GWJ Conference Call Episode 191

Conference Call

Alpha Protocol, Red Dead Redemption, Alan Wake, DDO, The Emerging Free to Play Market, Our New Producer, Your Emails and more!

This week we have some healthy, loving debate about the free to play model inching its way into AAA games. We also announce our new producer for the show! If you want to submit a question or comment call in to our voicemail line at (612) 284-4563.

To contact us, email [email protected]! Send us your thoughts on the show, pressing issues you want to talk about or whatever else is on your mind. You can even send a 30 second audio question or comment (MP3 format please) if you're so inclined. You can also submit a question or comment call in to our voicemail line at (612) 284-4563!

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Show credits

Music credits: 

Intro/Outtro Music - Ian Dorsch, Willowtree Audioworks

metro - (b-sides) - www.workbench-music.com - 0:26:10
cosmos - (b-sides) - www.workbench-music.com - 0:52:50

Comments

So Jonathan edited this show? If so, good work! And welcome.
Rob, you were totally in the home stretch for your 200th edited show achievement. You're missing out on a lot of points there.

Re DDO free to play, I'm not surprised they've done so well with revenue. I'm not paying monthly, but I have picked up some adventure packs and a playable race and class. The daily deals are fun to browse. What you buy you 'own' forever though, and I won't be buying much more. I wonder how their model will sustain in the long run.

Rob, you were totally in the home stretch for your 200th edited show achievement. You're missing out on a lot of points there.

Yeah well in the end I just had to collect too many god damn episodes! I say screw the achievement, if they wanted me to collect them all they shouldn't have put in so many!

I started to wonder earlier this year if I would ever make it to 200 edited shows, and for a while there I thought I would, but I am really happy with the run I had and really happy with what Jonathan did with this episode.

I could see a campaign game like Batman being cut down to basics, what it needs to be a complete game, and with gameplay addons expand or give a new flavor to the experience. My example here would be the recent Bioware games, without any of the DLC they still function perfectly well as full games, but the new-purchase bundled or paid DLC adds characters, weapons and side missions.

It's hard to think of games that could be arbitrarily butchered into episodes, as most games that tell a story aren't constructed that way. Starcraft2 is one example where they had 3 campaigns, one for each race, but instead of going smaller and cheaper, they went larger and more expensive.

I had a dream last night that I was in Alan Wake. The funny thing is that I haven't even played the game.

I think you guys were kinda talking about two different things in the free-to-play discussion. Free-to-play in the sense of many MMOs and Facebook games means you could theoretically play the majority of the game (potentially hundreds of hours, depending on how much free time you have) and never pay a cent. The way I hear the business model explained, in cases like that the people who don't pay are essentially there to enhance the experience for people who do.

Taking a single-player game like Arkham Asylum or Alan Wake and breaking it up into cheaper chunks isn't free-to-play, it's episodic. And making the first chunk free isn't really free-to-play either, it's just an episodic game with a demo. I sort of think that the free-to-play model doesn't really translate well to games that have an "ending," because then either you can get through it without paying in which case no one pays, or you make it so frustrating to play without the paid perks that you might as well not have a free version at all. Free-to-play seems better suited to open-ended types of games that rely on multiplayer to keep you coming back.

Well, that's sort of why episodic usually doesn't work, isn't it: most of your audience falls away after the first few episodes. Most people don't finish full games, either, but the publisher already has your money whether you finish or not so business-wise it doesn't matter. Take all those people who got partway through but never finished a single-player game and then divide the amount of profit the developer makes from them by the amount of the game they actually played, and all of a sudden it gets a lot harder to make ends meet.

The reason why DLC works is that you've already paid for the game, and once the engine and the gameplay and the majority of the art assets and stuff are finished, it's relatively cheap to develop another couple hours' worth of game to tack onto the end and sell as DLC. (Or chop off part of the game just before release and squirrel it away to be sold as DLC later, but that's another topic.) You take the price of the core game away from that equation and try to make a business model out of building a game to sell ONLY as small downloadable chunks, and it doesn't tend to work quite as well.

