If You Hate Free to Play Then You Probably Hate Good Old Fashioned Honest Pubs

Premium games are like events with a free bar. You don’t really know what you’re getting when you pay once for admission, but all of the content is free.

Free to Play is like a pub. You can go in, see what drinks they have on offer, sit around and socialise for nothing. Some places will even give you little tasters of their beers gratis, in the hope you’ll buy more. If you’re willing to put the time and effort in to socialising you can probably get a few drinks for free before the paywall (your round) comes along, but it’s easier to just pay for your booze.

Modern AAA is like a nightclub. There is heavy advertising through leaflets and promo staff telling you how awesome it is, but the scene inside often bares scant resemblance to the promises. You won’t know that until you’ve shelled out to get in though, and once you are inside there are lots of extra charges for the content. It’s all very brash and loud, and you’ll probably only end up sticking with it for a few hours before it’s over, leaving your ears ringing.

A closed beta is like a wedding …

You know what, I’m going to stop there. Disclaimer: I don’t believe any of this nonsense, obviously.

You Don’t Know What Will Be A Successful Mobile Game

You don’t Know for sure what will be a successful mobile game.

Wai… shhh… no, you really don’t.

But it’s okay. Don’t worry. You’re not alone. That guy doesn’t Know either. Neither does she. Or them over there. Or anyone in that entire company.

A lot of people will tell you that They Know. “Check out our business intelligence,” they will say, “you should totally make an infinite runner, they are more popular than platform games”. Or “what are you thinking? Nobody likes the Wild West, give the game a medieval setting”.

(This isn’t restricted to games, of course. Apparently a post Bat-Nipples Hollywood was quite adamant that super-hero movies were A Bad Idea, and that you can’t expect to make money off a sci-fi film that requires people to pay attention.)

It’s not just genre or setting, business models get it too. Free-to-play experts telling you they know exactly how to make your game make lots of money, premium game developers telling you that most free-to-play games sink without trace and it’d be folly to go that route. People who have had one hit title speaking at conference after conference proclaiming their way is The Right Way, and people with significantly less success telling you the same.

You Absolutely Must have feature X. Implementing Feature Y is a total waste of resource.

(Hindsight is 20:20, of course, and it’s an easy task to look at a success or failure and say what the causes were. How different the results would have been if the developers had just implemented Four Simple Recommendations To Make Game X Monetise Better, or followed The Five Reasons Game Y Is A Huge Success. Always safe in the knowledge you’ll not be proved wrong.)

No Business Intelligence predicted the popularity of Flappy Bird, or Make it Rain, or Plague Inc, or Threes, or Temple Run, or Monument Valley. The list goes on.

So if what I’m saying it true, if nobody has a sure-fire works-every-time 100%-reliable-or-your-money-back road to success (which they don’t, and if they did they sure as hell wouldn’t be telling it to you in a blog post or conference talk), what should you do?

Rather than wasting a lot of time and money trying to second guess your audience’s tastes, and only finding out if you were right when you’re heavily committed, throw away your assumptions and find out from the source. Speed, agility and being fast to market, are all traits of successful mobile developers.

If your assumptions were wrong then find you out quickly with the smallest amount of wasted resource, and move on to something else. Rinse, repeat.

That’s the only 100% Sure Fire Works Every Time Truth about making a successful mobile game.

Premium Currency vs Real Money Purchase

I’ve just written a reasonably long post on a LinkedIn group that I now realise only has 36 members. Since I think my Words and Opinions are Important, I wanted to share it to a slightly wider audience.

The question was on the use of virtual currencies vs real money in-app spending…

[Has] anyone run into any good public domain discussion of the tradeoffs involved in one approach rather than other, and how best to combine them?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a proper discussion around when to use hard currency and when to real money purchase (RMP).

I’ve read a few behavioural economics books that suggest that people feel the “sting” of a purchase less the further you can abstract it away from cash (why buying an expensive thing on card is less painful than counting out dozens of £20 notes). I think Predictably Irrational might be one of them, the other is Happy Money.

