Monday, March 31, 2014

The Three Commandments for The Fall of Video Games (As we know them)

Free to Play has been on my mind for a while now, thinking about how it works, what people expect from it and its dynamics overall. It has never totally clicked for me and I still have a lot of open questions regarding free to play games and their corresponding economics and their effect on the game industry. I certainly don't just hate it and I do believe that there are certain games that are perfect for this over popular monetization model, but that is just it, a certain group of games!

The whole concept can be studied from various different angles, I want to touch upon one of my concerns in this post. I always thought that in any business, not just in games, the creator does his best creation and knows that the users of the service or product will use it and hopefully enjoy the experience and be happy about the product or service, once they are happy with it, then they will pay and you make your money from the happy customers of your business. Very basic, very classic and just what the human race has been used to for centuries, want to make more money? Make the people who love your product or service happier so that they are willing to pay more! What does this have to do with free to play? Well I'm afraid a lot, here it goes:

Only a portion, in fact to be more exact a very small portion, of the players pay in f2p games. There has been a recent report by Swrve lately about f2p monetization that you can get from here. In this report they conclude that 50% of the f2p games revenue comes from only 0.15% of the gamers! Another shocking number is that 9% of this revenue comes from purchases over 50 USD! Well these rare species that spend so much in f2p games have been known for a while now as whales. In other words, we can easily say that people do not pay for f2p games, but there is a tiny portion of them out there who have kept the f2p economics alive. Alive and kicking and generating tons of revenue for the hit titles. Now what is the problem with that? Let the developers suck the cash out of the whales you say? Well lets proceed then:

Developers, especially those who liked to defend the f2p model said that the proper way to charge people for in-app purchases is for cosmetic features, things that do not have any effects on gameplay, in order to provide a fair situation for all players and avoid "pay to win". Well this was a dream that vaporized as fast as a drop of clean water evaporates in the middle of the Sahara! Soon publishers realized that the best things that sell in games are stuff that give you super advantages so that you can clear a level or an obstacle in the game. This is the trend that all major titles such as even Angry Birds have followed. It was not good for gamers to clear these games too quick, since they would not have an option to pay for in-app items, so these games need to block your progress and by the way enable you to proceed a bit if you pay.

Blocking the progress can be done by the following methods

    1. Make the game extremely hard and provide powerups that can be purchased (hard levels, requiring certain amount of starts to proceed, ...)
    2. Make the player need to repeat levels for different excuses
    3. Rely on non skill-based game mechanics that rely on numbers and stats in order to have progress and provide options to buy stats or time, like Clash of Clans.
No wonder why the number of paying players is so extremely low. 

  1. What kind of a person would want to pay to buy super powers in game to clear the levels? This is directly contradictory with the basic nature of games which is all about challenges. Alas why play a game if you do not want to confront a challenge? Classically this is known as cheating for athletes and gamers. 
  2. Who would like to repeatedly do the same thing in games just because the designer wanted you to? The best way this is implemented in games is known as grinding and that is not a positive point among the gamers for a game to have, especially if you know that the designer has added it to increase the game play time.
  3. Who likes to rely on non skill-based mechanics? Non skill? Skill is hand in hand with challenge and the essence of a game.
The people who like to do the above are definitely not the traditional gamers, the people who like to play to get engaged in a challenge with themselves and their abilities or with their friends. But hey, who said such people are playing games these days, the total number of gamers that want to play games for games is maybe at most 40 million in the world. The close to 1 billion that play Angry Birds are then for sure a different target, thanks to the ubiquity of the mobile devices. Out of those new gamers that are in fact non-gamers, there are a tiny fraction that are interested in paying for whatever they can in the game so that they can have progress, the whales!

From the Swrve report, this is a serious suggestion for f2p game designers:
  • Have we identified these customers within our own business?
  • Are we investing appropriate time and resources on retaining this specific group of players?
  • Do we understand where they come from, and have we amended our acquisition strategy accordingly?
By "these customers"the report is clearly referring to the paying customers. 

I like to call the above rules : "The Three Commandments for The Fall of Video Games"!

What happens if we identify those customers, the whales, and then invest the appropriate time and resource in retaining that specific group of players, in other words, design our game so that that specific group are happy with us, the whales are happy with us, and do we know where they come from and amend our acquisition strategy so that we can target them and invite them to our lovely game! Maybe we should focus our acquisition strategy in the north pole and install large billboards there!

So this is the root of my paradox, who are we designing and creating for? The gamer or the whale? Mobile games have been made by people from the game industry with "Game Design" mind sets, maybe this is why we still can play some of the mobile games, seems like it won't last long since the more designers start to obey the above three rules and base their design on the loyal paying customers, the more those games will be strange for people looking for pure play experience and challenge and fun and the more they will appeal to hip wannabe douche bags who will pay more than 100 dollars just to be a bit on the higher parts of that other gamer list on their Facebook account and will share that with all their aunts and grandmas so that they get praised for how cool and adorable they are! If a creator is to pay attention to its customer and create for its customer so that they are happy and bring him wealth, then game designers better start and study these valuable assets and see what clicks with them and brings them joy. I am sure the final product will look nothing like the best games that we have all experience and have changed our lives to some extent and we have been craving for just another close experience for some time now.

Designers will follow those rules, they will make many whales happy and bring tears to their eyes and they will make a lot of cash in the way, all I hope for is that a few designers will remain to stick to what games are and make the digital experiences for the few game lovers that remain in the future!

EDIT: I just read this news: Square Enix president admits that company 'lost focus' and the part of it that I liked very much and brings hope is this:

"Matsuda seems to be suggesting that Square Enix will be changing how it approaches developing games for a global market, by focusing on making games that appeal to what it believes to be a "niche audience" and trusting that players who appreciate those games will seek them out, rather than attempting to make games that will appeal to a broad audience."

1 comment:

Hojjat said...

If designers follow those rules the final outcome will not be a game! it will be a beautiful ATM!