The Business and Design of Free-To-Play Games


Interview: Bob Drobish, CEO True Games Interactive

[Editor's Note: Contributing writer Simon Newstead is CEO & Co-Founder of girl avatar game Frenzoo, a 3D fashion startup.  He can be contacted at: simon at frenzoo dot com.]

bobdrobishphotoBilling itself as one of a new breed of pure play web publisher, True Games Interactive opened shop at the beginning of 2008 is expanding its team and title list. We invited CEO & Co-Founder Bob Drobish to reflect on their first year and where free-to-play social games are heading.

How did you start True Games and how has the first year been?

We began True Games by stepping back and doing our home work.  We looked at player interests, trends in the industry, and the gaps between the two. From that we built a business model and a plan that was compelling enough to attract the best professionals and business partners in the industry.

We were fortunate enough to attract people like Peter Jarvis formerly of NC Soft and Peter Cesario formerly of Namco Bandai.  We were also fortunate enough to attract business partners like Petroglyph, GOA, and Possibility Space.  Of course, one of the highlights of the year was connecting with global media giant UTV as both an investor and strategic partner.  It has been a great year.

Your first game announcement was Warrior Epic.  Are you focusing on any particular type or genre of games?

We have exclusively focused on micro-transaction based online games.  Our immediate titles are exclusively designed for PC.  The two titles that we have announced so far, Warrior Epic (Developed by Possibility Space) and Mytheon (developed by Petroglyph) will be downloadable clients, but with a twist...

From a gamer point of view, are there any synergies between games on your platforms?

Yes, there will be synergies in terms of billing and currency, but we feel that this isn't the most compelling aspect to gamers.  We believe that it is the overall quality of the player experience throughout the full lifecycle of a game that gamers want and need.  That being said, our platform will offer user-friendly, mechanical conveniences that will add to the quality of the overall player experience.

How do you view the economic climate and how that will affect the F2P market either good or bad?

The economic climate is of course challenging for us as it is for all business.    As an industry however, I think that online, micro-transaction based games offer a uniquely compelling entertainment value proposition.  In these economic times, we'd expect that the most cost-effective entertainment options would have an advantage and we think our business model fits into that category.  Gamers do not have to spend $60 up front on our games.  They can download it at no cost, play as much as wanted with no subscription charges; while having options for micro-transaction purchases.

Is True Games targeting a global audience or focusing on US and English speaking markets?

All the IP's that we establish are designed with a global audience in mind. Some western markets we will serve directly. Others we will serve through syndication partners with local expertise; but always designed for and distributed to a global audience. Player interest in games is global.  The internet is global.  So yes, we have developed games from the ground up to cater to players all over the world.

Many believe that old subscription models will give way to pure micro-transaction models, what's your take?

There is an undeniable trend toward micro-transaction based models.  Our research shows that this will continue in the years to come.  However, I think the market will continue (at least for the foreseeable future) to offer subscription and micro-transaction based models; in some cases both for the same title.  We believe there will be a rise in various hybrids of the two forms.  Ultimately, the most successful model will be the one to serve the player best.  This will require extensive testing and research.

What is the most exciting development you anticipate in 2009 for the industry?

The most exciting development we anticipate in 2009 (and what our business is built upon) is the launch of AAA games with a free-to-play model.  Clearly, there are a lot of free-to-play games and AAA games.  However, there is no successful AAA game with a micro-transaction based model in the western market.  To develop this will be our most exciting endeavor in 2009-not just for our company but for the industry as well.


A Lively Failure: 5 Other Reasons Lively Flopped

[Editor's Note: Contributing writer Simon Newstead is CEO and Co-Founder of Frenzoo, a 3D Fashion startup and the writer of the VR Fashion blog.  He can be contacted at: simon at frenzoo dot com.]

Much has been written on why Google pulled the plug on Lively, its 5 month old virtual world.

The consensus, as Google themselves explained, was a need to "focus more on our core search, ads and apps business".

Most observers viewed the cancellation as a tough but correct decision during a major slowdown in its core online advertising market. Many questioned the launch of the service in the first place.  A search company moving into 3D cartoon chat and online gaming without a clear business model seemed a bit of a stretch.

Even Lively engineering manager Niniane Wang admitted at Virtual Worlds London last month there was still no internal decision on Lively's virtual economy model - not a great sign for a public service several months after launch.

