FreeToPlay.biz The Business and Design of Free-To-Play Games

1Feb/087

Top 10 Free To Play Growth Killers

In the interest of playing devil's advocate, I thought I'd throw out 10 reasons why free to play might be slower to succeed in the Western world as it has been in Asia.

While I don't necessarily believe all of these will inhibit F2P's growth, one of the slides in my GDC presentation this year is to do with the challenges F2P faces - so this should help fulfill that requirement.

1. Virtual Property "Ownership"

The term 'virtual' may not have a strict legal interpretation, but if anything it means that the thing being described is NOT whatever comes after the word 'virtual.

- Ginsu Yoong, Second Life’s legal counsel, Linden v Bragg

Despite virtual property's ill-defined legal status, developers have had no qualms about starting byzantine in-game economies driven by the exchange of real money for virtual land, clothing, furniture and much more.

Some developers, like GoPets CEO Eric Bethke, have attempted to get out in front of the virtual property legal issue by defining their own "Avatar Bill of Rights." But most of us have not been as proactive and instead seem content to leave it up to the courts to decide how to define and deal with our users' virtual property.

As precedents regarding virtual ownership are set, the growth of some F2P products may be curtailed as the legal burden of dispensing virtual property increases.

2. Slow Broadband
On the issue of net speed, there remains a huge disparity between North America's broadband ISPs and Korea's military-grade internet provision.

The net effect is that free to play games like Maple Story can take 1-3 hours or more to download in North America, while Korea's 45mbps network cuts the same download to a paltry 10 minutes or less.

It’s fair to say that we won’t soon be getting such high download speeds - but the North American market might have already found a way around the issue. With the launch of streaming game services like InstantAction and the proliferation of Flash as a full-blown development platform, downloading entire game clients become less and less the norm.

3. Poor Advertising Strategies
Some products in the F2P sector have come to rely heavily on advertiser support in order to keep their offerings free for the majority of players.

A recent OMMA article that claims advertisers are taking the wrong approach when handling virtual worlds. And as the populations of virtual worlds appear to be prematurely plateauing, advertisers may be starting to sweat.

But there is hope if advertisers change their strategies to suit the unique challenges virtual worlds present. As Worlds In Motion put it:

...themed events, branded avatar clothing, and representative personality appearances are finding success and opportunity in worlds like There, Habbo and vSide.

4. MMO Overload
From Maple Story to Silkroad Online, there is no shortage of MMOs in the free to play space. In the same vein, there is an abundance of virtual worlds such as Second Life or Kaneva. It seems as though the vast majority of new free to play game since 2005 have been virtual worlds or MMOs.

Perhaps it’s the very reason that these games have proliferated in the free to play market; MMOs and virtual worlds are inherently more inclusive than an FPS. Still, it would be a shame to see the free to play space flounder due to constant reiteration of the same genres and themes, turning away players seeking a different experience.

Of course, games like Kwari are looking to change that, but it’s too early to tell just how well they will catch on.

5. Rising Development Costs
With more prominent developers announcing plans to take advantage of the free to play model, the days of games fueled by ramen noodles and nights in the basement could, once again, be history. EA's upcoming Battlefield Heroes is the latest big budget free to play game, signaling that the big publishers aren't content to sit back and let Far East imports eat their lunch.

If the consumer makes the jump from 2D to more advanced 3D graphics, it could mean the end of the visually rudimentary worlds and Flash-based free to play games as market leaders, making way for the mainstream big budget games.

6. Second Life Slowdown
Second Life is the Apple Newton of virtual worlds. It was here first, but isn't the best representation of the potential of virtual worlds. However, it still occupies a place in investors' minds - akin to a coal mine canary, warning of impending danger.

And while investors took note as Second Life soared to the top, they're noticing its decline as well (active user hours were down 5% in November). There is concern among some that Second Life's time might be up, and that’s not a good sign for potential investors in the free to play space.

