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The Evils of Upfront Payment
by Krystian Majewski on 11/15/13 08:21:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Here are some thoughts I had recently. We are quick to demonize Free to Play, myself included. But what we tend to forget that the "traditional" model of upfront payment has severe issues as well. Those issues have been detrimental to how games have developed and are still detrimental to what games are today.

But before we go into it, here is a recent presentation by Jonathan Blow that summarizes quite well the argument.

Mr. Blow does an interesting analogy here. He compares the issues of F2P games to TV dramas from the 70ies and 80ies like Knight Rider, A-Team or The Six Million Dollar Man. He claims that commercial breaks and syndication rules made those shows shallow and exploitative. He claims it took the Cable TV Network HBO, which got rid of syndication and commercials in favor of a subscription model, in order to elevate TV dramas onto a more serious, artistically ambitious level of today. He cites Game of Thrones, The Wire and (I think) Sopranos as examples of "good" modern TV shows. For him those are good dramas because, unlike the previous TV dramas, the world does not reset at the end of each episode. Rather, the story keeps developing from episode to episode which results in events having staying consequences and characters changing over time. Additionally, they resort less to "cheap tricks" like cliffhangers to retain the audience past a commercial break. Finally, they are generally more serious and less campy in nature.

He argues that the early TV dramas are like F2P games. Because of their business model, F2P games are shallow and exploitative. They HAVE to apply certain tricks in order to be commercially viable. Therefore, their ability to be artistically meaningful is inherently diminished.

To be fair, I made a similar argument where I mocked the very idea of TRAUMA being a Zynga-style Facebook game. To some extend I do agree with Mr. Blow.

But there are at least two major issues with Blow's argument, the first being historical in nature. While HBO has no doubt been an influence, claiming it was HBO that changed TV dramas is a bit of a revisionist history. In fact, a lot of modern TV dramas still do have commercials and are still used for syndication. Even going back to the 90ies it's easy to point out TV dramas that did not exhibit the exploitative features mentioned by Mr. Blow. Shows like The X-Files or Babylon 5 were syndicated and had commercials. But they had also arcs that spanned multiple seasons and often dealt with serious, mature topics. What changed between the 70ies and today is not so much the business model but the mindset of TV producers and the expectation of the audience. A major catalyst for this change was the TV Series Twin Peaks. It combined the format of a police investigation series with the season-spanning arcs of Soap Opera. It was also directed by a film director which introduced a major shift towards film-like aesthetics and themes. Twin Peaks wasn't the only reason. However it contributed to a gradual evolution of the genre: the audience started seeking out similar dramas and TV networks started being more comfortable with a smarter and more mature approach to make their series.

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks and the discovery of nuance and depth - the maturation of TV drama was not brought about by the change of business strategies.

So a particular business model may modulate but doesn't necessarily completely dictate the potential for artistic value of an individual work. A willing creator ought to be able to use the limitations of it's medium to bring out it's potential. As Nietszche put it so well, art is always about "dancing in chains". The particular issues of the F2P model seem to me to have more to do with the mindset, the goals and aspirations of the people making those games. One could argue that the reason why most F2P games have little artistic ambitions is because it is harder to make those kinds of games artistic. But correlation does not mean causation. It could be just as well the other way around: because there is a lack of successful precedence, making artistic F2P games is hard.

This begs a question - are there perhaps ways in which the "standard" upfront payment model business model for games inhibits artistic expression? We consider this way of monetizing games for granted. What if we have become blind to it's shortcomings. Or what if we have found ways to deal with the shortcomings so they don't even occur to us?

This ties neatly into a different analogy that struck me recently - many modern games (and increasingly other media) bear striking resemblances to US-style superhero comics. On the one had, of course, they actually ARE adaptation of said comics. But in a more fundamental way, the way they market themselves and the way storytelling is structured resembles those comics.

Superhero comics were often designed to create an upfront outrage and sensation - a hype. This is perhaps most evident in the way the design of the covers. Quite often the covers actually had a vital panel of the story on the front showing a major, dramatic scene from the current issue. It hinted at some profound changes - important characters dying, marrying or being in incredible situations. This resulted in a "hook" where an audience might be intrigued in finding out how the details of how the incredible event comes to be and how it eventually resolves. Sensationalist content is being front-loaded to create a high anticipation for what is to come.

US Comic Book Covers


This is, of course, a direct result of the business model. The goal is to make the audience pay for the content before they actually consume the content. In order to do so, comics aim at convincing their audience that the content will be well worth their money. They do so by giving the audience samples of the content and they - of course - don't pick just any part of the story but the most shocking part.

