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Free-to-Play: The Lost Generation

December 4, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3
 

The Solution(s)

The current climate of the video game industry has been brought about by a complex sequence of events created by purely evolutionary thinking. Because game developers are actually players at heart, we have a tendency to use any tool we can to stay alive and hopefully "win". However, I think one game may shed some insight on our predicament. Brenda Garno's Train is a game in which players work to be as efficient as possible to "win". Only in the end do they realize that they probably didn't want to.

It's not too late to turn things around, though. There are several things we can do to stabilize the industry. First, let's stop ranking apps globally. When I go on Netflix it doesn't instantly show me the most-watched movie on Netflix. Instead, it shows me movies that I might like based on other movies I've watched. There is still a star rating associated with each movie so I know what to expect in terms of execution, but the execution is secondary to the subject matter of the movie.

As a whole, the game industry is too obsessed with metrics. Games have been called "the cinema of math" but that doesn't give us the right to rule absolutely by the numbers. Games are still art, and as such, we should recognize the qualitative aspects of the medium instead of bowing down to quantitative aspects at every turn. By relying so heavily on metrics, we have begun to remove the art from games.

This is predominantly why we end up with so many clones. When Mario was popular we saw a plethora of platformers, when Doom was on top it started a deluge of FPS games, now the iPhone top-grossing list is full of sim tap-and-wait games.

We need to break away from the metrics; they work in the short term but they eventually fall out. We've seen it happen repeatedly, most recently the "rock band" genre fell apart because the development community was looking at the metrics -- effectively the past -- and forgot to look into the future to find new qualities of entertainment.

The next thing we need to do is spend appropriate amounts of money on the production of our games. The triple-A industry began to fall apart because it lacked innovation. This is because developers were competing on one element. Again, life is a vector and you can compete on magnitude or direction. By only competing on magnitude, production costs ballooned to the point where the probability of turning a profit became too low to innovate.

To put another spin on the story, how about this? The triple-A industry fell apart for two reasons. First, everyone was competing on magnitude, so many of the games were the same (in terms of direction) but each one tried to do "more" than the last; this caused production inflation. Second, the mobile market popped up and offered a plethora of games all delivering experiences in different directions.

Of course, it's not even that simple. The triple-A market has its problems, but it has something the mobile market does not: standards. Part of the reason rankings make so much sense in the mobile market is because there really is a lot of shovelware. In the end, quality does matter. The difference comes when the audience grows tired of being inundated with bad software. Eventually, they'll just do something else. At least the old platform holders had a vested interest in making sure your products reach a certain level of quality.

The iOS App Store is very close, in terms of a "good" walled garden. Yet, we still need something slightly pickier. For example, maybe the platforms should prune the top lists of apps that don't maintain a minimum of a three-star review score. That's still a metrics-driven solution but at least it's based on people's qualitative assessment of the product. Or perhaps we should look at Nintendo's old policy of only allowing developers to publish five games a year for a given platform. The thinking back then was that if developers could only publish so often, they'd put out a better product instead of rushing to market. The same might be true today.

Some of these sentiments may seem like going backwards, and that's possible. I don't have the answers, but I do know that something has to be done to save our beloved art of video games. Free-to-play, with its business model/gameplay hybrid approach is not the answer; it's just an evolutionary response that brings bigger problems to the table.

As an industry, let's grow up. We're not players anymore. Rather, we have become the defenders of the art that we love. In accordance, let's treat it like art and respect direction above magnitude. Then, let's build that into the infrastructure of our platforms as well as our games.

Recent Developments

I wrote this article a while back and have been sitting on it, unsure of where it would ultimately lead. Recently, news has spread about a new clause in Apple's developer agreement, which might possibly restrict third parties from affecting the App Store rankings via external apps. This is certainly a step in the direction of reducing F2P gimmicks.

Many external services such as Free App a Day, PlayHaven, and Chartboost augment organic App Store downloads. Services like Free App a Day can offer more than just augmentation. A scan of the top 100 games -- or even overall apps -- reveals an exceptionally high percentage (as high as 10 percent) of games that are promoted by such services. In many ways, these are an indie developer's dream come true. For a reasonably affordable fee, any indie can put their game side by side with the biggest names the industry has to offer.

This isn't inherently bad, but there are some downsides for Apple. First and foremost, Apple's store becomes less and less relevant as these services grow. App Store chart placement determined your financial success almost entirely as little as two years ago. Now, placement on a top downloaded list on the store is almost irrelevant. Many top-grossing games are not top-downloaded games, and they earn new downloads and sales through alternate channels.

The second thing to consider is that Apple foots the bill for these crazy download numbers. Apple looks at the top downloads and analyzes their value proposition. They'll even contact you as a developer to tack on additional revenue streams like iAd. This means that Apple wants to make the most of its traffic. If third party services like AdMob, Chartboost, or Tapjoy are making all the money, then Apple is essentially funding these companies with its bandwidth and not necessarily reaping any of the rewards.

The final thing to consider is the simple quality of the App Store. If the store remains under the control of Apple, then the top apps will be those that are the best, cheapest, and promoted by Apple -- the most important aspect of which is just being the best. If we are to retain some semblance of "art" in our industry, then we need a system that isn't driven by price, linear charts, or analytical manipulation. We need a system that fosters high quality products and peer-to-peer word of mouth, and it doesn't count if an app writes to Facebook on our behalves.

Conclusion

Our industry, and indeed our world, is evolving at an ever-accelerating pace. The exponential tech curve is influencing everything from games as art to the latest Bond flick. It's important to retain our art, but it's exceptionally hard to do so in a financially competitive environment. Although it would be exceptional to see games return to a simpler time, we may just have to ride out the storm and see how our art form weathers it.


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