Laws and sausages

Leo McGarry on HBO's The West Wing says:
"There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make 'em - laws and sausages."*

To this list I would also like to add Freemium games.

It's fair to say I've talked about the Freemium model at length. Whilst I do not consider myself an expert on the subject, I do have something of an insiders knowledge on both how / why it works and the things you have to do to actually make use of it.

I think it's also fair to say that my stance on the current state of the F2P market is well known and there would be no prizes for guessing on which side of the ethical fence you'd be able to find me. In fact, if you've been to any of my talks at either Konsoll or ExPlay recently, you'll have already heard most of the things I'm about to say.

Firstly, I'd like to say that I fully support the Freemium model. I believe it's a good tool in principle and one that people should definitely consider when making a game. But it is just that - a tool. A device. A machine. On it's own, it does nothing. In the hands of a craftsman, it can produce art. In the hands of a criminal...

Hmm. That might make it sound like I'm suggesting that F2P games are made by criminals. That's not true. The people that call the shots on F2P games are businessmen and, despite what you might read on the internet, the last time I checked, that was still a legal profession. They are in the game-making business to make money. Plain and simple.

Of course it's a bit different for me. I've always said that I'm in this for the game**. Any decisions I make in the design of a game are made purely from a game-design standpoint. This, I have come to realise, is a luxury - one that not everyone has - but it's something that really grinds my gears. I get very upset whenever a game design decision is made for any reason other than 'to make the game more fun to play'. Sadly, the real world is a little different than the ideal one I've got going on inside my head and not just because I drive a Mondeo rather than an Aventador.

It's not just the design discipline either. I know a supremely talented Art Director, for example, who doesn't even get the final say over the colour of a button. These artistic decisions play second fiddle to anything that makes money***.

Now there are those who would say that the bottom line is that a game has to make money. It costs an awful lot to make a game and if it doesn't make any money, an awful lot of people don't get paid and that's a bad thing. They're right too - and I don't have a problem with that.

My issue is the way they're going about it. To me, it just feels a bit like false pretences. It's almost as if games aren't being made by game developers any more. Instead, it feels a bit like games are being made by advertising companies. Ones that don't care what gamers think as long as it doesn't affect their bottom line too much. They are prepared to dance in that grey area between honesty and outright lying in order to get money out of a player. By balancing things so that the next piece of progression is always tantalisingly out of reach.

Trust Issues

Filled with fun, as they say.

Did you ever play Viva Piñata? I loved that game - from the (BAFTA nominated) art style to the nurturing gameplay (apart from the slightly tedious breeding minigame). It had a narrator character called Leafos. She had a lovely Irish accent. She'd tell you all sorts of things about the game and was responsible for the tutorial. As such, you trusted her implicitly. You had to - she was your only point of reference.

Imagine my surprise then when it turned out that some of the advice she was giving you was just plain wrong. She... lied to me. My world was turned upside down. If I couldn't trust her what could I do?

Nowadays, I find myself in a similar situation with F2P games. They'd like me to monetise and, ordinarily I would. More than your average gamer, I understand what it costs to make a game and can empathise with those that do. Therefore I monetise for a variety of reasons - the game is fun, I feel the developers need to be rewarded for good execution or innovation, my friend worked on the game and I wish to show support, - that sort of thing. But I've been behind the curtain. Whereas once I believed they spoke the truth and that everything they did was to make the game more fun for me, now I know that may not be the case. Instead of a fair exchange of my money for their entertainment product, I am becoming merely a cog in their money-printing machine. I find myself more easily spotting those nuances of balance that ensure that whatever the game offers you in the name of progress is always engineered to cajole you in to spending money by being tantalisingly out of reach. They don't care about me. They care about my bank details.

Can I just point out that having to spend money for entertainment is not a bad thing at all? I'd like to call in to question the members of the public that believe that they have some kind of right to play all of these things for free - for whom 69p is a rip off. 69p! What else are you going to spend that on? It barely buys you a Mars bar these days.

But it's the deceit that gets me. If they were up front and honest about what this particular purchase actually did, I'd be a lot happier about spending money on it. I want to spend money on entertainment. I want to buy things. But I want  to buy things that I want to have, rather than spend money on things that I need to have. Things that I know have a bit of permanence to them rather than just something to give me a bit of a boost for the next 10 minutes. I don't want to be treated like an idiot who they think they can trick in to spending money.

