block Crafters

F2P is a choice - among a few business models out there - that game makers make. It's not an easy one because it requires quite an investment.

It's a choice we have to make because we don't own the mobile market – it's run by Apple and Google (and a few others) who can't possibly cultivate the market to meet everyone's needs.

What I mean to say is, as developers and publishers, we can't change the environment of the market – we don't hold the keys. Thus, we can only make decisions based on the environment we find ourselves in: premium, freemium, premium with in-app purchases or totally free.

It's all about making a game knowing what the business model will be or finding the right business model for the game. Like Barry Meade said, if you don't know how to make a free-to-play game, just stick with whatever business model you are confident with.

Oscar Clark Consultant, Co-Founder Fundamentally Games

Oscar Clark has been a pioneer in online, mobile, and console social games services since 1998. He is also author of the book, Games As A Service – How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games.

I'm feeling a bit guilty about this debate – it was the point of the question I posed to Barry at the end of his keynote.

Actually, as Barry tweeted afterwards, my 'question' was more of a pleading for a balance between the art and sustainable business models in games.

Of course there is survivor bias on both sides, but in the very brief conversation I had with Barry afterwards, I felt his point was largely that there has been an undue emphasis on the business model and not enough on the game experience.

I wouldn't dream of talking for Barry, but I suspect that he, like many others, is just fed up with this over focus on the money side.

There is a problem, which we have talked about many times, with the 'fleecium' approach to free-to-play. It leaves players feeling exploited and manipulated and it's no-wonder people - who are fearful of this evolutionary shift in business model - think that its a bubble which will burst.

I'm still waiting to see the first game that's genuinely improved by free-to-play.
Jani Kahrama

They are right to feel like this. If we continue to fish with dynamite, either someone will come along and ban fishing or we will kill/scare off all of the fish!

Even calling players 'fish' in a analogy is prone to misinterpretation.

This is not a new debate. This debate happens everywhere. There is a tension between sales and real marketing. Real marketing is about strategy, about the long term and about the brand values of your experiences. Its about 'identifying and satisfying consumer needs'.

Sales is tactical. It's about how much money we can get in for this quarter's results and how much I get in my bonus. Sales want the most money with the least effort. Marketing wants you to still have a business in 3-5 years. If you want that you have to consider the player.

There is a belief out there that we have found an 'easy' way to make money, provided you 'buy customers' and squeeze them for as much as you can. The facts are that the move to free-to-play, combined with social elements and mobile devices, has been extremely disruptive.

Designers and players are learning what this means for games and constantly adjusting their behaviour in response to the last iteration. Those who change in the right way will survive, those who fail to will die. Its a Darwinian process.

Jon Hare Owner Tower Studios

The truth is games have become psychological battlefields where we fight to priSe money from the hands of the users. Meanwhile, the users remain wary all the time of being pick pocketed.

But lets be clear here - it's the game makers who are the ones being exploited here in the first place. Our clamour to make money any way possible is mere retaliation.

Jani Kahrama Founder Secret Exit

I'd like to point out that there's a world of difference between a genuinely captivating game, and one which utilises the latest psychological retention hooks to create addiction. The industry is focused on the latter, because it's essential for good monetisation.

The products that come out of those continuously refined design templates will undoubtedly be better by the metrics that are used for their evaluation.

Mark Cochrane CEO Lightneer

Some great debating. Monetisation is fundamental but it's a big challenge to figure out how much content you give away and when and how to charge for it effectively and importantly responsibly.

As long as the consumer feels they are getting value out of the experience then I think you've got it right

I think we all look at Candy Crush and the aggressiveness of the monetisation and, whatever our feelings, there's no denying a significant audience are prepared to pay what King is charging. If the game experience wasn't up there and the consumers weren't happy with what they got in terms of perceived value, then I'd have to believe King's strategy would fail.

Brian Baglow Executive Producer Team Rock Games

The overall message I took away from this year's Develop is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution any more. You have to find a business model, a revenue stream and a route to market which works for you.

Writing off free-to-play as evil doesn't work because it clearly does well for some titles - and without gouging the players to the bone. Paid is clearly not an option for some titles, but does incredibly well for others.

We're now down to a case-by-case, game-by-game approach, as the market continues to evolve, the audience grows and the number of titles on the market increases.

The problem seems to be that devoting any time to thinking this through, or trying different things is seen by some developers as time taken away from development - and therefore without exception a waste of valuable time.

The truth is games have become psychological battlefields where we fight to prise money from the hands of users.
Jon Hare

Chucking your precious, polished game over your shoulder onto the app markets/internet and crossing your fingers doesn't seem like a repeatable business model to me.

And here's the thing, since I provide services to developers, I can see directly the number of companies who are disregarding marketing of any kind, who are sticking to the path of least resistance and then, almost inevitably, finding that the game hasn't gone all Angry Birds.

It's odd - at that point, the reasons for the immediate failure are always laid elsewhere. A bad weekend, good weather, a competing title, the media weren't behind it, the trailer video wasn't ready, Apple/Google didn't support it...

It's never, ever a bad game. Or an unpopular game. Or the fact no one knew it was coming.

I work with game developers almost exclusively. I've spent the last four years banging on about the difficulties of making an impact and supporting your game effectively over the long-term. More and more studios are opting out and focusing 100 percent on development.

I spoke to a whole bunch of PR companies in Brighton who are finding the indie market harder and harder to work with - and not just because of budgets.

The problem is that the success stories, like The Room, are seen as proof that this development only approach works. Companies with multiple successes behind them who ignore business, however, are harder to point to.

You can read part one of the debate here.


With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.

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Martin Oxby
I'm not sure the writer here has suffered from bias - yes they are influenced by having made a success, but few can write without their views being somehow tainted/improved by their past experiences.

In terms of the question posed, I think the answer has to depend on what you aim to get out of your development - if it is for enjoyment on the part of the developer, then producing excellent free games can give that sense of satisfaction.

If you are in business you are faced with a constant tension, as the writer explains, of encouraging people to try/use your software while it being a business necessity to make money over all on your developments.

However, monetisation should not take presidence over great gameplay, because if the gamer experience is not of a high quality then they are unlikely to buy-in, whether that's for a full version, 'pro' upgrade or in-app purchases.

So for me, as a web developer, the user experience must come first - and the same applies to games, but not to the detriment of monetisation where that is a necessity. And monetisation should not be over-focussed on either to the detriment of gamers enjoying your game. A balance must be struck to please your audience, while facing the fact that, if you are in business you must make a profit.