And again, that's all still based on a model in which everyone is paying. Whether you sell it all as a packaged deal on a disc upfront or in smaller chunks as DLC, it's still not the same thing as a true free-to-play model where paying anything at all is entirely optional, and if 20% of your player base is paying you're doing better than most. Totally different animals there. There are very few types of games in the AAA range that I can ever see truly succeeding with that kind of model, and they tend to be the type of games (MMO, FPS, possibly RTS) in which a large player base is beneficial to the experience to the point where it makes sense to allow even those who aren't contributing to the developer's bottom line to play a major portion of the game's content, in order to keep those who ARE paying coming back.

Glad to see the Western gaming scene finally making use of the F2P business model. The concepts behind the model is quite sound, so it doesn't surprise me that it should work there as well as it has worked in the East Asian sphere.

As the podcasting crew has probably now noticed, there are a lot of intricacies to it that's hard to explain to someone who hasn't experienced a working, enjoyable game of it firsthand, and it's hard to explain how it works when your opposite is trying his best to make a case against it. This is the future of gaming. It is inevitable, and it is good.

My take on the whole single player thing is that F2P is not a kind of model that'll work all that well with it. Episodic content may work, but that's not free to play.

The economic principle behind free to play can loosely be explained through the concepts outlined in this book:

http://connectedthebook.com/

Basically, you gain mindshare in the gamer population by making your game free to play, gain goodwill by making a good game, and then depend on the principle that a gamer's inclination to spend a particular segment of his finances a month doesn't change, even when he's playing free games.

Another way to look at it is to look at F2P games as platforms rather than games. You make the game, lure people into spending time on that platform, and then sell them things that will enhance a experience they already enjoy on that platform. It's vaguely similar to how console manufacturers regain lost income through game sales.

The problem with using this model on single player experiences is that a single player game isn't much of a platform. You won't normally spend 2 hours of every day for 5 months playing just one single player game, particularly of the likes of inFamous or Red Dead. It gets old.

There are single player games in which this might work. Sins could probably make it work. Civ might. Elemental might. GalCiv might.

The primary problem with applying the model to these latter games is that the likely gamer audience that's into these games are perfectly willing to drop $60 into those games already, and lowering the financial barrier isn't likely to expand consumer mindshare significantly.

What scares me most about F2P with paid content is the imbalances that said paid content would create among the player base. It works in the MMO genre because stuff like gear, which is built into the game, already creates imbalances. But I wonder how a F2P version of a game like L4D would work in terms of revenue generation. If it's just costumes, characters and stuff, that's fine. But as soon as the guy paying more gets a better weapon, or a new special infected to play with, I'm out. It becomes an arms race to keep up and spend more money. With the way it works now, everyone pays the same amount and gets access to the same content, with the only imbalance being your skill. I'm not interested in playing MP games where the outcome is even somewhat determined by the amount of money you shelled out.

Dysplastic:

Such an occurrence represents a failure of game design out of a lack of understanding of why the F2P model works.

F2P models rely on critical gamer mass and time-commitment. You like the game. You spend lots of time on the game. Suddenly, you have $60 in your pocket spare that you didn't spend because you've been playing this game so much (and not other games). Might as well spend it on a costume, right? After all, you spend so much time playing it.

Store items that create player segregation works against the goal of generating positive gamer mindshare and gaining hours of real playtime.

A store item must be something that everyone (or most everyone) would want to have, but not something that erodes enjoyment of the game itself. Playing the game without spending any money whatsoever must be enjoyable enough that people will want to spend time on it, and thus generate social pressure into pulling their friends into it as well.

New producer? What about Rob?

So if I understand that right, it's counterproductive to put exclusively for-pay high powered items in a F2P game. That matches what I've seen, I don't recall seeing a for-pay item that was anything but a convenience or cosmetic item.

I think Larry has the right of it. To firm up my own position on the matter, I think free to play is going to grow into a fairly large and profitable industry segment, but it's never going expand into traditional single player games. There are not nearly enough hooks in games like that to get the kind of money out of the user base they'd need to justify the astronomical development costs. You can augment the price per game with pay-for cheats and DLC, but you won't be selling enough funny hats and luxury items to make up the funds lost jettisoning the $60 shelf price.

