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[Gamesbriefers] Can narrative-led games be free-to-play?

By on September 14, 2012

This post is the third in a series called ‘The Gamesbriefers’ where industry luminaries debate topical questions about game design, monetisation, business and ethics.

Editor note: this post originally published with missing text, and has since been fixed, revealing exciting new content!


If free-to-play becomes the dominant business model for platforms that encourage longer play times and less ‘snacking’ (such as consoles or PC), how can rich, 8+ hour single-player narrative games (such as Half-Life 2, Tomb Raider or any other high quality linear game) or exploration-led games such as Skyrim be monetised?


Patrick O’Luanaigh CEO at nDreams

Maybe it’s naïve, but for Skyrim, I’d give players the huge world for free, slow the amount of gold that they make by doing in-game tasks, and allow players to buy gold in order to purchase more powerful weapons, better armour, houses, horses etc. much quicker than they would be able to otherwise. I could imagine myself paying money to skip ahead and instantly get that amazing thing that I want without having to wait. You could even restrict specific things (such as marriage, or the ability to buy a house) to small one-off payment items. And then you have consumable items built in like arrows, companions/pets and so on.

It lacks the social side in terms of showing off what you’ve bought to other players (maybe I’d add some kind of useful multiplayer meeting point), but players could pay for additional missions (like the DLC packs they currently sell).

As long as the game was fun to play for free, I suspect you’d get a decent percentage of people paying given the quality of the game. The big question is – would it generate more revenue than the current premium up-front model? Would the true fans who spend thousands on their passion compensate for those that don’t? Would it reach 10 times the number of people that the paid-for version reached?

Tadhg Kelly Consultant at What Games Are

Well I think ‘narrative games’ represents two entirely different cases: roleplaying games and action adventures.

Roleplaying games from Mafia Wars to Diablo to Skyrim can be monetised in this way. The simple reason is that the core dynamic of that type of game is driven by loot and levels. They are essentially economic challenges, and selling coins, energy, upgrades and so on in economic games is pretty straightforward. They all play into that core loot-n-levels theme on some level, and shops make reasonable sense within that environment. Furthermore buying to get ahead in an economic game doesn’t really violate the sense of fairness because the bought resources still have to be used well.

Action-adventure games like Half Life, on the other hand, are not economic games. They are activity games, like sports, where economics are generally very basic. Their core appeal is all to do with physical skill, and cheating to get ahead (which is what freemium basically offers) has a much more unbalancing effect on the experience. It is essentially buying to win, which detracts from the fascination and mastery of the game. Like using the old IDDQD cheat code in Doom, the game becomes boring almost immediately.

However this is where I think Temple Run is interesting. It’s a simplified action-adventure game, and its economy is primarily based on selling coins, which the player uses in turn to buy mostly boosters rather than permanent upgrades. Each booster is time- or use-limited, and has to be collected in the game world to actually be used. I wonder whether something along the same lines (but more considered and less arcade-y) could work for action-adventure games. I also wonder whether such a system could really sell enough to cover the vast production budgets for the top games that we know and love.

Budget aside, I could definitely see a platform game which sold coins for to buy temporary jump and speed boosts. Mario 64, but with that extra spring that you need. For the most part the game would still be every bit as challenging – but when you needed it, that extra leg up would be there. Much like with economy games it’s buying to cheat ahead, not buying to win. I could see something along those lines also working for the more party-fun first person shooters like Serious Sam.

Dylan Collins Executive Chairman at Fight My Monster

The same problem exists with kids games, although for different reasons (IAP is very hard to justify with parents, hence the dominance of subscription amongst the top companies). Increasingly my view is to look a revenue stack comprised of both virtual + physical revenue lines. A player which has committed to a sub/up-front fee is going to be statistically more likely to purchase a physical item (e.g. trading card, guide, clothing etc.).

With the exception of Nintendo (Pokémon) the games industry has been pretty awful at merchandising. The movie guys still kick our ass in that regard.

Obviously any merchandising needs to be done super-carefully but based on numbers we see (Fight My Monster) plus approx data from Moshi, Rovio, it’s clear that average rev/customer can be doubled or possibly tripled.

Certainly not for everyone but one approach to think about.

Harry Holmwood Consultant at Heldhand

I suspect that a single player linear narrative game (basically one you play through with a start and an end, whether Monkey Island, Skyrim or Half Life) is extremely difficult to monetize through freemium.  That doesn’t mean consumers don’t want them – personally single player linear games are the ones I enjoy playing most – but we’ll see an economics-enforced shift away from them in the short term.

In the same way that the pre-owned business has made content-heavy single player games difficult to sell profitably at retail, and seen us shoehorn multiplayer modes and DLC into almost all retail releases to preserve shelf life/retail pricing, freemium models will drive certain game types out of the mass market for a time.  However, as we’re seeing now with crowdfunded successes like Double Fine’s, actually consumers still want to play in ways that have become economically unviable through existing channels, and so new funding mechanisms and business models emerge to fill the gap.  For years, point and click adventures were a dead genre, until App Stores allowed the likes of Charles Cecil to bring his games back on new platforms.

Dylan’s point on merchandising is spot on.  There is a ‘worst case’ scenario for the industry where extrapolating the race to free drives pricing down to the point where we’re unable to generate revenues directly from game content, even via IAP.  At this point, we’re into music business territory and need to look outside of content for money.  Then, merchandising becomes everything.  Make sure you retain your IP!

