Free to play will neither destroy nor save the world

· by Steve · Read in about 6 min · (1239 Words)

Money for nothingSo there’s been a ton of talk lately about the state of the mobile games industry, and specifically the place we’ve reached now in the race to the bottom on pricing,  which has meant people concluding that if you make a mobile game today, it has to be Free To Play to be successful, and that this fact is either ridiculously awesome because it’s leading to vast riches from new audiences, or that it’s an insidious evil which is destroying the game industry forever.

I’ll nail my colours to the mast right now and say that I don’t like free to play games. I think there’s only a very small segment of F2P that doesn’t fundamentally break game design by  relying on behaviour that is anti-enjoyment (such as the horrid timers and difficulty spikes we see so often), and that segment is occupied by a very small number of games, those where you only pay for cosmetic customisation, and those where you pay only once or twice for large chunks of content which are balanced just like a non-F2P game would be. Not many people manage to make this model work, because it’s harder and most studios are too busy chasing the juicier whale-driven bucks. Which is why I don’t even bother with F2P games anymore unless I know for sure they’re in this small segment, because I know they’re just going to be wasting my time. I just want to have an honest transaction with the developer, money for good content, period. If your game is constantly putting the begging bowl in front of me or engineering a kink in the difficulty curve just so I’ll spend money on finite consumable power ups (and for goodness sakes, even the formerly respectable PopCap now commits this crime), I want no part of it. My iOS purchases are limited to rare excellent pay-for titles like The Room and its sequel from Fireproof Studios.

Obviously there are large numbers of people out there that are totally happy with the F2P value exchange, willing to put up with timer gates and even willing to spend vast amounts of money on a ‘free’ game to get an easy ride. I can’t possibly understand it, but then I don’t understand why people watch soap operas either. Vive la différence and all that.

So why all the hand-wringing on this subject? Is the mobile game industry, or the game industry as a whole, doomed to fall into a rut of constant nickel-and-diming and gameplay compromised to fit the needs of a new business model? There seem to be a lot of people panicking about this, and it’s even infected the management at traditional AAA console studios, as the horrible debacle of the Forza 5 launch proves. Basically, some people even in the more traditional game industry have seen the millions that King are making every month and are being driven by the Fear Of Missing Out to shoehorn these models into their own games, even though the idea that  you should hold back launch content from a game you’re asking $60 for should feel absolutely abhorrent to anyone who really loves games. Clearly the tail (business) is wagging the dog (gaming) and it seems surprised when it backfires.

Personally I think it will all blow over. The trouble is that the traditional game industry always experiences instances of plateauing growth, which when coupled with ever-increasing budgets has a chilling effect on those holding the purse strings. We’ve had a couple of cases where a new audience has suddenly entered the fray, boosting the revenue of those that discovered it, and making all the suits in the other companies panic and rush to jump on the bandwagon. It happened with the Wii, after which suddenly every company needed to have a division targeting the ‘casual audience’, and suddenly everyone is building hardware and software which lets you interact with your games using waves and pelvic thrusts, even if you didn’t feel you needed that.

The mobile gaming industry has also discovered a whole new audience, or at least a whole new revenue stream which doesn’t overlap with the traditional PC and console gaming that much, such that it has delivered real growth again, so everyone feels they need to get a piece of it, and so tries to take what’s working in this new segment for others and crowbar it into their own games, even if it makes no sense whatsoever.

Growth is attractive, particularly to the kind of management bean-counters who have zero emotional commitment to the medium and might as well be organising shipments of corned beef as games. A gold rush always leads to a bulge of bad decision making which eventually corrects itself. People who prefer pay-for games have not gone away in this gold rush, they’re still there - they’re just not a double-digit growth target so they’re suddenly less interesting to these kinds of people who make reactive business decisions. Meanwhile, this segment is still being happily served by many developers, in the console and PC space, and they’re still an incredibly diverse bunch.

And really, it’s the diversity of the game industry that will make this whole F2P flap blow over eventually. Once the F2P profits stabilise in exactly the same way as every new market eventually does, it’ll just be another relatively stable market segment running in parallel with all the others in gaming. It’ll still be extremely good money, and when compared with previous decades it will no doubt have grown the overall revenue in games by capturing different demographic, but it won’t be growing exponentially any more. That doesn’t make it bad, in the same way that right now the other segments aren’t bad either - you can still make a good living today making paid-for political simulators, craft-em ups and luchador-themed platformer/fighter hybrids. When F2P eventually discovers its own inevitable plateau, perhaps some other growth segment will pop up and people will start saying that _that_ is the only way to make profitable games now, and that it will now destroy the rest of the industry. Perhaps at that time you will roll your eyes in the same way I’m doing it now.

Because growth segments don’t destroy existing ones that aren’t directly comparable. You don’t have to make free to play games if you don’t want to, because the game playing public is far more diverse than that. Forget how much money King is making, it really doesn’t matter - OK if you’re fixated on being just a part of the mobile games industry you might find it harder (still not impossible, see Fireproof, Vlambeer and Simogo), but that’s your own choice if you decide to pen yourself in. I still buy the same types of games I did before F2P blew up, and so do millions of others, and there are a ton of indie developers out there making a decent living by ignoring F2P. Just because someone struck a brand new gold seam doesn’t mean all the other seams are now worthless.

So in short, yeah F2P is huge money. But we don’t all have to enjoy playing them, and nor do any of us have to feel forced to make them. There’s plenty of room out there for a vast range of content with paying customers waiting for it to be made, just the way they want. Get over yourself, F2P.