The march towards 'total monetisation': Fireproof's Barry Meade on the advantages of focusing on good game design

Top titles can break the mould

The march towards 'total monetisation': Fireproof's Barry Meade on the advantages of focusing on good game design

If nothing else, our gathering of the great and good in the mobile gaming industry – better known as the Mobile Gaming Mavens – is designed to promote discussion.

It made sense, therefore, to approach Fireproof's Barry Meade when his keynote at the Develop conference in Brighton formed the subject of our recent Mavens debate on monetisation within mobile games.

Given Fireproof served up the eminently successful The Room iOS – a paid release, of course – what does Meade make of the increasing shift towards free-to-play, is he worried that developers are becoming obsessed with monetisation, and what is his view on the points raised by the Mavens?

Barry was happy to explain all:

Pocket Gamer: So first we should probably clarify the point you were making in your Develop talk. In our write-up, we suggested you were concerned that too many developers believe they need to focus their time on monetisation – that its been lifted above other elements of game design for many, and that you think developers should instead focus on areas that they know about. Is that a fair assessment? Barry Meade: Yeah that's fair, though what I said wasn't only about monetisation, but also that there's too much emphasis in general on the business and metrics side of making mobile games.

First off, lots of non-developers in the industry - such as your good Mavens - naturally have an interest in claiming that business models that make them personally rich ought to work for everybody.

The mobile platform is a blank slate, wide open with an amazingly direct route to an audience.

Yet publishing, investing, marketing, media and developers are constantly hammering the message to any new developer that there's only one model they now understand – an IAP laced, data driven, games-as-a-service model where you release a game for free to a million people and you're supposed to be happy that only five percent of players think its good enough to pay for.

The best of these games are great and there's a ton of cash in that model, so it's understandable that we go there.

But as a developer of Fireproof's size, doing that means limiting yourself to designs and genres that suit the model best, and it also pits you against 99 percent of the global games industry to boot – so if you are a small or new studio, good night and good luck.

My thought was, if you are small you should question the returns that copying everyone else will give you. If that's the kind of game you want to make, then using those levers are the best way to go. It's only an issue if you are making a game that's not suitable for that model.

Then, when you talk to all these smart people in publishing and development, you suddenly encounter a group think of Berlin Wall proportions, all telling you your model is wrong, that there can be only one, yada yada.

But, seen from the perspective of a small developer that's not out to make kabillions overnight, the market is huge and diverse and you don't have to accept methods or principles that work for those on a much larger scale - that was my point really.

You don't need to be scared off by the complexity of the task – just scope your ambitions to what really matters, - i.e. great software - and you may find an easier way to relax into making a great game, and that comes with its own benefits.

In the Mavens we raised the question of whether the belief many developers have that they have to devote disproportionate amounts of time to monetisation may be because the press appears to focus solely on games bringing in massive revenues. Do you think this is a factor?

I'm not sure. It might be a factor, but I think the main factor is the skyscrapers of actual cash money being made by these games, so, no offense to the press, but I don't think it can hold a candle to that kind of influence.

But yeah there's is certainly an all-or-nothing approach to being a success – you know, "why have millions when you could have...fabtrillions" type stuff. I can see the influence of the IT boom in all that and think gaming has never felt confident enough in itself to stop looking at other more 'grown up' industries to copy.

Our financial models and production methods are from the dot com world. We look to movies – much of which are plainly shoveled shite and 100 percent of which are not interactive – for creative affirmation, like we're not worth anything until you can believe the roots of the eyelashes are real "just like in the movies."

Fireproof's award winning The Room

What's more, the fact that Supercell is so good and doing so well attracts people into the industry for all the wrong reasons. By that I mean it legitimately believes mobile gaming is just a form of legalised gambling.

That's all fine, except that publishers and developers are naturally pushing the industry in that direction - and it's the direction that makes the most sense to them as CEO's and as individual working stiffs with a garage and six cars to feed.

It's natural when you have so much influence to want rest of the industry to think just like you, but big as it is, though this money-first mentality remains is their wish, it doesn't have to be ours. Niches are important for gaming to go mass market.

