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Can free-to-play stop video games from being like golf?
Some thoughts from Deputy Editor Zoya Street on business models and values.
In a recent PBS game show episode, host Jamin Warren makes a provocative argument in favour of free-to-play. He suggests that even hardcore gamers would benefit from more games going free-to-play, because free games are accessible to more people. A more accessible culture of gaming is a more relevant culture, because more people get to participate in it.
The alternative, he says, is premium titles that cost so much to play, only the wealthiest will be able to keep up with the hobby. If games culture doesn’t embrace free-to-play, it risks becoming like golf: aloof, privileged, and not particularly cool.
Of course, free-to-play can be just as expensive as golf, if you have the means and the inclination to treat it that way. Warren points out that for the world’s top players, Clash of Clans is an extremely expensive occupation. The difference is the entry cost for beginners and hobbyists: anyone with an iPad can give Clash of Clans a try at no extra cost, while getting out to a golf club for the first time costs a lot more.
Even though I do think that free-to-play is good for gaming, I also think that Warren is deliberately being polemical. What he’s proposing is not that free-to-play as it is currently applied is a panacea for gaming’s class divide. He’s saying that the broad principle of free-to-play, applied in a variety of ways to suit a variety of circumstances, is a boon to greater accessibility. This isn’t a pat on the back to free-to-play developers, it’s a gentle challenge to make free-to-play live up to its potential.
Is accessibility really a primary concern for most free-to-play games businesses? Bigpoint cite it as one of their primary goals for 2014, but what that means is often more about designing a good sales funnel with smooth user experience design than it is about democratising games as an art form. Sometimes a sales funnel’s route to monetisation aligns nicely with the interests of accessibility. But sometimes there’s a direct conflict. Laralyn McWilliams has made compelling arguments about the need to move past a tendency to churn out freeloaders (on gamasutra, at GDC Next, in a GI.biz interview). Not all games are designed in a way that benefits economic accessibility, and unless management and designers consciously decide that this is important (e.g. by making a commitment to being fun and free forever) every business risks creating a system that disadvantages low-income players.
Accessibility is a goal that is potentially served by free-to-play, but it’s not a natural product of all free-to-play games. Is a game economically accessible if it only runs on iPad? That’s not an easy question to answer: on the one hand, it’s a multi-use device that provides more value to the consumer than a dedicated games console. On the other hand, it’s an expensive device that becomes obsolete very quickly. Games for low-end feature phones are more economically accessible, but they’d fail to capture the wealthy tier of players that provide the bulk of the revenue.
Every business is compromising accessibility somewhere. Improving accessibility requires developers asking themselves difficult questions: who is being priced out? what does that mean for a game’s cultural relevance? what are a studio’s social responsibilities? These questions should be asked in free-to-play and in premium. There’s a risk of complacency, with free-to-play developers feeling assured in their own accessibility and premium developers feeling confident that their business model is ethically superior.
If a business cares about accessibility, then people need to have ongoing conversations about how best to achieve that. Otherwise, as Warren rightly points out, some people are going to be priced out, and games culture will be only for the rich.