Believe it or not, Jack and I don’t spend every waking minute of our lives with our heads buried in our computer screens working on Where Shadows Slumber. Occasionally, we take the time to read up on current events in the game industry!
The big news of last week was Star Wars Battlefront 2’s controversial loot-box system, and how EA and Disney tried desperately to pull up as their starship careened toward the surface in a full nose-dive. I’m not a journalist, so I’ll let you look up the story on your own. Personally I’m a huge fan of this YouTuber YongYea – watch the last 5 or 6 videos on his channel and you’ll get the full story. (Coarse language warning – YongYea gets pretty passionate about this subject.)
Honestly, the headlines of these videos alone are enough to give you the idea. Are you an expert on lootboxes and the EA controversy yet? Yes? Great, let’s dive right in!
Why Are You Blogging About This?
It may seem odd to bring up EA and Star Wars Battlefront 2 in a blog that’s dedicated to following the progress of our mobile puzzle game. However, Jack and I write these blogs for a few reasons. Progress updates are great, but sometimes we like to take the time to spill our guts and let you know exactly what we’re thinking and why we made certain key decisions along the way.
Recently I attended the Mobile Games Forum. As I wrote in my blog post, I felt a bit out of place at that conference. Industry executives are really moving away from premium games! Nearly everyone I met was either a free-to-play developer or an ad network executive trying to sell us their services. Sometimes I felt downright insulted by the comments these guys made towards me and my “ancient” business model. I heard things like “the market is only 7% premium these days” and “game developers are the only ones who miss the premium model.” At the limit, I heard the scariest thing imaginable: The premium market is dead.
So I’d like to take this week’s blog post as an opportunity to talk about the recent controversy with EA, and relate it to the apparent death of the premium business model. But first, we need to define these terms in case I’m using technical jargon you’ve never heard before. (This is an educational blog, after all…) Then we need to mention some disclaimers so people don’t flame me in the comments section.
Disclaimers and Definitions
Before we dive in – what the heck am I talking about? To someone who doesn’t study the entertainment industry, this blog post is probably a bit confusing so far. Here are the terms I’m going to use, and what I think they mean. Hit me up in the comments if I make a big mistake and I’ll update the blog.
Premium: You see a game on the App Store. It costs 5 dollars. You pay the money, and download the game. You play it. You never have a reason (or the ability) to spend more money in-game after this point. There are no advertisements or “time-wasters” in the game.
Free, With Ads: You see a game on the App Store. It costs 0 dollars to download! You download it for free and play it. During the game, advertisements for real-world products pop up at regular intervals. These can be images or videos. The developer makes a fraction of a cent for every ad you watch or click. You may also be given the option at times to opt into watching an ad to get some kind of in-game bonus.
Free, With In-App Purchases: You see a game on the App Store. It costs 0 dollars to download! You download it for free and play it. During the game, you notice that certain player abilities, player accessories, or levels are locked. To unlock them, you need to spend either an in-game currency, or a real-world currency like USD. The in-game currency doesn’t go nearly as far as the real-world currency, usually at a conversion rate of something like 100:1. You can do everything in the game without paying money, but it takes a ton of time.
Grind: Known as grinding or “the grind,” this is the process of doing something repetitive in a game in order to earn enough currency to buy something. I assume the name came from the agonizing process of pushing a millstone around in circles in your bare feet.
Lootboxes: Digital grab-bags filled with randomized treasure. Lootboxes are often purchasable in-game with in-game currency, but the grind to get them is time intensive and dull. These lootboxes can always be purchased at a great discount with real money, so the incentive to pony up is always there.
Finally, I want to mention that there are plenty of free games I have played and enjoyed.
I used to play League of Legends with my friends when we were all into the game – that one is Free, With In-App Purchases. Because you never were able to buy powerful items in League of Legends, I never spent money on the game or even felt like I needed to. In that game, you only purchased different costumes for your heroes. I felt it was a good way of doing that model, and Riot Games has been quite successful.