And I think players are truly agnostic in this fight – they don't care about our squabbles over which point in a game cycle to make them hit "pay". There's nothing wrong with aiming for modest success when you start out - you can build and learn your way to millions if that's what you want, though you still need to reach for the stars creatively no matter your size.

Charles Chapman of First Touch Games suggested that some developers see monetisation as a 'silver bullet', leading to many bad games employing heavy monetisation as a way to 'save' the title. Do you think this is a problem with the free-to-play scene – the genuinely good games pushed out by average titles that are heavily biased towards monetisation?

I'm sure it happens, yeah, though I would still assume that long term the best games win out. Bullying your competition with huge ad spends works once or twice, but once you get noticed you have to back it up with a good play experience or people won't bother for long.

Beyond that, on the point about better games often losing out, there's always been talk in the industry about the games that got away - the mythical graveyard full of amazing games nobody bought. I think that's overplayed be be honest.

There are some stand out examples of games that ought to have been bigger, but they're the exceptions that prove the rule that the best games generally win.

We all view games based on our own biases – I might like music that others find horrible and thus I would never make it the soundtrack to my game. A lot of devs don't see it like that - when they hear "make games you like" they think "okay I'll only put in things I personally like" when what they need to think is "make games that you know you will agree with a large audience on".

Make games you respect is probably a better way to say it. Getting overly personal can be the death of your great idea in a sort of woods/trees fashion. But not seeing this, devs think their failure is down to other reasons, luck or whatever. But having said that, making something you enjoy doing is a springboard to success too.

The Room was made to please ourselves first, but we did it conscious of how others used their tablets, how they navigate screens etc. So we tried to hit marks that were objectively cool, not just to us.

You just use common sense, it's about slipping through your most loved personal themes in a manner gamers like, or even better think is cool in its own right.

It's suggested in our Mavens that the development scene is split – that there is a base of devs who don't see what they do as a profession but more as a hobby, and this base frown upon developers who seek to make large amounts of money from their games. Is it wrong for developers to see games developers as a business first and foremost?

No, that's crazy. Does an architect feel intimidated by the fact that some people build their own sheds? We're all chasing success it's just a question of degree - and I don't think there is a split anyway.

There are people who make games on the side or as a hobby - many amazing titles are created in that way, like Thomas Was Alone or Day Z.

There are indie devs and then there is an 'indie scene', but they are not the same thing – I think what you're talking about is the indie scene which, like any gang, can be exclusionist and have its own rules about what's permissible, who deserves the handbag and all that. But if you're on any 'side' at all you are biased.

I might root for small games and small developers like us, but we're not in a different industry to the big boys and I don't personally see the point in saying we are.

Mike Bithell's Thomas Was Alone

Great games makers are great whether they earn millions or nothing at all. The great beauty of the mobile platform is that we get equal services from it as the big boys - it's a great leveler. So, to start building up walls and tiers on either side seems silly and against the grain to us at Fireproof.

Indie devs want fame and fortune too - they want people to play their games. I think the indie split is false basically, or at least false where it counts. There are those who want to push the craft of games versus those who want to repeat what works – that's a legit creative axis of the industry, but it's still all just games. There's no division in my book.

Adding to this point, in our Mavens David MacQueen of Strategy Analytics suggested developers who employ a team have a 'responsibility' to make money to ensure that all those that work for the firm are paid. Is this fair?

Isn't that kind of like saying it's the responsibility of a bricklayer to lay bricks? Not sure what I could disagree with there - making money is so fundamental to the task that its not worth stating in the first place.

I guess it depends on what your terms of success are and David makes money selling analytics, so, there's that.

On the one hand we are all in it to be successful or at least to survive well enough to keep working. The root of David's point is familiar business school thinking, although if I remember rightly David's argument went off a cliff when he dressed down an imaginary hippie anarchist developer who advocated burning money or something.

And to be honest, his is an example of the all-one-way thinking in the mobile industry that I tried to speak about as easily dismissed by a small developer.

