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Friday, 18 October 2013

Why Free to Play is not always a solution?

The date was June 29th, 2007 when the future of gaming was changed forever. One guy by the name of Steve Jobs with a vision & the backing of an incredible team gave to the world the iphone. The phone changed the landscape of handheld devices forever. It was revolutionary, it was inspired and it brought high quality games in the hands of millions of people.

Gaming changed forever and for the good. It brought the masses to an industry, which has always been considered niche when compared to other mass entertainment mediums. It made gaming mainstream. The industry grew leaps and bounds and a new set of developers and gamers emerged. There is no doubt that iphone and subsequently Android have played a huge role in bringing the gaming industry to where it is today.

There was however one more catalyst that increased the pace of change. The introduction of Free to Play. Free to Play games has been the single biggest factor that has helped to increase the number of people playing more and more games on their mobile devices. It has reduced the barrier to entry to mobile games. True that Free to Play is not a new concept and has been in games for ages. But it has been adopted whole-heartedly by the masses in the form of mobile free to play games.
Where mobile has made gaming casual, Free to Play has made the process of getting new games casual as well. Now players don’t think twice before downloading a game if it is free, as he has nothing to lose. This has led to huge download numbers for games and coupled up with unique business models like In-App Purchases and Advertisement, it has allowed developers to rack huge amount of revenue. This burgeoning success of the Free to Play model has led to almost everyone believe that Free to Play is the only model of success to be followed, specially on platforms like Android. Some major publishers like EA have actually gone to lengths to say that Free to Play would be their major strategy going forward for all games to be released on mobile.

But is Free to Play the solution to all kind of games? I don’t think so. Games are experiences, very unique ones where the gamer not only accepts stimulus but also actively responds to it hence altering the whole environment, which produces the stimulus in the first place. This kind of highly evolved entertainment cannot be restricted to a single medium of presentation. If it were done, it would seriously limit the way the medium is enjoyed by the players. Also Free to Play is suited for those kinds of games, which can go on for a long period of time. Games, which rely a lot on storytelling, for example would not be best suited to Free to Play model. How can a story keep on going forever? There has to be an ending. And if the story ends, which in turn means the end of the game; it would not be the ideal situation for a Free to Play game.

Free to Play has also come under a lot of criticism by people saying that it is necessarily evil that it wants to extort money out of people by all different means. Well, I don’t completely buy into this argument as it also allows people to try a lot more games and then pay for those games that sit nicely with their likings. However, a lot of developers have been guilty to producing games that are undercooked or don’t offer the whole feature package with the intent of making players to pay money. This is unwarranted as players should be willing to pay money to get more of the awesome experience they are already getting, rather than pay money to just taste the whole experience. This shouldn’t be the case and if this persists, it would just erode value in the eyes of gamers.

A lot of developers have credited Free to Play as the single biggest factor for the increase in their revenue. This is true for most of the cases. But lets not forget the point that Free to Play also brings along with it different requirements like the requirement to support the game for a long period of time with constant updates and bug fixes. With the whole ecosystem changing so frequently, it is a herculean task to keep on updating your game. This becomes that much more difficult and financially unviable if the number of DAUs is not big enough to warrant the investment in terms of ROI. But then if you don’t provide the constant updates & the bug fixes, you tend to unnerve your current player base. This seems to be a precarious situation for many developers.

There is no doubt that Free to Play is an amazing model as it allows both the player as well as the developer a lot of freedom. It has taken the industry to unseen heights in terms of player engagement. But is it the answer to all kind of games. Highly unlikely. This industry would be best served if the different models co-exist together so that they can serve their requirement as & when required. I would like to end this with a quote from George R.R. Martin (A Game of Thrones): “Different roads sometimes lead to the same Castle” which perfectly explains the differences in business models yet the common ground sought by them.

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Siddharth has been playing games since forever and loves it so much so he decided to make a profession out of it. After completing his MBA, he decided to join EA to learn the ropes of the industry. A Game Producer and Game Designer by profession, while not playing games, he loves to read about them, watch movies and spend quality time with his family. His passion for writing led to the creation of this blog.
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  1. Hello,

    Nice paper. The Free To Play model is excelent for big companies like EA, Activision, etc. However, for a small indy developer, it is simply not a good model. The Indy Developers don't have the marketing machine the big companies do. It is impossible to survive in this model if you don't attract lots of downloads.
    Best regards

  2. Thanks Leonardo :) You are right in saying that indie developers dont have the marketing machine to compete with big companies. But then that would be the case with paid games as well where you would need to convince the players even more to shell out money on an unknown game. I think Free To Play at least provides the chance to be tried by the players without any initial investment & that bodes well for the indie developer. In the end, quality sells, wether its Free or Paid :)

  3. Hi Sid, nice post. For casual gamers like me please do explain how does a free to play model work. I have been long wondering that how someone like Rovio or Imangi Studios make revenues from free but high quality Angry Birds and Temple Runs. There are in game ads but people like me don't mind them and if required turn mobile data off to play games. In addition there is Freemium model that makes more sense and that makes users pay for in game purchases.

  4. Thanks Saurav :-) you have kind of already explained the revenue model for free to play games :-) basically there are two dominant models, advertisements and in app purchases. Most of the highly getting asps use both these models simultaneously. The combination would mainly depend on what kind of game it is and the kind of user engagement expected.