7. Watered Down AdverWorlds
With their lower barrier to entry and great potential to spin money, an slew of less innovative products are beginning to hit the market. Hardest to ignore are adverworlds like Build-A-Bear, Rush Zone, BeBratz, BarbieGirls and their ilk - marketing spend thinly disguised as entertainment.

The consumer's willingness to pay money for virtual items in a world where their avatar is little more than a target for advertising will be tested by products like these.

8. Unsanctioned Secondary Markets
Then there’s the issue of gold farming. With websites like IGE operating independently of game developers and establishing secondary markets for game currency and items, it’s not just traditional MMOs that are being subjected to this kind of treatment anymore.

What’s worse, while gold farming might fuddle with World of Warcraft’s player-driven economy, some developers believe a secondary market allows players to skip the middleman altogether - a potentially fatal issue for free to play games who survive on item-based revenue streams.

The recent launch of publisher-sanctioned Live Gamer is a step in the right direction for devs and pubs looking to reclaim lost revenue.

9. Limited Payment Methods

We have hanging on our wall a user who sent a $5 bill in a $15 fedEx package.

- Craig Sherman, Gaia Online

While other territories enjoy a plethora of tailored-to-the-consumer payment methods, North America has embraced relatively few.

SMS would surely be nearly as popular a payment method here as it is in Europe if our carrier surcharges weren't in the range of 50% a transaction. Landlines - an expensive but very secure payment option in China - might also be popular with some services.

GoPets has 90 different payment systems worldwide, catering excellently to foreign payment preferences. Nonetheless, consumers still have trouble getting money into their favorite North American games.

10. Kids Only Games
The current offering of free to play games caters nearly exclusively to the under-25 set. An NPD study released last year showed that while 91% of online gaming among kids aged 2-17 is free to play, by the time those kids graduated high school, the boys had moved to sixty-dollar console games and the girls dropped out of gaming entirely.

In the core gaming arena, Nintendo has found a way to appeal to young and old alike. Free to play's appeal among adults relies on the proliferation of products that do a Nintendo-quality job of bridging the age gap or target older demographics only.

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13Nov/079

Games Trail Music in iTunes style Revenue Model

B-Side reprinted this article on 5 Alternative Revenue Streams for the Music Industry. (I'd link to the original article, but B-Side "cited" the source without a link, so I can only link to their repost.)

In any case, the article outlines 5 revenue models for the faltering music industry. They are:

  1. Free (ad or sponsor supported)
  2. Pay What You Want (donations)
  3. Pay By Popularity (price increasing with popularity)
  4. Subscription (Rhapsody style music services)
  5. Music Tax (ISPs add tax to offset industry losses = bad idea)

The article puts forth these revenue models after asserting that "iTunes isn't the answer," but I'd say that it's a darn good start. iTunes was at least partially responsible for weening me off music pirating entirely (kids and declining music savvy also deserve credit). And while some of us in the game industry like to snicker at "old media" such as music and its antiquated business practices, the game industry is behind the music business in at least one way:

The iTunes model hasn't been applied to games yet.

We're still out there trying to get people to buy the whole album, rather than just the tracks they want. Services like Steam and episodic games like Sam and Max are great steps forward for the industry, but neither one allows consumers to instantly purchase and enjoy only the portions of the game they desire, like iTunes did for music.

One way to stop people loading up their Nintendo DS's Revolution R4 card with 100 pirated games from BitTorrent is to give them all those games "for free" and charge a capped micro license based on which games they play and for how long.

For instance, if I play 10 minutes of Pokemon, 2 hours of Touch Darts and 50 hours of Puzzle Quest*, I would then be billed something like 10 cents, $1.20 and $20 (or whatever the cap for PQ would be). Couple that with electronic distribution's removal of COGS and you're right back to the same profit margins you already enjoy (on titles that cap out), with the added benefit of monetizing lesser played titles that would otherwise have been pirated.

While this may be new for traditional AAA games, casual games already have a fledgling version of this model courtesy of Double Trump's Micro License scheme. Their PlayOn Arcade site has the details, for those interested in creating an iTunes-esque service for big budget, retail games.