Left alone, metrics based FTP gaming is a perfectly legitimate sector of the market creatively and financially, but the group think about it now is so pervasive you end up thinking either just like David or just the opposite.

It's a crazy way to see things so black and white and is too reductive of the vastness of the market and the possibilities of the software we can make.

Those who do say, however, that profit has to decide every decision for you in order for you to be considered responsible, well I would have to snort – that's financial zealotry that's essentially saying don't take risks, don't try to surprise your players, don't push any boundaries, don't stand out or else you are wanting as a businessperson.

This is a call to mediocrity from the mediocre and should be rightly ignored by anyone who knows that making games is a creative battle first and foremost.

If you really are naïve enough to think creative work is all about profit then, firstly, I'd echo Bill Hicks and say go home, take out all your favourite albums and books and burn them.

Secondly I'd say strap yourself in for a very boring career filled with no highs and no lows. I suppose that's a win for some but not for us.

What do you make of the allegation that your talk at Develop was a case of "survivorship bias"?

Well besides the fact the term implies some sort of glitch in the Matrix, and us clinging to a shipwreck, sure I know there's some truth to that.

Certainly aspects of our story are so rare that even we won't see them again, but then I'm sure we've never advised anyone to shoot for iPad Game of the Year as a strategy either.

But does bias matter anyway in the way they mean it? The industry is many studios who all function very differently and the more you hear about them at a conference the better otherwise you're shaping the facts to fit a narrative.

I'm sure my thoughts are biased if only by default, like every developer who has got up to tell their story at a conference.

The Room in development via Unity

As a games maker attending these talks, you listen to multiple people who have experiences and make your mind up about what might work for your team. It's the thought that there's only one way to come at things that scares me so I'm happy if our story at least ads to the picture for some.

Having a view doesn't make Fireproof stand out - it puts us in the club, it doesn’t make sense to dismiss us or others for that.

Finally, where would you like to see this debate over 'monetisation versus game design' head next? Or is the industry talking up a problem that doesn't really exist?

Well, good design is required to make a well monetised game. I suspect you mean which of the two takes priority, and the answer of course is good gameplay.

So I don't know, there'll always be creative points that the industry rotates around. This is one of them I guess, but it would be nice to see the call for 'total monetisation' calm down a bit.

A good game idea has a natural centre and the software you make should be built around it – if it has an unusual shape, so be it. In fact, that's a bonus if it makes you stand out.

This call for monetiseation favours a fixed final shape for things and so slows progress as many good ideas won't work with it. It would be healthy if more developers took a step back from the sheer unity of thought on the subject in order to try other ways to tickle our players' wallets.

And what do gamers want? Any developer who loves games already knows. When games are at their best, what are they like to experience? Full-on freaky mental magic is what, as no other medium can touch us when it comes to that.

So, when someone at a publisher starts huffing to us about data, metrics and monetisation I just think "Jeez how do you experience games, what are you a circuit board?"

With so much yet to play for even on mobile, the rush to give the market what it already knows makes you a follower in the industry. We forget that on mobile alone there's tens of millions of actual curious gamers out there, spread among half a billion more willing converts, and what kind of mad hubris is it to think they all want the same thing?

The fundamentals of the industry are still the same they were 20 years ago. Make something entertaining and better than your competition and people will give you money instead of them. If you know nothing else about the market but that, you can still build a business.

How you get there is your decision and your options are actually really broad if you are small, and personally I would say chasing player joy and delight is a lot more attainable than plotting vast charts of data-driven financial models to take on EA and Supercell and the hordes of devs between you and them.

The plain joy of good gaming has not gone away and in a shifting, wind-blasted marketplace like mobile, chasing a simple new idea can be a stake in the sand to fix your plans around.

Henry Ford once said that if he'd asked people what they'd wanted they'd have said faster horses. That's burned into my brain. I would always go for new. Now there's a bias.

Thanks to Barry for his time.

You can read our exclusive feature looking at the making of The Room 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, monitors the market share of all mobile OSes on a daily basis.