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The True Cost of Free: what the rise of Free to Play might mean for single-player games

The True Cost of Free: what the rise of Free to Play might mean for single-player games

Raphael van Lierop has been a part of the industry for over twelve years, and he has held creative and production leadership roles on multiple million-selling, award-winning entertainment franchises including Company of Heroes, Space Marine, Dawn of War, and Far Cry. He wrote an interesting piece about the rewards of mainstream game development for PAR but today, he talks about the dangers of free-to-play, and what it means for the industry. With free to play becoming more popular, and budgets of single player games going up, are we heading for a breaking point?  -Ben

You might have noticed the games industry is in the midst of massive change. Truth be told, it’s been in transition for the past few years, but the full effects have hit this year with force. What was once the purview of enigmatic Asian game developers working on games with titles that most Western developers hadn’t even heard of, has now found its way into the product portfolios of even the most conservative of game publishers: the concept of “free-to-play”.

In the early days, free-to-play came across as a fairly innocuous business model, mostly for advergames and low-budget puzzlers. How can you create a costly triple-A experience, and give it away for free, we all wondered? We looked at Maple Story and some of the other Korean free-to-play games and sort of chuckled at the quirky tastes of our Asian friends. “Those kinds of games would never take off here, in North America. Our tastes are too sophisticated…”

Fast-forward to today, and free-to-play is everywhere.

For many, the new business model has been a massive boon. In the early days, giving your game away for free meant that players’ expectations were lowered, allowing you to get away with releasing sooner, albeit with lower quality – and in many cases, incomplete – experiences. Utilizing sophisticated monetization schemes, these games would draw you in with simplistic gameplay and grab you with their indescribably compelling core loops and progression systems. You found yourself willing to do just about anything to fill up that bar, unlock that next item, experience the ecstasy of the level up kicker. Giving your game away for free also meant that suddenly, you had access to a truly massive audience.

Suddenly, price point was no longer a concern. Being free was your game’s primary marketing point, and to cash-strapped gamers who felt increasingly nickled-and-dimed for content and pissed off at the notion of spending $60 for a game that might not be very good, free-to-play sounded like a dream. And for developers it often meant being able to develop a game with a relatively small budget, avoid having to deal with publishers and the myriad flaws with the boxed-retail model, and make some really nice coin while doing it – again, sounds like a dream.

There is a darker side to free play

Well, it’s not a dream. And there’s no doubt that the business model is here to stay. In many cases, free-to-play has allowed independent developers to flourish. It has become the dominant business model for social games, as well as the App Store. It has made the already rock-bottom low price of $0.99 (the price for most non-premium apps) look downright expensive; as many will tell you, there is a massive psychological gulf between the $0.99 and the $0.00 price points when it comes to making purchasing decisions.

One of the most interesting aspects of free-to-play business dynamics is that a very, very small percentage (usually less than 5%) of players are spending any money on the game, but of that 5%, a small percentage again is spending a hell of a lot of money. These high-paying players are referred to as “whales”, and they are the sugar daddies of the F2P market. What free-to-play effectively does is remove the ceiling on how much money someone can spend on your game, and this is a truly powerful thing, because if you get enough of these “whales” spending enough on your game, well…you can make a hell of a lot of money.

From a developer’s perspective, free-to-play also results in a dramatic shift in the focus of the player experience, and this is where we see the true cost of giving games away for free.

A retail game relies on a simple relationship between player and game. Player buys the game, and game needs to provide entertainment value matching, and ideally exceeding, the cost of entry. Unfortunately, not all games are created equal, so your $60 for Grand Theft Auto IV may not feel equal to your $60 on another lesser game. But retail pricing dynamics don’t really provide for true price elasticity and so the $60 game pretty much has to deliver on an ever increasing value proposition in order to remain competitive – in other words, the value of game for $60 continues to rise over time.

Therefore, so do the costs to develop the game. In any case, the relationship is simple – dollars for fun – and so the developer’s job is relatively straightforward: provide the greatest value for the dollar. This means pushing as much content, at as high a quality, with as much entertainment value, as you possibly can. The focus is on providing the player with the best experience possible, and there is a pursuit of the relatively ethereal notion of “quality” in order to achieve that goal.

Free-to-play turns that relationship inside out and upside down. No longer are developers focused on providing $X of entertainment value; they are focused on getting as many people to play their game as possible, and relying on compulsion psychology to incite players to spend money on the game. The focus is on keeping the player engaged with the game long enough to build up some sense of personal investment – through time spent, or social connections, or progression systems, etc. and then providing them with small ways in which to improve their experience. You are essentially letting players spend money to overcome friction, whereas overcoming friction in traditional games is more about player skill and time investment.