But this has repercussions for the actual storytelling. Every single story needs such a hook. It needs to be crass and "in your face" so they can put it on the cover. Characters need to follow well established stereotypes so every dummy gets what this is about just with one image from the cover.

More insidiously, there is no need to actually provide anything beyond that front-loaded content. By the time the audience buys into the content, the creator already got all they needed from them. As long they deliver that one money shot that was promised nobody can complain. So the rest of the story can be just unsubstantial dressing. With a lot of those superhero stories, you get the impression that the writers first came up with a hook and then reverse-engineered some asinine rationalizations for why it happened and some half-hearted, stereotypical resolution. Ideally, the resolution would revert everything to normal so they can do it again in the future. Superman died about twice now. Batman broke a spine and fully recovered. How many Robins did we go through now?

This kind of storytelling is not unique for comics. Films rely more and more on hype generated by trailers. Many scenes in movies are nowadays made specifically so they can be put later in a trailer. Do you know that feeling where you leave a cinema and feel like the trailer gave away the whole movie? This may not be because the trailer went overboard, it may be because the movie was made just to create the trailer and the rest was just filler.

This is also related to the issue of sequels. It's difficult to hook an audience with a new, unknown setting and characters. It's easy to hook them with a follow-up to a story they are already familiar with.

And no medium is as much plagued with sequels as videogames. Almost every major release nowadays has a number greater than 3 in the title. Because it is much more difficult to sample a piece of interactive experience than to sample a panel from a comic book, videogames rely heavily on the establishment of franchises and genres to provide those hooks necessary for the business model. The rhetoric being always - "it's like that thing you know but better". It's zombies but in space. It's soldiers but with dogs. It's that big game from last year but now even larger.

Sequels Q1 2013

Top 10 selling games of Q1 2013. ALL of them are sequels. (source:

The recent trend of crowdsourcing can be seen as yet another escalation of this model - no longer do we sell games, we sell mere promises of games. We finally got rid of the filler and everything else. We just sell the hooks now. Product may or may not be included in the box.

The results of this market philosophy is profound in any medium. Because what is lost along the way is modestly, subtlety and surprise. All three are difficult and precious in videogames and modern cinema. My best movie experiences were the ones where I had no idea what a movie was about going in. The reason why retro games often feel so fresh is because their modest aesthetics often conceal their richness. Perhaps this is why we are obsessed with avoiding spoilers noways. The only surprises stories provide have become precious and fragile. One sentence can make the added value of actually going to the movie evaporate.

To be fair, I have been harping on comics, movies and games. But it's worth pointing out that both have their fans, who very much appreciate those very qualities I have been criticizing. I can appreciate them myself. This is analogous to, as Blow mentioned, the people who have fun playing Candy Crush or Farmville. The fact that people like something doesn't mean that there is nothing wrong with it and we still may want to look for ways to offer more ambitious alternatives.

But it's not all doom and gloom. As already mentioned, a business model may modulate but not dictate how we utilize a given medium. Going back to comics, the US Superhero comics were just one subset of a much larger genre of comics. European comics, for example, shared many similarities with their US counterparts, but often chose a less upfront appearance. The stories were longer and not necessarily focused that much on a central hook, allowing for more surprise and wonder. Nowadays we have a wide selection of sophisticated graphic novels next to the old superhero mainstays. Superhero comics have evolved themselves.

Tintin Covers

Tintin covers - evocative but a lot more restrained.

So there is hope that games can mature in the same way TV series and comics did. To some extent we already see it happening. Blow mentioned Going Home as an example. I, for one, am looking forward to his own game the Witness.

Shallow and exploitative games are not just the result of a business model. It takes a certain mindset to create them. It takes a different kind of mindset to consciously resist and overcome the corruptive aspects of a particular business model. There are good reasons to be critical of the hubris and exploitation of F2P games. But it is wrong to categorically dismiss the entire idea as evil at it's core. A similar evil lives in the heart of every kind of economy. Even it it sounds ridiculous at this point, In the future, game designers may find a way to use F2P to pursue more artistic goals.

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Kristian Carazo
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"In the future, game designers may find a way to use F2P to pursue more artistic goals."
I agree with you here. I think LOL is a good example of a well implemented F2P model and moving forward I'm sure that more studio will find creative ways to implement F2P.

As a side note, what happened to releasing a demo for your game? I remember when the majority of games had demos... you could try them before you bought them. Doubly so for shareware games that let you play a big chunk of the game before ever paying a dime.

