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Why optimizing evolution is industry's biggest challenge

The emergence of new gaming platforms, monetization models and distribution channels, alongside the mass availability of high-speed internet access has effectively turned the industry on its head. The challenge now is how do we optimize this evolution?

When EA CEO Andrew Wilson recently revealed his company’s intentions to make more of its games ‘free-to-start’, building on his “player-first” philosophy, it was as if the industry had found a new buzzword and business model on which to pin its hopes.

However, like Mark Twain once famously said, “There is no such thing as a new idea.”, and free-to-start as a concept doesn’t appear to be that far removed from the decades-old technique of giving away demo levels on a disk attached to the front of a games magazine.  So why return to the demo concept now?

It’s clear that traditional console publishers have found it harder than most to adapt since the industry was effectively turned on its head by the emergence of new gaming platforms, monetization models and distribution channels, alongside the mass availability of high-speed internet access. While all of this has been great for the consumer, who suddenly has loads of choice about where they play and how they pay. However, for publishers, these changes have delivered a seismic blow.

For these publishers the size of the challenge ahead should not be underestimated, as it impacts the very culture of the business.  This year, mobile games revenues are set to exceed those of console games for the first time, testament to the ubiquity of the smartphone as a gaming platform. The rise of Free-to-play has meant that most games are now given away for free, and the ability to self-publish has meant that the industry is no longer controlled by a small number of large publishers.

While F2P will always have its detractors from many in the gaming fraternity, the reality is that the model has been responsible for bringing billions of new players and billions of dollars in new revenues into the games industry. While F2P needs to evolve, especially around players having to grind for hours to earn currency, its success reflects a growing mood amongst gamers that paying $50 upfront for a game they have never played is fast becoming an outdated mode of consumption.

This sentiment is shared by EA’s Wilson, who has acknowledged that his customers want choice, not only in the way they access his games, but also in how they pay, admitting “A very big part of our player base will expect a free-to-start experience.” Wilson went on to compare this approach to the way that films, music and books are sold digitally, and free-to-start payment options are believed to range from charging for episodic content to the more standard micro transaction model.  

It’s generally much better to offer players the option of an incremental payment model rather than challenging them to pay or leave when they’re having fun, but which models work apart from free-to-play?

Chalk and cheese

Can games be sold and monetized in the same way as films, music and books? For me, I’m not convinced. Firstly films, music and books are all linear mediums, where you buy them, consume them and you’re done. Games on the other hand are an interactive medium, offering the player a certain amount of freedom to define the way they play, all within the confines of the game. As a result the way we engage with games and what influences our purchasing decisions is fundamentally different to those of films, music and books. The degree of personalization gives game developers much more flexibility on monetizing.

For example, a typical AAA title might take hours for a player get into and weeks or months to complete.  Because you typically pay for AAA games up front, developers have the luxury of being able to draw you in slowly, with developing storylines and the progressive acquirement of more and more advanced skills and weapons until you reach the climactic end levels.  

The design of F2P games is in complete contrast.  Successful F2P games like World of Tanks: Blitz, Hearthstone and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood have all been designed to capture your interest in the first 60 seconds. They have an on-boarding process which is intuitive and the gameplay is fun and engaging, while ensuring the player receives an early sense of achievement to give them a true taste of what’s to come.

Having analysed the in-game behaviour of millions of players across our platform, we know that it is more important to create an early” engaged” player, than an early “monetized” player in a successful F2P game, as the data shows that the longer it takes for a player to make their first purchase, the greater their lifetime value (LTV).

The big question for new models like free-to-start is when do you pull up the drawbridge and ask for a payment? Is it after so many levels, hours or sessions of play?

A key factor to consider is that we know that all players are different and while some will fly through the demo and be ready for more, others will take longer to get to grips with the game and therefore take a longer, less fluid path through the game.  The risk arises when the pinch-point comes before the player has become significantly engaged to a point where they’re ready to pay.

Another drawback for a model like this is if players don’t like the game, they’ll opt not to purchase it at all. It is testament to the extent of the player-first philosophy at EA that Wilson is prepared to take this leap of faith from the traditional pay-first, play-later model. However, unless they learn quickly about creating positive first impressions through on-boarding, it could be a costly learning curve.

The future is still undefined   

EA’s commitment to free-to-start should be commended as it’s just the kind of progressive initiative you’d expect from the world’s largest games publisher, but there are other examples of trial/demo models that may be more effective.

PlayStation has an intuitive way to trial games through PlayStation Networks 'Share Play' feature on PS4, which eliminates the need to waste time (and HDD space) downloading a demo. For example, if you have a friend with the game you are interested in, you can simply ask them to hand over the controller 'virtually' and play, which having used it a few times has actually swung my decision to buy (or not to buy) a game. STEAM also does a great job offering discounts on its games as well as attractive bundles, whilst subscription models like PlayStation Now and EA Access offer players greater value through an ongoing monthly payment model more akin to those of Spotify or Netflix.

The industry is evolving at such a rate that the models that define its future may yet to be discovered or invented. What we’ve learned from the last three years is that player-centricity has become vital to commercial success. Therefore what we can say with some confidence is that the future of the industry must built on continuing to offer consumers choice and satisfaction. Or in other words, if you know your players, you will build successful games.

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