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[Gamesbriefers] What’s the real impact of traditional developers embracing free-to-play?

By on October 5, 2012

This post is part of a series called Gamesbriefers in which industry luminaries respond to a topical question.


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Much attention is being paid in the press to traditional game companies (such as Valve) who are starting to integrate F2P ideas into their products – the (slightly offensive?) implication often being that “real” game companies are now paying attention to the sector. Ignoring the tone of condescension, are there any real implications from this move? Is there going to be a major impact on existing F2P-focused companies from traditional game companies embracing F2P, or is the F2P sector more distinct from traditional PC/console gaming than the media believes?


Philip Reisberger CGO at Bigpoint

From my perspective, the online f2p market is becoming mature (more exp. productions, better graphics, deeper gameplay). Thus, as a normal trend, the ‘traditional’ companies are pushing into this market. Therefore, the competition is getting stronger.


Oscar Clark Evangelist at Papaya

Whilst Philip is obviously right I think that its also important to remind ourselves that Console gaming is currently in decline. Whilst much of that is tied up with the combination of recession and end-of-cycle issues, the rise of F2P has certainly changed attitudes.

When you are stuck in the midst of massive $multimillion budget, hit-driven content its extremely difficult to change and take risks. But when you see games like Bigpoint’s Dark Orbit have headline-grabbing hits with sales of virtual goods priced at EUR1000 its hard not to take notice. Combine this with games like CSR Racing from Natural Motion earning $12 million in its first month and that’s hard to ignore too.

However, even with all this I think that the final nail in the coffin for console developers is their obsession with Piracy; putting the value of the game in the server (rather than the client) almost (not quite) removes Piracy as a problem.

Free2Play allows us to focus on minimum viable products, generate great sustainable revenues and to turn the bit-torrent models into a distribution opportunity. However, that doesn’t guarantee success. Freemium is hard to get right. It requires that you care about a wider mass market audience and you create a delight in spending money after they experience to core mechanic.

I wonder if its going to be easier for mobile companies to go to console quality than for console to go Freemium.

Tadhg Kelly Consultant at What Games Are

Well it probably breaks down to two questions. First: is the gamer that the “real” game company aims for willing to go along for the f2p ride? Second: Does that mean that the existing f2p companies are in trouble?

My answer to both is No.

While there are some examples of (non-MMO) “real” games selling upgraded content, there is a constant distrust in the Western hardcore market particularly of games which are all about the money. Players often prefer ownership, a straight-up transaction and so on. Their mindset is largely that they like to have, to get the game and do what they want with it, without felling that there’s a hand always out looking to be paid. For f2p that means its probably better to bypass the existing hardcore market rather than trying to convert it, evolving its own “freecore” market over time, which I think it’s more than capable of doing.

The second question is also a no because those companies that come from the hardcore space are also culturally wrapped up in its values. When EA bought Playfish and Disney bought Playdom there was a general assumption that Zynga finally had some competition, but it turns out that both really struggled with understanding what they should and should not have done in the space, and they remain on the same lower tier that they always did. It’s very hard for b2b retail companies (which is what most hardcore game devs are) to become b2c service companies because the foundations are totally different.

Oscar Clark Evangelist at Papaya

I love arguing with Tadhg on most things, but rarely is he wrong like saying ‘[sic] Real Gamers aren’t willing to go on the F2P ride’
…Sorry mate :0)

Ok PlayStation Home doesn’t scream of megatriumph but it has been experimenting with the Freemium model since Decemeber 2008 and although my former colleagues don’t get to shout about it; it has been a quiet (small scale I admit) success. The data I used to see every day showed that ‘Real Gamers’ do spend money on F2P provided the Freemium design was right.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not about to claim that my former employers got it right; but it showed clearly where success in Freemium on console could work.

It is true that many gamers say they hate Freemium. It is true that there is value in having something solid you own. But these are factors we have to take into account and get better and both fixing and communicating to players of all kinds (‘Real’ or not). I loved Ben Cousins comments at GDC a couple of years ago on the journey of Battlefield Online and how much vocal opposition there was to Freemium and how these opponents were often the largest spenders.

Of course there is a real danger that bad Freemium design could ‘pollute the well’ but I believe that the payoff and the Darwinian drive Freemium gives us will bring ‘Real Gamers’ like me better games in the end.

Will Luton Consultant

The concept of a “real gamer” or “hardcore” is nonsense. It’s people playing games. People from a multitude of different backgrounds and leanings. Lumping them in to a category and giving them concrete beliefs system leads to the creation of stagnant products. It’s blinkered.

I do, however, think that traditional theming and mechanics will become more and more important as what were once distinct sectors of the industry starts to collide. But, what shouldn’t be overlooked is F2P’s amazing ability to put games in the hands of people who were once nervous, confused or uninterested in a media that was once perceived as for teenage boys.

