The Free-To-Play Storm and the Freecore Gamer

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Editor’s Note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer with 20 years experience. He is the creator of the leading game design blog What Games Are, and consults for many companies on game design and development. You can follow him on Twitter here.

“All of them hope that the storm will pass before their turn comes to be devoured. But I fear — I fear greatly — the storm will not pass” — Winston Churchill

What’s the biggest change that Zynga, ngmoco, Playfish, Wooga and a brace of other social game publishers have managed to effect in the games industry?

It’s not distribution. While many social game publishers have proved expert at finding players, social always had a half-life based on novelty versus irritation. Many social game publishers are ordinary advertising-driven operations today, still using social but seeing low rates of return.

It’s not game design. True, there are a couple of mechanics to do with time-delays and gating which have spread around social games like memes (formally, game designers call them “ludemes”). Yet the ordinary day-to-day gameplay of most big social games is pulled straight from Dungeons and Dragons, Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, The Sims and casinos.

It’s not aesthetic. Where indie PC games are wildly experimental in theme and tone, social games are usually interchangeable in look and style. A few manage to raise above that (for example: Dragonvale), but few in social are making a horror game, a genuinely quirky game, an unconventional fantasy or anything that isn’t cute, friendly and mainstream. They tend to lack a real culture of their own.

Ain’t none of the above genius. The really big change was proving that the Asian model of monetising games through virtual goods and other free-to-play business models worked just as well in the West. Social games brought pay-as-you-go, pay-to-cheat and pay-to-skip to games, and the consequent explosion in free play has fundamentally changed what many players expect. The question is whether the so-called mainstream games industry can really survive it.

The Oncoming Storm

Prior to 1997 there were essentially two models for selling gameplay. One was to sell tickets and the other was to sell season passes. The ticket model happened in arcades, where a coin got you a couple of minutes’ play (maybe more if you were really good) and the game tested your physical skills. The season pass model was the console and PC game. You bought the machine, bought the game and it was yours to play with for as long as you liked.

In the late 90s the economics of games started to expand. Massive multiplayer games like Ultima Online emerged and introduced the idea that you could subscribe. While online play had existed for a few years prior, these massive games were more persistent, and so naturally focused on roleplaying games and the like. They slowly started to eat into what was considered the traditional PC market, and then console.

At first it was strictly subscriptions, but around the edges (circa 2003 and forward) some people started to talk about micro-transactions. The initial idea of this revolved around selling game levels (going back to the arcades), and in the West was mostly ignored. However word kept coming from the East of games that sold frivolous digital items and upgrades. To Western ears they sounded ridiculous, but then games like Nexon’s Kart Rider popped up and announced numbers like $250 million a year in revenue. Many of us assumed this must have been a typo.

But of course it wasn’t. It was the tip of the iceberg. Massive multiplayer games increasingly experimented with free to play, then casual games like Puzzle Pirates and then Zynga. Whole conferences were formed just to talk about virtual goods, how they worked, what sold best or worst. The language of classifying players as “whales” or “minnows” emerged, and all the while many in the mainstream games industry looked on in bafflement.

You see, they couldn’t understand this: free to play games were (and mostly still are) objectively pretty bad. They tended to be simplistic rather than elegant, blatantly manipulative rather than earning player loyalty. They lacked a really robust game dynamic. And yet players flocked to them, and so did investment money. Free to play called into question many foundational assumptions about the industry, while working on free to play games became a little bit like the perceived loss of status that movie people used to feel about working in television.

The model was also unavailable. If you worked in Xbox 360, PS3 or Wii there simply was no path to free to play. None of the platforms supported it as standard, and the odd toe-dip into micro-transactions was usually only the sale of extra content in purchased games. Since those sales were often small (with one or two exceptions), it seemed as though this whole free-to-play thing was either a fad or low-rent. Believing that its content was of premium value, the “proper” games industry largely left Zynga and a few others alone. They thought the storm would pass.

Tough Times

If you are lucky enough to work at one of five or so premium studios (Blizzard, Bethesda, Valve, etc.) then you probably don’t see it, but for most of the rest of the industry these are miserable times to be in AAA games. Big-budget game sales are down at least 23 percent on the previous year, and some months have been truly miserable.

Some peg this on the cyclical nature of the industry and point to the aging Xbox and PS3 hardware, the relatively short lifespan of the Wii and the overall damp squib that was Kinect. They say that gamers are probably waiting for the next round of hardware to be announced, and so 2013 will be a bumper year. I’m not so sure.

For one thing, the handheld industry (Nintendo 3DS, Playstation Vita) has recently had a fairly significant hardware refresh, but reactions were apathetic. Nintendo had to drop the price of the 3DS massively, and Sony’s Vita is essentially dead. It seems that players don’t want to pay premium prices for handheld games in a world where the iPod Touch sells games for 10 percent of the price. Meanwhile the Wii U certainly looks amazing and has many among the hardcore stoked. Yet there’s much rumbling over the price of the unit ($300).

