Is monetisation more important than good game design?

Our Mobile Gaming Mavens debate

Is monetisation more important than good game design?

The final keynote talk at this year's Develop Conference in Brighton saw Barry Meade of Fireproof Games - the studio behind the award winning The Room - play down the need for developers to focus on the business side of games development.

According to Meade, developers should stick to what they know, noting that far too many studios get fixated with how their going to monetise their games rather than focusing on delivering good gameplay in the first place.

Similarly, he added that Fireproof hadn't gone the free-to-play route with The Room simply because no-one at the studio knew about free-to-play.

So, we asked our Mavens:

Are developers wrong to devote time to monetisation, and does doing so risk good gameplay taking a back seat? Or conversely does ignoring the business side of development risk landing a lot of studios in financial trouble?

Will Luton, free-to-play author
You can't make money unless players are coming back to your game repeatedly and seeing value in their experience. Gameplay isn't the antithesis of monetisation - it's a requirement.

John Ozimek, Dimoso
My first response to Barry would be that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Second thing I'd say is that you need good gameplay in order to monetise any game - it's not an either/or decision.

Barry has been lucky enough to create a game that is distinctive and good enough to sell at a premium price; had that been done via a freemium strategy, the result may not have been that different. It's the quality that counts. Always.

Keith Andrew, PocketGamer.biz
I think I should make clear that I don't think Barry was suggesting that it's an either/or situation. Indeed, his main point mirrors almost exactly what Will just said - that none of this matters unless your game is good in the first place.

I can't speak for him, but I think in his talk he was concerned that developers are becoming obsessed with how they monetise the end product throughout development, rather than focusing on the gameplay itself.

The two go together, but I think he was suggesting more weight is currently being placed on the business side of things rather than the creative side of things, and that monetisation should come naturally rather than existing as some planned element determined by analytics.

John Ozimek, Dimoso
...in which case, I would say - quite harshly - that any developer out there that is more focused on the monetisation than the quality and enjoyment of their game is likely to fail.

And, possibly, we need more failures, so that freemium becomes a better experience for gamers generally; currently there is too much variation between games that do it well, and games that do it terribly.

I find it a bit frustrating that as an industry we continue to navel-gaze over what makes a fun game. That should be the one thing that gamers should know how to create.

Graeme Devine, GRL Games
John you're my Monday morning hero.

I think we are seeing some failure though. Look at the falling numbers over at Zynga, which could be argued is a direct result of focusing on monetisation and not gameplay.

If Zynga had focused on gameplay then it might not be second fiddle to Supercell and King, who, I would argue, did focus on gameplay because after all, those are pretty nice games.

To answer the core question. Good gameplay should never take the backseat. The second you think, "hey, this is fun, I'll make it IAP" is the second you should hand in your game designer badge. I think the real question might be Is it okay to think, "hey, this is fun, can I make it better with IAP?"

Keith Andrew, PocketGamer.biz
John - Should the press take a bit of responsibility here?

Is our focus on big earners such as Supercell and King causing developers to get distracted, suggesting they should focus on how to make money before they've made a game that's even worthy of being monetised?

John Ozimek, Dimoso
I wouldn't blame the media per se, as it's only right that you should look at the biggest successes out there, and there are only so many hours in the day.

However, sometimes the big guys are different; for example, Supercell is extremely well funded, and so has been able to spend a long time in development, and also be very aggressive in its spending on CPI acquisition. So compared to a small developer, it's not at all a level playing field.

There's no doubt that monetisation is a massive issue, and lots of people claim to know the secret to success - and it's PocketGamer.biz's job to speak to these people and validate their claims.

But, as we all know, it's just one part of building a successful game - and at the moment I think that the industry (and the stream of new entrants) focuses on monetisation and misses the bigger picture.

Personally, I am a big supporter of premium priced games, as I think that freemium has been part of a race to the bottom, and that at some point there will be a shift away - which might be back to premium, or to something completely new.

Maybe we'll all be talking about mega-freemium as the best revenue model in 12 months time.

So I think Barry is great to be honest enough to say that they didn't think about anything more than making a great game. But doesn't every developer think that?

Jared Steffes, Furywing
It's tough to quantify exactly what "the press/the media" is any longer because there is such a parallel between professional reviews and friend filtering.

I've purchased and forced myself to play games that my friends are playing even if I didn't enjoy them much because I didn't want to miss out on the shared experience of the group.

Brilliant game design is still key for successful monetisation, but what percentage does "word of mouth" and huge marketing spend mean to monetizing. They probably mean a lot and the only way to capture the return is to think about monetisation from the start.

Harry Holmwood, MAQL Europe
Without good gameplay, you're not going to make any money, no matter how clever you are.

For what it's worth, I think The Room is pretty much the best couple of quid I've ever spent on a game. No game has ever left me wanting so much more, but feeling I'd had fantastic value. But it wouldn't work well as free-to-play.

Free-to-play games (ie those with open-ended free play, as opposed to games that are free and then introduce some kind of paywall) work best when the experience is something you can choose to dip into, or immerse yourself in and let it become a major hobby.

