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Interview: Glu's Mori And The Importance Of The Happy 'Freeloader'

Metrics sit at the core of free-to-play. But are the numbers sustainable? Business editor Colin Campbell talks to Glu's creative chief Giancarlo Mori about non-paying customers and the future of the model.
[In this interview on the free-to-play market, business editor Colin Campbell talks with Glu's chief creative officer Giancarlo Mori about the "freeloaders" and the future of the model.] Mobile gaming has come a long way. Rich, 3D stories and tablet-sized canvases are replacing tiny, jerky horridness. Sluggish sales of over-priced baubles are giving way to free-to-play adventures that pull gamers further and further into the experience, producing a value exchange along the way. Glu Mobile's chief creative officer Giancarlo Mori, a native of Florence and a seasoned veteran of EA, Microsoft, and Activision, seems happy about the changes. I met with him at Glu's recent analyst day in San Francisco. He says he's glad that there is a viable alternative to pay-to-play and, although free-to-play is by no means a guarantee of future prosperity, that things are moving in the right direction. Glu, publisher of free-to-play games including Men vs. Machines and Contract Killer, has increased its guidance for Q2. I suggest that F2P is making the games business look more and more like the online pornography business. Lots of people enjoying content for free, but a significant enough percentage paying to play (so to speak). "Well here's the thing," he says. "One of the reasons why pornography is so successful is because it caters to a very basic instinct. I think games cater to a different kind of core instinct, which is learning, achievement, progression. " "People reward you with their time if you give them a good experience. If the experience is relevant, some of them will pay money. Some people lament the fact that 90 percent of their players don't pay anything. They even call them freeloaders. For me they're not freeloaders, for me they are marketers." He adds, "These are the people who I want to keep very happy playing my games. They're the ones who will speak positively about my games to other people. Every happy customer will be a lead to other customers who could well go on to pay." F2P is built upon a very specific set of metrics, and one thing we've learned from the internet is that one year's successful mathematical formula is next year's disaster zone. I wonder if the conversion rates from freeloader to pay-player are sustainable. Put more frankly, might they fall off a cliff? "Yes that does frighten us," he says. "But at the same time, because of the penetration of smartphones and the limited barrier to entry in playing free games, we know that people will continue to play our games. We learn from them, quickly, and we react. He admits, "Obviously nobody has a crystal ball. We are bound to make some mistakes. But at the same time, if we look at this with humility and with a focus on quality games, then the power of great content will always win." As Game Developer magazine's EIC Brandon Sheffield pointed out recently, there is much about F2P's design specifics to be welcomed. It's time to move on from this idea that F2P is an abrogation of creative control, a surrender to the mob. Mori says, "These games are instrumented with analytics. When the first player downloads the game, we start tracking what is happening within the game. We accumulate terabytes of data and we consolidate the data, we take a look at macro trends, we start to ask the big questions. "How long are they playing? How much money do they spend? When do they fail? Which items never get purchased and which are popular? Obviously, we have to use our own creativity. We don't want to become paralyzed by the statistics. But they are very powerful, sophisticated and useful statistics." "So, always with a lot of respect for the privacy of the individual and for the gameplay experience, we learn what people want. That's incredibly exciting for a game maker because for the first time we don't have to guess what players want. We know what the player wants. We can make the games that they want to play as opposed to what we think they want to play."

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