Currently I really enjoy the digital card game Hearthstone, which is also Free, With In-App Purchases. That one is dicier because they have lootboxes in the form of card packs. Since you can buy card packs to get good cards and put them in your deck, they’re essentially selling power. I think they get away with it because Blizzard still has a good reputation. Also, this business model is as old as the real-world card game Magic: The Gathering. Perhaps players are used to it by now. However, the pay-to-get-good-cards model is harming their ability to capture new players, so not all is well in the land of Azeroth. The impact of this business model remains to be seen.
Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp just launched today and I’m definitely going to play it no matter how weird it is. I love Nintendo, I love Animal Crossing, and I’m well aware this is probably going to be a free, with in-app purchases minefield. By this point though, I’ve gotten pretty good at playing these games without paying a cent.
Now that you know I don’t hate every single free-to-play game, let’s talk about why this business model can easily be corrupted.
The Right Way and the Wrong Way To Do This
Let me tell you what I like about free games when they are done correctly.
In my view, when a game lets you download it for free and largely ignore the in-app purchases, consumers will enjoy the experience. I get a strange sense of accomplishment knowing that my Hearthstone deck, which I built over time for free, can beat some nerd who paid $100 in card packs. The reason why I don’t play games with ads is because there’s no way to ignore them – they are shoved into your face on purpose.
This is what makes Star Wars: Battlefront 2’s lootbox system so egregious. They’ve gone with the controversial Premium, With In-App Purchases model. Recently, this has only been done successfully by Overwatch, probably due in no small part to Blizzard’s stellar reputation in the industry. More importantly, Overwatch’s lootboxes never contain any items that materially affect gameplay. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your costume is – you’ll still get dunked by a regular player who didn’t pay for lootboxes if they are better at the game than you are.
EA has flipped the script, totally ignoring cosmetic items and focusing instead on selling Star Cards: boring passive abilities that make your character better in unexplained, unrealistic ways. By selling players the random chance to get incredibly powerful abilities and forcing other players to grind their way to these same powers, EA is simply setting free players up to fail. After you’ve paid $60 for Star Wars: Battlefront II, you really haven’t finished paying for the product. What’s worse is that now you don’t even get the option of laying out more money to get what you want – such as the ability to play as Darth Vader – but instead you need to gamble with your time and money. Whatever happened to video games just being fun experiences? Aren’t we in the entertainment industry? One side (developers) is not respecting the other side (players), and the players are largely just accepting this brutal beat-down.
Premium: A Business Model Based on Mutual Respect
Finally, the conversation can return to Where Shadows Slumber, our upcoming premium mobile puzzle game. It took me a while to lay the groundwork for this, but I wanted to show you where my thoughts were coming from.
Jack and I didn’t choose this business model flippantly. It’s not like we had the chance to make a free-with-ads game and then said “eh, what the heck. Make it premium. Who cares?” There were a number of factors at play when we made this decision, back in 2015.
1. Inspiration from Monument Valley: As we’ve noted many times, the premium smash hit Monument Valley and its successful sequel inspired us to make this game. They offered the game for a premium price, and only charged players more money later when they created more levels. That always seemed more than fair to us. If they made millions, why can’t we?
2. Game design: Similar to the point above, we decided that a linear level-based puzzle game just couldn’t be reconfigured to work with a free-to-play business model. Our entire game was based around the business model: an assumption that this was a relaxing, creepy puzzle experience waiting to unfold before you. Your character can’t die in our game, and there are no enemies. That means we can’t sell lives or power-ups. Since the game is a finite single-player experience, we wouldn’t get much mileage out of selling cosmetic items. Who cares what the character looks like? The game lasts just a few hours and there’s no one to impress. We could put ads in-between levels, but there aren’t even a ton of levels so we wouldn’t make much money per player. We simply never had any desire to mutilate the concept of our game in order to make room for a pigeonholed free-to-play business model.
3. Hedging our bets against free-to-play: Every bubble bursts eventually. Right now, the business executives making these decisions are looking at the success of their competitors and simply copying them. This is often called reactive development. Responding to the environment around them, business executives see that every game is free to play and decide to follow suit. But I think it’s better to be proactive and look toward the future. Next year, when our game launches, what will players think about the game industry? Will they have a negative or a positive reaction to a $0 price tag on a game? Has Star Wars: Battlefront II poisoned the well? Jack and I are taking a gamble by pursuing a business model that makes very little money. But we do so with the confidence that free-to-play’s stock is falling, and an informed group of players are getting tired of seeing good games get ruined by the greedy demands of executives.
