As an indie game developer, I will probably never build a free-to-play game again.
Before I get into the details on why I’m saying this, let me add a little context. As it is often the case, I got the idea for this post while reading an article on GamesIndustry.biz about the free-to-play marketing trends for 2015. I’ve had the chance to develop a free-to-play game during my time at Execution Labs and got to understand the lingo and market specifics for this type of game. If you check out the article, you’ll have a glimpse of how complex making, or at least marketing, a free-to-play game has become. Between the load of knowledge and acronyms you need to know and the sheer complexity of building and maintaining a free-to-play game, I think it’s just not worth it.
Free-to-play is hard(er) to design (well)
Traditional/premium games are hard to design. Developing an original concept, refining the gameplay into something fun, maybe develop an interesting story and possibly adding some selling features such as multiplayer, while dealing with technological difficulties is no easy task.
I found free-to-play design to be way harder.
This is because you’re no longer designing a game that will simply be fun. Proper free-to-play design needs to integrate the business elements that govern this type of game directly into the design. This means your user acquisition, retention and monetization need to be thought out, from the start, in your game design. It’s not just about making a game that is fun and interesting. It’s about building an experience in which a player, who did not pay for the initial game, will want to come back every day, tell his friends (or complete strangers) about to game to invite them in and will want to eventually pay. This is excessively difficult to do, because as soon as one of those three elements are off, it will be difficult for your game to succeed. From the player’s point of view, the game also has a lot less value that a traditional premium game. Unless the player becomes hooked and pays, the game essentially becomes a throwaway product. This puts a lot of pressure on the developer to make a game so compelling (or with a really efficient hook) that the player does not simply abandon the game or uninstall it immediately.
These elements constitute something that is difficult to deal with as a developer, even more so as an indie. If getting players to stay and eventually pay is hard, it means you need a lot of players. Which brings me to my next point.
Marketing for Free-to-play is as expensive as marketing for AAA games
You may be tempted to think that by making a game free, a whole bunch of people will download it. The truth is there are loads of other free-to-play titles out there and unless yours stands out in any way, it will drown in the torrent of small free-to-play games that are released every day. So, how do you get players in your game? The answer to this, at least for companies that have money, is to use ads. This is usually in the form of publicity in other games, Facebook and other reliable sources of players that incite players to install another game. These types of ads are driven by Cost per Install (CPI) in which the company that shows an ad pays when a player actually installs the game presented in the ad. As you may have read in the aforementioned article, it can cost between (on average) 1$ to 2$ to acquire a player in an ad network. This can add up pretty quickly. The article also mentions that if a payed-for user ends up paying 10$, then it totally worth it. That would be true, but another common statistic is that a very small number of players actually end up paying. In order to get those 2% of paying players, you need to pay for a lot of other users. These users will, at best, keep playing your game for free until they convert, or at worst, uninstall your game after playing for a few minutes. This can cost over tens, hundreds of thousand dollars, even millions.
The original problem that indies met was that using traditional means for marketing (TV publicity, etc.) was unattainable because of the steep price of media publicity. At first, free-to-play seemed like a genuine answer to this, and it was for a while. As more players entered the free-to-play game and understood the market needs, the competition and cost to get noticed also went up. At this point, the current market is that you need money to get people to download your game (unless you get lucky with viral propagation). Even if you have the money to get some downloads, you’re then confronted with the problem of the previous section, which is get people to stay, play often and eventually pay. This means that you need to really understand what players do when they are in your game. How do you accomplish this?
Free-to-play is Big Data
So, you have a certain number of players that are coming into your game, but only 10% of them stay on the first and only 0.1% end up paying. What’s going on? Heck, how do you even get this information? When you have a free-to-play game, you need to understand how players are behaving. To do this, companies log player’s actions in a large databases, usually using third party tools, such as Flurry who are specialized in doing such things. Once you are effectively logging all these players actions, you can start analyzing the thousands of data entries that are obtained through the logs. This means that part of your job as a developer of a free-to-play game is to analyze data on a daily basis.
Unless you are really interested in statistics, you won’t be working on your game, you’ll be crunching numbers. And before you have statistics that are significant, you need to have enough players that have played over a certain period of time. The results are not necessarily instantaneous. So, what do you need to do in the mean time?
Free-to-play is continuous (and more complicated) development
I mentioned before that user retention is an important factor in the success of a free-to-play game. User retention means that players come back regularly to play you game, hopefully over a long period of time. In order to keep people interested (and acquire enough data), you need to continually add new features or content so that they can keep playing, so that players might pay (or pay more). This means that you can’t simply start working on another project easily; you need to keep developing for your other free-to-play project. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but as a developer, I know I like to move on to new projects sometimes.
On top of continuous development, you need to have a more diverse set of competencies in order to develop a good free-to-play game. It’s not just about UI, AI and rendering and other traditional stuff, it’s also dealing with servers and databases, which makes for more complex development. It also means that you need your game to be online at all times (in most cases) for people around the world. This can be hard to do for a small group of independent developers.
And on top of that, all the big players are continually making for more elaborate games, with more complex features. Again, it’s hard to stand out in such a market.
I’m still doing free-to-play
As an indie, doing all this is possible, but very difficult. Even if you forgo the money part, you’ll still have difficulty keeping up with all the other aspects.
Despite all these arguments, I’m still currently working on a game that is free.
Because free-to-play as a business paradigm has opened up opportunities for games that diverge from the original market. There are different ways to make money (such as ads). It’s also a good way to get some visibility. You don’t have emulate the big companies and make really complex games; you can aim for smaller projects.
It’s true, there are lots of games that already aim small and hope for some money. It works for some, but not for others. But, in the end, I still believe that if you do something that stands out, you may have a chance at fortune.
Or at least a free coffee everyday.