Kujel s
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"releasing a demo for your game" This is a big part of why I support Ouya, demos are a great thing and don't suffer from the corruption issues that so many f2p games do.

Jamorn Horathai
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The folks at Extra Credits gave a pretty good explanation as to why don't modern developers offer demos more often:

It's quite thorough and is something to think about. In summary, the developer has to spend time and effort creating a demo, sometimes it has to be done separately from the main game so it takes a non-trivial amount of effort. However, the demo is only justifiable, really, when the game itself is already good AND the demo is well done, otherwise it ends up convincing the players NOT to buy the game. This is especially bad if the game itself is great, but the demo is only so-so, now you've spent more money making a demo and lost customers... It's an additional risk that the studio takes on, so I guess that's why we don't see more of them.

Ben Sly
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To a certain extent I agree with you. Sequels are a major form of the system getting milked; they are much more integral to the gaming industry than the relatively new fad called F2P. But, I do have a few counterarguments.

I would consider the biggest issue with F2P games that the funding model is substantially affecting the game design. Instead of making the best game possible and locking it behind a single relatively expensive payment, the design must juggle both making the best game possible and simultaneously motivating the player to pay. It's certainly still possible to make a good good game under that situation, but doing that is already hard enough on its own that adding F2P to the mix makes it significantly less likely. That is my understanding of Blow's comments on F2P.

By that understanding, I consider your example of comics not being a particularly good one; they, too, have their funding model significantly impact their design. They are short, cheap and released often enough that their sensationalistic approach is lucrative. It is precisely the same problem that F2P games have: the creators want you hooked on their product so they can keep you paying a steady stream of money.

It is absolutely true that restrictions of the medium are very important components in creating art, but restrictions that are adhered to because they make the artist more money are quite justifiably on shaky artistic ground. It's hard to consider everybody wearing Nike sneakers in a movie because of a licensing deal an artistically important detail, and anyone who tries to justify it in such a manner is going to look either deluded or dishonest; likewise, it's hard to consider cliffhangers before commercial breaks artistically important. It's very possible that the artist can still use these well to make a statement, but it's still going to come across less like an insightful exploration of commercial exploitation and more like O.K. Cola.

Wendelin Reich
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This is the first genuinely fresh and tought-provoking piece on F2P that I've read in a long time. Thanks for that! I think I'm still willing to be surprised by F2P...

Andrey Coutinho
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Extremely good read. Watching the speech by Jonathan Blow were very well spent 50 minutes as well. I have a little bit of trouble with some of Blow's stances regarding quality in general, but nevertheless I understand where he's coming from.

Nice mention to Twin Peaks btw. One of my favorite TV series ever. It's a shame that the second season after the first 10 episodes didn't live up to the beginning, at least for me, probably because Mr. Lynch stepped out of creative control. But his return in the last episode did save the series. What a breathtaking ending!

Robert Green
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While there's some good points made here, I found this line a little disingenuous:
"More insidiously, there is no need to actually provide anything beyond that front-loaded content."
While it might be literally true, in any world where reviews or word of mouth matters, and reputation has any value, not only is that not applicable, the contrary is true - in the long run, disregarding the quality and value of the game is a pretty good way to ensure failure.

I wonder though, how much of what people hate about the sequelitis that the console market suffers from is due to the standard retail price? A lot of the more interesting games I've played in recent years were cheaper, downloadable games, where there isn't such a high bar for visual polish, an expectation of a dozen hours content and a selection of single and multiplayer modes, etc. In fact, Jonathan Blow's upcoming game The Witness is exactly what I'd want to see more of in games - something that people are looking forward to because of the reputation of the person behind it, not because it's a sequel or anything directly related to Braid.

Michael Joseph
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Sounds a bit like "a plague on both your houses."

I think you mischaracterize Blow's argument somewhat. I think the fundamental argument he's making is that the desire to syndicate and the need for commercials (the monetization sides of the "free" TV format) encroaches much more on the artistry of the production than the up front payment models of film and pay channel productions. Similarly, F2P game designs typically have their monetization practices in the players' faces at all times.

It's a matter of degrees. Nobody is saying up front payment models are devoid of any corruption of the artistic process.

The fact that F2P and free TV producers have been/are forced to adjust or re-think their strategies and approaches in the face of superior competition from businesses employing up front payment models is telling. It is the economic reality that is bringing about this change.

So the "both sides have their evils" argument (besides typically being a strong indicator of a weak position for the side employing the tactic) will not convince me at least, that both sides are equally so.

Amir Barak
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I've not watched the talk yet; but it reminds me of the situation with "Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future" show.

