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By: Matthew Doucette
Xona Games had no choice with releasing our games on Xbox 360 (Xbox LIVE Indie Games) and Windows Phone 7, we had to accept the default pay-once system.
Personally, the reason we would have chosen the pay-once monetization scheme would be simply to respect the gamers. Many games disrespect their gamers, and insult them and their time. A key game developer who speaks out against this is Jonathan Blow, who has already released a "respect the gamer" game, Braid. Two key features of the game are the fact the game has no filler, all puzzles are unique, and the game treats the gamer's time and attention as "precious". Amazing. I appreciate this game so much more today than when it came out four of five years ago. I recommend everyone interested in this concept to listen to some of Blow's speeches at various gaming conferences around the world. Here's a great clip to start with:
I have personally been burned by games with glorious amounts of DLC that approach free-to-play (F2P) monetization. EA's Burnout Paradise comes to mind. Now I respect the developers work on Burnout Paradise, Criterion Games. They produced an amazing game with a beautifully crafted 60fps engine, an unparalleled sandbox universe to explore with vehicles, and amazing physics and crashes. Just a beautiful game. But I spent, along with my son, about $50..$70 extra on DLC. It's a bit too much.
What really burned me was when Burnout Paradise asked me to install an update, which is typically reserved for bug fixes; This particular update modified the in-world scenery and roads to include a new island, Big Surf Island, which when you drive into it loads up an actual store mid-game asking you to buy it for $15. The island is now infused into the game world, a game world which was once 100% accessible and offered the gamer pure freedom of exploration. That is gone after the update. Big Surf Island now takes about a third of the total game world, which you can see both on the map and in-game, and you cannot enter it without a store popup mid-game. This is the exact opposite of an immersive universe which the developers of Burnout Paradise produced.
It would not surprised me if the developers (and by that I mean the programmers and designers, not the business executives, of Criterion Games) were displeased with the pure corporate mutilation of the experience they crafted. I guarantee the move to include Big Surf Island into the game this way made money, because it was literally an annoying pop-up ad mid-game. EA just injected their corporate greed, like a virus, directly into what used to be beautiful. That's how I see it.
Games are art, right? Who wants to enter an heightened state of sensation, to fully appreciate a piece of art, to be intruded with an ad? Who wants to look at the Mona Lisa with intermediate pop-ups?
So, to explain further why this burned me deeply involves a story with my son. My son, five or six years old, was chasing a car to smash, which you must do in the game sometimes to win the car. After a long, exciting, and challenging chase, the car he is pursuing drives down the road to Big Surf Island, which is effortless to do as it's one of the main streets. My son follows suit and the chase is interrupted by a pop-up ad to purchase the island. It made my son unhappy and upset. He said it wasn't fair. He was absolutely correct. There was no caring or respecting the gamer at that moment in time. This is what EA chooses to do.
I bought the island. The popup no longer happens and the game is now back to normal. So take from this story what you will. My opinion is that DLC is great, but keep it in my menu. Don't inject it into the game and abuse those who do not buy it. That's abusing the gamer.
In writing this I am reminded how Microsoft's Xbox 360 Dashboard shows 12 of 15 achievements unlocked for games I have completed in full when I have not purchased the DLC. The DLC adds the three extra achievements, and the dashboard is designed to tell me I have not finished the game when it's a piece of the game I have yet to purchase. A pure insult to the gamer. The gamer is the one who should remain in control of their games and their stats. A company should not be able to come back and say you haven't finished the game by release add-ons every month to manipulate them back. I believe there is a healthy middle ground we can find that respects the gamers while maintaining DLC add-ons.
What benefit does it have to you as a designer or a developer to use this type?
Micro-payments are more work and require many games to be redesigned to have content that can be sold after the initial game purchase. The game must play without this content, but the gamer must desire this content and be willing to pay for it. Plus, it cannot be something too drastic to the game to ruin it for those who do not buy it. As you know, many social-based free-to-play games abuse this, and basically you cannot play onward in the game without buying more. We see this as disrespectful to the gamer, unless the gamer is already aware of the system in full before purchasing. It is simply unfair to mislead the consumer.
When you design a pay-once game, you can concentrate on what really matters, making a worthy game experience for the user. No time has to be spend trying to manipulate the user out of more money. There is a line of thought that says the best way to make a user pay more is to have a great game that continues to engage the user, which therefore unites making a great game and free-to-play monetization. This could be the case. It's hard to say if it's always the case. I have no issue with free-to-play, as long as the user knows what he or she is getting into and is not manipulated unfairly. It's subjective of course to measure exactly when you have crossed the line, especially when user knowledge and experience plays such a vital role. We should be expecting users to be intelligent and not have to waste much time researching to find out something is going to rip them off. The system should be up front and honest and respectful of the user.