Another benefit of virtual currencies is the trick of selling currency in different denominations to the amount it’s used (for example selling a 1,000 Gold bundle, when the most expensive thing the player can buy is 900 Gold), leaving them with unused currency they feel they should use. Personally I think this is quite a dirty trick and I know certain audiences are very wise to it and turned off by it, but again I’ve never seen any research to suggest how negative a reaction this would get.

Yet another benefit would be that a currency transaction can complete without friction as long as the player has enough currency. Whereas a RMP will almost always go through some kind of “are you sure?” / password flow that would introduce friction (and depending on where the purchase is happening in your game could cause problems – for example in the middle of a multiplayer firefight you wouldn’t want to be asking for passwords).

Benefits of RMP would be that you’re guaranteeing a conversion (rather than players using stored up currency). This is the thinking behind “coin doubler” style purchases – they make sense as an investment for a grinding player who otherwise would’t spend.

Using RMP for bundles of in-game items, or “early bird” bundle sales also makes sense in terms of trying to encourage that important early conversion to switch the player’s self image over to “I’m the type of person who spends in this game”.

Another downside of RMP on a lot of devices you’re limited as to what values you can choose too – for example on iOS the cheapest an item could be is $0.99 – which could make them very bad value. I think this is why you rarely see RMP used for consumable items, whereas it’s used more for durables – the value proposition. Also running discounts on RMP is slightly more trouble, as you have to create two identical items with different costs and point players to the correct one, rather than just removing a different amount of currency.

Would love to hear there peoples’ thoughts on this stuff.

Angry Birds Go! Report

Last week I decided to fill in a bit of free time by compiling a brief report on the free to play (f2p) game Angry Birds Go!

I chose Angry Birds Go! mainly because I remember it getting a bit of flack on release for its heavy handed monetisation (primarily the expensive premium carts), yet since then it seems to have largely dropped off everyone’s radar. I thought this made it an interesting case – was the monetisation really too harsh, or were other issues stopping the game from achieving its potential?

You can see the full report embedded below, or download the PDF file (probably better, since Slideshare seems to have scuppered some of the fonts & graphics).

Free to Play and the European Commission

“The use of the word ‘free’ (or similar unequivocal terms) as such, and without any appropriate qualifications, should only be allowed for games which are indeed free in their entirety, or in other words which contain no possibility of making in-app purchases, not even on an optional basis”

Free With IAP SmallAs you may or may not know, the European Commission are meeting with mobile providers to discuss “free to play”. There’s a really nice write-up about it by Jas Purewal here, so go and read that for a lot more background detail than I’m going to repeat.

Free With IAP Single Page

Regarding the adverting of games as free, this is mostly down to Apple’s labelling. Some simple global text changes in the app store could solve this (as shown on the right).

They’d also need to change the “free app” chart to either only display apps with no IAP, or change the wording of that too.

Spotify - free? Of course, as Jas points out, the press release begins by talking about “apps” and then quickly moves on to “games”, which seems rather clear of the direction they intend to take this. There are many other products and apps in the world that use the “get it for free, but pay for more if you want to” model, I suspect they’ll be left un-touched. Spotify for example, specifically words its copy to position itself as a free service, despite the fact that I pay £9.99 a month for it. Apple’s own free iBooks app is another simple example of a non-game which “contains the possibility of making in-app purchases”.

My take on this? I absolutely agree with the concerns around the wording in apps aimed at children, and think evocative copy and calls to action should be restricted, as many other forms of advertising aimed at children are (Apple has recently made moves to address this by making a “kid friendly” section of the app store that has tighter restrictions on debs before their apps will be accepted).

However I absolutely disagree with the idea that apps that have optional payments shouldn’t be advertised as “free”. I’ve played a lot of free to play games, and I’ve spent money on maybe a dozen at most. The rest of them I’ve played … for free.

