Don't be frightened by free-to-play, urges GREE's David McCarthy

Embracing the 'next age' of gaming

Don't be frightened by free-to-play, urges GREE's David McCarthy
David McCarthy is a member of the Developer Relations team at GREE. He has over ten years of experience working in the videogame industry and has previously worked for Edge magazine, Rockstar games, and Salomon Smith Barney’s telecom and media investment banking team. He is also the author of Game On!: From Pong to Oblivion – The Greatest Video Games of All Time.

Maybe it's just me, but it feels like this whole free-to-play thing is still a little bit controversial.

In spite of all the free-to-play games riding high at the top of the charts, it still seems to be a topic that generates fervent passions, extreme opinions and plenty of column inches (even more now that PocketGamer.biz has asked me for my opinion, of course).

It feels like a lot of developers, and a lot of gamers, are worried about what exactly free-to-play means for them and what it means for the games that they love. So it feels like the only uncontroversial thing that can be said about free-to-play is that free-to-play games seem to be doing pretty well right now.

Call me controversial, but I'd actually go a bit further.

The switch to free-to-play marks a transition that's every bit as significant as any other in gaming history: every bit as important as the switch from coin-ops to consoles; from 2D to 3D; from offline to online. And as with the passing of all those other ages of gaming, a new era inevitably brings with it a certain amount of anxiety about what happens next.

So it's only natural for people to worry. But if this industry has taught us anything, then surely it is that while we lament the end of one age, we should embrace the next one with optimism. I've seen the future and we have nothing to fear: everything's going to be okay.

For a start, the arrival of free-to-play doesn't mean the end of pay to play. You'll still get to play all those games that you used to love. Just because Halo came along, it didn't mean games like DoDonPachi disappeared.

The world keeps turning. Bangai-O is still brilliant. More than that though, and contrary to what you might have heard, free-to-play is not, actually, inherently evil. It's just another way of making games, for people who perceive the value of those games a little differently.

Old fashioned values

We used to perceive value in putting a coin in a slot and playing until the aliens shot our ship down; then we perceived it in paying a fiver so we could copy a cassette before returning it to the shop; then we started handing over 40 quid (or 60 bucks) on the understanding that games would last 20 hours or more; or paying 20 quid a month so we could pick up 10 orc hides over and over again.

Well, now there are players – an increasing number of them, from all sorts of backgrounds – who perceive value in paying for things in games. They perceive that value because they are getting items that let them show off to their friends; or even just because they like the game and want to support the people who made it.

This isn't something that's going to happen in the future; it's happening right now. When I came back to the UK from Japan at the end of last year, it felt like coming back from a different world – a world in which all of the major videogame publishers and developers were already generating a huge part of their revenues from free-to-play.

While news articles over here discussed the creative bankruptcy and general decline of the Japanese games industry, developers over there were devoting their creative energies into a revolution that nobody over here had seemed to notice.

But now western markets have caught up, and business is booming. And that has quite significant repercussions for this industry. Free-to-play is fundamentally going to alter the shape of the industry – is already altering it.

Free-to-play is not just an increasingly large chunk of the industry; it is also teaching developers and publishers new things – about player psychology, and data-driven design, and monetisation among many others.

And developers and publishers will undoubtedly take what they've learned in free-to-play and apply it to the old games business. (In fact, it looks like EA already has, according to recent reports that EA president Frank Gibeau has yet to greenlight any singleplayer game.)

Freedom from tyranny

I think that's actually a pretty good thing for the industry. For developers who really understand free-to-play, it's a business model that frees them from the tyranny of hand-to-mouth, per-project handouts from publishers, because it gives them greater control over their revenue streams.

It also gives them a more direct relationship with the people who are playing their games, allowing them to tailor the content accordingly, giving their fans more of what they love and less of what they don't.

But that, of course, is just the business case. As my friend Simon Parkin put it to me when we were chatting about it at Develop this year: "You've made the business case, but what about the case for creativity?"

Look who's talking

Well yeah, people tend to talk about the business case a lot when they talk about free-to-play. Partly that's because it's only after you understand that business case that you can begin to innovate within it.

You can start, like the industry has already done, by adding a social layer, for example, making it easier for people to enjoy playing with friends. But that's just the beginning; once you've got the business model worked out you can then make games that are interesting in all sorts of different ways.

And that's why, actually, I don't feel like I need to put the case for creativity at all. Because when it comes to free-to-play, the games speak for themselves.

Games about horses, about fashion, about cars, dragons, farming, city-building, Smurfs, gambling, dating… These are games that speak to diverse audiences and encompass an ever-expanding range of experiences, and on GREE we are nurturing a gaming ecosystem that reflects this incredible biodiversity.

We've got gardening games, fishing games, romance games, card collection games, puzzles games; we've got big brands and indie hits; Metal Gear Solid and Moshi Monsters. On networks like ours, there's an entire spectrum of games for gamers to dip in, sample and play around with until they find the game (or games) that engages them.

Why don't you join them? You never know, you might like it.