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Can free-to-play feel good? Should it be incorporated into every game? Jesse Schell talks about where the model works, where it doesn't, and looks at it in the context of other industries -- and then talks about how he wants to lead us to a game utopia.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

July 16, 2013

13 Min Read

Jesse Schell is well known for his discussions of monetization, gamification, achievements, and generally the systems that connect or repel games and players. As many games trend toward free-to-play and social models, his words become even more poignant.

As a person who, like many who have played games for a very long time, is somewhat dismayed by some of the monetization tactics out there, I thought I'd try to coax some ideas for positive implementations of this out of Schell. He is neither particularly for nor against them (which time proves is generally the right approach). He just wants them to be done well. And when games in general are done well, they become very positive things.

Can games and their systems lead us to utopia? Jesse Schell thinks they might.

Let's talk about humiliation tactics in games. I really don't like those myself. Like your crops whither and die -- or going back to like the Tamagotchi, when you didn't feed it, it would be all sad and covered in filth. That's depressing. I don't like negative reinforcement for not doing something that I should be enjoying. Why do you think people are so focused on that right now?

JS: The thing is, it works. So in the free-to-play world, you've got to do anything that's going to keep people coming back. And some of those things are positive reinforcement, and some of them are negative reinforcement. Obviously if you have too much negative reinforcement, people leave. But if you have a certain amount of positive reinforcement, you can put some negative reinforcement, and people don't leave.

It's not so much that people leave; they'll stay, and now you'll have more reinforcement to return than ever. What it really comes down to is designers need to optimize, they need to optimize for maximum incentives for return. So that's why.

Yeah. I just don't like it.

JS: Nope. But the thing is, do you not like it enough to stop playing?

Yes. Yes for me, but not for many others, it seems. I was talking yesterday with Phil Larsen of Halfbrick, in regard to energy systems, when there are some games that will just completely lock you out of playing it until you have paid a little bit, or you wait a long time. Some people don't seem to mind, and those people are traditionally thought of as being the folks who haven't played games really before. They are a new audience... they are the folks that haven't grown up with games. And this is really their first game experience.

JS: I think it's wrong to paint the picture that, "Oh, people are willing to tolerate this because they're naive." I think rather it's a question of how they want to play. It's hard for hardcore gamers to understand how more casual gamers want to play.


JS: Hardcore gamers want to be like "I'm spending the weekend for 90 hours," right? Then it's like, "This is what I'm going to do." This idea of games being like, "Why don't you come back in 30 minutes?" it's repulsive to them.

But for a lot of people who are just like, "You know, I'm going to play a few minutes, I'm going to play a little bit here," and the game's like, "Hey, why don't you stop and come back later?"

That's there for two reasons. One is it's better for monetization in a free-to-play model to have people playing in little bits over a long period of time. The game wants to incentivize that. Secondly, for people who are playing kind of casually, they often appreciate it. They want a point where they can say, "oh, I should stop now. I shouldn't be doing too much of this anyway." Some people actually view it as a positive thing. They feel like it gives them a certain sense of completion. Right? "I couldn't play more now if I wanted to. And so, I'm completed. I'm stopped." But if you have the mindset that I'm going to grind through and bust this game, then it's frustrating.

I like looking at the relationship between core players and free-to-play stuff right now because there's a sense on their part that free-to-play is taking away from the experience that they want to have. I've thought about this a bit. It should really be about the ecosystem of games getting larger than this combat between free-to-play and premium paid games.

There is a little truth to them losing the content they like, simply because of where the money is going, and companies not quite having the resources to do these full, classically-defined retail experiences versus the money that they get from free-to-play. I hadn't quite thought about it that way before, where the money is going is almost proving those core players correct right now. They're upset that free-to-play exists entirely. It bothers them very much.

JS: Don't play the game.

But what I'm saying is that because so many companies now are feeling like they have to chase that, there almost is a reallocation of resources...

JS: Right. No, there is because it works better. There's a real tension there because we know there are many contexts in which free-to-play makes more money, right? And as a developer, you want to make more money.

But we know that also the free-to-play mechanics have a certain interruptive quality which can spoil the play a little bit. So there are things on the ends of the spectrum where it's very obvious. Skyrim should not be free-to-play.We get that. It would really ruin it if we don't get that.

And then way on the other hand, you have these little potato chip games where it's like, yeah, it totally makes sense that this game is free-to-play. But it's the stuff in the middle where we're like, "Which way should this go?" Dungeons & Dragons Online, should it be free-to- play? How should that work? That's kind of where the tension is.

But this isn't a new idea! If you look at the history of amusement parks and theme parks, they've gone through exactly the same tension and evolution, and I think it's instructive to look at that, because I think the way things are going to end up is going to be very similar to that.

Disneyland started with a microtransaction model. It was 10 cents to ride each ride, 35 cents to ride each ride. And then '71, Magic Mountain opens, and they say, "Screw that, one price, pay five bucks, get in, ride everything you want." It's simpler, and it has a magic feeling. Like, "Oh my God, this is great! I make a sacrifice to enter utopia, that feels like a naturally human thing to do, and I can do whatever I want." It's a magic feeling.

Disneyland realized they should do the same thing, and they did it, and it worked really well for them. Did that mean that the free-to-play model went away for [amusement parks]? It didn't, because if you look at county fairs, it's still what they do. Because a county fair can't afford to put up a big paywall and say you can't come in here if you don't pay, because they're a lower-end thing. So I think the same thing is going to happen with games. We're going to have these lower-end experiences where you can do that if you want. I don't think free-to-play is going to kill the "pay one price to get in" games.

