This appears in the comments of section of Free-to-Play Is The ‘New Frontier of Western Game Development,’ says Former Activision VP — written by me. Thought I’d re-post here cause I wrote a lot.
Edit: Yah, totally forgot a title — whoops
Alright – so I have a lot of problems with this article. First off, it reeks of hype. The arguments about emotional attachment stable economies — basically everything she attributes to the Free-to-Play model also applies to the console and traditional PC markets that she minimizes. The emotional hooks, the hours of game-play that she cites as being solely the realm of free-to-play, stating in no uncertain terms that she sees the traditional market as flawed because no developer cares about their product after the initial purchase.
This view of the traditional market is over-simplified and in my opinion–flawed. Gamers are a notoriously noisy and close knit community with long memories and a propensity for prejudices. If a developer wants to be successful beyond the first game — they can’t treat the product as if they don’t care about the product after the sale–and I think you would be hard-pressed to find a traditional developer who treats their games as “done” after they are purchased. Games would never be patched, new content would ever be developed for these games. Similarly, if a developer really doesn’t care about the game beyond the initial sale, the product is likely to be a lot “hype” and not a lot of content — meaning that gamers will likely not purchase from that developer again in the future ion their investment in the game doesn’t pay off. T
Kaminsky’s problem here is that she views each game as an island – not as a part of a greater whole within the developer/gamer ecosystem. No developer can succeed by pushing inferior products with lots of hype–especially in the game industry. Reviewers are notoriously unforgiving, and many gamers take reviews as canon of a game’s playability and value. Bad reviews of a game can spell doom for the developer.
Obviously there’s a ton going on here — way more than I can write in here that determines a game’s success, but the idea I’m trying to drive home is that Kaminsky is oversimplifying a vastly complicated and dynamic system with one that developers only need to care about first sale.
True, she pays homage to a few of the biggest names in gaming, such as Epic, Blizzard, etc – but only mentions the juggernauts – none of the successful small – to mid sized devs who have created successful games, like Minecraft, for the Magicka games or Funcom just to name a few (Funcom is a debatable as to whether it’s mid-sized dev or not … it’s definitely on the upper edge).
Now on to actual Free-to-Play models – this is insanely difficult to do well, on this Kaminsky and I agree. However, the primary difference is that Kaminsky defines the Free-to-Play model by the few successes (Such as Team Fortress 2), which in reality the shovelware far far exceeds the successful Free-to-Play models. If we take a look for a second at a company like GluMobile, which I think that Kaminsky and I might actually disagree on their success. GluMobile makes F2P games, most of which are somewhat successful. One in particular is “BugVillage” which I already wrote about on my blog, but basically the game is borderline unplayable without paying. In my utterly anecdotal experiences, and those of my colleagues, this is par for the course with F2P games.
In my mind, a free-to-play game needs to be playable the free way, without purchases. The purchases should augment the experience, not be required for the experience at all. In the BugVillage review I wrote, I make the argument the ONLY way to enjoyably play the game was to pay a not-insignificant amount of money. And this is EXACTLY why I think that the F2P model is near impossible to do well.
Finally, I have some ideaological issues with the majority of the F2P models–that being they are too focused on making money. As with most things that attract mainstream attention, F2P models have become, with the help of new concepts like gamification, the next “get-rich quick” thing. This has the effect of shifting the focus of creating a good game that people want to play, to using shady psychological techniques to urge people to play and pay without any real substance to justify the urge. A good game will create lots of emotional connections and drive through engaging story, appropriate pacing, balanced game-play, and challenging game mechanics.
Most F2P games, again I’ll use BugVillage as my case study, use game mechanics designed to be keep the gamer playing through underhanded psychological exploits. In BugVillage, I played, creating my village and felt the urge to spend money to make things goes faster, or so I could get things quicker. There was no story, no mechanic, no emotional tie-in other than my hate of waiting. Even EA’s “The Sim’s Social” does this – just better. They have quests with a slight storyline the drive the game forward, and the waiting within the Sims Social caps out at approximately an hour. While annoying, I can easily occupy myself for an hour to go to do something else. The game is playable without paying — and it’s engaging for a bit. Now, I didn’t play for long because the game just doesn’t have the depth of play I need, but it was enjoyable for about a month of very light (approx. 10min) play time per day.
But ultimately (and traditional games are NOT exempt from this at all), there’s been a shift away from making good games, to making games that make money. These two things are not at all mutually exclusive, there are plenty of good games that make lots of money. I think the difference is that there’s a new focus on primarily making money, and making a game second. This is a subtle distinction between wanting to make a game and make money; it’s also a distinction one that I’m not prepared to expound upon right now.
For the TL:DR crowd : free to play games are hard to do well, and the result of a lot of hype of people trying to get rich quick. They can and have been done well, but I think of them as flavor of the month, and not a frontier of gaming.