Now, regardless of personal tastes, none of this is inherently good or bad, it just is. And as old-school as I am in my personal gaming preferences, I think developers need to come to terms with the fact that their jobs just became a hell of a lot more challenging, because you really need to understand as much about business and psychology as you do about creative and engineering if you want to find success in this industry. But to be clear, this article isn’t about shitting on the F2P business model because frankly there is a lot to love about it, and I have many wonderful colleagues who I respect highly doing great work in this space, including guys like Ben Cousins (at DeNA), Chris Pruett (Robot Invader), Adrian Crook (AC+A), and all my friends at Bigpoint.

But, I think it’s equally important that we acknowledge something that we may be losing through this focus on free-to-play – and that’s something I hold very, very dear: the story-driven single-player game.

Try to imagine Half-Life as a free-to-play game. How would you monetize it?

Well, you could chop the content up into pieces and sell it, like little episodes. Yet for some reason this business model just hasn’t really taken off, perhaps players aren’t ready for it or the compulsion psychology of having episodes with cliffhangers just isn’t strong enough. And again, when you’re competing for the play time of gamers (nevermind their wallets; remember, free-to-play relies on time investment translating into a player’s willingness to spend money; if they’re playing a bunch of F2P games, they’re not playing your paid game), you’re constantly fighting to keep them engaged with your experience, so artificial “breaks” in the experience can actually be detrimental. Games like The Walking Dead aside, it doesn’t feel like the episodic model has really taken off, for a variety of reasons. In any case, the episodic model wouldn’t be true free-to-play, or at least not the “good” version of F2P, which suggests that hard “paywalls” (ie. points at which you are asked to pay money to continue playing) really turn players off and result in poor revenue over the game’s lifetime.

Monetizing on shorter intervals seems much more effective. How would you implement that in a game like Half-Life? Would you let players pay for more health and ammo? Pay for temporary invulnerability? Pay to unlock new weapons? Pay to bypass difficult sections of the game? A tight linear game like Half-Life depends on supremely well-tuned pacing – the timing and appearance of enemies, the introduction of weapons, the location of pick-ups like ammo and health, etc. These elements work in concert to create an enjoyable experience for the player; you can’t expect to make access to these things flexible and based on player inputs and still have a supremely polished and tight player experience. Providing access to an ammo crate earlier or later in the game can have a profound experience on the player’s enjoyment. In the end, the game’s pacing will be “off” for at least some significant subset of players, which will result in reducing the quality of the experience.

Single-player games like Fallout 3 or Skyrim, RPGs that rely on extensive gear and skill progression systems seem like they’d be a shoe-in for free-to-play monetization, and in fact it seems that this type of game is the likeliest candidate for adaptation as budgets for free-to-play games continue to increase. We’ve already seen signs that games like Call of Duty are being adapted to the free-to-play markets in Asia; it’ll be interesting to see how they are monetized outside the multiplayer game (where monetizing unlockables seems a lot more organic to the experience than it would in the single-player game).

But thinking again on the challenge of adapting Half-Life to the free-to-play business model, you start to appreciate the incredible challenges of balancing the need to monetize with the need to deliver a tightly paced experience that allows players to become deeply immersed in the gameplay and fiction, without being yanked out by pay windows and nag screens. And then there’s the fact that many players just don’t feel comfortable with the idea that they aren’t having the optimal experience unless they continue to pay money for the game. Suddenly paying up front for the full experience doesn’t sound like such a bad deal.

Game developers are a smart lot, and I’m sure someone will figure this problem out, but in the mean time, what potential future Half-Lifes are languishing in development hell, unable to find funding because they don’t fit nicely into the free-to-play model which is in vogue right now? How many of these games are being stretched and twisted to make them fit into a business model with psychology that really goes against the grain of what makes a great linear single-player experience in the first place? How many wonderful, traditionally single-player game IPs will be destroyed because of the free-to-play gold rush? Hopefully not many, but it’s likely a number greater than zero.

The truth is, not every business model suits every type of game experience. And as free-to-play grows in dominance in the coming years – both in terms of how common it is, and how habituated players become to it – we will see fewer and fewer of the polished, linear, story-driven single-player games that were the industry’s bread and butter for nearly two decades. Tastes change and businesses evolve, and the trend to giving things away and monetizing an audience is definitely pervasive both in and outside of games, but we ought not assume that giving something away for free means it comes without a price. For me, given the types of games I love to play, I fear the price may be too high.

You can follow van Lierop on Twitter: http://twitter.com/raphlife