Alloids, DDO, LOTRO, Maple Story, League of Legends and games like them will continue to get traction and do well, but I don't see that model expanding beyond specific kinds of games. Free to play is simply not a universal solution.

Off the top of my head, the only single player games I can think of that would work well with a free-to-play model would be: Civilization, where purchased content could greatly expand your options so far as leadership and the tech tree are concerned; StarCraft, which could expand in similar ways (and, to be clear here: I mean the single-player portion of the game only); and Rock Band, which is sort of the quintessential game-as-platform LarryC mentioned above.

If Rock Band 3 were a free downloadable title that came with a small collection of songs, or some credit system that allowed you to choose a small collection of songs to begin with, it could hook players with its free content while offering a plethora of piñatas songs for sale in its store. Essentially, this would be the model they have now without the up-front cost of the game (instruments are another story) and with fewer songs packaged into the base title.

LarryC wrote:

Such an occurrence represents a failure of game design out of a lack of understanding of why the F2P model works. Store items that create player segregation works against the goal of generating positive gamer mindshare and gaining hours of real playtime.

Good analysis, which I agree with, and presents a hopeful, best case scenario for the model that could definitely work. That being said..

F2P models rely on critical gamer mass and time-commitment.

I agree with you here also. But what kind of games does that leave us with, among western gaming audiences? I agree with Certis that I don't see it translating to SP games, and it doesn't fit your time commitment requirement. Why buy armor for a game you're probably ditching in 5-10 hours?

So what MP games have critical gamer mass and time-commitment in a western audience? (Leaving casual games aside) MMO's, FPS/TPS, and Starcraft, basically.

Other MP genres might have a long life due to a group of dedicated fans, but a relatively small, hardcore audience that would not likely support a F2P model. Or a large playerbase that is quick to move on to the next shiny thing (think GTA4 multiplayer). If you look at this community, the only MP games outside of MMOs that have a large, dedicated following seem to be L4D, TF2, Gears, and Halo.

So, according to your criteria, the next logical step is to create a F2P MP shooter. (Likely a third-person shooter so you can see those shiny costumes). I can see one, maybe two games like that being successful. But where do we go from there? Unless Western Gamers change their behavior, I don't see other kinds of games outside of the casual space meeting the criteria for a successful F2P game, and I think we'll see a WoW-like scenario where everyone wants to play the same one. So while there is room for some growth of the model, I just don't see it really taking off outside of the MMO space - unless the "Critical mass" of gamers required for such games to be profitable is much smaller than I imagine. I understand that League of Legends is successful, but I imagine the development budget for that game was also relatively small.

Great run, Rob! Sorry about the achievement, but it was fun watching you try.

Seriously, thanks. I can't even imagine editing that many shows.

DrJonez wrote:

New producer? What about Rob? :(

Still around, just now when I take a break from the show. I actually get to take a break.

Well, here's the thing. Free to play games are designed to kill other games. They do this by monopolizing gamer time. When everything is free to play, a gamer simply doesn't have enough time to bother paying for a game he might enjoy playing as much as a free game.

Then he's got spare cash he can funnel into vanity items. He might spend the same amount of cash, but he'd have to have remarkable insight to realize that at the point of purchase of a non-free game, and even then he might still back out of it anyway. He only pays for free games that he likes. Once he's paid for a pay-upfront game, he can't take that back.

The landscape and dynamic of F2P games changes the more of them there are. A gaming landscape with a plethora of free-to-play games looks remarkably different from one with just pay-upfront games or one with just one or two prominent F2P games. A single F2P won't monopolize gamer time to the point where it's killing up-front gaming. A landslide of such games might be more of a threat.

That said, Certis is certainly correct in saying this:

Certis wrote:

Alloids, DDO, LOTRO, Maple Story, League of Legends and games like them will continue to get traction and do well, but I don't see that model expanding beyond specific kinds of games. Free to play is simply not a universal solution.

These free games sell because they are platforms for gaming. They suck your time, and then offer that time up as a service to other gamers - free online AI that's an actual human. Wouldn't you like to play this instead of against bots?

A single player game doesn't need human AI, and it's not a platform. The F2P concept can be applied to single player games, but it won't result in a business model that actually gives you full SP experiences that are free.

