Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.

As a business model, I very much like free to play.

Free to Play is a direct response to the digitization of PC gaming. It’s no coincidence that free to play is a PC-centric phenomenon.  If we still had a handful of major PC game publications and a major retail presence, there’d be no free to play.  The market adapts, the consumer benefits.

Let’s define free to play:

Free To Play is software that is fully functional and useful/fun in its free form. It’s not a trial. It’s not a “Crippled” version.  It is, ultimately, freeware.  The difference here is that users also have the option, typically within the program itself, to add more features or content to the program. These features and content are completely optional and the user could go just fine without ever spending a cent. Well made freeware makes its premium features “nice to have” but not critical to the program itself.

Migration

Free to Play may have started out as a gaming phenomenon but it just as applicable to non-game software. About a year ago, I outlined to our software unit that all our software was going to migrate to a free to play model. You can see this with Tiles. Tiles is freeware but users can add features to it for small amounts. The base program is compelling on its own. The extras (premium) are clearly “nice to have” but not core to the program (skinning, extra tile filters, etc.).

This week, we’re releasing WindowFX 5, a program we’ve been making for over a decade.  The 5th generation version is free to play. That is, there is no Pro/Plus/Enhanced version. There is only WindowFX.  Users who want premium features can add them in the app for a nominal cost but the application itself is designed to be compelling on its own.

Meanwhile, our PC games are still pretty traditional. The upcoming Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is a $39.95 game. There will almost certainly be a demo version but it’ll be a traditional demo.  Digital does bring some benefits -- we can offer users of the original Sins of a Solar Empire series a $10 discount.  But we are very much looking at the F2P model when we are designing new titles.

Why is F2P taking over?

Simply put, the loss of a retail channel for selling software combined with the dilution of the software/gaming media has meant that publishers now have to rely, more than ever before, on word of mouth to generate revenue for their games.

Ten years ago, if I was publishing a PC game it went something like this:

Visit PC Gamer, Talk to Steve Bauman at Computer Games Magazine, Visit Computer Gaming World, Gamespot, IGN, GameSpy, a couple of others and you were pretty set on the marketing side.  Then you’d make sure your game was at EB, Best Buy, Gamestop, CompUSA, and a few others and you could expect great sales.

But today?

According to our surveys, most users are getting their information from various sources that boil down to word of mouth (Facebook friends, Twitter friends, Forums).  And retail? Good luck getting shelf space for your PC title. 

So what’s the best way to get word of mouth? Give it away. Give nearly all of it away.  Because it turns out that even if only 1% of the users contribute, you can make a killing as long as you have enough players – which is, ultimately, the challenge.  Because if you make it extremely well and give it away, people will talk about it. And that is what publishers are counting on.

So that’s why Free to Play works and will continue to become more and more dominant as time goes by.  In the meantime, I have to go buy a virtual hat and tweet a picture of my character with it…

//


Comments (Page 1)
on May 22, 2012

nt

on May 22, 2012

publishers now have to rely, more than ever before, on word of mouth to generate revenue for their games.

 

While I agree with just about everything in your post, I wanted to specifically comment on the above quote.

 

Even in the days of retail this was primarily how either myself or my friends and friends of friends found out about games. One person would either try the demo or buy the game and then eventually if they found it fun and exciting, they would tell their friends. The friends would pick it up so that they could play with the friend that first tried the demo / bought the game. What sells a video game, even though the sales have moved from brick and mortar to digital, ultimately is still the same. People have to like it and then in turn tell their friends to buy it because it is nothing but awesome-sauce. 

on May 22, 2012

I miss Computer Games Magazine.  

on May 22, 2012

So, how to apply that realization to non-onlinegames?

on May 23, 2012

I don't think this model works for everything, and it definitely doesn't work for me.

 

Since I'm generally smart with my game purchasing, but I tend to go all-in on what I purchase, this is a horrible model for me, and FTP pretty much means an instant no sale.

 

I also suspect the model has a saturation point when it comes to potential revenue.

on May 23, 2012

But we are very much looking at the F2P model when we are designing new titles.

I sense that f2p Demigod 2 will be a hit. 

See, here's the one thing with a f2p game that might be a real challenge for you folks at SD:  scope.  And you'll note I'm only talking about games here.  Just to make an example, let's say you folks decided to take a really small approach with free to play.  And for a second, lets just say that Demigod has no connectivity issues, etc, and is being released as a brand new game tomorrow.  A simple implementation of the f2p model would be to left folks use 2 of the characters for free every week and then rotate characters.  The customer can buy any character to own for like $5 a pop.  Then, you could sell boosts for X dollars for favor points.  Anyway, if you built the infrastructure to support those things, well, that would work and more than likely generate quite a bit of money (more than the traditional just buying the pc game method).

