My Thoughts on Free-to-Play Games

I'm on too many mailing lists. As a productivity booster, I've stopped doing email in the morning and in the middle of the work day, and only check it at night after I've worked on SpyParty during normal business hours. This technique is working great, but the downside is it means I have to slog through 24 hours's worth of mail in one sitting, or fall even farther behind. When a mailing list flares up in volume, it's a losing battle.

Today a thread on free-to-play games popped up on an business-focused indie game developer mailing list, and I thought thrice before opening it, thinking I'd just mark the whole thing "read". However, my ADD got the better of me, and I rationalized it further by reminding myself this particular list has a pretty good signal/noise, so I started reading. Twenty minutes later I was replying to the first post in the thread instead of fixing the bug I found today in my game. This is not how you get your public beta todo list done.

However, as I was finishing up the post, I realized I'd never actually written publicly about my thoughts on free-to-play versus pay-up-front and the related milieu of topics[1], and I thought the reply came out cogent enough to be worth posting here.

From: Chris Hecker
Date: Tue, 15 Nov 2011 22:04:53 -0800

I hesitated to even read this thread, let alone reply to it, but I wanted to say some things about this:

Right now with a paid-up-front model, I don't have any incentive to add features to games or increase the playability.

I think this is a pretty broken fundamental axiom, and if your core axiom is wrong, then all the conclusions based on it are questionable.

I think it's wrong because there are still a large number of incentives (that word makes me throw up in my mouth a little, to be honest) to make your game better even after people have already paid for it, and one might argue they are in fact the most important ones. To wit:

  • Pride in your work   I know it's really passé to talk about creation in these terms these days, but this is actually one of the most fulfilling reasons for doing anything in life, full stop. I'm pretty confident your players can feel this kind of love and attention in your creative output, as well, so doing things simply because you want to make those things great will probably result in better selling games as a side effect.
  • Word-of-mouth   Every study on marketing and sales ever has shown word-of-mouth to be the most powerful form of marketing, and continued support and improvement of a game after somebody has already paid for it generates a lot of goodwill, which often translates into good word-of-mouth, which sells more copies of your game.
  • Community building   For multiplayer games especially, there is raw value in simply having people playing your game, not to mention secondary effects of having true fans to market your next game to.

Speaking personally, my goal is a sustainable living making the games I want to make. My goal is not to "maximize profits" or anything like that. Money is a means to an end, and more is not always better due to the costs of aquiring it. If you genuinely feel like you want to explore free-to-play from a game design perspective, then that's totally cool. I think there are some interesting design challenges there and I can understand wanting to explore them, although I don't think they're the most interesting areas of game design to explore right now by a long shot. On the flip side, if you're not making enough money at pay-up-front games and need to figure out how to be sustainable, and you need to be on a platform where free-to-play is the only profitable way forward, then that's cool too, I guess, although I'd implore you to look at the many healthy platforms out there these days. In both cases I'd be careful, however, because as we all know, free-to-play warps game designs (and by "warps" I don't mean anything inherently negative, I just mean it actually changes the design landscape on which you're building your game in ways that are both nonintuitive and purely caused by extrinsic pressures on the game).

However, if you are making a sustainable living doing pay-up-front games, and you find those are the kinds of games you are most passionate about, but you feel the itch to try out free-to-play because some other people are getting rich doing it, then I'd take a step back and examine your motives and what makes you fulfilled as a person. VC-types look down on this kind of thinking with the awesomely cynical term "lifestyle business", but isn't that exactly what we want to create, a business that supports our desired lifestyle, which includes making games we're proud of?

I've thought about this a lot with respect to SpyParty. I plan to charge $15 for the game, and then support online multiplayer forever, if I can afford to. This is a classically "dumb" business model, because I have recurring costs but no additional direct income from a player once they've bought the game. However, if you do the math, the incremental cost of a single player is something like pennies-per-year at scale, so besides the initial gut-punch feeling you get when you realize you might be "giving somebody something valuable, that costs you money, for free, forever", if you step back and examine the situation, not only from the standpoint of creating art and entertainment and something you're proud of, but also from a financial standpoint with an objective business eye towards sustainability (in stark contrast to a eye towards "keeping up with the Pincuses"), it isn't actually dumb at all.

  1. Although this post comes close, obviously.
This page was last edited on 16 November 2011, at 16:39.