It used to be so simple. After consoles and PCs emerged from the collapse of arcades as dominant gaming platforms, a contract existed between the gamer and developer: you give me $90 and I give you about 20 hours of fun in a box. This treaty lasted for over 25 years and through seven generations of consoles, taking the video game industry to new highs and pop culture relevance.
The contract has been broken. With the rise of free2play, instead of paying up front for fun, games are miserable hamster wheels. You grind and grind to get nowhere, or pay a few bucks to make the wheel spin faster. You're never going to get anywhere, but that's by design. It's all about maximising the user's Lifetime Value. This may not sound fun, but hamster wheels aren't powered by fun, they run on compulsion.
This is horrifying to a generation raised on paid games. These are gamers born between 1965 and 1990 — stretching through Generation X and Y. They are the Greatest Generation of gamers, as I call them. We who are in that generation complain about free2play games all over the web — but the fact is we are declining in number. Every year more of us die, making way for the next wave of gamers.
For this upcoming group; social, mobile, and free2play browser games are their formative experiences. Instead of an NES they had Club Penguin — instead of a PlayStation they had Kongregate. They believe games should be free just as we now think music is.
The lure of free is irresistible. In Dan Ariely's book, Predictably Irrational, he details how persuasive free is with a simple experiment. The author set up a candy stand that sold expensive Lindt truffles for a mere 15 cents and mundane Hershey Kisses for 1c. With this pricing, 73 per cent chose the Lindt truffles. When the truffle was offered for 14c and the Hershey Kiss for free, 69 per cent chose the highly inferior free chocolate.
If you compare an excellently crafted single player high-end console game such as BioShock to a Lindt Truffle and a grindy freemium hamster wheel to a Hershey Kiss you might see the problem. Even if premium games provide a "better" experience, having to pay $90 up front for it is a nearly insurmountable amount of friction in the face of free entertainment.
Disruption is a force of nature — fighting it is like fighting earthquakes. Resistance is futile.
The old guard isn't going down easy. EA has made many attempts from buying Playfish in 2009 to Mass Effect 3 multiplayer and the success of Simpsons: Tapped out on iOS. Yet, digital revenue has not been able to reverse a stock slide that had EA removed from the NASDAQ 100. THQ's future is uncertain. Activision has held up better than most — with Call of Duty being a victor in the winner-take-all AAA market. This has encouraged a cautious approach to new business models. Activision's aggressive attack of the iOS f2p market with Skylanders: Battlegrounds shows they are getting serious.
This is particularly frightening for console manufacturers. By this time next year, we'll be basking in the glow of at least one new eighth generation console. It's hard to get people to pay $90 for a game — now try to get them to also pay $400 for a new box to play it on.
Old-school game developers complain about how free2play games are shameless monetisation engines. Yet, many tropes of fun-based games such as lives, scores, continues, and even screenshot-worthy graphics are monetisation techniques of the old guard. Mixing monetisation and game design is nothing new. Although having monetisation be a fundamental responsibility of the game designers instead of strictly management and marketing departments is.
Freemium isn't evil, and not all freemium games are pure compulsion loops. In fact, competitive games such as Riot's League of Legends and Valve's Team Fortress 2 prove that you can build a profitable business out of free2play titles that celebrate mechanics, mastery, and fun.
It remains to be seen how this will work for single player narratives. This is largely a matter of economics. In a f2p game, 5 per cent of your users pay to subsidise the 95 per cent that don't spend a dime. With premium console games this is inverted. The 95 per cent of your customers who never come close to finishing the game subsidise the creation of content that only 5 per cent of the users ever see.
What's the solution?
Current f2p game designs are too primitive to work in a single player narrative experience. The last thing we need is a dialog popping up asking to buy soul crystals before harvesting a Little One.
Perhaps the legacy of The Greatest Generation is to make sure fun in games lives on in the era of f2p economies. Or else, Cow Clickers shall inherit the Earth.
Ralph Barbagallo is a game designer, programmer, consultant, entrepreneur and doughnut enthusiast. Follow him @flarb, find his other ramblings at ralphbarbagallo.com, or have him and his crew make you stuff at flarb.com.