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Our $0.02 About Free-To-Play

With all this talk surrounding free-to-play these days, where does good old premium fit in? Can't we all just coexist? Here's our $0.02 on the matter of free-to-play vs. premium vs. carrots.

At a previous game developers’ convention we attended, the following conversation seemed to repeat itself an uncanny amount of times:

Them: “This is your game Mosaique? Huh… it’s nice.”
Us: “Thank you!”
Them: “So. What’s your monetisation strategy then?”
Us: “Well, we don’t really have one. The user pays us money, we deliver the game.”
Them: “So.. you mean it isn’t free?! It’s a puzzle game, right? No ads or IAPs?”
Us: “No. It’s 99¢. We don’t do ads or free-to-play. We prefer premium.”
Them: “… uh… okay… well.. um…(looks at phone) sorryigottagoseeyabye” whoosh

After about the third time this conversation happened, we started to feel a bit awkward about standing there offering a game to the market that wasn’t free, didn’t have ads or In-App-Purchases, and was devoid of any semblance of a “monetisation strategy”. Nobody really wanted to talk to us after we said the word “premium”, as if the idea of exchanging money for 100% value is now ludicrously archaic.

Well, unfortunately it seems that this is the direction that certain sectors of the game industry are heading. Recently there’s been some healthy discussion about this in the developer community, and this article is a particularly good read (be sure to watch this video linked in the article). But the basic gist is that free-to-play monetisation strategy is here to stay, and we are facing a whole new generation of gaming consumers who are entering our community with the notion that this is all normal. Games are free and have limitations that can be surpassed with money. 99¢ for a puzzle game?! Pfft… greedy devs.

This whole discussion about free-to-play is an interesting one.

As we see technology advance, we also see the birth of new art forms and related business models. Ponder for a moment about how artists have been able to earn financial compensation for storytelling throughout the ages; whether it is theatre, music performance, books, radio plays, cinema, television shows, subscription-based television, video retailing, or downloadable content, all these art forms come together with their own respective business models. Content creation still exists in all of these mediums because the creators know their markets well, and appreciate consumers’ emotional investment and desire for unfettered content.

Shift to our beloved game industry and we’ll find an equally vibrant landscape of art forms, business models, and audiences. Designers can make board games, casino games, coin-op arcade games, home console games, premium PC games, subscription-based MMORPGs, ad-sponsored web games, and IAP-based mobile games just to name a few. All these games and their business models have their place, but it’s often disappointing when we see the industry not connecting the dots between consumers, content expectations, and related monetisation strategies.

Why, for example, would EA give the mobile version of Dungeon Keeper a Farmville monetisation strategy that essentially destroys the pacing of the original? While the PC game was an unbroken interactive experience, the mobile version has speed bumps to encourage purchases at set intervals. When considering what content the target market expects from a mobile version of Dungeon Keeper, was this really the best choice? And if they were trying to reach out to a broader market, was this business model the optimum complement to the actual experience of playing the game?

There are of course many examples of games where the content, consumer expectations, and the monetisation strategy have been married together well, and certainly the current popularity of free-to-play is evidence that this particular business model is very effective in certain cases. This is not an ethical or moral discussion; business models are just different the same way that games are different. Whether or not a certain model is superior or inferior is not the issue.

The issue is the blanket assumption that one particular business model is applicable in all cases because it is seen as being successful. Just because free-to-play is currently popular and profitable for certain games doesn’t imply that it is the one-stop solution to earning compensation for all games. And that’s why when you’re at a convention surrounded by people eager to sell you their monetisation solutions, it’s disappointing to have them become dismissive when they find out that you prefer making games that have no real “monetisation strategy” beyond receiving some money prior to download. Each business model has its place for the content that it covers, and like content creators through the ages have slowly learnt the expectations of their consumers, game developers have this same responsibility to prioritise creating content that players want.

Incidentally, we have tried free-to-play; our first game Ambi-ON used this model, and it didn’t work out for us. We found it extremely hard to balance gaming entertainment together with effective monetisation strategy. Since our second game Mosaique, we have found that the old-fashioned “pay first” premium approach just suits us better. We like to put all of our planning efforts into just creating a fun game, and prefer not to have to think about how to induce a desire to spend money. Get the transaction out of the way early, and just focus on the fun. But that’s just us.

So if you are a gaming consumer, we’d like to encourage you to keep an open mind about all business models. If you’re looking at a game that isn’t free and requires an up-front purchase, trust that it is that way because the creator simply felt this was the best way to deliver their creation without compromising the experience. Alternately if you are a game developer, we’d like to advocate just creating fun immersive games and pricing them accordingly. If making your game free and including various mechanisms for monetising is the best and most balanced complement for your creation and meets your consumers’ expectations, then go for it!

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This post was originally posted on Winning Blimp's blog here, and was written by Winning Blimp Creative Director Alex May and Executive Producer Bear Trickey. We'd love to hear your thoughts! Get in touch at @winningblimp or on our Facebook page.

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