One of the big debates that came out of Indie Connect involved free-to-play (F2P) games, which are a rising trend in the industry, and whether there is room for indie games in this space. Indeed, do indie developers want to fit into this space when some of the game design morals are “exploitative”?
The idea of F2P indie games was brought up by Martin Nerukar‘s talk The Indie Brain On F2P. You could sense the distaste of such a proposal as soon as the talk’s initiation was announced – as I made my way over to the lecture hall, there were mutters of “not fucking free-to-play” from the groups of chatting developers who ultimately decided to skip the talk altogether.
Martin first introduced himself as a game designer who now works on making F2P games but originally was a committed Quake modder. It wasn’t too long before he made his first defense move – that those who look at F2P as exploitative and dumbed down were short-sighted and narrow-minded. Fortunately, he did present a good counter argument by bringing up a few a examples of current F2P indie games: Realm of the Mad God, Triple Town and Tiny Tower.
Martin’s other point was that classic arcade games such as Asteroids were made with money in mind but you wouldn’t strike them down as gameplay experiences. This is what it seems many people do at the mention of F2P though because they perceive these games as taking game design and tweaking it in such a way that the player is compelled to keep playing but to pay a fee at some point to either continue playing or gain certain in-game desirables.
The fact is, this is what they do actually do. Implying that they don’t would mostly be false but that’s not to say that it’s inherently bad entirely and that indie games could never fit in this rising sector of the industry. Martin’s point was not to prove to people that F2P doesn’t do these things that so many developers despise, in fact he brought a slight discomfort into the room with ideas such as “monetization design” and looking at indie games as “products”. On these things, we’ll quickly note that he says you need to present a price range to your players from very cheap to expensive purchases and they all need to be something cool because you want to appeal to as many players as possible.
One of Martin’s main points he wanted to bring up was a theory he had, that making F2P games can make you a better game designer. The reasons for this belief started off with the necessity for making an engaging start to your game to ensure that players want to keep playing upon trying it out – this encourages game design with an alluring aspect that could benefit any game. Designing F2P games also teaches designers about working with a community to improve the product from tweaking certain aspects to providing “content refresh” in which you sustain the life of a game for as long as possible with new things for players to do or aim for, as well as holding community events and other forms of promotion.
After Martin had presented his talk the questions started coming in, one of which really stuck out: can indie game developers operate a F2P game if they remain small in size? The answer to which was a mixture of yes and no. The point being that F2P is a game of scale – to exist and carry on doing so, a game has to have the biggest player base possible as most of your players will not give you the money that you need to survive. It was pointed out that, if you are smaller in number then of course you will need less money than a bigger company will need but the fact is you will still need a big and dedicated community.
By the end of the discussion about indie games and F2P, it was accepted that indie games can exist in the F2P market but it’s not easy and the developers may find themselves making design choices with money in mind rather than the creativity that Indie Connect and its attendees was much more in tune with. If there was any doubt as to the overall opinion of the Festival about F2P, Jonathan Brodsky of Lucky Frame took to the stage the next day and happened to mention that he tried F2P once with a game but found it to not fit his game or his morals. Summed up, when asked why he resented the F2P model and he said “because it’s fucking exploitative”, one of the biggest cheers erupted of the whole festival.