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A Few (too many) Words About Business

I tend not to talk about the business of the games I make very much, not publicly anyway. I don’t have a problem with business discussions but I tend to restrict them where they are most productive. I talk with a lot of other indie developers about business matters, so we can share insight and I can make my choices based on actual experience and not just from dogmatic opinions argued on forums and blog posts.

I also find the many business sessions at developers conference incredibly boring and typically a waste of time. So many developers are eager to tell you of the amazing success they’ve had with their first game and what you can learn from them. Yet often their advice is either blindingly obvious or just one lucky break that they’ve not yet proven they can recreate in any longer term. I am much more interested in hearing about people designing games, something that comes from their passions and not just their bank accounts.

So for the most part I try not to spend my days sharing my opinions on gaming business models. Though I do spend a lot of my time thinking about it, because I want my games to be a success and reach a wide audience as possible. Obviously my end goal is to get into a position where I can be earning enough money to keep making whatever I want to make. Right now I’m still supplementing my games income with contracting work but I feel like I’m getting there.

Having said all that I feel compelled to finally sit down and write something more public about the controversial “free to play” topic. There’s two reasons I want to write about it, firstly because I’m about to release Kairo on iOS and Android and will be doing so a “premium” title. Secondly, on a near weekly basis I feel this real push from the free to play advocates that those of us who aren’t embracing the model are making a mistake.

I would describe myself best as a free to play skeptic. I don’t hate the model entirely and have a lot of fun with games like Jetpack Joyride and League of Legends. There is still a lot of potential for what people can do with free to play that hasn’t been explored yet. However I do have many reservations:

  • I’m skeptical about claims that this is the winning business model for the future of the industry. In it’s current incarnation F2P is in it’s infancy yet people are quick to extrapolate from short term trends or widely different territories. I wonder if these are the same people who told me a few years ago Facebook gaming had won or a few years before that subscription based games as a service had won.
  • I’m skeptical when people tell me any game could be made free to play without ruining the design. I’ve yet see any compelling rationale for how some exploration adventures like Ico, Fez or Journey could be F2P without destroying mood, how survival horror like Silent Hill without destroying tension, or how a point and click adventure could be made F2P without just being pay to win.
  • I’m skeptical of the common forms of free to play game design being used. The “energy” model where game progress is slowed down or outright halted unless you pay seems like a such dead end. Many of these games are just re-skinning the same experience and actually contain very little gameplay. Even worse is those that feel like a good game completely ruined by these kind of artificial timers ruining the game flow.
  • I am skeptical that free to play is the most enjoyable way for me to engage with a video game. The draw of initial low barrier to entry quickly loses its shine when the game is cosntantly pestering me to drop in coins. Like a cinema film or a book or an album I often just want to pay up front and sit down and enjoy the experience without being nagged constantly.
  • I’m skeptical of the ethics of the people involved in making F2P games. Many games are now being designed more around encouraging addictive behaviour patterns and less about creating an entertaining journey. We’ve been down this road before with arcade games where many games despite other qualities were intentionally unfair and often outright broken just to force you to put more coins in. However now we’re not talking about spending 5 pounds/dollars to finish Turtles we’re talking hundreds or thousands on Smurfberries. That the people involved in this are so dismissive of the ethics worries me.
  • I’m skeptical of the sustainability of businesses being funded by a small percentage of susceptible “whales”. These aren’t always people with the disposable income to spend as much as they are doing on F2P games and I have to wonder if eventually so many of them will be burned by a handful of games they’ll start to avoid them and will we find enough suckers to replace them. I also wonder if we continue to prey on these people will we find ourselves under regulations like the gambling industry.
  • I’m skeptical that any single business model will be overwhelmingly dominant in the games industry. More than ever games are branching out in all directions, more types of games are being explored, on more platforms and with all sort of different payment models. That’s the future I see, one of diversity and choice of what we play and how we receive it.

So where all this leaves me is that I am about to release my game on mobile in a format that many mobile developers quite vocally consider bad business practice. I’ve looked at the advice free to play consultants have for making your game an effective free to play title and they just do not work for the type of games I tend to make. Kairo is a minimalist game about exploration and puzzle solving. There is no appropriate space in the game for consumables or expressing personality through an avatar. Sure I could make the hint system micro-transaction based but the hint system was added to aid gameplay and reduce frustration, so making it a paid system would damage the game flow.

Even to ignore all the design reasons it ultimately comes down some simple pragmatic business logic. More people are failing with free to play games than are succeeding. I’m sure advocates will claim those people didn’t embrace F2P properly into their games. Assuming that defense is correct (which is a huge assumption) I know I can’t make Kairo a game that fits that model well so I’d almost certainly be dooming myself to failure too. If I only sell a handful of copies as a premium title I think I’ll take a small amount of something over a whole lot of nothing.

Kairo is out now for Windows, Mac OSX and Linux for $8 from the Kairo site.

iOS and Android versions are near complete and should be available early January.

Welcome to the home of Locked Door Puzzle, the independent game development studio of Richard Perrin located in Bristol.

My primary focus is on creating expressive games that explore different forms of interactive storytelling.

For contact details check the about page.