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Ranting about Free to Play (it’s not what you think)

I've wanted for a long time to have my say about F2P games and this is it. (This is mobile-centric because I am, but the content probably holds up for other platforms.)

Here's an odd situation. I was just telling someone why Combat Monsters (Rubicon’s next game) will soon make a dent on the App Store, and he wasn’t sold on a particular new feature. I was about to type "Trust me, it's free to play so why not just give it a go and see" and… I caught myself.

I had not mentioned it was an F2P game, and letting the cat out of the bag might have started another ranting session that I didn't want to get sidetracked with.

But how on Earth did we get into a situation where "free" is seen as a bad thing for the consumer?

Free to play seems to be a very controversial topic right now and I'm girding my loins as I type this out, but I'm determined to get my own point of view down on record, so here goes. First off, let's answer that question and then I'll present a few more, with my answers, based on the various things I've seen raised on forums again and again.

Q. How on Earth did we get into a situation where "free" is seen as a bad thing for the consumer?

A. We didn't.

Almost ALL consumers are fine with it, they're just a lot quieter about it. For evidence you only need to look at the top-grossing charts or the top downloads charts. On mobile at least, both are full of F2P games with paid for games being in a minority. I won't post a chart here as it will be out of date by tomorrow, but you can click this for a current list:

An angry monster writes

Q. Ever more mobile games are going F2P these days. That's just greed isn't it?

A. Yes and no. Mostly no.

Publishers (meaning the big ones as well as indie developers) fall into two camps. One camp develops games purely and only to make money. They are notable because they seem to make far too much of it for the gameplay they provide, and I’m sure you can all think of an example of this right now.

I don’t want to dwell on this camp for long though, because there’s another message I want to concentrate on. However I will urge one thing. If you think a company is behaving appallingly and abusing the free to play model, then please by all means call them on it. But don’t blame the sales model – it’s the company that’s doing it.

The other camp, the one that we and probably most other indies fall into, is that of "games first, money second". We live to develop games and we need only enough money to get by.

You'll hear that a lot from younger guys, but at my age it needs a bit of a caveat. I still live to develop games and money is second, but if I can't earn a living wage by making my own games, I'll have to go get a job working on someone else's who will pay me better. I have a family and a mortgage to worry about and "games first" seriously does not include "putting my wife out on the street."  So how about I go with “games mostly first.”

Q. So if not greed, why don't you just sell me the game for a buck?

A. Because it's worth more than a buck.

That really should be the end of this one, shouldn't it? Surely they have to be worth more than $0.99? I certainly feel so, but to be objective about it you have to look at market forces - things are worth what people will pay for them. Period.

Let’s look at these market forces in action. Several years ago, a few developers were making eye-watering sums of money from the early App Store. This led a lot of people to start up and cash in, and before we knew it, there were tons of games coming out. An inevitable price war then broke out and $0.99 became the only number in town. If iTunes had a price tier of 10 cents, then games would now have to cost 10 cents for the masses to even consider buying them.

Most customers, probably all, know that this is a ridiculous bargain if they stop and think about it, but they don't - there's no need to. The only time pricing becomes a factor is when looking at differentials. I'll bet most people have looked at a $2.99 game at some point, and said to themselves "no way, that's triple the normal price but it won't be triple as good" - totally forgetting that triple the price is still less than a large coffee. And nobody can blame them for that; it's just how our minds work.

The problem now though is that the numbers just don't add up anymore.

In those early gold rush years, a developer could make up for a ridiculously low price tag with short (i.e. poor game quality) development times and the sheer mass of available customers crying out for product. Any product!

Nowadays though, that gold rush is long over. And we all know what mining towns look like shortly after the gold runs out. What happened is that simply too many people turned up to the party. According to 148App's “App Store Metrics” page, there are just shy of a thousand apps a day being released now. Just stop and think about that, one thousand a day. And the quality bar is rising all the time - a lot of games now match the graphics of early PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 games. Those that don’t tend to match the console generation beforehand. And obviously the gameplay should be there to match the spectacle.

Put simply, those massive customer numbers are not there anymore as consumers have far more variety to spend on, and the development times have also ballooned. That’s a double whammy for us small developers.

