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Is Peter Molyneux Spearheading The Future Of Free-To-Play?

Peter Molyneux returns to his roots with god game "Godus." Will 22 Cans deliver the next generation of free-to-play? My opinion on the "investment model" and loose speculation on Godus's potential impact.

Note: This was first posted to my personal blog before part 2 of the interview was published. Minor edits were made for tone. Original here:

In an interview with PocketGamer, Peter Molyneux discusses a new monetization strategy for 22 Cans’ crowdfunded Strategy/god game Godus. If you are a games fan or have any knowledge of the industry at all, you’ve likely just had a strong reaction to that first sentence based on your opinion of Molyneux.  But, what interests me about this story is not so much the game itself, but the message being delivered in the interview

So, with that said, it is important that I add:

I am not specifically endorsing or discounting this game. This post is an opinion/prediction piece on it’s potential impact on free-to-play (f2p) games.

While very few details have been shared, Godus claims to possess a monetization system never seen before in any game. Molyneux criticizes contemporary f2p strategies, likening them to "taking a huge hammer and smashing our customers with it." He speaks vaguely about how Godus will differentiate itself: 

“We can’t be so crude in making the first thing we teach people in these games how to speed things up by spending gems. That’s absolutely insane.” 

Instead, he encourages a different point of view altogether, arguing that “free-to-play” is a misnomer: 

"There cannot be a term that is less true. What we need is a new term. And that term is more like ‘invest-to- play’. What really are we doing? We are tempting people to invest some of their money into a game.”

He concludes by positing the idea that games ought to be viewed as a hobby, and presumably we ought to provide investment opportunities to hobbyists in order to enrich their experiences:

” tempt people to think about being proud about investing. Before we even talk about monetisation, we want players to feel like Godus is a hobby (not just a game).” 

Indeed, one might cite DLC, expansion packs, new campaigns for your favorite tabletop RPG, dice, monster manuals and other ancillary items as examples of investments made by hobbyists. All of these things add new dimensions to the core product. There is a clear correlation between dollars spent and depth of content. But how does that translate to a seemingly organic world where content (presumably) won’t be fractured into various expansion packs and supplemental IP? 

One interesting point is that players will not even have the ability to spend money until the game deems you ready. Molyneux explains: 

"You’ve got to be subtle about it and slowly layer in those mechanics. The point we introduce monetisation depends on the player, and the game maker has to get you into the right mindset."

Without knowing more about the systems we will see in Godus, it is difficult to say exactly how 22 Cans will implement this vision in a mobile context. if you are feeling industrious, you could play an early access version of the game on Steam. If you are already playing, please feel free to share your predictions and insights. 

Regardless of the specifics, I believe this may bode well for the future of f2p, or invest-to-play (i2p?) if you like that language. My thoughts below:

Godus will launch to mixed reception

Particularly on mobile. It will likely enjoy more success on PC, where fans of Populous and Black & White will praise Molyneux’s return to “god games” after years of rubbish. If history is any indication, his fans will drink it up while his critics wave the bloody shirt of broken promises and hype. That being said, it may well be his most successful title since the Fable series. 

It will be a “First Mover”

I believe Molyneux will surprise us. As the game gains ground, established publishers in the f2p space will balk at the inefficacy of the monetization scheme, pointing out that it is not raking in Scrooge McDuckian piles of money on a daily basis like their games; so everyone should settle down and buy some gems or an extra life. Quietly, Godus will have an impact on user behavior that will turn a few inquisitive heads. They will observe that players’ dollars are yielding an experiential return intrinsic to the game experience, rather than a “patience tax” in the form of time accelerators and pain relief.  

It will be emulated

Free-to-play as we know it must surely change or die - It may take a year or a decade, but it will happen. Once we have exhausted every dime-squeezing tactic, depleted every IP and aesthetic that appeal to your quirky Aunt, and run out of nouns synonymous with “gems,” the whole thing will become stale and the market will once again force us to innovate. As the success of traditional f2p mechanics wanes, we will begin to turn to new solutions. I predict that Godus will be successful enough to influence these new systems and solutions, even if it doesn’t get the credit right away. 

It is a pretty good idea

"Invest-to-play" is an interesting choice of words. Webster defines investment as a 

“Process of exchanging income for an asset that is expected to produce earnings at a later time. An investor refrains from consumption in the present in hopes of a greater return in the future.”

Current f2p practices actively encourage repeat consumption in a cycle that usually does not build up to a meaningful whole (because it is more like a sequence of purchases than an investment). A shift to an “investment” model is an interesting notion. Players invest real money in virtual “assets” (game systems/mechanics/world) on the promise of yielding returns which intrinsically add new dimensions to the experience. Cyclical, compulsive consumption does not achieve this because there is no real ROI. That is not to say that there is no satisfaction or value assigned to consumption. There is. But it is temporary - like buying and eating a delicious cheeseburger from a fast food joint. You pay money, receive burger, enjoy it savagely in the parking lot, bits of lettuce and pickle dangling from your maw with the crazed expression of a hopeless man hopped up on bath salts… and the experience is over (until tomorrow). This is certainly a type of value. If it wasn’t, f2p games would not be amassing the great fortunes they are famous for.

The problem, as we know, is that these fortunes are created by an infinitesimal group of users (the infamous “whales”) who consume compulsively and frequently. This model is lucrative (for now), but it is not particularly inclusive and ultimately unsustainable. For the vast majority of gamers (especially old-schoolers and core gamers), spending to gain more access to the same gameplay or paying a “patience tax” does not equate to a meaningful ROI. 

What I like about the “investment” proposition is that it has the potential to welcome players of all types, not just the ever-sought-after “moms,” non-gamers, and casual players. Like all good investments, it also carries the possibility of long-term value and happiness, as opposed to the temporary satisfaction of repeat purchasing.

It will be Challenging

The most obvious challenge facing 22 Cans - or any developer bold enough to challenge the status quo - will be to provide good investments i.e. great games worthy of your continued financial support. It is already exceedingly difficult to nail down the right balance of innately fun gameplay with a sound monetization strategy. To do so with a system that is, as Molyneux puts it, as “fresh and as new and as different from anything you’ve ever seen in any game” will be that much more of an undertaking. In order to create good investments, players’ experiences must be rewarded through authentic, dimensional impact on the game (which could create variability in scope and scale). This is more complicated than tweaking parameters and shilling consumables. 

Will Godus be a breakout success? I don’t know. Will 22 Cans change the face of f2p gaming as we know it? Maybe. Probably not. Definitely not overnight. But, the fact that they are willing to take a gargantuan risk in a famously risk-averse arena is encouraging and the fact that DeNA is publishing may be a sign of the times. I, for one, welcome a sea change. Lord knows I need better games to play on the toilet. 

The interview closed with this sentence:

"There has to be a better way." 

Mr. Molyneux, sir… On this much we can agree. 

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