I do not like free-to-play as a concept for most games or even the name itself. It's not free. F2P games do not belong in "free" lists with games that are actually free forever. It's a lame marketing term, reminiscent of the early internet with misleading popups. It's the exact opposite of respecting the player. I can only hope gamers educate themselves and decide to go against misleading games by voting no with their wallets. The problem is we have an influx of new gamers, the casual and social gamers, that can often be mislead easily. Hardcore gamers have been around the block and have better bullshit detectors. This is similar to early internet days where the uneducated surfer would get trapped visiting bad websites and sometime sign up for scams unwillingly.
Is the design of the game influenced in anyway by your choice of monetization?
So far we have not changed any design based on monetization, other than making sure we have a free trial mode of the game that respects the players ability to test the game without playing too much of it. Our games so far only cost $1 so it's important to have the trial give a taste and cut off quickly. So far we have chosen to implement three minute time outs in our games. The reason we have not shifted and design elements in our games, however, is due to the fact we have only created pay-once games. This would not be the case with micro-transactions.
We are still not sure where we are going to take Score Rush on the Turbulenz platform (single player, multiplayer), which is a free to play model. You'll have to just watch and see. We are stuck between a indie game studio without large cash resources, the ability to potentially make lots of money via free-to-play, and being morally and ethically sound by respecting our gamers. I will state that Turbulenz has never appeared to us to be anything other than a morally and ethically sound platform that respects its users. It could become the next Facebook of social and casual gaming. It could be huge. Just because I do not like that the free-to-play monetization concept is called free-to play when it is not free, it does not mean that I am against the concept of microtransactions when they are not used in a manipulative and unethical fashion that preys on the uneducated gamer. That said, it's a very difficult decision for us, given that above all we wish to respect the gamer and if we do not implement micro-transactions into Score Rush properly we can cross a line we do not wish to cross.
Is there any special considerations into the pricing given the fact that distributors take a large chunk of the payment?
No, there are no special considerations into pricing our games dependent on the distributors or publishers cut. The price of a game is what the game is worth to the gamer, period.
A common mistake for indie developers is to price their game based on its worth to the developer, which is biased and usually calculates a price too high. Games have to be priced what they are worth. An extreme example would be a bad game that's taken years to develop so the developer believes the game to be worth $5 instead of $1, when the real price might be $1, or even worse I've seen some games that are worth negative dollars as you would have to pay the gamer to play it. It's important to not make games that are worth negative prices!
Is there a race to the bottom in your opinion with Single-Purchase?
A race to the bottom does exist in pay-once schemes, but this is only due to the poor store fronts that indie games have today. Xbox LIVE Indie Games and AppStore are among the worse even though they are all bad. We have detailed what's known as the Xona Proposal which begins to describe solutions to these store fronts.
The problem with the store fronts today is they are like a wild west, where anything goes. And thus you get gimmicky and rip off games and the race to the bottom to simply compete in an unfair marketplace. So that's why XBLIG is overloaded with Minecraft clones, Avatar games, zombie games, (once upon a time) massage apps, and many $1 games. The fault lies with the poor store front that XBLIG has, which was based on the highly regulated XBLA store front. The two are not the same.
There will be a revolution in store fronts soon. If anyone is interested in our ideas, please contact us. We already have designs that extend beyond our Xona Proposal that offer solutions to most of the issues and we continue to work on the idea.
Is single-purchase freeing, or limiting in business decisions?
I think single-purchase with proper DLC that does not abuse the gamer is fine. It's all we need as a business. We do not want our video games to become VLT's (video lottery terminals), which is exactly the opposite of respecting our consumers. If we want our work to be respected, and if we want to do respectful work in general, then we must respect those we sell it to.
I completely could rip into telecommunications companies for the type of evilness they enjoy, that are now infecting the gaming industry. Who likes being overcharged? Who wants to manage their gaming budget the way we have to manage our minutes on cell plan? There's a lot to be said for stress-free products. Games should give experiences within their games, and stop adding to stressful experiences outside of them.
And, that's it. Thanks for reading until the end. Please let us know what you think.
About the Author: I am Matthew Doucette of Xona Games, an award-winning indie game studio that I founded with my twin brother. We make intensified arcade-style retro games. Our business, our games, our technology, and we as competitive gamers have won prestigious awards and received worldwide press. Our business has won $180,000 in contests. Our games have ranked from #1 in Canada to #1 in Japan, have become #1 best sellers in multiple countries, have won game contests, and have held 3 of the top 5 rated spots in Japan of all Xbox LIVE indie games. Our game engines have been awarded for technical excellence. And we, the developers, have placed #1 in competitive gaming competitions -- relating to the games we make. Read about our story, our awards, our games, and view our blog.
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