Let us look at the numbers as they stand now. According to an article on TechCrunch, the average app income is now $19,560 and falling. Given our own earnings and matching that to our chart history, I was expecting a lower figure if I’m being frank, but I’ll go with it on faith. (We do earn more than this, but we have a couple of games still at the bottom end of the charts after great initial showings. However, almost all developers are not that fortunate - a thousand apps per day, remember.)

Anyway, remove Apple’s 30 per cent from that figure and pay the tax and you're left with about $10,000? How is any business meant to exist on that? This is an app’s lifetime earnings don’t forget, not a monthly income. In our case we’d need to pay five guys out of that, plus rent, equipment costs, business rates, insurance, etc.

So developers need to look to something else. Many will quit while they can, others will quit when they're made to. Some will prosper as there's still big money to be made from the top 100 chart, but only 100 of them at most - that's several hours’ worth of new releases. What of the rest of the year?

Enter F2P. Here's a thing, if people like one dollar games, they're going to love no dollar games! That slips us nicely past that artificial differential problem as there's no game cheaper than that. And with no initial “buy before you try” blocker, you can in theory get those massive customer numbers back again, at least for just a look see.

Hold the line! Q. I don't care about your problems; you can't expect me to keep your company running!

A. Absolutely, we have no automatic right to exist.

But we do have the right to try to, and a good way to succeed is to get paid a reasonable sum for our work. So we show it to you for free, hoping to hook you into the game so you might stick around and pay for something. We're hoping that payment will be more than a dollars’ worth too. Now that the differentials thing is out of the way, we would like to get a sane amount for the many hours of enjoyment we bring you (if you're not enjoying it, pay nothing and move on – another win for the consumer).

Q. But that's when the psychological con tricks start. 

A. Sometimes, but judge the book. 

We are trying to sell you stuff and we're not trying to pretend we won't, but that's the same with prepaid. In our game, we sell booster packs to give you more choices. You can play our game for free for a long time, but we're not trying to be dishonest and pretend we're a charity. If you get so far into it, yes we hope you will support us with a purchase.

It is true that more aggressive companies use genuine psychology and stuff to maximize their earnings; there are even books on how to do it. But again I urge you to judge the individual company on that, not the sales model. We’re making what we consider a perfectly ethical F2P game where the main “trick” is to make something you’ll want to buy!

By the way, sales tricks are not limited to F2P either. Have you ever wondered why everything is priced at something ninety nine? It’s a psychological trick to get you to think something is a dollar cheaper than it is. So there you go, every app on iTunes is using tricks on you!

And here's another oft-missed point. With a prepaid game, you have to pay upfront and hope that what you're buying is what you actually wanted and expected. And often it's not, we've all been there. But with an F2P game, you see the whole game AND the things we want you to pay for, right there in situ before paying a dime. If I tried really hard, I could probably make a case that prepaid games are abusive and F2P is the real deal.

Q. So it's all about the 'whales' and milking kids with their parents’ iTunes login?

A. No.

Whales happen everywhere. If you're a multi-millionaire, dropping a grand on a game is about as serious as we think dropping a few bucks is. Get over this one, we're not chasing millionaires and you won't ever spend a grand on our game, so that’s both boxes crossed out.

For starters, there's nowhere near enough mobile phone game playing multi-millionaires who might notice our game and like it enough. It’s simply not a viable thing to chase and trying to do so would put the game beyond us mere mortals who are the real audience.

No, what we're after is to get 10-20 bucks out of you. Put away those differentials again and just consider how much money that actually is. For hopefully many, many hours of entertainment? For a game that took ten man years to develop? I think that’s a perfectly reasonable ask, and you might too the next time you book theatre tickets.

But if you don't feel that's reasonable, we have some lower priced options to extend the game some. Or if you're really determined to not pay us anything, you can play a long way into our game for totally free, including unlimited multiplayer with matchmaking, so it’s not even pay to win. It's your choice. Choices are good, right?

Regarding the kids thing, I've seen this mentioned a few times and find it abhorrent. NOBODY is trying to do this deliberately, not even that greedy camp. I understand that Apple and Google are working to stop this and I hope they succeed for everyone’s benefit.

Q. Why is this post so long?

A. Guess I got carried away a bit.

I'm truly impressed you made it to the end, and I really hope that this has done a small amount to bring balance to the Force.

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