Gamers these days are burdened with the free-to-play business model, as the very phrase incites grumbles of ‘oh no, here we go again’ and players being turned off before they’ve even seen the first glimpse of gameplay. There’s also the issue of how it can change a game and its pacing, as players wait patiently (or not so patiently) to time a strike or for another energy pip to recharge.
Despite these issues, the free-to-play business model train continues on. The fact that free-to-play games still prove to be incredibly lucrative despite just a small amount of players spending any money on them is likely also a benefit.
Considered as an inexperienced conductor, Electronic Arts tried their hand at free to play with the mobile reboot of Dungeon Keeper. Unfortunately for EA, the title was regarded as a disappointment among mobile gamers, as harsh monetization meant that the game was almost impossible to play without some sort of payment. This, of course, was in stark opposition to its ‘free to play’ advertising (EA was barred from promoting the game as such as a result) yet despite the backlash, the publisher explains that Dungeon Keeper fell on its dungeon-dwelling rear because EA “innovated too much”.
The over-enthusiasm for innovation (or rather, the poor attempts at such) boiled down to EA losing its place in the mobile market, as EA Mobile head Frank Gibeau explains. While they were once the reigning king two years ago with famous $7 titles like The Sims 3 or other paid-for titles like Tetris and the family-drama-causing stalwart Scrabble, smartphones began to become popular in more places around the world and the freemium way of doing things crept in, stealing the rug from under EA’s feet.
Dungeon Keeper could have been EA’s attempt at aggressively recouping funds in a market where they’d just had to sell and keep selling, but Gibeau doesn’t see it that way. Instead, he says that “Dungeon Keeper suffered from a few things, I don’t think we did a particularly good job marketing it or talking to fans about their expectations for what Dungeon Keeper was going to be or ultimately should be”, going on to say that “we might have innovated too much or tried some different things that people just weren’t ready for,” conveniently never directly addressing the failure of a monetization strategy head-on.
That being said, he laughed when the idea of a Dungeon Keeper sequel was posed to him, so perhaps EA does recognize that making a play for every penny isn’t going to fly. But, the publisher is not abandoning free-to-play either, as the EA Mobile team is working on F2P titles to compete against mobile giants Supercell as well as the rapidly changing Asian market.
“If you had talked to me about two years ago and tried to speculate there would be a company called Supercell with that much share and that many games, we wouldn’t even have come close.”
“If you look at how Asia operates, premium just doesn’t exist as a business model for interactive games, whether it’s on PC or mobile devices. If you look at the opportunity set, if you’re thinking globally, you want to go freemium so you can capture the widest possible audience in Japan, Korea, China, and so on… With premium games, you just don’t get the downloads you do with a free game. It’s better to get as many people into your experience and trying it. If they connect with it, that’s great, then you can carry them for very long periods of time. With premium, given that there are so many free offerings out there, it’s very difficult to break through.”
So EA Mobile is clearly up against it, not just externally, but from within, as Gibeau acknowledged that EA’s existing experience in the PC and console space has been a hindrance (to everyone — including Dungeon Keeper’s developer Mythic Entertainment, which was shut down after the game’s poor performance). Though, as the freemium game industry continues to grow from the “two guys in a garage” level, Gibeau states, EA’s organizational capabilities will kick in and they’ll triumph.
They’ll also triumph, he says, as “computing power is just something we’ll continue to leverage” saying that they’re “going to be building technologies like Frostbite that operate on mobile devices so we can create richer, more immersive experiences on mobile” to not just blitz Candy Crush out of the water but to bring PS3 and Xbox 360 quality titles onto mobile too.
Those are some pretty lofty expectations from the man in charge of EA Mobile’s (thus far) lackluster free-to-play affairs but with the next cycle of smartphones looking to be a huge increase of power there is the potential for Gibeau’s hopes to come true, lest we have to pay-to-play through disasters such as Dungeon Keeper once again.
Source: Games Industry International