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Why Frozen Synapse costs money

By on May 17, 2013
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The inimitable Nicholas Lovell has cast Frozen Synapse front-and-centre in the interminable debate between paid and F2P.

Check out his “Why I haven’t bought Frozen Synapse on the iPad for £4.99 yet”.

I think this pretty much sums it up:

I had to put more “risk” into the decision to download a paid game than a free game. I will feel more stupid if I don’t enjoy it than if the only cost to me was some all-you-can-eat bandwidth on my wifi.

Basically, his point is that it’s harder (for him) to make the choice to try a paid game than it is to try a free game.

Now, everyone loves bullet points, so here are some:

  • It’s a personal article about someone’s own preference and how that relates to a wider theme; it’s hyperbolic…because it’s written by Nicholas Lovell!   I’ll be responding in a similar way
  • This isn’t really about Frozen Synapse, as Nicholas told me.
  • We get on well and I’ve written for Gamesbrief before: this isn’t personal, so be nice if you comment or respond to him

Let’s talk about me now:

I find it harder to try a free-to-play game than I do to buy a paid one. Here’s why:

1. Most free-to-play games are still terrible

I constantly see free-to-play proponents claiming this isn’t the case (Nicholas is doing it on Twitter right now!)  but it’s still true for a certain audience.  And it’s not just the stereotypical “core” or “indie” audience who feel this way.

“No!” they will say.  ”Have you tried [terrible core game]?”  It’s always an embarrassing conversation.

This is changing, but very very slowly: the prejudices are still valid.

Back to me again.  I like:

  • Immersion which isn’t broken by payment prompts
  • Thoughtful narrative (in single player)
  • Exceptional aesthetics
  • Skill-based gameplay and a complex multi-player meta-game (in multiplayer)

Many, many free-to-play games are designed for people who don’t give two hoots about all of that stuff and like putting things in lines, flicking little men inside buggies, or buying the shiniest gun with the best numbers next to it.  I still expect most free-to-play games I try to be terrible and I’m not often wrong.

Of course, it’s fine for things to be terrible, and such things often do well commerically.  Here’s Pitbull and Christina Aguilera to explain further:

Is this a snobby, elitist, smug opinion? Definitely.  Show me a single person who isn’t smug, snobby and elitist about their own taste.  I’m sure there are people who love that song, and that’s fine.  I…kind of love it.  Because it is terrible.

THIS IS DIGRESSION

2.  The ones that are not terrible make me dread their monetisation, fear for their future or write them off as an anomaly

I think this is a more interesting point.

I’ve played some League of Legends: it’s definitely a fun game with a rich multiplayer meta-game, although it’s not really my thing.  I don’t want to get to the point where I feel compelled to buy champions…that just doesn’t appeal to me.  I want to pay and forget that I’ve paid, not keep reaching for my wallet from time to time.  That, coupled with the crazy impenetrable maximalism of the rune system, and the fact that I don’t enjoy watching it streamed made me stop playing.

Obviously aesthetic-only microtransactions avoid this problem.

However, I don’t really think that small indie developers can take many meaningful lessons from either DOTA2 or Team Fortress 2…aside from “people actually do like aesthetic microtransactions in big communities”.  I believe free-to-play in core games works at a massive scale with a well known franchise; if you’re at the stage where you can viably consider it you’re probably doing pretty well for yourself anyway.  If we considered doing a free-to-play game in future, it’d probably be aesthetic-only and we’d be aiming for a huge audience.

So, I have “wallet dread”: I know that there will be some reason to keep me paying regularly while I’m playing and I just don’t want that.  It makes me concerned about the design of the game and often not even bother to try it.

When a free-to-play game doesn’t induce that feeling in me, I have concerns about its future.  There’s very little data available from devs about this still at the moment, so it’s hard to know whether that instinct is right or not.

By the way, if you’re a smaller developer making core F2P games, please release some data.  You’ll get a massive amount of press and it will help a lot of us to understand these things more.

I don’t think I’m alone with my wallet dread: a lot of people value their time more than they value money.  They want to pay to experience an unusual, unique game design that won’t harass them with tiny charges later on.  The game is up now: people understand that “free” doesn’t really exist.

Here’s another thing: sometimes I don’t want to be “retained”.  Designing for retention isn’t the Holy Grail: sometimes something is really fun for a short period of time, then not fun any more. I found this with Chivalry: I’m still glad I paid for it, but I probably won’t play it again.  That sort  of game is valid, both creatively and commercially: it can’t be free-to-play.

Frozen Synapse

Frozen Synapse is doing well on the App Store: it’s hit the benchmark that we wanted it to hit.

Nicholas said this wasn’t about Frozen Synapse but, of course, it sort of is.   I’ve said this many times before: if there was a way of making Frozen Synapse F2P in a way which wouldn’t compromise its design, we would think seriously about doing it.

There genuinely isn’t: it’s not possible.  It wouldn’t be Frozen Synapse if you started to do any of the things to it which would make for a successful free-to-play game.

For that reason, I’m glad Nicholas hasn’t bought it.  If the relationship you want with creators is that of being gently cajoled into paying while maintaining the illusion that you’re getting something for free, we’re not going to do that for you.  We’re going to say: “Look, here is something which we spent four years making that has a massive scope.  You can read what people say about it, watch videos of it, read user reviews, talk to members of the community and make one decision about its worth to you.”

We are being straight-up with you; that allows us to be straight-up in our design.  Frozen Synapse was supposed to be a clear, simple tactical game which allowed the user to do anything they wanted: that wasn’t perfectly achieved but that was the original motivation.

You don’t have to puzzle out just how we’re going to extract the next $2 from you: we made a deal and we’ll stick to it.  This isn’t the way to make the most money possible from a game, but it’s what we wanted to do.

In addition, once you’ve bought the game, if you like it and you want to spend more money on it, you can!  There’s a whole Red expansion pack to buy (coming soon to iPad by the way!).  This is completely optional: there is a huge amount to enjoy in the game without it.  I have no problem with games allowing their audience to pay more to get more stuff, by the way: I do think indies should take this into consideration more as well.

Finally, FS is a niche game, so it’s more expensive than some other games on the App Store: that’s how niches work, you often pay a little bit more for something that appeals more directly to you personally.

I’m sick of people telling me it “should” be free-to-play: I feel like this opinion is as daft as telling me to put a banging donk on it.

Where am I going with this? 

We will never, ever make a game where the payment model constrains the design.  If a design fits into free-to-play then we would definitely consider using it, but it’s not ever going to be an a priori creative limitation for us.  There will be no donks.

Every payment model has its disadvantages: pay-once can put some people off.  It’s hard to get the price right, and sometimes people aren’t able to try a game in a low-pressure way.

Design comes first for us: that’s why Frozen Synapse costs money.

About Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor is managing director of indie studio Mode 7 games. Tweet him at @mode7games