Free2Play not so free?

BBC

Having worked in the games industry and in particular around Free To Play (or Freemium, F2P or microtransaction) games the  story that the Office of Fair Trading is to take a look into Mobile & iPad games where children have been running up large bills sometimes into the hundreds, if not thousands of pounds really jumped off the page for me. If only for no other reason that the video games industry does have a habit of being dragged over the coals for it’s content, attitudes, alleged effects on the human psyche etc. So in the spirit of doing something useful here is a quick blog about Microtransactions, their history and how to protect your pocket book.


What do you mean Free to Play?

For the uninitiated F2P started as a gaming trend in Asia some years ago and has become an increasingly popular business model ever since. Making it’s first hop into the European market with sites like Gpotato & GOA.com, it is now a stable of Facebook games, mobile games and MMOs. The basic concept is simple, you register and get access to a basic version of the game for free. However, these games will contain a number of paid options, which depending on the game can be things, such as extra lives, in game boost items, access to additional levels or characters, or even vanity items such as backgrounds for the game, customisations for your characters etc. Often games will have 2 currency types, one you earn by playing the game, the other purchased directly using REAL money.

There are some amazing things to recommend this business model to both users and developers. For users it means you can tailor your experience, only pay for parts of the game you REALLY like or use. This sort of feature has lead to Downloadable Content or DLC becoming a regular feature of major game releases (Guitar Hero, Bioshock, or the infamous Team Fortress 2 Hats.). From the point of view of developers the connected environment and appeal of something for Free means the possibility of more people trying a game, the ability to build an active relationship with a community who are more likely to try your other content and if you get the balance right will invest some amount of money or over time potentially much more than they might on an individual boxed product, as patches to fix issues and the use of DLC can give a game a playable lifespan of years rather than months. Remove the additional costs of fancy packaging and distribution and there is the opportunity for great returns for relatively little investment. Which explains why you see so many of this style of game springing up on a wide variety of platforms.

But there are downsides. Striking the balance in these games for developers is absolutely vital. Give away too much and you have thousands of people playing your game for free, writing rave reviews, getting their friends to try it and somehow you still end up living on ramen in a cardboard box. Set the bar too high and you run the risk of people not feeling like they’re getting value for money, no one playing your game or people just feeling gouged and boycotting all your content; Free players become neigh on impossible to convert or just leave as they feel like they’re being forced to buy items just to enjoy the game or feel they can compete. For users it can be the fact that they find themselves either bombarded with game requests through platforms like facebook, or more often spending more money than they realise on the game over a given period of time as the payments come out in such small values. Ironically I suspect that the OFT will find that the threat in these matters is not from big £70 value items but children paying small amounts to get extra time to play or to gain an advantage to hit the next level.

A great breakdown of the benefits and downfalls of F2P for both consumers & players can be found on Penny Arcade’s PAtv and is well worth a look for both the veteran as well as the novice.

PennyArcade

Tycho & Gabe on F2P

Probably the best know examples in this genre is the publisher/developer Zynga. Zynga took the game world by surprise a few years ago with the Facebook title Farmville, quickly followed up with Cityville, Zynga Poker and a variety of other similarly structured titles which rapidly allowed them to accrue enough assets to overtake Electronic Arts as the second largest games company in the world. These relative upstarts managed to achieve greatness by, not by any creative genius, stunning visuals or breathtaking original gameplay but applying the  principles of business analytics where the company had started.

Embedding analysts in with development teams so the quality and success of a game or element could be judged objectively with hard numbers rather than something far more subjective. As you can imagine with Bobby Kotick and other publishers pushing a utopian myth of video games  as a legitimate art form, dethroning Hollywood and pushing the boundaries of interactive story telling these incredibly successful low budget, low quality titles (low quality in the sense that the graphics, sound and gameplay wouldn’t look out of place on a Sega Genesis) certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons. Not to mention a steady flow of lawsuits and court cases regarding the use of user data, copyright concerns with rivals or falling out with key platform Facebook.

