Thoughts on “Freemium” Games

I had a huge three-page-long essay here a few minutes ago, but I’ve changed my mind about posting it.

Instead, I’m just going to make a prediction.  Please feel free to ignore this post entirely.  It’s just that the last time I made a prediction, it was in a web forum post on TIGSource, and that prediction has long since vanished along with the thread of which it was a part (which is too bad, since the prediction was quite prescient, I feel, predicting the effectiveness of “pay what you want” pricing strategies about six months before 2DBoy turned the indie game movement on its ear by trying it with World of Goo, to spectacular success).

My prediction:

The next big revolution in game pricing, I predict, is going to be realising that the “Freemium” business model (“the game is free, but you can pay real money for extra features”) is unnecessary for attracting a large player base, and actually drives many of the most enthusiastic and dedicated players away from a game.

Specifically, I propose that the core business model behind “Freemium” will work better, without the “for extra features” part of its approach.  Without needing to design around monetization, you end up with better games, and therefore naturally larger player bases.  The larger player bases then result in an even smaller average payment being required per player, in order to cover development costs.

The return of shareware

My assertion is that modern technology and infrastructure has advanced to the point that early-1990s-style “shareware” has become viable (i.e.:  “here, have this fully functional and awesome game.  If you like it and can afford to help me out, please send me a few dollars.  If you can’t spare anything, then don’t worry about it, but maybe think about it later on, once you’re doing okay.”).  This approach allows a game author to create any game at all, without needing to design monetization strategies which often only serve to fragment the player base, or even raise ethical concerns.  It focuses the author’s priorities exactly where we all know they ought to be:  on making a great game.

This open approach didn’t work in the 90s (in fact, it failed in a fairly spectacular way), because direct payments required people to write checks to somebody whom they’d never met or heard of, and to mail that cheque in the physical post (often internationally) to an address that was in some who-knows-how-old game, and may not even be where the author actually lives any more.  It was just too much bother and too uncertain a process for most people to actually bother with.

But today, game authors aren’t anonymous people who players don’t care about — you talk to them on Twitter and read their blogs and watch them on YouTube.  They’re real people in a way that they never were before, which means that their audiences can and do care about them.  What’s more, we now have this tremendous online payment infrastructure, so it’s no longer such a terrible pain to try to make a direct payment to an author you want to support.

Game makers whom I’ve met

I’ve written before about how when I was young, I decided that I wanted to make video games as a career, and how I made a list of the game makers that I wanted to meet, once I was in the industry.

I met Wil Wright by working at his company for six months.  I met Steve Meretzky at a Game Developer Conference several years ago.  I met Chris Crawford by sending him an e-mail while I was at university, and we had rather a long and interesting discussion about the state of storytelling in games at that time.

The one guy on my list that I’ve still never spoken or written to is Tim Schafer.  But honestly, I feel like I know Tim better than I know any of the others, simply because I’ve been reading his Twitter feed and watching him on YouTube, and hearing so much from him about his family and business over time.

It’s already proven

So my assertion is that the conditions are now such that the early-90s’ version of the “shareware” concept could work today, in a way that it never could have worked back then.  But technically, it’s already been working for a few years with Tarn Adams‘ development of Dwarf Fortress, which is funded in exactly this way.  But Dwarf Fortress is a niche game with a niche audience, and everyone in the industry has been treating it as some kind of special-case situation that couldn’t be replicated by anyone else.  But I don’t think that’s true any more.  All it’d take for someone else to achieve the same success is a really good game with a really big and passionate player base, and an author who strongly and consistently engages on a personal level with the players of the game.

And I think that we’ll be seeing a lot of this in the not-too-distant future.