Author’s Note: This is third and final part of a three part series in a look at the rise of F2P in the West. I will take a hard look at the path to a F2P MMO market and what it means for gamers and developers alike.
Part III: Trust
What is the purpose of a video game company? Is it to make money, develop games, or is it something greater? I believe that video game companies are Trusts between those that make games and those that play games. Saying that video game companies are just a business or just a company that makes games ignores the very real bond between gamer and developer. I remember going to camp and having to do the ‘trust fall’. Anyone who has ever gone on a work retreat probably knows what I’m talking about. A small group of people go up a platform and fall backwards to each be caught by the group. Each person has their hands tied in front of them before attempting the fall. If there is trust, then everything works smoothly, but if one is hesitant or afraid there is the wild swinging of arms and elbows; it usually means more is injured then just pride.
Zynga is the maker of casual games like Farmville, Zynga Poker, and Mafia Wars. The games are predicated on the fact that they can be played for free. When the gamer wishes to play more or to do things more quickly they need to buy micro-transactions; which is to say it is a subscription-less model. The strength of the model is that a game or company can have a far larger amount of eyes that a subscription-based model on its product. People will naturally stick around for a product they believe they are getting free.
Two things became quickly apparent in the aftermath of Zynga’s IPO. One, the company had been grossly overvalued by themselves and various stock analysts and Two, the various management heads were all unloading stock options and abandoning ship. Listening to various opinions, Zynga’s problems were many. From a business that was more entertainment driven than tech company, which is much more populist driven. Zynga also had a problem with horrendous working conditions and tyrannical management. Worst of all, profits made business decisions. Games are entertainment and as such a certain consideration has to be made for whether or not the customer enjoys the experience. While it might pay short term dividends to fleece your customer, in the long term its bad business. Most importantly Zynga’s rise and subsequent fall was a picture perfect portrayal of the fickleness of both the consumer and the developer.
One thing gamers, writers, and developers need to have a better grasp on is the economics of MMO’s. These games have become enormously expensive beasts and the business model of spending large sums of money to try to do everything is untenable. Game costs are already spiraling out of control. Not only can games not continue to attempt to do everything, it’s a disastrous business model. I remember reading how Funcom was aghast at how few games they sold of The Secret World. Their in-house estimates or hopes had been between 500K to a million units sold. I remember reading that and being befuddled that Funcom had thought that a niche title like The Secret World would have sold so well.
Game Informer had an interview [G.I. 235, p.43] with the founders of Riot Games, makers of League of Legends. They were asked about the free-to-play business model and they said “I think free-to-play is one of several business models. The whole appeal of free-to-play to us is there shouldn’t be one-sized fits all model. Free-to-play isn’t the answer for every game. It really comes down to the content itself and finding a model that provides players with the most choice and the most value. In some cases that will be free-to-play as we know it, and in some cases that will be novel ideas that we haven’t come up with yet.”
Gamers and Developers have alike have lamented the days of yesteryears without considering the cause of their demise. According to an article on the Escapist, “Leaving couldn't have been an easy decision. BioWare has a stellar reputation in the industry both for the games it makes and as a place to work. Not to mention they were fans before they got hired. ‘It was my dream job’ says Tobyn Manthorpe, who joined the company to work as an artist on Baldur's Gate. ‘I was psyched’ agrees Dan Fedor. A technical artist, he gave up a job with a prominent Manhattan media company, an office overlooking Times Square and half his salary to go to BioWare. The job turned out to be everything they'd hoped. Fedor remembers: ‘I was elated for at least a year or two. It didn't matter what I was doing or who I was doing it for.’ Manthorpe found himself shut in a room with three other guys inventing the game that would become Neverwinter Nights. Both were quick to tell me that they would be happy to work there again. Yet they made the decision to leave. They each have their reasons, but there are some common themes. Chief among them is the problem of growth. Veterans like these remember a different game industry, one in which a team of less than fifty could make a high-profile game. They lived through BioWare's growing pains, as it became a multinational corporation and was ultimately acquired by EA. As the company got bigger, so did the budgets and, importantly, the teams. These developers lament the lost esprit de corps that followed. Fedor describes the good times: ‘I loved working with certain people, and it didn't matter what we were doing. We could be in the deepest shit, trudging through Vietnam, and the fact that I had people who had my back-that could carry me pretty far.’ Remembering his time on Mass Effect 3 multiplayer (itself a small team), he adds, ‘The core group of us was under fire constantly and it was nice to be able to turn away from the computer and chuckle to each other and say, You know what, this is crazy but we're going back in there.’” More than a decade later and yet the story of Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer is eerily similar to the story of the birth of Rare’s Goldeneye multiplayer. The things we love, whether they are graphics, music, story, or any other facet of a game, demonstrate the need for larger developer teams and thus a dilution of the final product. We cherish the old ways without realizing that it’s the very same upgrades and innovations we enjoy now that make it impossible for games to be made as they used to be made.
In the end to look at video games as tech, or a piece of software is to miss the point entirely. In many ways video games and the companies that develop them are akin to Hollywood actors, directors, and screen writers. While a history of successful films are often the measuring stick in regards to salaries, the highest paid actors are rarely the best looking or most talented; they are the ones who have best formed a bond of trust with the audience. It is not Brad Pitt, Bruckheimer, or the Scotts’ that bring audiences to the seats, rather it is the perception that they only put their names on excellent products; they have established a bond of trust that hasn’t been broken. Rue the day though, when an audience feels that it has been lied to, and watch the storm that follows.
F2P is not the savior of MMO gaming as some would have it be but it brings the possibility of choice for both gamers and developers. It’s no longer necessary for every game to have a subscription level where the game is turning a profit. Some games will benefit from having both or just F2P while other games won’t survive on either model. It’s important for gamers and developers to look at the business side with open eyes. Developers can’t shun F2P simply because it looks like the death of their game. Quite frankly it might be the exact opposite and gamers will not benefit from every game being F2P, there is simply not enough pie to go around for everyone. MMO’s failing is bad for gamers as much as it is for the developers whose company made them. Consider it as if it were a country. The more people who are making a lot of money, the less tax everyone pays. In regards to MMO’s, the healthier the MMO world is, the more people are likely to take chances, to make the unusual, and the more the money guys are likely to fund the dark horse.
I have tried to be even-handed about the rewards and pitfalls with the F2P model, both from a business standpoint and a gamer standpoint. While we can predict trends from historical models, life rarely fits into square holes; only time will tell if the rise of F2P in the West is a boon to the struggling MMO industry or ultimately the beginning of the end.