Lessons learned from free-to-play

F2P Summit speakers share their experiences of the widely-used business model and explain why “it’s not a licence to print money”
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The free-to-play market is now one of the most dominating sectors of video games, but studios are still learning how best to harness the model.

Events such as next week’s F2P Summit go some way to sharing insight, but most developers learn as they go. Of course, most studios are able to take inspiration from those that have already ventured into free-to-play, particularly early adopters.

UK studio Jiggery Pokery was an early entrant into the free-to-play market with its first title GodFinger. As the studio’s Matthew Wiggins tells Develop, it was new ground for many companies.

“There wasn’t much to compare it against at the time, particularly on mobile, so most of our understanding came from looking at some of the early Facebook games,” he said. “We tried a lot of different things to see what worked and what didn’t, which was great for gaining a lot of experience quickly.

Meanwhile, Dan Griffiths of Deep Loot developer Monster & Monster says his team had to do “a lot of research” before the company was even founded.

“The advice at the time was that premium pricing would only work for established brands and franchises,” he said. “We took the advice on board but we still tested the waters ourselves because it's not always easy to know whether the conventional wisdom will apply specifically to you as creators.

“So we released a premium game and a totally free game and we learned the power of a game being at least 'free to try'. Once we decided that free-to-play was more viable for us at that point in time than premium, we started researching the variations on the model to find one that suited our needs and didn't offend our moral sensibilities.”

PERKS AND PERILS

The advantages and disadvantages of the free-to-play model have been well-documented, as much by the globally successful games as the plethora of unfortunate failures left in their wake.

However, Wiggins and Griffiths are keen to highlight two crucial points.

“F2P is great at removing barriers to players trying your game, but that won’t automatically mean you’ll get downloads,” says Wiggins. “You need to work on marketing just as much a development.

“Advantages are that it removes a massive barrier to entry - price - for people to try your game. As a startup, you want to remove barrier to entry as much as possible, and so that’s a great way to do it. There is also a clear and large market for free-to-play games, particularly on mobile.”

Griffiths adds: “The main disadvantage is the sheer number of installs you will need in order to break even on conversions. You'll be going head to head with competing games from the biggest players in the mobile market – there's a lot of reasons why the top grossing apps chart doesn't change much at the top and it's partially due to marketing resources that little companies like us don't have.”

F2P is great at removing barriers to players trying your game, but that won’t automatically mean you’ll get downloads.

Matthew Wiggins, JiggeryPokery

The Monster & Monster dev is also keen to dispel one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding free-to-play: “It's not a license to print money”.

“The opinion among some indie developers seems to be that free-to-play is ‘selling out’ and is viewed with a certain distaste that we don't feel is justified,” he says. “It's merely a business model and it's popularity is down to player preference as much as it is marketing approach.”

THE FUTURE OF FREE

While the free-to-play market seems to be well established, with many game design and monetisation conventions found across a variety of successful games, developers believe there is still room for improvement in how such titles engage their audiences.

Griffiths, for example, believes the in-game shopping experience can still be too jarring in some titles, and his team has been exploring ways to improve on this. In the studio’s Autumn Walk, the in-game store is designed like a tailor’s shop in which players can try costumes on before they buy them.

Meanwhile, ‘impulse buy’ options like Deep Loot’s coin doubler have proven to be effective, because they demonstrate the effects in a visual way rather than relying on a confusing ‘buy doubler’ button.

“Getting players into your shop is difficult to do without being obnoxious but on the same token, in some games I've wanted to buy something to support the developers and then couldn't find where to spend my money,” says Griffiths.

“There's almost certainly a lot more that can be done to make shopping not only frictionless but also more enjoyable. We will continue to innovate in our virtual shops, in terms of what content we sell and also the presentation and player reward aspects – after all, a lot of people treat shopping as a hobby too.”

However, before even planning how to gather that all-important in-game revenue, Wiggins stresses that studios need to budget effectively to continue development beyond launch. Specifically, he recommended splitting your budget into three parts: development, soft launch and post launch.

Jiggery Pokery benefitted from working with Ngmoco, one of the earliest app store publishers. This helped the studio get funding for the game and insight that would help them with future releases.

“It’s really important to learn valuable lessons as cheaply as possible,” says Wiggins, “and working with others who have more reach or experience that you will help that a lot.

“The thing to remember is: don’t bank on your first title being successful. Use it as an opportunity to learn about the model and the market, and build a strong team and process. Leave enough in the tank so that you can move on to a second – or more – games building on that knowledge. Iterate the business in the same way you would the games.”

Getting players into your shop is difficult to do without being obnoxious but on the same token, in some games I couldn't find where to spend my money. There's almost certainly a lot more that can be done to make shopping not only frictionless but also more enjoyable.

Dan Griffiths, Monster & Monster

Griffiths concurs, adding that developers must never lose sight of the most crucial factor: game quality.

“Just because your game is given away for free doesn't mean that you can get away with cheap production values,” he says. “Players who've bought a premium game will normally play it for at least five minutes before deciding if they like it – they've already made a commitment of sorts before they even started playing.

“With free-to-play games, there's no such commitment – it's quite common for players to decide they don't like a free title within 30 seconds of starting the game. So grab your players' attention quickly and then start earning those in-apps through providing a high quality experience.”

Both Wiggins and Griffiths are among the many speakers discussing the future of the free-to-play market at next week’s F2P Summit in London.

For more information and to book tickets, head to www.f2p-summit.com. Develop readers get a 10% discount when they use the code F2P6DEV

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