GSN Games Talks about the State of the Free-to-Play Genre

Kenny Dinkin and Ray Holmes of GSN Games took the stage at GDC 2015 this week to discuss free-to-play (F2P) games and some of the problems that often can arise with this genre. They made a lot of interesting points and discussed some popular pay to play games that could work as F2P as well. The rise of mobile games has brought with it the rise of the free-to-play game, where the game is completely free, but includes in-app purchases that are often required to progress in the game. This free-to-play model has moved far past simple mobile games and has found its way into much larger titles from bigger studios like Sony Online Entertainment, Blizzard and more. At first glance you would think a free-to-play game would be much more difficult to earn revenue, but that just isn't really the case for successful F2P games, Candy Crush is making $1M a day. Because of these hit games in the F2P space, the genre has seen a massive increase, because there are so many more developers scrambling to enter into the F2P space. There are also more failures because it doesn't always mean a recipe for success.

The F2P Risks

Kenny went into further detail of the common ways studios are seeing failures in the F2P space.
  • The first is the UA costs (User Acquire) many developers can't afford to acquire new users.
  • The other is that they may have the retention with the players, but they can't figure out how to properly monetize their game
  • They might be able to earn a little money with in-app purchases but the problem now is being able to keep the players.
All of these are ways in which going into the F2P space presents risks. If you look at the development cost on a game like Monument Valley, it was very significant as they really paid top dollar for the development team. They had a team of eight people and it cost $850,000 to create Monument Valley. There are many developers and studios chasing the AAA revenue and there are also those chasing the F2P revenue, but there is a huge middle ground between AAA and freemium games that is hardly explored, and this brings a lot of potential for new developers to try and take advantage of. F2P sometimes leaves a sour taste is player's mouth, and often times seeing that F2P tag can be a big turn off for them because a F2P game is never actually free, and often times ends up costing you much more than if you were to pay $30-$40 outright for the game. Studios are starting to take notice of this, Apple recently rolled out a promotion the "Pay Once and Play" and Amazon has also talked frequently about wanting to sell games the old fashioned way and charging a single fee for a game. It's smart for them to market games like this because players really don't like in-app purchases and they feel tricked, they also don't like the way "fun" in the game is spread out thinly over time.

F2P Can Be Successful

Ray Holmes made the point to mention that they didn't want to give the impression that they disliked F2P games, as there are some things that F2P does really well, and even though there are players that dislike F2P there are also those that enjoy them, because they are able to fit the game to their schedule, and can make progress in short bursts or when they have time. Kenny Dinkin and Ray Holmes gave a few examples of popular games that are pay to play, but gave some great ways that they could work as F2P. One of the ones that discussed was The Banner Saga. This game is the first part of a trilogy with the second installment slated for sometime later this year. The game is set in viking world, and you play as the leader of two bands of survivors, traveling the map, visiting different places and overcoming obstacles, these obstacles are finished by text based choices or turn-based combat. You have a roster of heroes to level up, you also have resources to balance, and supplies and moral. Ray went on to explain how Banner Saga could work as a F2P game. It could be a mix of Clash of Clans and Game of War, but instead of building a home base the players would roam the map, like in a traveling war game, where they follow the paths within the game and engage in combat. It would be a balance between traveling and camping, and there would be timers on these activities, camping would regain moral, you can travel to try and find supplies, your best bet may be to attacker other players and take their supplies which costs moral. The monetization of The Banner Saga would come from pitting the players against each other, and walking the line between paying to win and paying to advance. This was just one of the examples they gave of popular Pay to Play games that had the potential to work as F2P as long as you gave it enough thought and made sure it made sense for that type of game. There are certainly risks involved with F2P or Pay to Play games, but there is a right way to approach F2P and a wrong way that often results in the failures that some companies have encountered when trying to enter into the F2P market. F2P isn't always a recipe for success, and is not always going to result in the $1M a day that Candy Crush brings in, but depending on the type of game that it is, it can work very well for it.