This Industry Needs Mutual Respect
The thing that combines the three points above is the principle of mutual respect. Call me old fashioned, but I’m used to the traditional way of doing things.
As a player with money to spend, you scan the market for interesting video games. Something catches your eye – it’s a beautiful indie puzzle game about a strange priestly-looking dude with a lantern. The puzzles in the game are weird. Objects in the level change with shadows? You’ve never seen that before.
Before you take a leap of faith with your money, you try the free Demo on the store. It’s polished, the puzzles are quirky, and the story ends on a weird cliffhanger. Curiosity overwhelms you and you’ve made up your mind! You’re going to buy “Where Shadows Slumber.”
It may not seem like it, but this is a sign of respect. You’ve trusted us with your money. You respect us enough not to pirate the game or just watch someone playing it on YouTube. You trust us to deliver on what we promised in our Demo. You believe that our screenshots are genuine, and not Photoshopped to make the game look cooler than it is. Even though we’re indies straight out of college, you take a chance on us instead of taking your business elsewhere.
In turn, we as game developers should respect you. We should respect you by delivering on our promise, giving you an entertaining experience that matches or exceeds the value of the money you’ve paid. This is where my disdain for in-game advertisements comes from. It’s impossible for me to see it as anything other than a show of disrespect. When someone entrusts you with their time, how could you shove a commercial in their face and then demand they pay up to prevent their time from being wasted?
Time is the most precious thing we have as human beings. I’d gladly pay any sum of money for more years on this Earth, and more years for the lives of my loved ones. This is impossible, but the urge is always there. That’s what EA is exploiting when they devise a system that requires players to grind for 80 hours just to unlock one character. They’re holding your entertainment hostage and asking you to make a terrible choice: give up your time (precious) or an unknowable sum of money (also precious, in large quantities). By some estimates, you would have to spend close to $2,000 just to guarantee that you’ll unlock all Battlefront II has to offer. You’d never spend that much on a game upfront and they know it. In a sign of disrespect, they’ve devised a system to coerce you into playing their game or paying a ton of money over time without realizing it.
If that’s what the premium business model died for, it died in vain.
Moral Arguments Require a Virtuous Community
It should be obvious by now that I’m not making a business case in favor of the Premium model. It’s dead or dying, and I get that. I don’t have any numbers to back this up. All I’m saying is that there’s a morally right way of delivering entertainment, and a morally wrong way of doing it too. Some publishers like to dance close to the fire, and EA jumped right into the furnace. (There’s a business argument for you – reputation matters.) But since this is a moral argument, it requires a community that cares about right and wrong in order for it to carry any weight.
Jack and I will need your help to pull this off. We want to be able to pay Alba and Noah and give them a good bonus through sales of the game. We want to be able to repay Caroline for her work on the website. I want the sales of Where Shadows Slumber to lay the foundation for Game Revenant’s future so I can be in business on my own. I want this game to make enough money so Jack never has to work another day in his life, especially after the sacrifices he’s made to create this beautiful game.
In order to do all of this, we need your help and we need it now! Now is the time to share this article with a friend, or show them our game’s website. If you haven’t downloaded the game’s Demo, do it today and send the link to a friend. Sign up for our newsletter so you can be there for us on day 1, leaving a good review and boosting our standing in the app charts.
Remember that there are four ways to vote in this marketplace:
- With your money – a symbol of what you place value on and what you do not.
- With your voice – what games are you talking about and sharing on social media?
- With your ratings – a sign of how you think other players should view the game.
- With your time – everything is tracked these days, and play time equals support.
Premium isn’t dead – but it will die when the gaming community overwhelmingly votes to support disrespectful business models and neglects to support indies. Big publishers like EA are probably beyond saving, but Game Revenant isn’t.
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The views expressed in Frank Opinion don’t represent everyone working on Where Shadows Slumber. You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.
Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.