Dysplastic wrote:

So, according to your criteria, the next logical step is to create a F2P MP shooter. (Likely a third-person shooter so you can see those shiny costumes). I can see one, maybe two games like that being successful. But where do we go from there? Unless Western Gamers change their behavior, I don't see other kinds of games outside of the casual space meeting the criteria for a successful F2P game, and I think we'll see a WoW-like scenario where everyone wants to play the same one. So while there is room for some growth of the model, I just don't see it really taking off outside of the MMO space - unless the "Critical mass" of gamers required for such games to be profitable is much smaller than I imagine. I understand that League of Legends is successful, but I imagine the development budget for that game was also relatively small.

Again, my gaming experiences in Asia give me something of an advantage here.

There are already F2P MP shooters here, and I believe they monetize the product by giving you skins and special classes and guns - nothing essential, mind you, just wacky options or even weaker guns. Nothing says "I pwn you," like scoring a 5/1 KD ratio with a peashooter.

Where else can this be applied?

A Worms game needs human AI. That would work.
Kart racers? Yup.
Fighting games? Yup.
Online dance games? Yup.
Sports games? Yes, too.

An MMO-RPG is not the only game that benefits from social presence and interaction. Basically, any game where you can sell humans to other humans as AI is a game where gamer mindshare is worth sacrificing the initial financial return.

Brick and Mortars in a DD world

I'd like to take the opportunity to talk about this again because the last few times, it got buried in a wall of text. I'll try to be brief this time.

Brick and mortar stores don't need to go away in an era of digital download services. Stores like Steam are convenient and all, but there's the small matter of requiring a credit card and submitting that credit information online. That represents a barrier to entry. Not a big deal for a 20-something gamer on a PC. Significantly more daunting for a 15 year old who has spare cash.

Stores can transition from selling disk-pressed copies of games to selling online store credit. It's a lot like managing a bank or, more like, a money-transfer service. You hand money over to Sony, then sell the codes for the suggested retail price.

Gamers come in, buy credit, then redeem them online. It's a lot more secure all around, and the distribution system is reasonably robust.

In the future (and by that I mean the near future), I'm hoping that you can get into a store, buy credit, then use that credit to have that store download a copy of Street Fighter V directly into your handheld, without the need for a physical disk.

This could easily be a console-specific thumb drive instead. Create a proprietary format, then use that format as copy-protection. So the gamer goes into the store with his thumb drive, buys credit, then the store DL an installable version of the game directly into his portable memory, for transfer later into his system's HD.

I think it would be grand to have all your games available right in the system memory, in a 4x5 channel format, similar to how the Wii presents downloaded WiiWare games.

Best of all, no credit card required. All transactions can be carried out with cash.

Am I alone in not liking Alan Wake? I felt like this week's discussion of the game needed a Cory moment à la Flower. It's decent through the end of the first episode, but it takes a sharp nose-dive from there.

Gaald wrote:
DrJonez wrote:

New producer? What about Rob? :(

Still around, just now when I take a break from the show. I actually get to take a break. :)

Thanks for all your hard work. Have a drink on me. or two

Well, here's the thing. Free to play games are designed to kill other games. They do this by monopolizing gamer time. When everything is free to play, a gamer simply doesn't have enough time to bother paying for a game he might enjoy playing as much as a free game.

I'd argue that any multiplayer-based game is designed to do this.

Fundamentally, there's nothing special about a F2P multiplayer game compared to the pure multiplayer portion of any game. If Valve(for example) made the TF2 client free, and just charged for hats, I think they'd have a very viable business model, especially if they manage to get a cash flow going to the community members that create content.

The main problem with most F2P games are that they're terrible games, and the pricing model doesn't change that fact.

cube:

I think you're confusing "cheap" and "aimed at another market" with "terrible."

Many free to play games today are designed to be marketed to people in China, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines, and those markets don't have particularly robust spending populations. The fact that they can support gaming companies at all is a surprise to me.

Those F2P games are heavily researched and made to cater to demands of the playing public. In many cases, they're highly specialized. It doesn't surprise me that a Western gamer might not find them particularly attractive.

