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Free-to-Play: The Lost Generation

Is the free-to-play push hurting games and gamers? Experienced smartphone developer Jeremy Alessi investigates whether the business model has done harm to the art of game development, and where that leaves us.

Is the free-to-play push hurting games and gamers? Experienced smartphone developer Jeremy Alessi investigates whether the business model has done harm to the art of game development, and where that leaves us.

The entire game industry is going in the direction of free-to-play. PopCap is embracing the model, laying off workers in the process; retail-focused console makers are opening up to the business model; some of the best designers around are singing the praises of this new era for games. In spite of all these trends, there is a huge elephant in the room: Traditional pay-to-play games live on as art, but F2P (free-to-play) games do not.

Need an example? Ask and ye shall receive. Let's roll back to November of 2001. There was a new system coming out. It was an unknown quantity from Microsoft we now know as the Xbox. Along with it, a new game called Halo arrived.

What some may not recall is that Metal Gear Solid 2 actually came out at the same time. I picked up my copy of MGS2 (for PlayStation 2) in the afternoon and picked my Xbox with Halo up at a midnight sale later that night. I will never forget my first few minutes with Halo.

I was pretty skeptical of the new Microsoft console initially but as I trudged through the lush environments, admired the picturesque ring encircling the planet, and fired upon surprisingly smart aliens, I realized that I was enjoying Halo as much as MGS2 and possibly more! In the end though, both were works of art that I can appreciate as much today as I did over a decade ago.

Now, fast forward to the summer of 2009. I was an iPhone developer for nearly a year when Ngmoco released a new game with the potential to turn the entire industry upside down. The game was Eliminate, and it was the first F2P iPhone game to utilize Apple's iOS 3.0 and a new in-app payments system.

The game was brilliant, especially for a mobile phone game. It was fast, fun, and multiplayer from anywhere at anytime. Even better -- the new business model worked. Eliminate became the top-grossing iPhone game and managed to stay in the charts much longer than similar, premium-priced titles.

I played and enjoyed Eliminate. I even tried out out the new IAP system and spent $20 on the game. I was enthralled at the possibilities of our latest technologies, just like every other developer. I looked at Eliminate as something to aspire to. Was it art to me like Halo or MGS2? Maybe -- but unlike Halo and MGS2, I can no longer play Eliminate, and I never got to enjoy the in-game currency I purchased.


Eliminate

In fact, I can safely say that Eliminate was not art. It was a great vehicle for new technology and for a new business model, but it failed to become art because it was not timeless. Due to the fact that Eliminate's business model and gameplay were entangled, it required an expensive backend infrastructure to run. Once that infrastructure's cost exceeded the game's income, Eliminate disappeared. This is not to mention the fact that the mechanics of entangling currency with gameplay forever change what the game is.

Abandoned Art

There are now literally thousands of examples of games that have been eliminated (pun intended) from the current generation of games because they are merely revenue vehicles. For a long time, the big question within the game industry was "are games art?" It's ironic that we should have an exhibit dedicated to the art of video games in the Smithsonian at the same time as the industry's most talented individuals have abandoned the pursuit of art in pursuit of the latest trend that may land them at the top of the charts.

So what is the game industry? Are we artists? Are we engineers? Are we investors? No. While our industry contains all of those roles, at its core the game industry is composed of players.

The problem with players is that they are always looking for a goal or a challenge to overcome, and they run directly at that goal until they smash right through it. Then, it's on to the next thing. Initially, games weren't taken very seriously because the technology was limited. We overcame that. Once the technology was in place, we weren't taken seriously because we didn't have complex characters and stories. We overcame that. Once we had complex characters and stories, we weren't taken seriously because we weren't making art, as it were, compared to other more established media forms.


The Implosion

Now here we are, again not being taken seriously. This time, though, it's different. This time it's our fault. We have become so caught up in "playing the game" that we have lost sight of the playing field.

Instead of creating games for people to play, we have begun creating games that play people. If the people are not either purchasing or advertising our game, they're not doing much. Of course, it's been a long road. We didn't instantly jump from $60 works of art like Halo to Eliminate. No, it all began innocently enough.

