Free to play, free to play, free to play. Is that really the future of games? Blizzard’s jumping on the bandwagon, and they’ve always been on the cutting edge of game design (er maybe not). EA’s gone from 20 releases in a year to 6. Zynga’s gonna get a bajillion dollars in their IPO.
What does all this mean for the game industry overall, not to mention indie developers? Basically every single news piece on these trends is the most hyperbolic thing ever, that each single trend is going to change the entire industry in its favor. The exception is the occasional article with similar bombast, but ending with a single question whether all it is bullshit. Well it is, but it’s difficult to see past all the hot air and try to figure out where trends are actually going.
The real implications of F2P
The myth of the long tail
The idea that sales via digital distribution will magically continue longer before they die out, has died out itself. Turns out with more access to distribution, there are more titles – who knew? Managing a product’s sales lifespan is solely a matter of constructing a narrative – sales, bundles, new content/updates, and the holy grail of PR narratives, the look-how-crazy-successful-we’ve-become-thereby-making-us-more-successful (ie. Minecraft). If you don’t have a plan for what will keep your game newsworthy post launch, expect sales to die out per normal.
The myth of simultaneous release
Most publishers we talked to trying to sign Skulls of the Shogun for console publishing needed simultaneous release on XBLA/PSN (aside from platform owners, obv). That’s how we capitalize on the marketing expenditure and awareness at once, they say. Only they don’t do any marketing, and it’s not how you build awareness. Given the number of platforms available, taking even a small game like ours to simultaneous release would grow us to a scale that’s quickly unsupportable.
More importantly, awareness is built over time. A successful product being ported to a new platform, with possibly new content, is a new peak in your PR narrative. Popcap basically defined this with Plants vs. Zombies – each new platform sells even more than the last.
This notion that you have to capitalize on the awareness that comes from simultaneous launch is built on an assumption at the core of most traditional game publishers – your game will suck and therefore you want as many people to buy it before they find out it sucks. If you actually have a good game, delaying release to fit your resources actually makes more sense, since it simply means more people will have heard about it by the time it comes out. The myth’s not dead yet, but I can only hope it will be sooner rather than later.
Curated platforms aren’t a bad thing
As a platform owner, you have one concern – building an economically feasible environment for developers to make games, which in turn is what attracts your audience, which is what makes you money. Curating the platform, picking the highest quality games (assuming you are capable of it), is the fastest way to do so.
The iPhone is only now becoming an environment where you have a reasonable chance of making your money back, for a very small development budget. XBLA reached that point much sooner in its lifecycle, for this reason. However much you want to bitch about “closed” platforms, they often have corresponding advantages as well.
As an indie developer, given the odds against you, you’ve got to consider what your chances are on each target platform. If you want to shoot for a riskier one, go ahead, but you’ve got to manage your costs along with that risk.
The browser as platform
Some days I fantasize about HTML5 being a magical genie that lets you take your game from platform to platform, only as difficult as the actual hardware interfaces allow (ie. touch vs. controller vs. mouse). Today, however, that is a joke. The speed at which most browsers deal with HTML5 is laughable and completely implausible for game development. I’d also like to imagine browser makers will optimize for HTML5, but the effort for them all to do so still will make this infeasible for some time. Unless someone makes a high performance browser specifically focused on games…
The return of your favorite phrase, next-gen
Microsoft, Sony, EA, and other third party publishers, need a new console like they need a hole in the head. The exception to this is Nintendo, who will make money on its hardware, having waited several years to launch the now-comparable WiiU.
Third party publishers will support it in the sense that it allows them to port games, with some tacked on features to take advantage of the controller. None of them can afford to do the R&D to actually to do cool multiplayer gameplay with the multiple screens, sadly. But I can’t even imagine official announcements of a new console next year. Perhaps rumblings of developers getting kits, but no substantive info. 2014, 2015 we might see one. Microsoft is ahead here, since they will no doubt use the same code base, spruced up a bit for new tech. When Nintendo says, no really we get digital distribution and
online this time, expect it to be improved but still fall far short of anything you’d really want. With way more games at a lower price and comparable graphics minus the headache inducing 3D, the iPhone’s not a competitor to the 3DS, donchaknow.
Steam vs. 100
I’ve lost count of the small companies trying to create browser-based competitors to Steam (in the sense that they’re PC/Mac digital distro marketplaces for games, usually run with a browser plugin based on WebGL or proprietary tech). When the first bullet point in your required steps to success as a business is “reach feature parity with the competitor that’s several orders of magnitude larger than us now”… Your outlook’s not good.
Not that there isn’t room to compete with Steam, but doing everything it does in the browser is not actually competing – if you care about games on your PC today you use Steam. Going to a different location, the browser, isn’t automatically going to open up a new audience because because it doesn’t offer anything different to the user’s experience – unlike, say, the social graph of Facebook.
The multiplatform app store
This one’s a no brainer, although it will be a matter of some time before an existing platform owner fully realizes the easiest way to get an edge in distribution is to take their brand to more hardware – If I know Steam is great for PC games, and Steam is on PS3 now, I’m going to go there as a consumer looking for quality content & deals. Reduce the barriers for people looking for your brand on any hardware, and you immediately have an edge over everybody.
Despite everyone’s hopes that digital distribution would remove the role of gatekeepers for games or other media, there they are, still flourishing. It’s easier to get your game out there, but that means more games, which means people want to have trusted sources to shop for them. For every major digital marketplace, success is still defined by being featured on the storefront.