Harry Holmwood Consultant at Heldhand

I think much of the negativity around F2P from so-called ‘hardcore’ gamers and their developers has come, not as a result of an in-built rejection of the business model, although that is certainly a factor, but because the initial batch of F2P games just weren’t that interesting to people used to playing prettier, more immersive, skill-based games. Mafia Wars is a bit of an anticlimax if you’re used to playing GTA4, and there still aren’t a lot of F2P thrills to be had if you want that kind of ‘gamer’s game’ experience. I still find that most console developers, and many players, I speak to just don’t like the current batch of freemium titles. But this is changing fast.

The F2P Pandora’s Box is open and, while premium games will live on (and Kickstarter is a great demonstration that some people are absolutely willing to pay, even months or years, up-front, for a game they’re going to love), developers are now realising that the number of people paying $60 upfront is on the decline, so they have to adapt.

With more and more ‘AAA’ developers entering the F2P arena, it’s certain that we’ll see a lot more F2P games with bigger budgets, more polish and, inevitably, more ‘console like’ interaction (however that manifests itself). What will be interesting will be finding out whether the wider audience will care enough for the whole market to shift in that direction. Will everyone be forced to spend millions to get any attention? Will that kill off the innovative indie boom we’ve seen over the last few years? I hope not, but suspect times will get tougher for the smallest developers unless they can identify niche markets to play in.

Over the last 20 years the industry has become more and more obsessed with technology/graphics, and we’ve ended up making games for ourselves (generally, people who care about technology). For the rest of the world (ie most people), I’m not convinced such things matter as much. I remember realising how my (under 12) children didn’t differentiate between a PS1 and a PS3 game, or between a 2D and a 3D one, because they don’t see a bunch of pixels or polygons on the screen, they just see a character. Most people don’t care enough about technology to be impressed with such things – they just want a fun and convenient way to pass some time.

That said, it’s becoming apparent that, when the games are done right, the people who monetize the best are the hardcore. We’re seeing Japanese games with ARPPUs that would make most western developers cry – but they’re getting those ARPPUs from a relatively small user base.

So, what I think will happen is that the strongest AAA console developers will come in, will bring their users with them into the F2P arena, and do very well. They’ll have to learn the hard way what works, and what doesn’t, in terms of monetization, while Zynga et al are learning the AAA secrets too – Farmville 2 shows a level of polish and interaction that wouldn’t look out of place on a premium retail title. This is positive news for everyone, because they’re bringing gamers who are used to spending big money into the F2P market. And someone who’s happy to spend $60 each month on a new retail might just become the whale who’ll spend double that per month for the right game.

Mark Sorrell Developer at Hide & Seek

I’d most strongly echo the sentiment that this question is entirely back to front. If anyone has anything to fear, it’s traditional companies having their market stolen by the newer companies and their more open and learning/evolving/iterating attitudes to development.

The ‘traditional gamer’ might be better defined as someone who fears change han someone who wants to play a particular type of game, or game with a particular theme.

Videogames have been an escape from the world for a bunch of people for a long time. Having your security blanket taken away is a horrible experience and people are bound to recoil from it and shout loudly to boot.

But fundamentally, economic reality and the discovery of ever more satisfying, enjoyable, manipulative and effective free-to-play techniques and methods means that, while I doubt that premium (by which I mean pay-up-front) games will die off entirely, their future is surely more likely on Steam and from Indies than it is from companies with a purely commercial outlook.

And the ones that understand freemium best are not the traditional game makers.

Stuart Dredge Journalist at The Guardian

I’m interested in how certain gaming franchises can be flexible according to game / territory when it comes to paid versus f2p.

FIFA being the obvious one – free-to-play in parts of Asia, still premium in West BUT with the Ultimate Team stuff on top of it, as well as the development of the FIFA Facebook game with f2p mechanics etc.

Isn’t the answer to most of these questions ‘be flexible, experiment, don’t say ‘X is the only future for everything’?

Teut Weidemann Online Specialist at Ubisoft

‘[sic] Real Gamers aren’t willing to go on the F2P ride’

I guess World of Tanks is casual then. Or League of Legends. Or Dota2. Or Team Fortress 2. Or Runes of Magic. All these are highly successful f2p games addressing “core” gamers and they are happy with them.

As for IP’s: we do only IP’s from Ubi and pretty successful: be it Settlers Online, Silent Hunter Online, Might & Magic Heroes Online or Anno Online: all those were core IP’s and are now being turned f2p. And we did NOT castrate the game, all of them are full games exploring the brand in full – no comprimises.

If you think 5 years ahead and in each key genre there are 3-4 excellent games using f2p as a business model (please don’t confuse f2p with a grenre) – why would a sane player still shell out $60 for a game on console? Thats the question you need to ask yourself.

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.