Andrew Smith Director at Spilt Milk Studio

I’m not sure if I’m repeating someone else’s point but I wonder about freemium and linear story led games.

Basically, how much more money would Telltale make from their games if the first episode of each was free? Certainly more people would get in on the ground floor, and characters (as well as stories, etc.) are a proven way of getting the mass market to care deeply (and commit to seeing through to the end) about an IP. Deeply enough to pay. HBO wouldn’t exist if this wasn’t true.

People clamour for great stories and interesting characters. It’s a fundamental part of the human experience – telling stories is a way for us to learn and for us to broaden our horizons, and empathy with characters helps us to deal with our own situations and issues. People will of course pay to have this in their lives (they already do so in so many different media) but the problem lies with a) our broad inability to tell a GREAT story reliably and b) introducing the paywall at a sensible time. The stories would have to be built around this. Ask for money at an emotionally improper moment would kill a person’s investment just as surely as the right timing would guarantee payment.

Harry Holmwood Consultant at Heldhand

Just the nature of freemium is ‘keep playing free forever in the hope you’ll pay some time’ – if we have a finite amount of game to play through, you can’t just keep playing forever (unless we get into the territories of algorithmic or user-generated narrative which could theoretically be amazing but nobody’s even come close to making work).
It’s tempting to say you could have a shallow experience for free and a deeper one if you pay – like, you can only get so far into the details of the backstory, or hear so much from characters if you don’t pay.  But that probably reverses the freemium model and says you’ll progress more slowly through the game if you’re paying which, if completion is the goal for most players, would be counterproductive.

Andrew Smith Director at Spilt Milk Studio

I reckon it’s just a matter of time until content generation – even authored – is cheap and easy enough to generate that a weekly update is not that unrealistic.

But yeah, right now, it’s not very viable. It might work as a publisher of content putting out tons of regular stuff from several developers (along the lines of a TV channel) but that’s a bit weird.

Ultimately you only need to make enough money to both cover the costs of your next game and have some left over. Ideally you’d do better than that, but I don’t think the ‘endless potential income’ version of freemium is the only viable one. We’re still exploring what’s possible. Very exciting times 😀

Oscar Clark Evangelist at Papaya

Look guys, just because Freemium games have been resource management based that doesn’t mean we can’t make narrative-based freemium games.  There are massive opportunities to use this amazing business model we have yet to dream.

Skyrim is a game I have spent a huge amount of time playing (I got tennis elbow from playing for more than 200 hours) and I have come to the conclusion that it could be the perfect template freemium narrative based games. The trick is to separate what is the reason to return to the game over time from the elements which drive the plot forward.  Only then can we add friction and virtual goods without destroying the context of the story.

I argue we come back to Skyrim as much for the sheer joy of exploring the world as the plot itself.  The process of collecting raw materials, creating your own equipment and potions is therapeutic and enjoyable.  What if the weapons and equipment we used in the game decayed each time they were used and we had more reason to spend grind resources and crafting time to repair them.  What if we made specific components less powerful or harder to find?

But more than that… imagine if the experience we gained was affected by the equipment we are using.  Infinity Blade has an amazing mechanism where you get bonus experience points for the armour and weapons in your inventory; but! they have a maximum cap before they become mastered.  Once they are mastered you have to replace them or you don’t gain EXP quite so fast.

Mark Sorrell Game Director

I spent upwards of £500 on Wow and arguably Skyrim is singleplayer WoW. Arguable, WoW is singleplayer WoW but that’s another story.

Skyrim isn’t a narrative driven game, at least it doesn’t have to be and I wouldn’t be surprised if most people didn’t play it that way. I didn’t.

It’s not a loot driven game either, I’d argue against Tahdg there. If it is, it’s a shitty one, the loot scaling is awful and as there’s no-one to show off to, it gets boring very quickly. It could be much, much better without changing any other aspects of the game in any significant way (bit of maths fiddling I suppose) but as it stands, it’s not a loot game.

It’s an exploration driven game, IMO and exploration doesn’t lend itself well to freemium as she is currently practiced. I still maintain that Skyrim – as is – is about freedom and self-determination. Freedom doesn’t fit with freemium, in many ways it’s the exact opposite, the idea being that you can go wherever you like and do whatever you like. Freemium is about you being limited in various ways (there’s the time-skipping elements that might work, to be fair)

The self-determination does work with freemium, as it’s basically about customisation. And with a better loot game and some social elements, Skyrim could host that relatively well.

Teut Weidemann Online Specialist at Ubisoft

Ok, I have to jump on this. Yes I agree that limiting is one way monetizing players, but you can also do the opposite: extend the freedom for paying players. Then it is not considered too limiting, no?

Examples would be faster/better travel (mounts anyone?), wider exporation radius, increase in XP speed for leveling or crafting, heroic mode for dungeons, build in tiered armor sets where you can buy tokens for the missing parts etc etc.

All of this has been done in MMO RPG’s and can be applied to Skyrim easily. I wonder why no one compares Skyrim to the wonderful monetization methods we have developed for MMO RPG’s since they exist? Most do work for single player.

About Gamesbriefers

Every week, we all ask our august panel of luminaries a burning question in the world of free-to-play and paymium game design. Or we ask a broader question on the future of the industry. We’re not going to announce who is a GAMESbriefer. You’ll just have to read the posts to see who is saying what to whom. We have CEOs and consultants, men and women, Brits, Germans, Americans, indies, company people and much more besides.