Are you one of those game developers who think that free-to-play games suck? You think they’re soulless, or that their builders do not understand how to treat a customer? Or why games are sacred and special?
After all, f2P developers are often looked down upon by traditional game developers, particularly indie ones, as not being artistic.
Well, in the spirit of greater understanding on all fronts, I’m here to tell you how to understand these developers.
The thing to understand about the free-to-play market, and its best developers, is that F2P developers treat everything as science. Everything is subject to analysis, and everything is subject to proof, and the business process is about seeking what works. If what works happens to also be an original, innovative, interesting design that meets a checklist set of criteria for being art, well, all the better. But really, it’s about what works.
We have to be honest with ourselves. There is an awful lot of stuff that we have cherished for a long time in the games business which turns out not to work. Sometimes it takes us years to shed the scales from our eyes about the fact that hoary conventions of yore are just that — conventions, mutable and open to change.
After all, was not the great innovation of World of Warcraft that it “removed the tedious bits”? Many of those tedious bits were “proven mechanisms.” And regardless of whether we feel that some babies went out with the bathwater, there’s a certain part of you that has to go with what worked — and if a few babies going out with the scummy water is the price, then, well, it can be hard to argue against.
There is also the plain fact that it takes a player to play a game. What worked for grognards who were willing to fix the BASIC errors in Panzer-Jagd on the Atari 8-bit (*sheepishly raises hand*) does not necessarily work for the player who delighted in Doom, which in turn fails the player tossing angry red birds at hapless pigs.
The field moves on because the audience does, and what works moves with it. Having some science in the mix to track, assess, and predict those movements is only common sense.
And the more the audience divorces itself from we who make their entertainment, the more important it is that we be clear-eyed about what their tastes and behaviors actually are. And that, in turn, greatly undermines the value of “experts,” — because we are in many ways, the most likely to be hidebound and unable to see past the blinkered assumptions precisely because we built them up with hard-won experience.
But! And it’s a big but.
Sometimes, though, what works only works within the field of measurement. If it turns out one of those useless mewling babies was going to grow up to be Einstein, we would have been pretty dumb to toss him out when he was a sullen teenager (even if he did get good grades). A lot of things fall outside of the typical field of measurement.
- Anything that unfolds over a very long period of time. By the time you have true long-term data on a split-test, you’ve essentially chosen a path through inaction.
- Anything that lies in the realm of emotion is invisible — we can easily see results, but we cannot see, barring a focus group, the whys for a given action. (There are various measurement techniques, such as net promoter score, which try to get at this indirectly).
- Anything that is a short-term loss for a long-term gain. Many sorts of behaviors players might engage in may pay out when considered as a systemic aggregate, even though regarding them as a funnel may show them to be terrible. One example might be character customization — it’s an extra step that likely costs some users in an F2P funnel, but it may also yield far greater revenue over time due to character customization.
- Anything that exists outside of the game proper, where it can be hard to tie cause and effect together. Examples include things like community development, the value of strategy websites built by players, etc.
Most critically, measurements are excellent at telling you where to iterate. They are not so good at quantum leaps.
The place where expert opinion still has great value in the F2P world lies in getting out of the hill climbing that pure metrics optimization puts you in. Metrics help you find local maxima, not the highest point in the possibility space. Making good decisions about what sorts of new features to test, for example, is something that goes better with expert opinions in the mix. There are other areas where it matters as well — a highly visible one today being marketing.
It has been highly interesting to watch the rise of marketing programs in social games. Social game companies (not so much the Asian companies or those with MMO in their DNA) have had their own blind spots in thinking about retention in general, so a lot of the hill-climbing has aimed towards maximizing short-term revenue. This can be easily seen in the near complete lack of brand-building in the social games space. But maximizing short-term revenue, while a perfectly valid business strategy, starts to break down as the cost of developing and deploying a game rises. Gradually, the space finds itself in need of long-term revenue models to offset the rising costs.
As budgets and launch polish bars have risen, classical game development knowledge is moving more to the forefront, at least at larger social game companies, because suddenly the “fail fast” model has a much larger upfront investment than it used to. “Fail fast” and “launch early and often” work best when product is cheap to deploy. The ability to envision a viable larger product is a skill set that mostly comes from experience. And at this point, the social game space has raised its own homegrown experts in that, as well as bringing in many from traditional videogames.
Those game developers who look upon free-to-play and lament the lack of retention, community, branding, narrative, or whatever, would best serve the games and the customers by embracing the science. Doing so does not mean denying their instincts, though they may well learn a bunch along the way, and have some beloved applecarts upset by hard data.
If you ask me, the best way to make F2P games better would to find ways to provide provable metrics on why the things we value add to the bottom line. Community, artistry, narrative, brand, retention, customer sentiment, whatever your particular religion is — find a way to measure cause and effect and demonstrate the business value. For example, provide specific data on how forum dwellers measurably increase your bottom line, and any F2P company will immediately start optimizing for it.
And by the way,this should matter to you even if you aren’t doing F2P right now. After all, if you are not yet working at a free-to-play company, you probably will be soon, precisely because science is better than religion at actually solving problems.
If something is neglected in the F2P world, it is probably because it isn’t easily measurable. Not because the companies hate the traditions of games, but because they are empiricists above and beyond all else.