I can already predict the comments on this article. You will tell me I’m a horrible person. I’m a cancer on the games industry. Everything I’ve ever worked on is terrible. My existence offends you.
I have worked as a professional game developer for over 10 years. For the past year and change I have been working on my indie studio Quarter Spiral where I am making Enhanced Wars with two co-founders.
But that’s not why you hate me.
Why you hate me is that I work as a free-to-play design consultant. I advocate for free-to-play games at conferences and online and I help companies design free-to-play games. Just last week, Kotaku ran an article about one of my talks: an entry for the Evil Game Design challenge at Casual Connect where I presented a vision for a free-to-play version of Super Mario Bros. 3 on mobile phones. The response was entirely predictable.
Whenever I post up something online about free-to-play, I get a tired response from Gamers. I asked Kotaku if I could respond to last Wednesday’s post to talk to all the Gamers out there who think I am a cancer ruining the industry. I know it’s hopeless; it is impossible to change someone’s mind on the internet. But I wanted a chance to explain that I am not a cancer on the games industry and if anything, my accidental career as a monetization consultant is a side effect of the true problem affecting the version of the games industry that Gamers hold dear.
You see, game development is a business and businesses in a capitalist society are ruled by market forces. I wish I was one of the privileged few who are able to self-finance their dream game for years on end with no concern for sales or profits. But I’m not.
The majority of game developers make games with other people’s money. This generally means some sort of public or private investors. Thanks to the advent of Kickstarter, now we get games that cut out traditional game publishers and are financed directly by fans. But games like those published by Electronic Arts are paid for by the people who own stock in the company. At the end of the day, these investors do not care about artistic integrity, Metacritic score or DRM solutions, they only care about stock price and return on investment.
On the flip side, games are made by teams of game developers. Some are tiny, like my three-man indie team on Enhanced Wars. Some are gargantuan, like the hundreds large SWTOR team. Like me, most of my closest friends are game developers and as a whole, we are a group motivated by our passion for video games. Every programmer who is working 80+ hours for weeks on end to bring you electronic joy could make more money and lead a more balanced life working on banking software. But we are not inspired by banking software. We are inspired by video games.
When a developer loses her job, she needs to find new work. More and more, jobs are coming in the form of games that do not cater to the core Gamer who reads Kotaku.
Game developers spend years pouring blood, sweat and tears into games specifically targeted at Gamers. These games are well received, get high review scores and sell millions of copies. But then financial results are released, investors learn that these games did not meet sales expectations and layoffs ensue.
Take Square Enix for example. Over the past few years Square Enix has released some fantastic games for Gamers. In March, they reported physical sales of Sleeping Dogs at 1.75 million units, Hitman: Absolution at 3.6 million units and Tomb Raider at 3.4 million units. These are three fantastic games for Gamers, all with Metacritic scores of 80 or above. (Kotaku loved Tomb Raider, for example.) They all failed to meet sales expectations. Hard working, passionate game developers across different studios in Square Enix got laid off.
There are two sides to this equation. There is the money Square Enix invested in these games specifically as well as other R&D projects, canceled games and company overhead. And there is revenue from the games we Gamers purchase. A company must be responsible for the money it spends. If 3.4 million physical units fail to meet expectations, then Square Enix must deal with the consequences.
This is how capitalism works. Companies fail, and people lose their jobs. Game Job Watch estimates that over 3,000 people have lost their jobs in 2013 at companies including Crystal Dynamics, IO Interactive, United Front Games, Harmonix, High Moon Studios…the list goes on and on. Only the fittest game development studios survive.
When a developer loses her job—when she’s got rent to make and bills to pay—she needs to find new work. More and more, jobs are coming in the form of games that do not cater to the core Gamer who reads Kotaku. Gaming as an industry has been expanding outward for a long time and increasingly, the "Gamer" is becoming a less relevant part of the overall gaming pie as more dollars are spent on free-to-play games for mobile/tablet, PC and now consoles too.
Just take a look at one of the darlings of the free-to-play world, CSR Racing. The heart of the team at Boss Alien came from Black Rock Studios, a Disney owned game developer that scored high marks on Metacritic for Pure and Split/Second, both 80+ rated games. When Disney shut down Black Rock in 2011, members of the team formed mobile focused studio Boss Alien. Within 18 months the team was making headlines because of the jaw dropping revenue it was reporting with CSR Racing. From a Gamer’s perspective, CSR likely falls far short of being a “real” racing game. There isn’t even steering! But clearly, not enough money was being spent on “real” racing games for Disney to keep investing money in Black Rock. But as Boss Alien, the same game developers made the right game for the right players with the right business model.
Free-to-play is not always well executed. Like any business model, for every League of Legends or CSR Racing there are hundreds of games that deliver a poor quality experience for the player. Like any business model, it has advantages and disadvantages, good fits and bad. I may be able to imagine a way to turn Super Mario Bros. 3 into a free-to-play game, but I do not think it is possible to take a cinematic masterpiece like the Uncharted series and deliver a single-player, free-to-play game that is not fundamentally broken by the process.
