The free-to-play business model has seen its share of success, but what will the next generation of free-to-play bring?
At GDC Online in Austin, game developers told us how they expect free-to-play to evolve, how it will shape the way people make games, and how people will play them.
Gabe Leydon, CEO, Machine Zone
"Where free-to-play is going is massive, global games, made by very small groups of people that can get onto a billion phones and, essentially, make a lot of money. The video game industry has never seen this kind of leverage before.
"Most of the advancements right now [in free-to-play], I would say, are in community. Games have been largely about collision for the past 30 or so years -- collision-based games where you have to dodge something to survive, or pass the finish line before somebody else.
"Now they're getting a little more emotional, more psychological. The games are more conduits to interact with each other, rather than to tell them a story. They let the users tell each other the story. What you're going to see is major advancements on the community side."
Emily Greer, co-founder, Kongregate
"[I expect to see] more variety in terms of the type of game and monetization method. So far, it's been a lot of RPGs and strategy games. Now that a lot of people understand how to make free-to-play work in those contexts, [people will bring it] to other genres.
"I'd love to see more experimentation and drive in how to make free-to-play work in other situations. I think that's going on, and will continue to develop. People are also getting smarter, and learning the dynamics of free-to-play game design.
"There's been, initially, a lot of fast-following, where people are copying a mechanic that they saw in an Asian game and bringing that to Facebook, and taking things from other people without necessarily understanding what the underlying factors are that make people behave a certain way."
Caryl Shaw, independent consultant
"People are really starting to embed data in a much earlier place in their games. When you're building a game now, you don't even consider building it out without pulling in data. That certainly wasn't the case two or three years ago, when people were like, 'I put out a game! We'll see what it does!' That just doesn't happen anymore. People are using data.
"In the next half-a-year to year-and-a-half or so, people are going to understand data analysis better. I was in a talk this morning, and the guy was talking about ARPU (average revenue per user) being a really important stat. But to me, ARPU is not that important anymore. I don't look at the average revenue per user. I don't look at the sum total. I look at the average revenue per paying user, and how many of my users are paying. It's got to turn into the next generation of data analytics, and understanding data better."
John Smedley, CEO, SOE
"We used to do very standard stuff that's still what most MMO games use, which are things called win-backs. A player would buy a retail game, play it for 'X' amount of time, then they'd stop playing. Then you'd send them emails with incentives for them to log back in.
"It's different now. The difference is free-to-play gives people the opportunity to come back in on a weekly basis, or a monthly basis. You put out a new patch, and they just pop back in because there's no barrier to entry. That changes everything about how you market to your players, how you interact with your players. [Free-to-play] means you have a constant dialogue with your players, and that you're making sure they're aware of what's going on in your game. Now we reach out on other channels like Twitter and Reddit, places where players are, even though they're not playing our games."
Joost van Dreunen, CEO, SuperData Research
"As gamers get more comfortable with spending a dollar or five bucks or ten bucks at a time, that's just kind of a new environment where you have to design games that suit those customer needs.
"What that means is that [developers] will be looking more at games that focus on a niche, rather than large scale. There's going to be less of an emphasis on [player] acquisition, and a greater emphasis on retention.
"Previously, it's been all about, 'Hey, let's get a million people in the door, and convert a small percentage of them.' The next step will be, 'Let's get 50,000 people as our customer base, and try to keep them as long as possible.' Those are the makings of what will ultimately be much more of a fragmented market in terms of genres and game mechanics.
"There's a lot of opportunity for developers to find their way into the market. The new revenue models also offer new opportunity to design games. It's up to whoever is nimble enough to make the most of that."
Gamasutra is at GDC Online in Austin this week. Check out our event page for the latest on-site coverage.