In the real world, you can get yourself some second hand golf clubs and play a round on a local course for a few pounds, or you can spend thousands on the best equipment, clothes, membership fees and training. Both types of people are playing golf.

You don't finish golf, so it's a good example of a pastime where you can spend as much or (almost) as little as you want. Apparently. I've never played.

As a player, I can appreciate an open-ended, sandbox style game as well as a more linear, perhaps narrative-led title. In fact, because my natural preference tends towards titles like The Room, or adventure games like Broken Sword, an open-ended, free-to-play title has to work a lot harder to capture my attention - the gameplay has to be even better.

Most free-to-play titles I've played don't achieve this... but a handful do.

The data shows that most free-to-play games don't make money from players in their first couple of weeks of play. I struggle to think of many single player premium games I've played for that long - I'd generally either finish them or give up long before.

It's only really those premium titles which have no end (or none I have a chance of reaching... looking at you, Super Hexagon) that continue to entertain me months after release.

So, to conclude, monetisation is irrelevant without retention. If you don't have retention you won't make money. Retention is only possible with great gameplay.

Charles Chapman, First Touch Games
Maybe part of the problem is that making a great game with great gameplay is really tough, and people can mistakenly see a business model as a silver bullet to success.

There are a multitude of resources for free-to-play monetisation techniques, but arguably few on 'how to make a fun game' - for good reason - so the lack of one means it's easy to read up on, and therefore give undue focus to, the other.

You hear plenty of stories blaming the business model (free or paid) for failure, or lack of success, but not so many admitting that, possibly, the game wasn't much fun.

Brian Baglow, consultant
Oh for f... I'm still arguing with his about this on Twitter.

Okay, let's make it clear. Running a successful business and making money are not mutually incompatible with making great games. Nobody has suggested otherwise and we're all on the same side, right? Good.

Now, the problem with Barry's talk was that he downplayed any and all references to business or monetisation in a way which made it seem that real developers don't dirty their hands, or give any consideration to such sordid matters. Or indeed that doing so would have harmed The Room.

As several people have pointed out, making a good game is the crucial part here. Without something fun, engaging and interesting, it doesn't matter how professional or businesslike you are, it won't succeed in the long run - though marketing can help sell and extend the life of almost anything.

Then again, a good number of developers strike it lucky and create something popular, or breakthrough which goes on to make money - despite their business practices or half-arsed monetisation ideas.

The problem with this is that they tend to think that because they're making money in the games industry, they've found a secret formula and try to repeat it. Either this fails, or they lumber along, afraid to mess with anything in case they break it.

In which case, forget A/B testing, or analytics, or indeed anything which might improve the player experience, or unearth problems. It's making money. It'll do.

One of the issues which came through very strongly at the Develop conference from a whole range of indie developers was: It's okay not to have making money as your primary goal.

However, all of the indie developers who said this are doing quite well on the money front and all pointed out that developers need to consider the business/marketing/analytics side of things.

Most notably, Cliff Harris (of Gratuitous Space Battles fame) gave his definition of a true indie game developer as one who is '100 percent financially independent', noting that developers should be as familiar with the spreadsheets, financials and distribution of their games, as they are with the games themselves.

I'm not saying that without some sort of business sense that you cannot succeed as a developer. I am saying that the idea which is becoming repeated more and more often that developers should not think about the business model when designing or developing a game is short-sighted, stupid and will cause more harm than good.

Make games. Make people happy. Make money. If you don't, you're not going to be able to make more games.

David MacQueen, Strategy Analytics
When I see people say "I don't care about revenues, I want to make great games!" this is what I see: "I don't care about other people, I am a terrible boss!"

If you're self-employed, that sort of attitude is fine, and I would applaud you for it. If you're a CEO or equivalent, running a company and make comments like that, you're an asshat. You might only want to make great games, but your staff want to pay their mortgages and feed their kids.

It's way beyond time that a sizable proportion of this industry grew up and stopped pretending they're a bunch of bohemian poets creating only for themselves.

Yes, you need a good game first. Congratulations on figuring that out. A company making tables needs to make good tables. A company making cars needs to make a good car.

You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. Stop agonising over your creative vision. If making money somehow revolts you, go back to your bedroom and code it all yourself. If other people rely on your business acumen, then take some responsibility and learn that skill set too.

Jon Hare, Tower Studios
What is the point of making a bad game, or even an average game?

All these pieces of rubbish do is pay the staff's mortgages and clog up the market making it harder for game players to find the good ones.

Maybe you should be selling tables...

David MacQueen, Strategy Analytics
I don't make games. Not any more.

I spent five years making games, some of them even good ones. We failed to run the business properly and I had to sit down with nine people I considered friends and make them all redundant, followed by making myself redundant and wrapping up the company.

Running a business is not a game, even in the games industry.

Will Luton, free-to-play author
I'd rather take risks than staying stagnant, never growing, never bettering, never getting fulfilled because of fear of failure. Revenues aren't everything.

So heated and lengthy was the debate that followed, that we've decided to split this week's Mavens into two parts. You can read part two here.
Keith Andrew
Keith Andrew
With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font. He's also Pocket Gamer's resident football gaming expert and, thanks to his work on PG.biz, monitors the market share of all mobile OSes on a daily basis.