But I think what we're going to see is a gradual separation. I think there's going to be more on the ends and a little less in the middle. It does mean that the games where you pay one price, they're going to have to be fricking great. So I therefore predict the quadruple-A title. That my prediction. Quadruple-A development is what's next.

That is amusing, but I think really what should happen is there should be a redefinition of triple-A. Because we don't even have double-A or single-A in terms of how people talk about stuff.

JS: Yeah, we used to. The time was very short when we talked about A and double-As.

With that kind of stuff, it seems clear that developers sometimes don't know what is going to incite the ire of their fans. Like Dead Space 3... They have something where you can pay for additional resources like ammunition and such. That is very abrasive to a core player who wants to perceive skill and their ability to manage resources as something to be prized. And that kind of microtransaction, putting that in there is just going to upset that core group, and that is who that game is targeting. I think those kinds of choices, as people kind of feel out what works and doesn't work... They're very interesting to look at.

JS: Yeah, it's a lot of awkward fumbling. One of the things that I think is true if you already have a game rolling with a certain system, any significant changes that you introduce to the financial model are very likely going to upset some people.

It's very hard to take a pre-existing model and inject microtransactions to it without upsetting the applecart. Much better to start over from the beginning, and then you're in a better place. And I think there are some people doing really well. The Dungeons & Dragons guys, they figured out some psychological aspects to make free-to-play work.

They have a really clever way of turning on its head. The reason it feels bad is because in a normal game, it's like, well, if you go, and you earn your weapons, and you've earned them, and then you go and use them, and you earn more stuff, it just all feels earn, earn, earned. And then you get microtransactions, it's like, "Hey, yeah, you want to kill that dragon? He's really tough. You should probably buy this battle-axe. It's $5." And you pay the $5 and you feel like a loser because I didn't earn it.

They do it differently in Dungeons & Dragons Online. What they say is, "Yeah, you want to go fight that dragon? The dragon adventure costs $5 to go on. I don't know if you're good enough to do it. You can pay $5 and try it." I'll put my $5, I'll try it. And then you go and kill the dragon, and it's really hard. And at the end, what's in the dragon's hoard? Awesome battle-axe. At the end of the day, you paid $5, you have the battle-axe, and you've killed the dragon. All the same event. But like you feel like you earned it. And it's just better psychology. There are ways to make it better.

That is clever. I feel like one of the reasons it doesn't get better in certain games when they try to monetize them through microtransactions is because the designers of that content don't like the model that much themselves. I feel like there's some reluctance that leads to not really thinking about it as one might otherwise might.

JS: Yeah, I think there's some of that. And part of it is it's hard to think about, it's hard to get right, and there are so many ways to do it that feel disrespectful to the player. Because in a real way, bait and switch does work.

It's like, "Come on here, this thing is awesome -- oh, by the way, you need to pay this money." It works, but it feels slimy. It used to be, in the old days, slimy people sold bad games. They gave you an awesome box. This game is awesome. It's amazing. Check it out. You pay the money, and you're like, "This sucks, you slimy jerks."

Now you can't do that. You can't have a bad game, because when you've got free-to-play, it's like, "This is a bad game? I'm out of here." Now, to be slimy, you have to have a good game, and that is incredibly frustrating to game designers.

But you can still do a little bit of that weird bait and switchiness. I was watching a talk at GDC China where they were talking about how easy it is to make and remake collectible card games on phones that are microtransaction-based, where you pay and get a random card.

It might not be the card you want, but you're just going to keep paying for it. And they're like, "These games are fantastic to make for developers because they're so easy to monetize. All you need to do is change the art, and you've got new things."

This stuff is hard to think about. What's interesting is people are making surprising advances all the time, taking it in new directions that somebody hadn't been thinking about before.

Ending on a more positive note, you've spoken about utopia in games -- what do you mean by this?

JS: I realized that the thing everyone in the human race has in common is that everyone is always striving for something better. They're always striving for, "How can I get to a better place? How can I make my life better, and the life of people around me better, and how can I make the world better?"

I found it a very hopeful thought, and I think it's very true. I think it really is the motivation for most of what people do. And so as I found myself kind of playing with that idea, it made me realize the way that game development fits into that because that's what game developers do. They make worlds.

And if the world is looking for utopia, why not go to the people who make worlds? I think this is an important perspective, because normally game developers think, "Oh, I need to make a good game, a game that has good qualities and is good and has all these good things." But they don't think so much, "Based on where people are now, where do they think utopia is, and how can I provide something that's on the path?"

I think so much of the way game audiences seem fickle, and they pick things up and they put things down, isn't because they're fickle; it's because they're on the road to utopia. Someone says, hey, check it out, the Kinect. People say, oh, wow, my whole body in this virtual world. I've go to try it. I want to see. And then they try it and they see. They're like, okay, I get it. I'm ready for the next thing. Because this didn't quite get me there. I think this notion of people... Using as a perspective of what does the audience want, they want to go to utopia, how do you bring it to them, is very helpful to me.

Do you think that utopia can exist in a game world where, traditionally, most fiction has been about conflict?

JS: Well, I mean, you have to have conflict. The whole idea of conflict is there are opportunities between you and utopia. So, yeah. I think those go hand-in-hand quite naturally.

So, it's not so much that games would be an escapist utopia, but they would provide routes to it.

JS: I think now things get very complex and multi-layered. Games often have in them a picture of some utopia that you want, that you're trying to get to. And that's one layer of it. But another layer of it is that people really want to do something that feels meaningful. They want to have meaningful accomplishment, right? Part of my life would be better if I had meaningful accomplishment in it.

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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