We decided that developing games independently was important. A large segment of the former "triple-A" set out to create tools that the masses could use. Of course, having tools wasn't beneficial without a way to sell products so we began to covet digital distribution. With these two barriers removed it was finally possible to make a great game with relative ease and reach a large audience.

Years ago, retail space was littered with games of all genres. Often there was no rhyme or reason to the arrangement of boxes at Electronics Boutique. Your best bet as a developer was to make something that hadn't been done yet, or conversely to appeal to an existing audience.

Life is a vector where you compete on either magnitude or direction. To make something new was to compete on direction; to appeal to an existing audience was to compete on magnitude. The higher quality games usually fared better in their respective spaces, but gamers didn't see sales figures on the store shelves, just cool boxes.

On the iOS App Store, though, everything is ranked. This is when we became players again -- competing on a new type of leaderboard. Initially, we charged $9.99 for iPhone games like Galcon and Enigmo. That seemed like a fair price, considering the small screen and limited controls. Then something strange happened. Due to the ranking system, it became exponentially advantageous to lower your price. Whereas before it didn't matter, because all games of a certain caliber had equal footing at retail, now the most-downloaded titles had the most visibility. Games that were $9.99 quickly dropped to $0.99, and lite versions began popping up in order to gain more visibility.

Now, three years after the introduction of IAP, being free isn't beneficial to players or developers. If a game isn't rigged to either charge a user or force them to advertise for the game, it is doomed to fail relative to other titles on the top-grossing list. If a game is rigged with F2P features, then it fails as a work of art, because it is not timeless. Worse, it fails as a game because it is not fun, immersive, or entertaining to make spending decisions right in the middle of a gameplay session.

In four years we have managed to reduce the value of our work to zero -- the only redemption to which is to pelt users who are attempting to enjoy an experience with spending decisions. Imagine a restaurant charging for salt. That's what we're doing, and often it's worse then that.

By now, game development has become a game in which average user spending must be greater than the cost of user acquisition. Yet, with so much supply, users really have little reason to spend money on any one game. Users have an unlimited supply of free games. As soon as one game gets old, they can move on to the next one.

A large part of any game is the initial experience. Whether good or bad, the experience of the theme, controls, and play patterns of any game are the primary assets. Nintendo has never offered free demos of its games because it knows this. In accordance, it also makes sure that every time it charges users for a new experience, it's a good one.

People are now questioning Nintendo's place in the industry yet again. I know I have, since the iPhone came to prominence. Now, I see Nintendo as one of the few companies that will make it though this stage in our industry's evolution. Nintendo has never been driven by metrics. It has always focused on the qualitative aspects of games and they understand those qualities better than anyone on the planet. When F2P falls apart, Nintendo will still be around -- even if diminished by the effects that F2P has on the whole ecosystem.


The Solution(s)

The current climate of the video game industry has been brought about by a complex sequence of events created by purely evolutionary thinking. Because game developers are actually players at heart, we have a tendency to use any tool we can to stay alive and hopefully "win". However, I think one game may shed some insight on our predicament. Brenda Garno's Train is a game in which players work to be as efficient as possible to "win". Only in the end do they realize that they probably didn't want to.

It's not too late to turn things around, though. There are several things we can do to stabilize the industry. First, let's stop ranking apps globally. When I go on Netflix it doesn't instantly show me the most-watched movie on Netflix. Instead, it shows me movies that I might like based on other movies I've watched. There is still a star rating associated with each movie so I know what to expect in terms of execution, but the execution is secondary to the subject matter of the movie.

As a whole, the game industry is too obsessed with metrics. Games have been called "the cinema of math" but that doesn't give us the right to rule absolutely by the numbers. Games are still art, and as such, we should recognize the qualitative aspects of the medium instead of bowing down to quantitative aspects at every turn. By relying so heavily on metrics, we have begun to remove the art from games.

This is predominantly why we end up with so many clones. When Mario was popular we saw a plethora of platformers, when Doom was on top it started a deluge of FPS games, now the iPhone top-grossing list is full of sim tap-and-wait games.

We need to break away from the metrics; they work in the short term but they eventually fall out. We've seen it happen repeatedly, most recently the "rock band" genre fell apart because the development community was looking at the metrics -- effectively the past -- and forgot to look into the future to find new qualities of entertainment.