I don’t understand why any of the major marketplaces haven’t pushed on personal recommendations in the same way sites like Amazon & Netflix have. Well, I kinda do in the sense I know Apple does care if their 30% comes from $1 fart app or $1 game, but their not thinking of how to increase their total overall sales. Personalized storefronts and weighted ratings from friends. One platform that is heavily focused on this front, as well as indie games, is IndieCity. If they manage to achieve everything they set out to do, I expect them to do very well.
The slow death of free to play Facebook games
As the number of companies entering the space increases, with only Zynga and a few others at the critical mass to post meaningful numbers, the economic viability of the platform goes down statistically (less chance you will succeed in the larger market). Yet the bar for overall game polish is going up, slowly but surely, as is the cost. Yeah, free to play may drive design of the past and next few years, just like the nature & business model of arcades drove game design in the 70′s. Only we moved away from that and broadened our audience by broadening the types of experiences games offered.
The birth of single-purchase Facebook games
As the cost to compete with Zynga rises, some small scrappy company will innovate by providing a smaller base of users a nag-free *experience* completely different than the obsessive compulsive disorder enducing Skinner boxes that are available now. At the right size and price point, along with a trial experience (so not free to play as in Zynga, but free to play as in ID), a few success stories or two will change the news narrative, although perhaps have little impact on Zynga’s bottom line. And what was old will be new again. Not for a while though (maybe 2013).
The awkward slow death of gamification
When a hoard of VCs jump on a topic that’s actually very difficult to execute well, and expect immediate stellar results, the inevitable failure causes their attention to wane. See also MMO’s, circa 2005-6. That’s not to say you’ll stop seeing games invade other design efforts, but that’s because this is the century of our interactive medium, and not because a legion of thirty something douchebags who were millionaires by 24 think they can make more millions in the space of a year. Good riddance. RIP Gamification, 2009-2013.
In the good-for-me category
As major disc releases from traditional publishers drop dramatically, expect XBLA/PSN sales to shoot up dramatically as well. Instead of a hit XBLA game selling 500k, expect a million, in a much shorter timeframe (by 2013). While XBLA/PSN releases are increasing, it’s not nearly at the rate disc games are decreasing.
Traditional publishers will continue to not get digital distribution – the EA store? More like the EA snore. Some will instead pursue free to play Facebook games, but few will increase investment in XBLA/PSN games (a possible exemption here is Warner Brothers Interactive, publishing Bastion, and Sony & MS, again, obv). More room for small teams & creative games in those spaces, then, which is also great. I wasn’t so solid on this when Battlefield 1942 came out and it did phenomenally, but EA hasn’t followed up with anything to capitalize or stemming from that success (so it’s possible they spent too much money on it and ran away). However mid-sized developers will continue to turn to digital distribution, following Double Fine’s lead. Just god help you if you come out the same week as a Double Fine game.
XBLIG rising up
Till now the platform hasn’t been viable, with several of the most successful devs opting out and moving to other platforms. However the slow but sure increase in quality of games on XBLIG will draw users to it inevitably. Expect next year to be a banner year for the platform, as the XBLIG+Steam combo becomes the lowest-fuss method of getting your game on console and PC (as Robert Boyd/Zeboyd Games is pioneering now). By 2013 it will become a common indie strategy to release episodically on XBLIG and either do the same or bundle episodes together on Steam (given the silly price cap on XBLIG – the single best thing MS can do for the platform is to up that to $15 or at least $10).
It will continue to exist. And not be crazy successful again but still hang around with its existing audience.
Streaming games – Onlive vs Gaikai
Regardless of the actual neato factor to this technology, Onlive is trying to compete with Steam by offering digital distribution for games. Like the hundred or so start-ups trying to create a platform that competes with Steam, it’s not just an uphill battle, it’s an up-mountain battle. Gaikai plans to focus on business like Walmart and let them stream demos of games, a completely new market, so I expect them to win out.
The high end market on tablets
While THQ’s Danny Bilson may be on drugs for thinking a $40 price point will work, $15 dollars hits a space for a market already willing to adopt pricey tech for a new experience. That price point also gives devs a fair amount of budget breathing room to make something cool. Any day now people will figure this out, it just takes somebody with the grit to charge $15 for a good iPad game.
Cross platform play
Sony’s got the Vita + PS3, Microsoft has Xbox + Winphone 7 (and PC…?). While imaging worlds of asymmetric, asynchronous play is a designer’s wet dream, no major publisher is willing to put the money into the design research to do it. No large team is going be capable of innovating at the right speed & cost.
And as for opening up really interesting asymmetric play options, unfortunately this basically means building up a large multiplayer base on every platform, something incredibly difficult for an indie to (as there are major difficulties to do that with MP and a small team on just one platform). It’s cool for sure, but it will be several years and possibly another set of hardware before the potential is fully realized.
What does it meeeeeaaaan?
As an indie, you’re in a good spot if you’re planning to take advantage of one of those gaps/opportunities. Since the timing of those windows is crucial for a small team, you’ll need a fallback or two if it doesn’t work out. But with so many options, the hard part is just picking a couple that have a reasonable chance of success. You can’t just consider the biggest possible success you can obtain on a platform, but the odds that you will reach a level where you can stably afford rent.