Free-to-play developers need to stand up for themselves

    Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Eric Seufert

    In late January, something completely commonplace happened: a random blogger wrote a scathing indictment of free-to-play. In this specific incident, the blogger was complaining about EA’s latest Dungeon Keeper game, but the game in question wasn’t really important: he used the same tired arguments and comparisons that every anti-F2P blog post before his had.

    Having read dozens of articles like the blog in question, I skimmed the page, checked off a handful of phrases on my anti-F2P bingo card (“crack dealer”, “Skinner box”, “evil”), and closed the browser tab. Give that the article was just the most recent manifestation of an endless stream of free-to-play criticism that will never be quieted, I assumed it’d fade into obscurity in a day or two.

    But this article was different; it didn’t disappear after a few hours. In fact, the discontent it provoked raged in the comments of Hacker News for a week, generating hundreds of responses — almost all of which were predicated on some emotional belief that the free-to-play model is fundamentally exploitative.

    But how could the overwhelming majority of responses to the article take such an unfavorable tone when market metrics signal just the opposite — that consumers love free-to-play? (According to analytics firm Distimo’s 2013 year in review report, 92% of revenue for the Games category on the US iPhone App Store was driven by in-app purchases in 2013. Consumers clearly and overwhelmingly prefer free-to-play games to paid download games; why, then, is the bulk of internet commentary about free-to-play so vociferously negative?

    The answer is that, because they’re either too busy or simply don’t care to engage in internet debate, free-to-play developers don’t actively champion the free-to-play model (there are a few exceptions: one is DeNA director Ben Cousins’ recent GDC presentation, “Is Your Business Model Evil? The Moral Maze of the New Games Business” .

    One could argue that coming to the defense of the free-to-play model in the comments sections of blogs is a waste of time — and, largely, it is. But the near-total lack of evangelism for the free-to-play model by developers causes deeper structural erosion to the app ecosystem than simply allowing critics to appear victorious in pointless internet debates. By not proactively championing the free-to-play model, on their own studios’ blogs and in industry publications, free-to-play developers allow their critics to dominate the entire conversation — and thus the public’s perception of the model.

    This is obviously a bad thing for free-to-play developers: it allows the negative stigma attached to purchasing virtual goods to remain alive and it undermines the enjoyment that free-to-play games provide millions of people every day. Of course negative internet commentary, even on mainstream sites like Gamasutra, likely hasn’t materially impacted the growth of the free-to-play model, but that’s not the point. If there’s a discourse on free-to-play, it should be balanced, and at the moment, only the critics of free-to-play have a voice.

    It goes without saying that free-to-play’s detractors are entitled to their opinions about the model, and some aspects of free-to-play games are certainly fair targets of criticism. Free-to-play critics should absolutely be afforded a public voice, but there’s no reason that their voice should exist alone when so many people prefer the free-to-play model to paid downloads.

    Free-to-play developers shouldn’t back away from articulating the merits of the free-to-play model — and not only through quantitative arguments (like citing user base sizes or daily revenue metrics), but with qualitative arguments too. The crux of the free-to-play model is choice: players are no longer forced to blindly take €40 bets on games but can experience them for free and enjoy them to whatever extent they want, whether that includes in-app purchases or not. Why shy away from advocating for a business model that is so much more friendly to consumers than the status quo?

    In the spirit of celebrating the merits of free-to-play, I have organized an event taking place in Tallinn on April 25th called F2P Rocks!, in which a panel of free-to-play veterans from Rovio, Remedy, and Grandu Cru will systematically refute and rebut the most common arguments against free-to-play as part of Estonia’s ICT Week. Tickets to the event are free (although registration is required), and it will be live-streamed from the event’s website.

    The purpose of F2P Rocks! is simple: to add balance to the dialogue around free-to-play and to prove that internet trolls and cranks can’t contend with the overwhelmingly pro-consumer qualities of a model that promotes, above all else, choice.

    Eric Seufert is the Head of Marketing at Wooga and previously worked at Grey Area, Digital Chocolate, and Skype. Eric’s book on the freemium model, Freemium Economics, was recently published by Elsevier. Eric also runs Mobile Dev Memo.

    Jealous woman angry with husband photo by Shutterstock.