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Opinion: Why We Need To Rebrand 'Free To Play'

In this pointed opinion piece, David Chang, EVP of Business Development and Marketing at online game publisher Gamescampus (Asda Story), discusses what he feels is the error of calling certain MMOs "free to play".

David Chang, Blogger

February 18, 2009

6 Min Read

[In this pointed opinion piece, David Chang, EVP of Business Development and Marketing at online game publisher Gamescampus (Asda Story), discusses what he feels is the error of calling certain MMOs "free to play".] I would like our industry and media to consider changing how we refer to our game category. In my personal opinion, the term "free to play" rings hollow and, in many cases, is completely inaccurate. In calling our games "free to play," I think our industry generates a lot of unnecessary cynicism and calls our product quality into question. Unless the game is completely monetized by advertising, then the publishers are relying on a certain percentage of people who play the game to find enough enjoyment out of the game to be willing to pay for enhanced features and items. Reading the commentary out there, I feel that there is a significant portion of people that feel like the term free to play is a bait-and-switch. The Google Similarity? First, we should look at our business model as a service that needs to be completely in tune with how a new generation is learning to pay for things; that is, only those things that benefit them, while expecting many other services to be completely without charge. Although it is not a perfect comparison, I do believe there are similarities with Google. For example, Google doesn’t charge most consumers anything for consuming their most popular service -- search. Google search is certainly a very useful free service! However, Google relies on all of the free traffic and searches to power its money making services -- paid search and other value-added services. This is perceived to be acceptable because these paid services finance the very useful search service and allows it to be offered for free. In fact, the free search service has been deemed to be so useful, people do not give a second thought to the fact that Google reads very sensitive information about you, what you search for, and what your emails contain (if you use Gmail). In our game model, almost all content is completely without charge. In fact, we actually rely on most people not paying, as the game communities would be really small without them! The truth is that we need the free community to be active, happy, and engaged with the games we publish; if they are not, then we would have very few people that opt to buy a game item. In both situations, people receive a valuable service—free search or a free game experience. However, both services do need to make money eventually, otherwise they would not be able to provide these great services for free. This is where I feel the “free to play” label does more harm than good. I can tell you honestly that my company exists to make a profit, and we do hope that the people that play our games buy in-game items eventually! A New Label In terms of a solution, I propose calling our games “MTS Games” (Micro-Transaction Service) or even MTG (Micro-Transaction Games) if you prefer. I think this label, while a bit technical, gets rid of the “As seen on TV” quality stigma and cynicism that “free to play” engenders (it really can’t be free, can it?). Equally important is defining what an MTS game is (and what it is not). An MTS game would be a game that: 1. Requires no purchase to download and play the game 2. Does not have a level cap or content cap beyond which you need to pay 3. Is at least partially monetized by sales of in-game goods By calling our games MTS games, I hope to separate our games from the cynicism associated with the “free to play” label. I think the definition above also addresses the bait-and-switch concerns as well, as an MTS game as defined above would not require any purchases to play. In my opinion, a lot of the dissatisfaction about micro-transactions stem from the fact that many publishers require one to purchase the game at retail or download, and then charge them again to experience additional content. In my opinion, this strategy is actually the most consumer-antagonistic as they require an upfront fee and then charge people again when they want more content. At least with an MTS game, people can play the game without any upfront costs, and if they don’t like the game, they can walk away without a single fee. Also, recall that for any MTS game to be successful, you need a vibrant community that is only taking advantage of the free services, ala Google. There is a symbiotic relationship between the free community and those who choose to enhance their experience by purchasing an in-game item, which in turns allows us to offer the service for free to many others. Models That Can Work Addressing another bait-and-switch concern is to have the entire game playable—no level-caps or content-caps for free players. In my opinion, games that employ the level or content-cap model are really just distributing trial-versions and end up upsetting players—especially if you are less than clear about what you are doing. People end up investing time and emotionally connecting with a game only to find out that if they want to continue, they need to pay an admission fee. It is counterproductive. Not only will you lose most players at the pay-gate, the community on the other side (the paying side) will also suffer because of the lack of community -- who wants to pay a cover charge for a club if there isn’t a huge party going on inside! The last part of what defines an MTS game is that it is at least partially monetized by the sale of in-game goods. I say partially because I do think that there is room here to supplement revenue through ads or perhaps sponsorships if they are appropriate and fit the game property. Don't Dismiss Advertising While some cynics may sneer at the inclusion of advertising in a game, I think there is definitely room for it as there is in other areas of our lives (during our TV programs, ahead of movies we pay to see, on billboards along our freeways, etc.). If it ultimately benefits the game community and is done right, it can be a positive thing for the game. Remember MTS games are all about gathering a critical mass of players and then figuring out how to provide a service to the whole community, paying and non-paying players alike. Our whole business model has just begun to grow and flourish in North America. I have no doubt that the model offers players of a new generation what they expect out of their online gaming experience and will continue to grow. But I also feel strongly that now is the time, when our model is just building a name for itself in this industry and its perception is so important, that we should be looking at re-branding from free to play, to instead being known as micro-transaction service providers. [David Chang is Executive VP of Business Development and Marketing at Gamescampus/OnNet; he previously served as Vice President of Business Development of PlaySpan, the publisher-sponsored in-game commerce network. This editorial originally ran on sister website WorldsInMotion.biz.]

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