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Sixty to Zero
by Randy OConnor on 02/21/12 03:55:00 pm   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.


When my parents were dating, they sometimes went to Disneyland.  No season pass, no bank robberies to pay for a night in the magic kingdom.  It used to be pretty cheap to enter Disneyland.  $3.75 to get into the park in 1971.  (For comparison, a movie ticket averaged $1.65 at the time.  So Disneyland has always been pricier than a movie, but not eight times as much!)

Now to enjoy some attractions, that required more money.  Like a carnival, you bought tickets, then walked around and made your choices.  The best rides were E-tickets, and you paid the most for those.  The Matterhorn, the Monorail (zooming around the park at 40mph!), and the Submarine, each cost 90 cents!  If you wanted an A-ticket ride (the smallest experience), 10 cents got you on.

But Magic Mountain, a competing Southern California theme park, changed the amusement-park-pricing game when they opened in 1971, charging a flat $5 entry fee, which let you go on all the rides.  Pay more than Disneyland to enter, but once you're in, you're in.  A decade later, in 1982, Disney did the same thing.  And people were willing to pay the higher entrance fee.  Disneyland, world-renowned, became a premium commodity just to enter.  Since then, every year the prices have risen, nonstop.

Old Disneyland sign

The game industry is going the opposite way with pricing.  Lower and lower prices, but more of them to contend with.  I would say this is because there are now hundreds of thousands of games to choose from.  There are mega blockbusters, oldies are being brought onto new platforms, and there are indie efforts that we each feel so personally invested in, knowing that we as an individual, are valued by the maker.  Oh, and there are casual games, mods, movie tie-ins, awesome student-made games, serious and political games, and probably several other categories I'm ignoring!

With so many choices, maximizing number of players is more important than anything else.  Get as many people into your carnival just to see the rides.  If they haven't heard of your ride, why would they pay beforehand?  Once they arrive, show them your cotton candy and awesome spinny-death-cage.  In this age of anything, everything, everywhere, getting thousands of people (or millions! [Nice job, Temple Run]) to even try your game seems to be the important part.

People are willing to pay for value, but they have to be aware of it.  With so many games to choose from, how do you find and decide upon value?  Free seems the way to do that.  Temple Run's successful methodology says that players will love the game once they play it, and then enough players will lay down money for additional value.  Goodwill adds even more value to their coins; they already got enjoyment for free.  Angry Birds is famous, they don't need to give the game away because people know through others that the value is there.  (Though they also have the free version to further entice uncertain gamers.)


So where do we go from here as individual developers?  What do I take from the concept of free to play?  The idea that there are thousands of games to choose from, thousands of carnival rides, and why not offer a free spin on mine to nab more players?  Is that good business-sense?  What's expected of a game that I put out for free?  And why put out a game for free?

I believe that offering your professional game for free is so radically generous, that you as a developer have the right to do whatever you want to a player before the pay-wall.  After the pay-wall, you have a responsibility to your player, they are choosing to be a paid customer, and freemium core loops that abuse the player for money are seedy and despicable.  But before a player has paid, you can do whatever the heck you want.  You might risk your player/developer relationship or the chance they will want to pay you in the future, so be wary, but before the pay-wall the player has not supported you yet, it is completely your choice.

I know some developers who were discussing limiting a game option in the free version (such as being unable to turn music off).  Pay the dollar, and, in addition to a plethora of other tools, you can also turn music off.  Another developer thought this was aggressive and confrontational to the player. Yes, I agree, but the game is free, the developer is under no obligation.  I am planning on making a free game soon to promote myself and to test a gameplay idea.  This upcoming free game is going to have prominent main menu promotions for my other games.  Because it is free.  Perhaps if it is received well I will offer a paid version with cool gameplay options and removal of ads, but the free version is as much a testing ground for me as it is an advertisement for my paid products.  Who knows if it will even work for me?  I may return to this blog bitter and broken and wrong.

This new world of free is strange.  We have these massive digital carnivals with slides and swings and haunted houses and you can run right up to them without paying the Disneyland entrance fee.  But carnivals are annoyingly hit-or-miss, and most don't seem very lucrative.  If you want to succeed, pay close attention to how much you give away and whether your premium rides are worth the E-ticket.  You want players to return, with cash in hand.

Randy is an indie developer/artist who just finished Waking Mars (due out March 1st!) with Tiger Style Games and also makes his own games, namely his iOS masterpiece Dead End, which you should totally buy for a dollar!  You can also follow his rambling on twitter.

