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An adventure cut short: The human cost of a canned F2P game

A live game can't stay that way forever, but we should remember the impact on players
An adventure cut short: The human cost of a canned F2P game

At the beginning of October, Japanese RPG Rune Story was pulled from the App Store in Western markets.

A localisation of White Cat Project, a huge hit for developer COLOPL in its native Japan, it lasted less than one year on the market.

In the world of free-to-play mobile games, we barely bat an eyelid at such things. It's a necessary part of the business, after all.

If it can happen to Marvel: Avengers Alliance 2 - a sequel to a successful title, backed by the might of Disney and the Marvel brand - then no game is safe.

However, there is a risk of us becoming desensitised to something that, for players and developers alike, can be a real emotional wrench.

Inevitable conclusion

Personally, I was sad to see Rune Story go. I'd enjoyed it immensely for a short while after its launch, and really wanted to see it succeed. 

The reality, though, was that my dwindling interest in Rune Story over the past few months was a microcosm of the wider picture for the game.

It peaked at #16 in the US App Store downloads chart shortly after launch, before suffering a sharp decline. In the grossing charts, meanwhile, it peaked at #296 before effectively disappearing before January 2016 had even come around.

For a game that had been a top-grossing stalwart in the Japanese market for years, the fall was stark. COLOPL NI CEO Jikhan Jung's short statement to sums things up pithily: "Nothing much to say. It was just not successful."

<em>Rune Story</em> peaked early, and never picked up in 2016
Rune Story peaked early, and never picked up in 2016

But with the sheer number of players required to make a free-to-play game profitable, even an unsuccessful title is likely being played regularly by a sizeable group of people.

And indeed, on the forum thread announcing Rune Story's closure, there's a twelve-page outpouring of sadness from the game's loyal player base.

A shaky investment

By my reckoning, there's about 360 comments on this thread. Now, even in the massively unlikely event that these were the only ones left playing regularly, that's still a lot of people losing something they care passionately about.

“The potential for investment, both financial and emotional, can be higher than in boxed products.”

Because the barrier of entry is low for free-to-play mobile games, there's a misconception that the players somehow care less. In fact, the opposite is true; the potential for investment, both financial and emotional, can be much higher than in boxed products.

A cursory glance at the comments beneath COLOPL NI's announcement provides ample evidence of this.

"This is the third game that I played that is shutting down, and I am tired of this happening," wrote a user named 'Karis', neatly summing up the difficulty of investing in a hobby as fast-moving and unpredictable as mobile gaming.

Another user, 'Rangris', explores this further:

"Let's face it," they wrote. "All of us are shareholders of this game. We subtly know at the end of the day, a game is a business and it can collapse at any point in time.

"And yet, [we] chose to take the risk out of love for the game. It is what defines us as gamers tied to a game. A community."

The glory in failure

Sometimes, the mobile games industry is guilty of valorising the process of canning games. Removing a game from the app stores, and particularly doing it early like Supercell does, is applauded as a refusal to accept anything but the very best.

Of course, I am not for one minute suggesting that it's a decision Supercell or other companies take lightly.

"Some say we celebrate failure, but we don't," said Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen on this issue at his BAFTA Games Lecture.

"We celebrate the learnings from the failure, which are so valuable that they're worth celebrating."

Supercell's graveyard of canned projects, as featured at the BAFTA Games Lecture
Supercell's graveyard of canned projects, as featured at the BAFTA Games Lecture

Knowing when to pull the plug is essential for those in the business, and it's a valuable skill.

However, the impact of such an action shouldn't be underestimated. Even if a game's only getting a relatively small number of DAUs compared to some of F2P's big hitters, it's worth remembering it's still people who stand to be affected.

It's easy for us to look at such stories and dismiss them, with a shrug of "well, nobody was playing it anyway." But "nobody", in free-to-play terms, can still encompass a great number of people.

Developers aren't charities, and this isn't a case for them continuing to run unprofitable games just to keep their players happy. Rather, as these closures become the norm, I'm just keen for us not to forget what's truly at stake.

Let's remember each game closure for what it is: a mini tragedy for each of its committed players.