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Zen Bound Dev: We're "Mistaking Retention for Quality"

An independent developer argues that current measures of games' "success" aren't very helpful.

Like it or not, free-to-play is here to stay -- at least for the immediate future.

It's proven particularly popular in the mobile sector, where developers and publishers quickly discovered that the best way to encourage players to download something is to offer it for free, then charge for things later via in-app purchase. Consequently, we end up with endless reams of press releases boasting how Mobile Game X has surpassed 100 million downloads, and a Top Grossing chart made up almost entirely of games and apps that cost absolutely nothing. Both of these metrics, while impressive, are becoming increasingly meaningless with each passing day.

For a while, it looked as if the independent development sector was going to flock to mobile platforms and stay there -- the relative ease of development plus the enormous potential audience looked like a dream come true for small-scale developers hoping to get their games noticed. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way, and free-to-play is partly to blame.

Writing for Develop, Jani Kahrama, CEO of Secret Exit, the developer of popular iOS game Zen Bound, pondered the fact that indie games development and mobile free-to-play are seemingly contradictory terms.

Secret Exit's Zen Bound came out as a paid app in 2010. Would it be successful if it came out today?

"I can't help but wonder if a successful free-to-play developer is an indie any longer," notes Kahrama. "You'll need VC funding, a publisher or a developer partner for the hard launch of your game. I do not expect many indies to sit on war chests with hundreds of thousands of dollars reserved for paid user acquisition, or an active existing userbase of millions to cross-promote to... In other words, depending on a publisher or external funding is well at odds with the 'independent' part of the term 'indie.'"

Kahrama also cites the problem of "annoyance by design" as an important but largely unacknowledged problem mobile development is currently suffering -- in other words, adding what is euphemistically referred to as "friction" in order to subtly (or not so subtly) nudge players in the direction of payment options. This can take a number of forms -- difficulty spikes to encourage the purchasing of powerful items; energy bars that require players to pay to continue playing immediately; the use of "hard currency" to mask the true cost of in-game special items or features such as continues.

"With addictiveness, retention and monetization as the keys to fortune, it is no surprise that all current tools and processes are concentrating on improving those three metrics," says Kahrama. "I cannot deny that the games are improving when measured by those three attributes -- the outrageous revenues generated by the top F2P titles are a testament to that. However, what I consider worrying is how the industry is mistaking retention for quality."

Nimblebit's Nimble Quest was an excellent, addictive little game that required genuine skill -- and yet it didn't prove even a fraction as popular as the company's more simplistic, mindless games like Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes.

To put it another way, Kahrama is pointing out something that is probably self-evident to anyone who has played a mobile or social game recently: just because something has a lot of users or makes a lot of money doesn't necessarily mean it is good. In fact, in the case of a free-to-play game, it's often more the result of good retention and monetization strategies -- psychological tricks, more often than not -- than genuinely good game design. For just one example, compare, if you will, games from the early days of developer ngmoco to what they're doing now; worlds apart in terms of creativity -- and not in a good direction -- and yet the company is now considerably more successful than it was back in the Rolando and Dr. Awesome days, with appalling titles such as Rage of Bahamut still riding high in the Top Grossing charts months after release.

"A great mystery novel captivates the reader and keeps him guessing, engaged and turning the pages to reveal the mystery," Kahrama explains, hypothetically transplanting the current trends to the field of books. "A free-to-play mystery novel is in a room where the lights go out unless coins are inserted. The pages actually repeat the same sentence over and over again, but there is a lollipop glued to the beginning of every chapter. If the book is left on the table, its LED lights start blinking. It is disheartening that instead of writing better stories, the industry is focused on tweaking the intervals of blackouts and lollipops."

The main trouble, Kahrama argues, is that old bugbear: discoverability. Free-to-play games that have effectively bought their visibility through paid user acquisition (and which enjoy a double feature on the Top Grossing charts if they can convince people to part with their money, too) blot out any chance up-and-coming independent games have of success, and mobile users who are less savvy to the tricks that are being played on them have been trained to expect a "free" cost of admission with in-app purchases to such a degree that some analysts are now predicting the demise of paid apps altogether in the next few years.

This has led many good-quality games to suffer, with a notable example being Rocket Cat Games' Punch Quest, which failed to acquire a viable number of users as a paid app, then struggled with visibility after a switch to free-to-play, even with a considerable amount of positive press attention and word of mouth surrounding it.

Rocket Cat Games' excellent Punch Quest struggled enormously with its business model thanks to how fickle the free-to-play public are.

Kahrama predicts that after the influx of indies into the mobile market in the early days of the App Store, there'll be a shift away from mobile as a primary target market for this type of creative developer. Mobile will remain the domain of those companies who are experienced at providing free-to-play games, and who are good at user acquisition, retention and monetization; indies will go elsewhere -- to Steam and the Humble Store, Kahrama suggests, since it's become clear recently that going it alone is not always practical.

This will lead to a potential problem, though; Steam and Humble will then face bandwidth issues, and both run the risk of encountering the same discoverability issues as the App Store. Indies will then look for the opportunity to launch in unique places: next-gen consoles and microconsoles, any devices Google and Apple have planned, and genuinely new ways of interacting with games such as Oculus Rift. It also gives the potential for new marketplaces to rise to prominence, perhaps catering to more specialized demands.

"Experimentation and innovation are the undeniable core skill of indie teams, and it's regrettable that this unique resource is being herded towards its antithesis business model," says Kahrama. "Competing against money is clearly not the way to go, but luckily the secret weapon of successful indies is design: ever so often, a game pops out of the woodwork that slaps everyone in the face with its fresh approach, and is loved by a huge audience despite sidestepping high production values and expensive marketing budgets." Kahrama cites Minecraft as the most obvious example of this, but Crayon Physics, World of Goo, FTL, Journey, Papers Please and numerous others also fall into this category. Developers shouldn't get complacent, though; while RedLynx's Trials series was respected for some time, the upcoming mobile version Trials Frontier chooses to forego pleasing players in favor of the quick and easy free-to-play route.

"The one thing in common with all the above games is that they were designed to make their users happy," concludes Kahrama. "[This is] a quality that I value highly, and find sadly lacking in much of the current mobile game offerings. Any platform that does not do its best to embrace and promote such experiences is none the richer, no matter the monetization."

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