ClockworkHouse wrote:

Am I alone in not liking Alan Wake? I felt like this week's discussion of the game needed a Cory moment à la Flower. It's decent through the end of the first episode, but it takes a sharp nose-dive from there.

We had enough conflict this episode. I get what you're saying, though... I haven't gone back to Alan Wake since finishing Episode 2 and I'm starting to question the praise.

Strangely Certis cued into the one problem with Alpha Protocol that I didn't have, the RPG elements. My major problems with it are, naturally, the lack of polish and the fact that the PC version is a poor console port. Both of which can be fixed, but yet again, it's another bad release for Obsidian. And I have a bad feeling that we're never going to see it patched; I haven't heard anything about it and Obsidian seems to have moved on from its relationship with Sega.

Now, where it works. The aforementioned dialogue system, obviously, but where I think it works is that there's no obvious right choice. In Mass Effect or Vampire: Bloodlines, if you leveled up those conversation skills, you get a sort of "easy button" in dialogue which gives you the obvious "correct" response. That's not here in Alpha Protocol and it's more fun. Also, while the dialogue and voice acting can be a little dull (interestingly enough, half the cast is borrowed from Mass Effect), I honestly believe that Michael Thorton is a more interesting protagonist than Commander Shepard. Part of it is writing in general, but the way conversations are structured are better than Mass Effect. For example, if you pick an aggressive dialogue choice in ME, Shepard will bark something like, "THE GENOPHAGE IS AN ABOMINATION!" If you pick neutral for the next one, Shepard's mood suddenly swings and s/he will say "So what else can you tell me about the genophage?" It kind of makes Shepard look like a manic depressive. Thorton doesn't have that problem.

The plot's not groundbreaking, but as we've started to notice in the Alpha Protocol, the endings can vary wildly based on the choices you made and it's possible to completely miss big revelations about characters and situations as you go through it. Oh, and Certis, there's a built-in, almost BioShock-like, reason why Thorton's not a super spy at the start. All in all, Alpha Protocol has a lot of interesting concepts and like previous Obsidian efforts improves on concepts introduced in Bioware games. But, just like previous Obsidian efforts, the execution is terrible. Unless they can get their act together, I'm going to pass on Fallout: New Vegas and the recently announced Dungeon Siege 3.

Edit: And somebody forgot some AP linkage in the show notes.

LarryC wrote:

I think you're confusing "cheap" and "aimed at another market" with "terrible."

I'm actually talking about most of the US localized ones, which are just not good games. By which I mean poor controls, bad gameplay, poor graphics, and a rather terrible translation. I can accept the translation and graphics, but there is no excuse for bad controls or gameplay. Cheap isn't that much of an excuse for this.

There are a lot of good ones out there. Maple Story and Gunbound are two that I played a long time ago. The problem is that a lot of developers seem to have the attitude that if it's free, it should play a certain way. Hopefully, the moves by Turbine, Relic, and others will fix this.

Demiurge wrote:
ClockworkHouse wrote:

Am I alone in not liking Alan Wake? I felt like this week's discussion of the game needed a Cory moment à la Flower. It's decent through the end of the first episode, but it takes a sharp nose-dive from there.

We had enough conflict this episode. I get what you're saying, though... I haven't gone back to Alan Wake since finishing Episode 2 and I'm starting to question the praise.

I've managed to make it into episode three, but I just don't find it that compelling. The story is uninspired (just an amalgamation of a handful of good horror stories) and the dialogue at times can be downright silly. The direction is good most of the time--like when it's trying to tell a story and not snapping to a cuts of a random baddies screaming--and the acting is top notch. But enough of this, see the Alan Wake tread for more on why I think it's mediocre.

Were the first episode (tutorial) free I may have been sucked into buying the second episode, but I certainly would not have been considering the third.

I want to hear Certis' thoughts on the RDR ending and the way it's handled. It would also make a great topic on the show.

Rob: Fantastic work, and absolutely an epic run that you should be proud of. This was the best produced podcast I listen to.

Cory: I'm starting to take your dismissal/dislike of a game as a strange sort of recommendation. Alan Wake, Flower, Red Dead Redemption... this is actually proving quite useful.