While the can’t be accused of pushing the limits of video game design Zynga has achieved the destruction of the cliché that video games are only enjoyed by kids and 15-35 year old men (who have really geeky hobbies, body hygiene issues and live with their parents) with their loyal fan base of middle aged women.

Bottom line, the important thing to remember here is that is that F2P is a business model, for the games industry and it’s a remarkably difficult one to get right. However, games developers and publishers are businesses and as much the people who make games want to entertain you they do need to make money so they can feed their families. With the increasing power of smartphones and the increase in internet usage it is highly unlikely we will see the end of F2P anytime soon, especially with the ease of phone and online payments and when major MMO titles such as Star Wars the Old Republic, Lord of the Rings Online and CCP’s latest console offering DUST514 openly embrace the model.

How Much is this going to cost me?

So, what are the best ways to protect yourself and your family against huge bills, how can you get the most out of this sort of title and are there any genuinely free to play games out there?

The first question is easily answered as a yes. XBLA, PSN, and online stores are full of demos and free games for you to try and enjoy; King.com, Pogo.com and sites like Kongregate.com, Google play and iTunes App Store allow you to access a wide variety of different titles online for free as they try to support indie developers (Please note this can also mean that the quality of the games can vary greatly); it is also worth remembering that many F2P games are entirely playable without the need to purchase any add-ons. Including titles such as Bejeweled and Zuma Blitz by EA owned PopCap games, Pangya, League of Legends by Riot, Mind Jolt Games, Candy Crush Saga, Words with Friends, Pet Rescue Saga, Panda Jam, Bubble Witch Saga, Gourmet Ranch and many more.

Like anything it’s always worth taking a look at the product before you invest and one of the key advantages of F2P is that you get the chance to try games before you have to put your hand in your pocket. If you enjoy playing a game entirely for free, more power to you, it can be a greater challenge and in its way more satisfying. So it can depend on how much time vs money you are willing to invest and how much winning or advancing in a given game is important to you. If you do genuinely enjoy a title and are playing it a lot please do remember that somewhere in the world are the team of people who helped put it together and your support means the game will go on for longer, have better updates and means that those creative people can afford to eat.

MXL

Now for the tough one

It’s all well and good talking about starving Game Developers but how do you protect yourself and your family from being gamed out of house and home?
Technology is now moving at an unprecedented rate and it can be a strain to keep up even for those living and breathing technology for a living, let alone parents constantly looking at the latest unknown gadget with a sense of trepidation at either the cost, or the impact on their family. In this sort of situation a bit of calm can go a long way.

Like any form of media taking an interest and being involved means you see exactly what’s happening, keep your kids safe and you may well have some fun yourself. If your family is interested in trying a particular game you can take the time to try it first and see if there are costs involved or a little bit of searching online can put you on to the developer or publishers websites where you can see details of the game, FAQ pages and contact details for customer support enquiries. It is also worth looking at the Terms & Conditions for a title as most online games are rated for players 13 and over for legal reasons.

You may also want to investigate :

  • Mum’s Net (Parental Network with advice, discussions and guides. Including from parents who game)
  • Tiga (UK Based group that represents the games industry)
  • GameCity (Nottingham based organisers of Gamecity Festival helping put a human face on the people behind the code)

Education in this sort of situation is always key and you are never to old to learn. 🙂

Next comes issues of cost. Microtransactions are generally pretty micro and large cost items are generally pretty rare. However, these little charges can and do add up so a little careful monitoring goes a long way. So here are some simple recommendations:

  1. Protect your credit card and payment details (I will be doing an advice blog on passwords in the future). If you trust your children with your bank details then videogames may be the least of your worries.
  2. Make use of either a prepay phone or have caps set on their bill. Most phone providers enable you to do this.
  3. If you trust your children with a bit of a budget most online games including Zynga, Facebook, PSN , Penguin Island and iTunes make use of prepaid cards that can be bought in supermarkets, game stores and newsagents.

The last option with the cards use codes so there is no interaction between your bank details and the game, your kids have a budget to play with to their hearts’ content and you have a clear view and physical evidence of exactly what is being spent.

Gaming should be fun and I hope this blog helps make your gaming experiences that little more fun.

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