However there were other factors that also helped contribute to the demise of the Lively service.  These may not have grabbed as many headlines, but they had an impact, and not in a good way:

1. Rarity (or lack thereof)

Why do World of Warcraft players grind for hours and hours on end to level up or gain a new weapon or skill?  Why do millions of Stardoll fans log in every day just to get their daily StarDollar allowance?  Why do Gaia Online users save for months (or plead total strangers) to buy that one special item at the top of their wishlist?


The cardinal rule: make items rare. I.e. require effort and/or money to acquire items, and those items become highly sought after. Desire breeds addiction, addiction plus good, fun gameplay = many repeat visitors.

Yet the day Lively opened its doors, all items in their catalog were free.  With that precedent set, nothing "felt" valuable.  With that, there was no "desire" factor or goal to strive for - and far less motivation to keep coming back.

This design decision made Lively feel like a "throw away" environment, and users responded in turn.

2. Too powerful and complex an interface

As Ars Technica observed in its launch review, the user interface was difficult.

Unlike Second Life, Lively was designed to be a casual "pick up and go" experience for the mainstream - yet the UI wasn't designed that way.

For example, many users (myself included) didn't know how to make our avatars walk around a room.

Frustrated right clicking, left clicking, and hitting arrow keys yielded nothing. It turned out that the way to walk was to hover the mouse over your avatar, then drag and move the mouse to cause your avatar to walk around.  Not intuitive.

You might think that the way to solve that was to use a more standard control, for example left click on a place and avatar walks towards it. However this brings up a higher order question: Why was walking even allowed in the first place?

Walking didn't add anything to the social chat experience except complexity and confusion.

Lively's competitor and 3D chat leader IMVU recognized this fact and even years after their launch, IMVU doesn't support avatar walking.


It doesn't need to.

3. Too rough, too early

Unlike an unknown startup, anything Google launches to the public is going to attract a day one audience of millions.

That's what happens when you are the most visited web company in the world.  You had better make sure that it's ready. In Lively's case, it wasn't just the lack of Mac support that caused fits among its early user base (although that didn't help).

It was other issues such as lack of an open content program, leading to a dearth of selections in the store on the first day.  A few months would have made all the difference as Google had truly promising and unique content ecosystem in development which could have been a game changer.

It was also many little things:

Anger and confusion greeted a friend who had spent an hour decorating her room, yet returned a few hours later to find strangers had put sofas on the ceiling, tipped over chairs and rearranged plants into a jumbled mess.

All because at launch it was too easy to unknowingly allow others to edit your public room.  This and many other small, yet very frustrating user experience issues surely would have been cleaned up with more time in a closed beta.

First impressions count even more in a spotlight.

4. Audience and art

Lively tried to be everything to everyone right from day 1.

Unlike other games based around a theme - be it anime lifestyle in Gaia Online, music in vSide or 3D Avatar Fashion in Frenzoo (disclosure: this is my product) - Google went for an audience of everyone. Or, as Google put it themselves, "Be who you want to be on the web pages you visit."

This was always going to be an ambitious goal, but it was very difficult to create a cohesive experience with a mix of radically different art styles for the avatars.

In successful services such with Nintendo Mii or Habbo Hotel, there can be plenty of diversity in look but yet a single unmistakable avatar style glues the whole experience together.

However in Lively, you had tiny bears hugging tall skinny cartoon girls, while pigs walked around in circles.

The goal - total freedom of art style - may have been worthy, but put them all together in a chaotic 3D chat environment and the net effect was chaotic and off-putting for users.

5. No profile to call home

It's an irony that a service that pushed the outer limits of web technology, the most basic social web features such as a profile page, were conspicuously absent.

Nearly every successful online game or web community has a profile page or home screen, as the center of the social experience and to build your own virtual identity - be it for role playing or just making friends.

IMVU's profile pages are buzzing with user expression and customization, MySpace and Facebook have built their social businesses entirely around profile pages. Yet surprisingly, Lively, which billed itself as the next step in the "social web," didn't support web profile pages at launch.


Does the demise of Lively spell the deathknell for virtual worlds?

I don't believe so.  Whilst there has been some excess in hype in parts of the industry, for many players abundant opportunity is still there.  The rapid growth of other virtual worlds from IMVU through to Buddypoke and Stardoll and growing revenues seem to bear that out.  Not to mention the massive growth in MMO revenues in the past three years.

However in Lively's case, Google made several big and small mistakes.  Combined with a confused business model and no long-term commitment from the Google mothership, this ultimately doomed the otherwise promising service to brief and inglorious lifespan.

The problems could have been fixed and focus found for Lively.  IMVU's first year was plagued with bugs and issues; but as Silicon Alley Insider put it succinctly, in Google's case they didn't even try.

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