Secondly, I’m not sure the specs argument really works. PC gamers still cling to their rigs, to Steam and to perceiving themselves as having the best machines. Yet they are mostly doing so with mid- or low-range hardware. PC sales have stalled where traditionally it used to be gamers who pushed the PC forward. Not any more it seems. If it transpires that the would-be console purchaser has the same reaction to the PS4 (“I can’t really see the difference”) then that means something.

If technological power is no longer a competitive vector, then price is the primary one. That plays into digital platforms’ hands, especially digital platforms that give their gameplay away. It means that parents are more likely to buy their kids iPads and have them play apps rather than shell out for consoles and TVs (and have the family TV taken over by video gaming). It means that the expectation becomes that the game is free so that the player can know what she’s buying before she buys it. It means that the price of game development itself has to drop.

And that changes the dynamic of the games industry, probably permanently. The storm will not pass.

The “Freecore”

Publishers need long-tail revenues to avoid betting the farm every time they go to market. Activision figured this out a long while ago in merging with Vivendi so that they could get access to that World of Warcraft money. Electronic Arts also saw the light and jumped in feet first by acquiring Playfish. So, too, did Disney with Playdom. Many mid-tier publishers have not.

In mobile and tablet, lots of games are released into the app landscape for prices ranging from $0.99 to $4.99 but then disappear. The ones that remain on top of the Top Grossing charts are usually free to play, like Clash of Clans, Dragonvale and CSR Racing. Many of these are not great games, but what they lack in smarts they make up in offering themselves for free on the understanding that maybe 1 in 20 players will ever get around to paying anything.

The upshot is that you get a lot of okay games trawling users and finding the few who like the experience enough to buy something. That mechanism is one that an increasing number of big game makers are looking at, and wondering if they can be a part of it. They want to find the hardcore gamers who will not be put off by free to play. They have to. Their livelihoods are at stake.

But does that freecore really exist?

“Core” or “Hardcore” describe a type of gamer that has not significantly changed since Doom, who has a fixed set of values about what games are. Core gamers are very vital, often the kind of people who power Kickstarter games and indie successes like Minecraft and Steam. They are passionate and believe in gameplay innovation as a key value. They also believe in the idea of objective fairness. A core gamer prefers to have ground through a game to get the special sword as a badge of honour than to buy it. He considers buying his way through shameful in terms of cultural status and legitimacy.

That core market (which is an umbrella term for a much more complicated landscape) buys a lot of games per capita and is very influential. It serves the function of the evangelist. Many in what I call the muggle market take their cues from whatever the core is excited by, which helps propel a Call of Duty or a Borderlands 2 to success. However the core by itself probably (by my own rough estimate) comprises no more than 20-25 million players worldwide. Whereas the muggle console market is easily 150 million or more.

Free to play is no threat to the core (outside of massive multiplayer games), or for the game developers who focus on it. Mojang software (of Minecraft fame) or TellTale Games (of the Walking Dead) can rely on the audience to stay where it is and keep buying games on PC for many years to come. This is great news for Steam, and it’s not too bad for platform holders like Nintendo either. There’s enough room in that end of the market still for retailing to work, at least for first-party (i.e. published by the platform holder) games.

However free to play is a big threat to large parts of the muggle market. It is much more likely to fragment for reasons of price and so to be attracted to free to play games. And for the mid-level publishers who are used to using the core as a springboard into the muggle market, that represents a massive problem. They often have no idea how to talk to muggles, so if the core gamer is not interested in their free to play proposition then they have no way to really market them.

Core gamers seem perfectly happy to watch the rest of the industry burn as long as they get their FTL, Torchlight 2 and so on. Those are the games they want at the price they want to pay, with the culture that they want to see reflected in their games. Free to play is of zero interest to them, and that situation is likely to remain in the long term. In a sense, many of them would prefer if the games industry got smaller, stopped trying to pretend to be Hollywood and got back to its roots. They want to see what’s happening at PAX, not E3.

So AAA publishers who have used the hardcore as a springboard want them to become a freecore that fills the same role. But the hardcore is not interested. Those publishers can try as much as they like to make big splashes in the market with graphics and sounds and all the rest of it, but there’s nobody really there to take that message in.

This leads some to say that companies like Kabam and Kixeye are the future, that they will either find the new hardcore or create it. Maybe. I think core gamers will simply become the sub-culture that they want to be and promote many smaller developers that reflect its values. I think free to play will continue to go from strength to strength, anointing many new developers and publishers and it does so. I think the next generation of consoles will prosper with a combination of first-party big-budget games and also working with those new free-to-play publishers.

But the current mid-level publishers? The ones who can’t sink low enough to make free to play games and can’t control their own destinies? Those companies will be devoured by the storm.