Ok, but that said, scope becomes an issue as, depending on the implementation, you'd need staff to support the game, you'd need to regularly patch it, if you are making money on characters and favor points, you'd need to add new characters and new items, etc.  And to that, I wonder if you really want to create a dedicated team or have a few folks that they only thing they'd do is handle the f2p game.  I'm pretty sure you could find a way to make it cost effective, but is that something you want to be involved in?

Anyway, I'd be thrilled to see you guys get into the f2p (GAMING) side of things.

on May 23, 2012

Chris and I talk about a demigod 2 occasionally. An awesome game.

on May 23, 2012

Frogboy
Chris and I talk about a demigod 2 occasionally. An awesome game.

heh - you love toying with my emotions. 

on May 23, 2012

Whatever works to continue making games I want to play.  I tell you this, if it's free, I will try it out.  I may pass on a thousand games that I am interested in because of price, but if I love it, I may spend $100 bucks on crap over time that is offered to enhance my enjoyment of that game.  I have yet to do this, as the system isn't implemented in games I like yet, but I could easily see myself doing it.  

 

The only thing I wonder about it Modding.  Are companies going to be likely to have mod friendly F2P games when they make their money on small addition transactions?  

on May 23, 2012

I don't like having elements of games locked out on me period.  FTP games tend to cost hundreds to unlock the full game.

 

If you had a dual-track model, where one could pay for the full game as a pre-order and get everything guaranteed up-front, but FTP otherwise, that would be more appealing.

 

 

on May 23, 2012

Alstein
I don't like having elements of games locked out on me period.  FTP games tend to cost hundreds to unlock the full game.

 

If you had a dual-track model, where one could pay for the full game as a pre-order and get everything guaranteed up-front, but FTP otherwise, that would be more appealing.

 

 

 

I think that would be far less appealing, because I would pass on 90% of games in the genres I love due to cost.  I don't want to gamble with my money.  The idea is that tons more people will play and give the game a chance, and if they like it, they will then start spending money on it, and if they don't no loss.  But you are going to get more people playing your game, and even if the average person who plays only spends $1, you might have 1000x more people paying that $1 than you would have had pay $50.  

 

on May 23, 2012

Free to Play works really well in MMO games, like LOTRO for example.  It's far superior to the paid subscription model if you don't feel that your subscription gives you enough new content to justify staying on.  However a lot of the things that you unlocked while on subscription stay unlocked.

on May 23, 2012

Lord Xia
The only thing I wonder about it Modding. Are companies going to be likely to have mod friendly F2P games when they make their money on small addition transactions?

 

Please note that I am not an expert on this part, but typically in most F2P games that I have seen, outside of custom character skins / banners, and the occasional custom map, modding is locked down. The reason for this I can only assume is that with a mod, there is no need to purchase in game items from the developer and therefore they are not getting any money for the increased server load of players that are playing a mod (that have no potential to purchase an item, versus players that are playing the vanilla game which would).

 

... maybe I just made things confusing.

on May 23, 2012

But the issue is that most F2P games are of the social or MMO type.  If a games like Skyrim, Elemental, Civ were to be F2P, then would they continue to allow modding?  I would think that they wouldn't be able to, or to a much lesser degree, if their prime revenue came from minor transactions of mostly cosmetic content.  

on May 23, 2012

Even if the content purchased is more than cosmetic (like weapons that are unnecessary to win, but do make your virtual life much easier), I see two problems with modding.

One is the ability to make objects which are equal or better than what they offer. While they're concerned with balance, you're concerned with winning. Did anyone get an item in Open BattleNet playing Diablo 2? I could grab one sword and then make one hit kills on Baal or Diablo. So why would I want to offer up cash when I can just trade for these crazy ass items?

Two is that it would open their servers to a lot of chaos. They can either allow you to directly add content or to play on mod servers. Mod servers, as mentioned above, are operational costs without income and having someone tinker directly with your programming, or even leaving open windows for hackers, is bad for overall function.

The next best thing I've seen to modding was through Neopets back when. You couldn't mod in new objects, but you could propose new objects and their attributes for a little reward. For example, when they started offering paint brushes, I noticed there was no black. I suggested a black paint brush called 'shadow' because I wanted a 'shadow shoyru'. They not only implemented the idea, but they gave me the very brush of my own conception for free, a little reward for the effort. This allowed the community to constantly feed in new ideas and we were rewarded for it.

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