Larry, I'm really digging your perspective on this, but I'm still not totally buying in.
I agree with cube that I think that F2P games will not, at least for a long while, be able to match the pure quality of regular games to a point where large chunks of the gaming populace will migrate towards them.
This is especially true in western markets where often the limiting factor in people's gaming is not money, but time. In Asian markets, people can't afford 60$ games, so F2P makes sense. We have the funds, and are always attracted to the new and shiny.

I just can't see why an average American family would choose to play a F2P kart racer over shelling out a one time payment for a much superior Mario Kart.

On another note, how would a F2P game work on a console, where the developers need to pay licensing fees? Has something like that ever existed?

trichy: I'm with you, Cory is an excellent reverse-barometer of stuff I will like or dislike. Very handy.

Dysplastic:

Not that I'm aware of. The problem with F2P concepts in consoles is that they're highly regulated environments and it's an open question what kind of crap Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft will impose. F2P depends on an open platform. Sony might ultimately create their own F2P with Free Realms on PS3, but that's untested waters.

As for the relevance of money, well, I think that that's just an indication of how deep the gold mine goes on this. If a Philippine market can sustain something like Gunbound, what can an American marketplace sustain?

The logic isn't that poor gamers have more time to play. That is not a testable assumption. The assumption is that gamers will have a fixed portion of their income labeled as disposable. If they don't spend it playing a game they buy, then they will spend it upgrading a game they're already playing.

This applies regardless of how much this income is. In fact, studies show that Asians work more hours on average than the average American. This is not a putdown on Americans. It's just something to put that horse down definitely. It's not about how much free time you have. It's about mindshare.

Why would an average American family choose to play a F2P racer over Mario Kart? Well, it doesn't happen as a single decision point. If they have the platform for it, then the first decision point is a free Kart Racer or Mario Kart.

Kart Racer is free, why not try it, right?

Kids try it. Adults try it. It's pretty good. Family ends up playing it for a while and it seems to satisfy everyone.

We have Kart Racer now. Why go to the trouble of buying Mario Kart? Let's just play this until we're done with it.

Weeks pass.

Okay, now we have all this extra entertainment money because we didn't buy Mario Kart. Should we buy Mario Kart?

At this point, mindshare has been largely taken over by Kart Racer. Regardless of their actual relative merits, Kart Racer is familiar, it's entertained the family for a month, and they have fond memories of it. Hey, there's this costume that Anna's been wanting. The costume pack for everyone is only $10. Why not? Hey, let's add the tracks pack, too, for $5. Still less than Mario Kart, right? And we like Nintenduck now, since Kart Racer is so good. We'll gladly fork it over.

Next month, same thing happens.

Next month, same thing.

Before you know it, five months have passed and the family's spent $75 on Kart Racer. If they audit their spending, they might glom onto that fact, but given that they've all played Kart Racer so much, it's unlikely that they'll be sore over it.

Here's an additional, more subtle source of income:

Not all families want Mario Kart enough to pay $60 for it. Some don't have the money, and some don't have the desire. Kart Racer allows them to put as much as they want in and quit out at any time.

Some view this as bad - if Nintendo gives you MarioKart for $60, then they already have your money whether you like it or not, right?

Not quite.

There's that area under the curve that's not being maximized by keeping it at $60. Kart Racers harnesses that little corner, and then turns around and farms those cheapskates into AI bots for its online for its paying customers.

It's similar to the pricing strategy of cutting sales progressively after the initial release, only you maintain the high price for those who want every last bit of Kart Racer content you care to throw at them.

In a sense, you're both selling the game cheap, and high at the same time.

Finally, it ensures goodwill. A buyer who buys MarioKart at $60 and gets burned will be very angry. He may not buy Nintendo next time. A buyer who tries out Kart Racer for free might be a little less likely to try you out next time, but he's unlikely to have any strong emotions about it. After all, it was free.

Why buy armor for a game you're probably ditching in 5-10 hours?

Maybe the future is to not make disposable single player experiences that you actually want to throw away in 5-10 hours?

Maybe the future of single player gaming story is the long-running TV show instead of the one-shot movie, and game mechanics that make you want to come back. Personally, I think it'd be an improvement.