The Delightful New User Experience of Another Case Solved

Another Case Solved is a free to play match 3 puzzle game available on iOS (maybe Android too, I am too lazy to check. Though not too lazy to type this disclaimer, despite it rapidly becoming about the same level of work. Possibly even more, now) where you play a detective, matching symbols to collect clues and solve cases.


EA’s End User Licence Agreement screen. Click for full sized.

When you first start it up, you get this delightfully dour box, taking up the entire screen. If this doesn’t scream “hey kids, hold on to your socks, because what’s about to happen here is fun, fun, fun!” then I honestly don’t know what does.

Look, it’s even helpfully highlighting the “accept” button for you. Because if you press “decline” you get a popup alert over the top of this saying “you must agree to EA’s Privacy and Cookie Policy, Terms of Service and EULA to play this game”, which then dumps you back here.

Quite why it bothers having a “decline” button I haven’t worked out. Maybe it’s a clever part of the puzzle game.

Anyway, this is awful and somewhere a lawyer should feel bad that they are, without doubt, churning users from their game before they have even reached the title screen.

Amazon’s Devious Pricing Move With Prime “Upgrade”

Imagine you run a large online retailer shipping physical goods out to your customers. Imagine also that at some point in the past you introduced a new service whereby, for a yearly fee, your customers could get any item shipped next day for free.

Imagine now that you think you’ve made a mistake with this service. You’ve looked at the books and it’s costing you a lot of money to ship small items. No worries, you think, we’ll just exclude a huge number of small items from the offer, and only ship them with larger items. Sure, it lowers the value of the service to the customers who signed up for it, but it’ll upsell them to buying more large items as well as removing shipping costs on the smaller items. It’s win-win (for me, the business).

Imagine that it’s still not looking rosy though. What you really want to do is increase the cost of the yearly service’s subscription by rather a large amount. But will your customers go for that, in addition to the reduced value they’re already getting? How do you sell this price hike to them, and make them happy about it too?

How Amazon are introducing Prime’s new streaming feature. Click for full size.

Imagine, if this isn’t already abundantly clear, that you’re Amazon. Your solution, it transpires, is this: bundle in another service.

Amazon are now adding the ability to stream movies & TV shows to your various devices, to Prime members. Have a look at the way they’re selling this, on the right. “Great news”, it says, “in 3 days Prime will include unlimited streaming”.

Notice what it doesn’t say – “for free” (I suspect the lawyers were very clear about that) – but also notice that it doesn’t mention the price increase for Prime which coincidentally has just happened at exactly the same time. Prime will now cost £79 per year, whereas previously it was £49 – a fairly hefty increase of 60%

Now I’m sure that if you previously used Amazon’s streaming service this is good news to you. The new Prime would be a 35% price cut over subscribing to the separate services. However, if there were large numbers of people happily subscribing to both, you’ve got to wonder why Amazon would force this merger when a “roll your own” premium subscription would be as easy for them to offer (in much the same way as cable and satellite TV companies do).

For customers who have no interest in Amazon’s video streaming, and were already starting to feel the value proposition of Prime strained by previous changes, you’ve got to ask yourselves if this is a step too far. For me it is, and I won’t be renewing.

However I suspect that for many, the price hike will go unnoticed until after their renewal date, the video streaming they never asked for or wanted will go largely unused, and Amazon will be very happy indeed.

How to Deceive and Mislead Your Customers in an Attempt to Get a Sale

An offer to upgrade Parallels Desktop.

An offer to upgrade Parallels Desktop. Click for full size.

Being a Mac kind of guy (sorry), I still find I have to use Windows at work for the occasional bit of software that either isn’t available, or isn’t a 100% feature match across versions (it won’t surprise you to find out most of this stuff is Microsoft Office).

Occasionally Parallels pops up a little offer window attempting to up-sell me to the latest version. Today the offer really caught my eye, but not really for the right reasons.