* These are actual figures. I finished Puzzle Quest. :)

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28Oct/071

Food Fight Facebook App To Gross Over $6 Million

Game developers the world over continue to explore the free to play model, whether it's a large-scale MMO or an ad-supported casual game. But one of the more interesting free to play experiments of late comes from Facebook application developer David Gentzel, a 24 year old originally from Roanoke, VA. Mr. Gentzel now calls San Francisco home where he is a developer at SocialMedia, marketing guru Seth Goldstein's rapidly growing "Social Advertising Network."

David's free to play experiment is the incredibly popular Food Fight application.food-fight1.gif

When the game first launched on Facebook, Food Fight players could sign up to receive a daily allowance of virtual cash that could be spent at the Food Fight cafeteria to purchase one of dozens of available food items. Players would then virtually "throw" said item at one of their Facebook friends. If the recipient had the food fight application, a small image of the item would appear on their page.

But recently, Food Fight's the resourcing model changed, which is when it became interesting from the perspective of free to play revenue models.

As of mid-September of this year, a player's lunch money account isn't cleared at the end of every day - it's persistent - like a real bank account. Additionally, the daily stipend given to each player was removed, replaced by a model where players earn virtual cash by answering short marketing surveys about a wide range of products. Each multiple choice question takes just a couple seconds to fill out with a reward of one dollar of lunch money per question answered. Interestingly, players earn a higher payout when they answer the same question the same way down the road, an attempt to value accurate answers more highly than one-offs.

food-fight1.jpg

Marketers pay for player responses to their surveys, creating a nifty free to play revenue stream and making Food Fight the definitive social networking application for SocialMedia. Seth Goldstein is understandably thrilled about the "craplet" (his words), saying in a recent Business 2.0 article:

People really like to throw piles of poop... So you price the poop high and people have to answer a bunch of questions to pay for it. That's the future of Internet advertising: throwing shit at people. Literally.

That is it. No scoring, no winners, and no end. Nonetheless, a very successful idea.

How successful?

It takes a bit of conjecture to figure out, but here's our back-of-the-napkin revenue estimate:

  • There are 36,257 active daily Food Fight users (among 2M registered FF players)
  • Assuming each daily user answered just two surveys (reality is likely higher, as the lowest priced item is $2 - requiring two surveys to be completed)
  • Assuming each survey response cost a marketer 25 cents (reality is likely lower, but Facebook polls already charge clients 25 cents/response)
  • This would result in $18,128 of revenue per day
  • Or ~$6.6M of annual revenue for SocialMedia, from one app

That is no small potatoes for an application that likely cost less than $100k to develop.

Since Food Fight introduced surveys, food prices have increased significantly as the game gets balanced. Prices for food items range from $2 to $11 virtual lunch money dollars. For instance, at $10 lobster is significantly more expensive than most items with only Bubble Tea having a higher price tag.

Consider the following price comparison from June 25th of this year till October 26th, a four month time period.

  • Haggis = $1.75 / $3.40 (194% increase)
  • Orange = $.50 / $2.30 (460%)
  • Banana = $.50 /$3.25 (650%)
  • Sucker = $.25 / $2.30 (920%)
  • Shrimp cocktail = $1.75 / $3.40 (194%)

So according to these numbers Food Fight items have increased in value by an average of 484%. However, in less than a minute a player can answer enough survey questions to buy even the most expensive item - keeping the game easy and fast to play, while deriving more and more potential revenue from the same virtual items.

Going Forward
Given the fad-ish, viral-flocking nature of social networking apps, it will be interesting to see if Food Fight can maintain and grow their numbers long enough to start capitalizing on this potential revenue stream. In the meantime, SocialMedia is using Food Fight as a beta test for their social advertising network as a whole (and a host of similar apps) - electing not to charge for most, if not all, of the marketing surveys they host. (F2P.biz's request to SocialMedia for clarification on the "revenue stream, on or off?" point was not answered before this article was published).

Regardless of when SocialMedia turns on the money tap, it's clear they're onto a high-ROI free to play revenue model that traditional game developers could do well to emulate.

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