Think of advertisers or estate agents. Whilst they're not actually allowed to lie to you, they will certainly attempt any and everything short of that to 'enhance' the truth. The technicality. The jargon. Does anyone actually like advertisers or estate agents when they do this?**** They want it to make you feel like you're getting a really good deal then pressure you in to taking advantage of that before it goes away again. Has anyone been to a DFS when there hasn't been the last few days of their spectacular sale remaining? How about buying something that was 'nearly new' on eBay?

Actually, advertisements is a good analogy. You're not playing a game, you're playing an advert... for the game itself... which is an advert. The problem is that, once you buy the game, the advert doesn't stop, because there is always more of the game to buy. In fact, some games actually increase the adverts once you've monetised simply because you've shown them that monetisation is something you're prepared to do. So giving them money actually encourages them to charge you more money. In a way, it's a stroke of genius.

Good Freemium

Chaotic gameplay. Vitriolic community. Still fun.
It is generally regarded amongst gamers that League of Legends is the way to do Freemium right. The things you can buy are transparent in their intention. Most of the things are purely aesthetic - skins for the characters, for example. You don't have to buy them at all. It's entirely an opt-in system. Crucially, nothing in the game tries to push these things on you. You don't get messages saying that perhaps you should pick up this new thing. It doesn't decide on the things to offer you on sale because it knows you can't afford them and so will be likely to monetise just to take advantage of this great deal.

It feels honest and up front about what it offers you.

It also has an actual game there. Something you can play*****. It's not just tapping on a screen of icons, watching bars filling up and otherwise navigating a metagame whose only reason for being is to keep you coming back on the off chance that you'll spend money. It also doesn't keep bugging you to come back and play it. It doesn't need to - it's confident enough that the game is fun enough to play and you want to come back and play it anyway.

Don't get me wrong, they've got a trick or two up their sleeve - like the free character rotation system and consumable boosts - but these are minor concessions in an otherwise compelling package.

Making Better Freemium

You can go to seminars on Freemium. They all say exactly the same things about how to make Freemium better******. They boil everything down to something they call ARM - Acquisition, Retention and Monetisation. 

The Acquisition part is a combination of marketing and what they like to call a Frictionless Entry - making it incredibly easy for people to start playing your game. Chief of this is the fact that it's free, has a nice, simple button that you can click on to start playing and probably shouldn't require any registration or installation screens.

Retention is about keeping people playing. Actually, that's not really true. Retention is about keeping people coming back to your game to check up on their progress. The theory is the more time the player spends in the game, the more chance there is that they'll Monetise for you. That's why these games are always getting on your case to come back because either something amazing has just happened in your absence or it's all about to go horribly wrong unless you intervene.

Then we have Monetisation, which is all of the things we've talked about before. Putting players in situations where they feel compelled to pay. Giving them as many opportunities as possible to do so. Not limiting the amount it is possible to pay.

Green = thing they want you to click on
Best practices for each of these sections are well documented elsewhere. Everyone has the same information and everyone uses pretty much the same approach. Most of the time, the games aren't crafted - they're simply produced using an established set of blueprints. The differences between these games are almost entirely aesthetic.

It feels like no-one is doing anything different. No-one is innovating. Any why should they? Different would mean a risk. Innovation would mean the bean counters up the chain couldn't guarantee numbers. Far better to re-skin an existing, proven product and package it as new.

It's not as if the people making these things don't care about what they're making. In their own little bubbles they care very deeply. Artists will want that sparkle and for the presentation to wow people. Coders will want to solve the technical problems and have everything running efficiently. But designers are being replaced by spreadsheets and a numbered set of instructions. Companies are just going through the established motions in order to make as much money as they can.

The oddity in all this is that I can totally see a game in it. The challenge is to come up with ever increasingly devious ways of getting people to part with their money without them realising that's all you're doing.

It's just not a game I particularly want to play.

* It's a variant of something attributed to Otto von Bismarck, who also had a battleship named after him. Which is pretty damn cool.

**There are some who believe that's a typo and it should be 'fame'.

*** It turns out that bright green is indeed the colour of money.

**** Does anyone actually like advertisers or estate agents at all?

***** My advice would be to develop a thick skin though - man, that community is brutal...

****** 'Better', in this case, means 'make more money'


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