The next thing we need to do is spend appropriate amounts of money on the production of our games. The triple-A industry began to fall apart because it lacked innovation. This is because developers were competing on one element. Again, life is a vector and you can compete on magnitude or direction. By only competing on magnitude, production costs ballooned to the point where the probability of turning a profit became too low to innovate.

To put another spin on the story, how about this? The triple-A industry fell apart for two reasons. First, everyone was competing on magnitude, so many of the games were the same (in terms of direction) but each one tried to do "more" than the last; this caused production inflation. Second, the mobile market popped up and offered a plethora of games all delivering experiences in different directions.

Of course, it's not even that simple. The triple-A market has its problems, but it has something the mobile market does not: standards. Part of the reason rankings make so much sense in the mobile market is because there really is a lot of shovelware. In the end, quality does matter. The difference comes when the audience grows tired of being inundated with bad software. Eventually, they'll just do something else. At least the old platform holders had a vested interest in making sure your products reach a certain level of quality.

The iOS App Store is very close, in terms of a "good" walled garden. Yet, we still need something slightly pickier. For example, maybe the platforms should prune the top lists of apps that don't maintain a minimum of a three-star review score. That's still a metrics-driven solution but at least it's based on people's qualitative assessment of the product. Or perhaps we should look at Nintendo's old policy of only allowing developers to publish five games a year for a given platform. The thinking back then was that if developers could only publish so often, they'd put out a better product instead of rushing to market. The same might be true today.

Some of these sentiments may seem like going backwards, and that's possible. I don't have the answers, but I do know that something has to be done to save our beloved art of video games. Free-to-play, with its business model/gameplay hybrid approach is not the answer; it's just an evolutionary response that brings bigger problems to the table.

As an industry, let's grow up. We're not players anymore. Rather, we have become the defenders of the art that we love. In accordance, let's treat it like art and respect direction above magnitude. Then, let's build that into the infrastructure of our platforms as well as our games.

Recent Developments

I wrote this article a while back and have been sitting on it, unsure of where it would ultimately lead. Recently, news has spread about a new clause in Apple's developer agreement, which might possibly restrict third parties from affecting the App Store rankings via external apps. This is certainly a step in the direction of reducing F2P gimmicks.

Many external services such as Free App a Day, PlayHaven, and Chartboost augment organic App Store downloads. Services like Free App a Day can offer more than just augmentation. A scan of the top 100 games -- or even overall apps -- reveals an exceptionally high percentage (as high as 10 percent) of games that are promoted by such services. In many ways, these are an indie developer's dream come true. For a reasonably affordable fee, any indie can put their game side by side with the biggest names the industry has to offer.

This isn't inherently bad, but there are some downsides for Apple. First and foremost, Apple's store becomes less and less relevant as these services grow. App Store chart placement determined your financial success almost entirely as little as two years ago. Now, placement on a top downloaded list on the store is almost irrelevant. Many top-grossing games are not top-downloaded games, and they earn new downloads and sales through alternate channels.

The second thing to consider is that Apple foots the bill for these crazy download numbers. Apple looks at the top downloads and analyzes their value proposition. They'll even contact you as a developer to tack on additional revenue streams like iAd. This means that Apple wants to make the most of its traffic. If third party services like AdMob, Chartboost, or Tapjoy are making all the money, then Apple is essentially funding these companies with its bandwidth and not necessarily reaping any of the rewards.

The final thing to consider is the simple quality of the App Store. If the store remains under the control of Apple, then the top apps will be those that are the best, cheapest, and promoted by Apple -- the most important aspect of which is just being the best. If we are to retain some semblance of "art" in our industry, then we need a system that isn't driven by price, linear charts, or analytical manipulation. We need a system that fosters high quality products and peer-to-peer word of mouth, and it doesn't count if an app writes to Facebook on our behalves.

Conclusion

Our industry, and indeed our world, is evolving at an ever-accelerating pace. The exponential tech curve is influencing everything from games as art to the latest Bond flick. It's important to retain our art, but it's exceptionally hard to do so in a financially competitive environment. Although it would be exceptional to see games return to a simpler time, we may just have to ride out the storm and see how our art form weathers it.

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