Some interesting sources/reading material on Disney ticket history:


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Dan MacDonald
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I think the difference between Disneyland and a random unknown game on an already overly crowded distribution channel is that Disneyland is a brand with decades of momentum and generations of awareness. You could argue that the lower price early on was what enabled Disney to build it's brand and later charge a premium for it's product.

Randy OConnor
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I completely agree that my little game is on an entirely different plane from Disneyland attractions, my point is more diffuse, that the industry is changing its model.

I tried to find out if Disney had a slow start that was built upon by allowing entry at low fees, and I don't think that was actually the case. I think that it was only because the model that Magic Mountain started didn't really exist when Disneyland began.

I think amusement parks didn't really exist in the same model as they do now, but Disneyland was successful from the start, with apparently 30k visitors on its first day, double the guest list. It's fascinating to read about its development.

james sadler
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Interesting comparison. Having grown up here in SoCal I've been to Disneyland probably a couple of hundred times, and I even worked there for a short time a few years ago. Comparing Disneyland and Carnivals to the game industry I think is actually an even better analogy then you meant to put out there. Carnivals have always been a rather seedy and sketchy place for entertainment. The audience always knew the proprietor was trying to make sure that he could suck as much money out of the patron that the patron was willing to spend. That's business in one of its ugliest forms. There is a good reason for this behavior though. Carnivals travel from place to place trying to earn enough money to get them from one place to the next and keep their employees fed. Disneyland offers a premium service to those paying to get in. Yes it costs a lot, ridiculously a lot, but one has to understand all the things that happen, all the people they employ to make sure that each paying customer gets the standard service they expect.

In gaming I see the same thing arising. People talk about free games, but try to sell the audience on gizmo A. At that point the game isn't free, it is freemium. It isn't letting the guests come into the park and see the rides (that's called a trailer), it is letting the guests onto the rides for free and then telling them halfway through that they could pay X amount of money to continue the ride or make it go faster, or get off and get back in line.

In the end it all comes down to the target market. Trying to sell a premium game on iOS probably wont do well, just as a freemium on another platform wouldn't.

Randy OConnor
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I'm glad the comparison worked for you! I have been to Disneyland a bunch of times myself, though I'm not a SoCalian. I really do love the experience of just being within the park, and recognize how different it is just to walk around compared to Magic Mtn, where I only visit for the coasters, not the ambiance.

I picture Disneyland like Skyrim or Arkham City or Just Cause 2. There are layers upon layers embracing the player for one premium fee that's totally worth it. But I wonder if freemium isn't already working its way into other platforms. I mean, TF2 is F2P! I'm not thrilled on most accounts, but the market is certainly changing.

Alex Leighton
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A "free" game isn't free if you have to look at ads, and I feel that marketing a game as being free yet using the game to try and sell people something is just as deceptive, if not more so than many of the other tactics being used by free to play developers. I would rather pay full price to a developer who is being honest with me about what I'm getting for my money than get a "free" product from a developer who is trying to sneak his hand into my pocket when I'm not looking. Just my two cents, feel free to dismiss me as a nut.

Randy OConnor
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Thanks for the thoughts. I wouldn't dismiss you as a nut, but I would switch your placement of quotations. I am making, by a monetary definition, a free game. You could argue it isn't "free" because there's a cost to experience it, and that cost is dealing with advertisements.

When I watch Hulu, it's free technically, but Hulu is getting paid. They are getting paid by advertisers, and I'm dealing with the cost of time to watch ads. In many advertising situations I don't mind, because I tune out ads or think how much I detest them. I'm incredibly super-duper anti-advertisement in the sense that I detest advertising that is attempting to persuade me without a real argument. Burger ads that show me a delicious looking burger and the price, that's fine, but add all these witty characters and plots, it may be amusing, but I learned nothing about the product.

But when I make a game, say you enjoy it, would you like to know more about my other games? You are playing my game already, and as long as I'm not deceiving you about my product, I think it's okay to show you what else I've cooked up. My free game will hopefully be arguments to purchase my paid game. It's really hard being a self-promoter, but if I want to pay rent (and I do!), I have to ask you for money somewhere. I want my free game to be just as worthy of your time, but more in the sense that I want to make something that I think will be fun. Dead End was fun after a couple weeks, but I spent months longer on it, making it worthy of costing money. I'm not planning on that with this experiment.