Rod Boyd
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One important detail that I think both Blow and this article overlook is that HBO does not use the same "pay up front" business model employed by the games and/or comics they are likened to. The problems of sequelitis and the "hook" requirement stem from the need to convince customers to make one-off purchase decisions on a per game basis. This is not what HBO does. With that in mind (and I say this slightly tongue-in-cheek), perhaps the way to true artistic integrity in the games industry lies in a subscription model where the customer pays a monthly fee for a schedule of games decided by the provider? Each month the schedule might include some well known and popular games, but could also throw in some unexpected titles from unknown developers or genres unfamiliar to the customer for them to discover. You know, the more I think about this, the more I like it...

Andrey Coutinho
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It's a very interesting way to put things. I do thank PlayStation Plus for introducing me to some games I'd never actually try otherwise.

Rod Boyd
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Actually it didn't occur to me when I was writing it, but yes, I was pretty much describing how PSN (and now Xbox Live) already work when it comes to free games with your monthly subscription. I was thinking bigger, such that a subscription service might all but replace individual game purchases, but these offers are definitely a step in that direction.

Justin Pierce
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You bring up some good points, but I think as a response to Blow's talk it's a bit of a strawman argument. I think Blow would agree that business models modulate, not dictate -- hell, I'm pretty confident that if I went back and watched the video again I could pull quotes that say as much. Also want to point out that Blow, as a designer, seems to be focused on singleplayer narrative experiences and I think that context is important to consider -- in his talk, multiplayer and social games seem out of scope (which I think is where good counter-arguments could arise).

I also think it's inaccurate to blame upfront cost structures for sequel-mania. F2P games are naturally more suited to ongoing development of a single title, which is why I think MP games can particularly benefit from F2P, but the issue of sequels is bigger than the business model. It's the familiarity that sequels bring that makes them so safe and that's universal. There may be fewer numbered sequels in F2P, but the F2P market more than makes up for it with spinoffs (Angry Birds Rio, Temple Run Oz, etc) and copycat games and it's because 'it's like bejeweled but with animals' or 'it's like farmville but with castles' is a safe proposition and isn't dissimilar to the sequel propositions. F2P means a lower barrier of entry, but the market is very competitive now and games still need a hook that's just as strong as the trailer/comic cover to keep them playing.

Andreas Ahlborn
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As much as I would like to join Blows rant that F2P is inherently evil, I won´t. There are for sure many factors that count into the Quality of a game`s design but the format is by far not the most decisive.
Budget, Manpower, Innovation, Experience these are far more important ingredients of the mix.

Blow makes the same mistake Ebert/Moriarty made as they argued the "genetic" inferiority of games as a possible artform (compared to literature or movies). If that would be true Comic-Strips as part of newspaper or magazine should be "genetically inferior" to their counterparts which don`t have a similar "restrictive" format. Which can´t be true since there is Fosters "Prince Vaillant", Schulz`"Peanuts" and dozens of other "dailies" and "weeklies" that outperform (qualitywise) 90% of Marvel and DC`s high-priced "Graphic Novels".

David Paris
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Recently the issue I have been feeling with some of the F2P titles is that although you can (eventually) play the whole game for free, the 'normal' user experience is heavily tainted by the model.

As an example, consider Hearthstone and Might & Magic - Duel of Champions.

Now I'll say up front I consider both of these pretty good games in a lot of ways. They have some interesting strategy, balance (well ok, not always), a nice feel, and quite a bit of depth.

However, they also both have matchmaking based on your play success. Which means that if you have a player that is quite skillful, then that player can use their limited resources to advantage themselves up to a rating where they will be matched against nothing but people who have spent astronomical cash on the game. Sure, you may still win 50% of your games, but it is constantly in your face ... you played better than the other guy, but his card options are hugely better because hi, he spent money. And not just a little money, but generally a whole lot of money. I certainly know multiple people who have dropped 100$ on Hearthstone, and still only have some of the cards they want.

I hate that, because it creates a very long term feeling of inequity. One that won't be aleviated by simply paying some marked and set amount up front that _everyone_ pays equally. Because it is entirely possible to sink a great deal of money into these games for benefit, then you will be competing directly against these folks. And it is constantly irritating.

Sure, eventually you'll get past that just with time spent (which at a very terrible conversation rate, equates to money spent), but that means a very very long period of nuisance on the path there. I'd rather games didn't need to bring "a very long period of nuisance" with their business model.

Curtiss Murphy
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Restrictions are good for creativity, until they become too restrictive. F2P crosses that line pretty quickly. I can't imagine a F2P version of Super-Hexagon or Hundreds ...