"Free" has often been a dirty word to the game industry, says Playfish co-founder Kristian Segerstrale -- but it shouldn't be.
"Far from being a threat to our industry, 'free' and the lowering of barriers is actually the biggest growth opportunity in our industry in the next five years," Segerstrale argued in a Social and Online Game Summit talk at the Game Developers Conference this week in San Francisco.
"It allows us not only to bring in new customers, but to interface with those customers in ways we couldn't previously," he said.
Piracy has long been a major area of concern for traditional video game publishers, and now there are increasingly frequent claims that free online and social games are crowding traditional console-based experience out.
But "we continue to have console blockbusters," Segerstrale observed. "We haven't killed anything. I think all those newspaper headlines about social gaming killing this or that isn't true. We've been hugely additive to the industry."
And one of social gaming's additions is the growing pool of knowledge about lowering barriers to entry.
Even within the console world, he said, the less expensive and more accessible the console, the higher the userbase. He showed a graph of install bases of the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii correlated with price, demonstrating that the three systems' audience sizes are in rough proportion with their cost to consumers (and, he implied, their accessibility).
iPhone and mobile games, in turn, reach even bigger userbases, he said, based on the affordability of their gaming experiences, and social games outpace even both, largely on the back of free-to-play games.
The internet itself has grown from 16 million users to 1.8 billion users in the last 15 years, thanks to lower barriers of entry. And half of Facebook's base, or 200 million of the site's 400 million unique users, now use the site to play games.
"We're moving from being a product-driven industry to being a service-driven industry, with the significant change in economics that comes along with that."
The internet is driving major evolutions in how games are made and distributed: they're changing from physical to digital, from products to services, from standalone experiences to social experiences, and from upfront payments to ongoing payments.
This is a "fundamental change to business model," said Segerstrale. "We're increasing our ability to be flexible. ...And with that, we lower the barrier of entry for players."
Social games can be about things like cooperation and competition --
"Those are fare more compelling reasons to play than the journey through some solitary quest a game designer has written, even if it's written very well," Segerstrale said.
"That core ability has created an entirely new discipline of game design, which takes game design out of the experience inside the game itself," he continued.
Rather, designers now must ask themselves, "How do we create an experience where people will want to talk outside of the game about what's going on in the game, and bring other people into the game?"
"We're able to bring games to where people hang out, and not ask them to identify as gamers." "It's a huge difference to a barrier of adoption, as witnessed by 200 million uniques right now. This sense of reaching 'friends,' not 'gamers,' is critical."
There leads to a sense of "social adoption" in games, he said. After all, rather than finding games through specialist game stores or dedicated game portals, "you find games through friends."
And that experience can bleed out to other platforms. According to Segerstrale, there is no reason franchises shouldn't persist across as many devices as possible, including consoles, social networks, and phones.
"What we really have here is a continuum of consumers with different preferences. We have consumers perfectly willing to play tens of thousands of dollars to be part of a game experience every year, because they love it so much," he said. "At the other end, you have people who might be willing to part with ten cents if it's really valuable to them."
"These guys are all persistently connected across every device they use; they are all on at least one social network; and they have a pyramid of preferences," he went on. "It's not that they play a social game or a mobile game or a console game; it's that we have people who are more or less interested or willing to invest their time and money into games."
"When we think how we can address that whole spectrum, it's going to be increasingly important to offer experiences that are multiplatform," Segerstrale said. "Players should be able to experience expressions of that content on as many devices as possible, "in order to maximize the value of the franchise you're creating."
After all, seven of the top eight games on the App Store last year were based on existing brands.
"All other things equal," he said, "franchises matter." Platform expertise is important, but as a platform ages and the knowledge of developing for that platform spreads out, franchise awareness becomes increasingly important.
All of this is leading to a world where game experiences become more transparent, shared, and connected, and individual platform distinctions become less important.
"In the next three to five years, nobody will utter the words 'social games,' because social features are being plugged into every game on every console," Segerstrale predicted. "Saying, 'I'm developing a social game' is going to be like saying, 'I have an electric television at home.'"