But I do believe that free-to-play has a number of advantages for players and developers alike. On the development side, a free-to-play game lowers the risk involved in making a game. A developer is able to release a high quality game that represents a fraction of the total vision, and if players think it is fun and justify it by spending money, the developer can continue to improve the game for months or years on end. If the game does not find success in the marketplace, it is far better to release a game and fail after a year of work than it is to fail after six years of blood, sweat and tears.
I do believe that free-to-play has a number of advantages for players and developers alike.
As a player, free-to-play lowers the risk of checking out a game. I am able to try a game by spending only my attention. So when The Drowning is released after I have been following it for months, I can decide within five minutes of installation if the game is worth spending my limited downtime on. I do not have to rely on reviews, spend $60, or wait for the inevitable Steam sale. I can make an informed decision whether or not I should play based on how much fun I am having.
Most importantly, a successful free-to-play game allows game developers to forge a direct relationship with their players that keeps a game going strong for years. As a personal example, back in high school I considered RTS to be one of my favorite genres. Many a night was spent using a friend’s father’s office as the LAN party location for games of Warcraft II and then StarCraft. But in the 12 years between Brood War and Wings of Liberty I moved away from high school, from LAN parties and from RTS. I mainly played single player games. My relationship to Blizzard and Starcraft had been severed over the long wait for a sequel, and when Wings of Liberty was released I did not feel compelled to spend my attention on it.
League of Legends, on the other hand, is rapidly approaching its fourth anniversary. Since its release, the game has seen frequent updates big and small that keep the game fresh for its loyal legions of fans. I fully expect League of Legends to still receive updates eight years from now. The idea of that game's development studio, Riot, going dark for years in order to make a League of Legends sequel seems unlikely since from a studio that “aspire[s] to be the most player-focused game company in the world.”
When I left my job at BioWare San Francisco, I had saved up what I thought would be enough money to fund a year as an independent game developer. Once I stopped drawing a salary, I quickly learned that I spent money faster than expected and that running a game studio, even at three people small, is more expensive than planned.
Coming off of the free-to-play Dragon Age Legends, I started speaking at conferences about the lessons I had learned working on my first free-to-play game. I was trying to build awareness for Quarter Spiral as we developed our tech stack.
The unintended consequence is that developers started approaching me asking if I would consult on their games. They had already made the decision to make a free-to-play game as a result of the market forces that have for years been pushing developers away from AAA console games. In many cases, developers ask for my help because they are making their first free-to-play game and they want to avoid the sorts of mistakes that become obvious only after you have operated one. Thanks to consulting, I have been able to keep working on indie game development and Enhanced Wars for longer than the originally planned year.
I believe that the forces driving developers to the free-to-play market all comes down to supply and demand. From my anecdotal experience as a Gamer, there are too many games to play. In 2012 I purchased 187 video games. When a game like The Last of Us comes out, I have the deep urge to buy it. But then I look at my backlog: shrink-wrapped copies of Uncharted 3, Ni no Kuni, Sin & Punishment and Okami (on PS2) all of which I fully intend on playing some day. Then I think about my Steam library. Do I really need to buy The Last of Us if I haven’t even installed my copies of Darksiders II, Hitman: Absolution, Cannon Brawl, Mercenary Kings, Orcs Must Die, Dear Esther or X-Com: Enemy Unknown?
The supply of unique, high quality games being developed for Gamers is too great. Greater than the total demand for those games, as measured by dollars spent on (non-used) copies. That is why studios get shut down.
When I was younger and had all the time in the world to play games, I did not have the money to buy them. Now that I have money to spend on games, I have very little time to play them. I buy games I know I won’t play because I want to support the developers. I want more games like Mark of the Ninja to exist, so I do not mind buying it even if it may be months or even years before installing.
The supply of unique, high-quality games being developed for Gamers is too great. Greater than the total demand for those games, as measured by dollars spent on (non-used) copies. That is why studios get shut down. That is why people get laid off. That is why developers move to free-to-play. Gamers like you and me are not spending enough money to keep them in business, meanwhile CSR Racing, Puzzle & Dragons and Clash of Clans are bringing in money hand over fist.
So if you hate me because I consult on free-to-play games there is only one way to make my job obsolete. You have to vote with your dollars. You have to make working on pay-to-play games a viable alternative. So go buy a shrink wrapped copy of Dragon’s Crown. Buy into early access for Cannon Brawl on Steam. Support Enhanced Wars on Kickstarter. Game developers will only be able to keep supplying games made specifically for you so long as you create the demand with your dollars.
Ethan Levy is a 10-year veteran as a game designer and producer. He has worked at developers including BioWare San Francisco and Pandemic Studios. He is the co-founder of indie studio Quarter Spiral where he is hard at work on Enhanced Wars and pays the bills as a free-to-play design consultant.