On quickly looking at this, it implies that the upgrade is being offered at a huge discount of 79% off, with another 6 apps thrown in to the offer for free. You get this impression because of the large text that says “Upgrade to Parallels Desktop 9 79% off and get 6 more apps for free”.

However when you look at the prices (the small ones in red, heavily scored out so as to be deliberately difficult to read), the upgrade usually costs £34.99. The same price as this offer.

What Parallels are actually offering is “Upgrade to version 9 at full cost and get 6 more apps for free, giving you a total discount of 79% over the cost of buying all 7 things individually” which is not the same thing.

I doubt very much that the people who put this offer’s copy together didn’t know what they were doing. I wonder if they thought about how it could hurt their user’s perception of their brand, though – deliberately attempting to mislead in order to convert a sale is not the basis of a long term happy customer relationship.

(Incidentally, they really should make more of the “limited time” of this offer to increase conversions. That particular piece of information is very easy to miss, despite being repeated.)

Is Your Service Unique?

Are you the only one that can provide the service that you do?

We were recently shopping for a new car (turns out that toddlers and 3 door hatchbacks don’t really mix – a surefire way to ruin your back as you get them in and out of the thing). We had a good idea of what we wanted, so headed off to the nearest showroom. The main thing we wanted at this point was a test drive, to see if the car we had our eyes on was a good fit for us.

The problem was we were on a bit of a time limit – the nipper needs feeding and naps on a rough schedule, so we had a couple of hours from arriving until we had to leave. No, scratch that, our time limit wasn’t the problem. We’d allowed a sensible amount of time for what we wanted to achieve.

No, the problem was that the salesman couldn’t find the keys for the car he wanted us to test drive. The second problem was that he left us unattended for over 40 minutes while he hunted for it. The third problem was that when we decided to leave, he wasn’t very apologetic for wasting our time.

The main problem, as it turns out, is that this was just the nearest showroom, not the only showroom. A couple of weekends later we went to a different one (not that much further away, and with comparable prices), and got the test drive we wanted. Within a couple of hours of arriving they had made a sale. If your product isn’t unique, you can’t afford to act like you’re doing your potential customers a favour.

Two weeks later I got a phone call from the first salesman, asking if we’d like to come back for that test drive.

(The car’s great, by the way.)

Some Things I Like About Dungeon Keeper

I was going to write a longer article about Dungeon Keeper, but to be honest the subject has been covered so much over the last week I don’t really have the energy. Go and read one of the other articles for either a scathing attack on free-to-play (f2p) as a business model, a valiant defence of f2p as a business model, or an actual article about the game itself (if you can find one).

I’ve been playing it over the last week, and it’s not all bad really. Sure it’s entirely the wrong IP for the game & model, sure it goes in far too hard & heavy with asking for money, sure the initial timers are often too long so it’s hard to build a connection to the game quickly, sure the first time user experience (FTUE) is pretty bad with a tutorial that goes on too long and still doesn’t clearly explain the whole thing.

But there are some things I do like that it does.

  • You can slap your minions (the game’s builders) and for the next half an hour they will work at double speed, effectively halving every build timer in the game. There’s no cool down on this, you can do it every 30 minutes. It’s a nice way of further encouraging players to return to your game regularly if they want to maximise their efficiency and drastically cut down those big timers. (I’d suggest that the 30 minutes is too short a time though, again it feels like the game is too desperate for your attention if it’s popping up scheduled notifications every half an hour).
  • For the space that it’s in (asynchronous player-vs-player tower-defense) it’d be very easy to just use the IP and reskin the units and structures of genre-leader Clash of Clans. This is what most of the other games in the genre do (at least for initial launch, the ones that see some success tend to quickly introduce their own unique takes and options), it’s very easy to see the mappings. Dungeon Keeper at least spins units and defences out in its own style, with unique strengths and weaknesses from the start.

I’m sure there was a third thing. I’ll edit it in if I remember it.

Oh well, not exactly a spirited defence of the game some sections of the web have been calling a games-industry killer, that I had hoped for.