My Response to Robin Kaminsky on Free-to-Play

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.

Review: Bug Village

It’s ironic that my first game review is only happening because the game is question isn’t even really a game.  I think what bothered me the most is that this advert is just more or less a thinly veiled attempt to weasel you out of your money or make you sign up for services to earn the in-game currency.  This isn’t a game, this is software that’s designed to print money.

The Good: Beautiful graphics, fun music, engage mechanics (for the first twenty minutes or so)
The Bad: The game requires that you continually spend money to continue to progress at anything beyond a snail’s pace; a geriatric snail’s pace.

The game starts out like many other strategy games, with kind of a god-of-the-bugs vibe going on.  It reminded me lightly of Populous.  You start off with a basic tutorial walk you though building houses, piles, and gathering food.  To get more bugs, you must have housing for the bugs.  To get more housing, you must have piles to generate one of the two resources in the game, Acorns.  Acorns are used to build more piles, to get more buildings, to get more ants to work more piles to get more acorns to … I totally forgot why I was doing this again.

As you complete the mini-objectives, you level up, which raises the cap for the total number of builds that you can have.  The real kick of the game though is that there are gold coins which serve partially the same purpose as the Acorns, but also have the added benefit of speeding everything in the game up.  For example, when building a new house, normally it would take an hour to build.  Real time…OR you can pay 1 gold coin and complete it immediately.

The same goes for your piles–which you build as a structure, and then have to put ants to work in to generate more Acorns.  Again, you can speed up both the completion of the building as well as the production of the Acorns by using gold coins (in varying amounts).  The kicker is–there is no in-game way to earn these coins.  You get a certain number when you start, and the only way to earn more is to complete “offers.”  This part reminds me so much of the gimmicky “Complete 5 offers and get a free laptop!” scams, that I was immediately turned off.

However, throughout the tutorial, the game gives you coins to spend to speed up the process, and then refunds them at the end of the tutorial, which is where you have your 20 or so coins upon starting the game.  What this does is shows you how fast the game *could* go with coins, making just letting the time run out when building things seem painfully long.  Thus, making it so that you complete offers or spend real money to buy coins.

You can earn coins by directly buying them through the game and Google Check out (at not that great of a conversion, truth be told) or complete offers in the game to earn coins, such as signing up for Netflix, GameFly, downloading certain games off of the Android Market (note: there was no requirement to actually play the game, just to install it.)  It looks to me like they are basically trying to pad the number of downloads for certain android market games and get referral kick backs for the Netflix and GameFly services.  (I’m purely speculating on this–nothing I’ve said should constitute anything more than pure conjecture on my part.)

In my opinion, the game is downright unplayable without continuously paying.  As you advance in levels and get more advanced buildings, it takes longer to complete the buildings or complete the tasks for getting your resources  from the piles.  Like, 24hrs to 48hrs kinda long.  You can still rush the building or tasks with coins, but the longer the task, the more coins (approx. 1 gold coin per hour, near as I can tell).  So yah, those 20-some aught coins that you start with go fast.  Then, the pace of the game hits the proverbial wall.

I think it wouldn’t be bad if you had a way to earn those coins in game, even at a much slower rate (like 1 coin every 12hrs or some such).  As it stands, you can’t without offloading a ton of money, the game slams into a brick wall and loses its charm pretty quickly.  What could have been a fun, interesting game falls woefully short in GluMobile’s mad-grab for money.