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The future of freemium is no casual matter

By on October 9, 2012

This is a guest post from Oscar Clark, the heroic hat-wearing evangelist for Papaya

If you’ve been to a games industry conference over the last couple of years, you have probably heard some guy in a hat at the back of the room shout “You should have gone Freemium!” That was probably me. I’ve been an advocate for the model for a long time, but now I’m starting to become disillusioned.

Not with the model, that’s based on sound economic and psychological principles. No, what I’m disappointed with is the limited methods that we have seen developers implement till now.

Mechanics of freemium games

Perhaps it’s to be expected, after all the original facebook freemium games like FarmVille and CityVille drew inspiration from basic, proven game concepts, but then brilliantly added in social viral mechanisms. These games made a virtue of buying virtual goods to speedup or customise your creations. The energy mechanic and production delays critically created a reason to return to play that game time and again. Combined with the scale of users they could attract without having a payment barrier and this was obviously groundbreaking.

Its also important that this was an audience which had previously rejected gaming would never have been willing to spend the $40-60 per game plus $199-399 for the console itself.

We tend to call this audience ‘Casual’, partly because we started seeing them play simpler games, puzzles, farming games, etc. rather than the shooting or driving that we obsess over. They had not experienced the evolving language of play we had enjoyed in the changing nature of games developed over the last few decades. I also suggest many developers failed to realise that these so called ‘Casual’ players would be playing with as much commitment and for the same durations as any Hardcore player – often longer and spending considerably more.

Frantic freemium

Time has passed since the first social freemium games. We have seen what happens when you spam facebook with demands to play to the wrong people; and that its becoming increasingly difficult to maintain these audiences and to attract new players.

Rather than use this to trigger further innovation I believe that we have seen to many developers and publishers follow self-defeating strategies. Some spend ever more money to buy more customers – hoping that they will spend more than it costs to buy them. Others try to squeeze ever more money out of their most dedicated fans hoping to increase the average ARPU. Alternatively they arguably plagiarise (or at least closely copy) other successful games. The trouble is that all these methods not only suffer from a law of diminishing returns; but they also add fuel to the ‘Freemium Haters’ and alienate as many players as they attract.

The future of casual gaming

I think its time to reconsider who our audience are and what we mean by the term Casual. I think we have wrongly used it to define both a type of game and a type of player who enjoy simple narrative puzzle games. I also believe we have use it to widely to describe players who are not Hardcore MMO, FPS or Sports game players.

Instead I think we are talking about a large group of users who have many different needs and have an interest in many different genres. We are no longer just targeting a niche audience. We are selling to the mass market so we have to change our definitions.

Rather than using these terms to define players, why don’t we use them to help us understand their playing behaviour and consider their taste in game genres as a separate issue. Suddenly this frees our creative juices. We no longer assume that a Freemium game has to be about a puzzle, or farming, etc. Now we can imagine new possibilities of casual shooting games to hardcore farm games.

‘Casual’ could be considered a tentative and sporadic engagement style within the game. With this in mind we can focus on what drives their patterns of play and how we both get them to return and how we deepen their engagement so we can empower them to become ‘Hardcore’ in terms of behaviour for our game. Similarly, if we consider this ‘Hardcore’ playing style it means we have to consider how we can persist their engagement as long as possible to encourage the maximum possible lifetime value.

Innovative freemium games

These two terms now become precious tools to allow us to focus on players desires and, if we are careful, how we can manage their engagement lifecycle. This approach recognises that players change in their playing patterns change over time.

There are good examples of companies who understand that the audience is evolving. When King.Com successfully combined the ever familiar bubble-pop mechanic within a progressive story to create Bubble Witch Saga they not only extended the freemium genre, but also showed how we could help introduce our new audience to the language of deeper gameplay without becoming frightening to those new users.

But we need not be limited to following the same evolutionary paths we remember from our youth. I get very excitable when I talk about CSR Racing because it smashed through the expectations of what Freemium games can do. The core mechanic is simple and immediately rewarding, and there is almost no barrier in terms of the language of play. But this game sets out to delight people who simply love cars. It’s has its flaws of course, and lacks true socialisation, but for most players it’s fabulously attractive and is a masterclass in terms of monetization.

I think we are heading towards the end of the beginning of Freemium and we have a choice. We could try to copy old and tired games structures which try to squeeze the most money out of players – alienating this fledgling mass market audience. Or we can reimagine the possibilities for creativity that Freemium can offer and instead delight audiences providing new combinations of play and genre.

For me this is no casual matter.

About Oscar Clark