"We're cautious but we're willing to experiment."
By Stace Harman on September 17, 2013 at 1:58 pm
The open nature of the PC scene has long been a breeding ground for innovation through experimentation. Big-budget blockbusters from the major publishing labels sit side by side with relatively small indie projects, that extol the virtues of self-expression through creativity and diversity.
The openness of the market has also allowed a multitude of business models to co-exist, and so premium boxed products and downloads sit alongside subscription services, micro-transactions and free-to-play experiences, while digital distribution has become the most natural way to access a game.
With the imminent launch of Sony and Microsoft’s new hardware, many of these alternate practices will spill over to the traditionally closed nature of the console market and the trickle that’s been seen on current gen will become a flood on the next. The likelihood of this happening is such that many publishers are adapting their wider strategy to accommodate and support these models, which itself impacts design choices and affects development for every platform back up the chain to the PC.
Consequently, free-to-play is about to become an even bigger proposition throughout the entire industry that it is now. In some cases this will bring PC and console players into direct contact, like Gaijin Games’ PS4 launch title and cross-platform free-to-play combat MMO, War Thunder. In others, it will prompt a concerted push by developers to support and promote titles that buck the traditional trend of releasing a game into the wild and moving onto the next big thing.
Ubisoft’s desire to embrace this growing trend has led the publisher to hold a series of international Digital Day events at which it showcases upcoming and existing projects across a broad spectrum of IPs and business models.
At the most recent of these Digital Days to be held in Ubisoft’s home town of Paris, we spoke to EMEA marketing director of digital publishing, Thomas Paincon, about the internal changes necessary to support new methods of pay and play.
“It would be a major mistake to take a completed project and turn that into free-to-play, which is why that decision has to be taken from the beginning; not at the end and not part way through,” Paincon explains.
“Then you have to think of the open-beta launch as just the start. This is a new concept and is something that maybe took us three years to arrive at because we had to change mindset, not just in production but across the whole business.”
The adoption of this mindset has been better realised in some areas of Ubisoft’s digital stable than it has in others. While the likes of The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot and Might & Magic Duel of Champions offer high quality and enjoyable experiences where payment feels genuinely optional, there are other more troubling propositions on the horizon, such as Redlynx’s approach to Trials Frontier.
The mobile game, which will interact with the upcoming console and PC title Trials Fusion, limits the length of a play session by way of a depleting fuel gauge that can be recharged through patience or payment. While it avoids the dreaded notion of pay to win, it runs the risk of making players feel that they are being held to ransom if Redlynx fails to get the balance of recharge vs play time just right.
This uncertainty is indicative of a major publisher’s tentative early steps into new territory after years spent focusing solely on premium boxed products and an occasional dalliance in the download market. Indeed, Paincon acknowledges that there is a degree of experimentation involved when it comes to establishing how best to apply new business models to Ubisoft’s expansive varied product catalogue.
“Right now we’re looking at the whole business model for all our properties based on usage,” says the marketing director. “So, while a second-screen experience might have particular strengths when combined with open-world properties like The Division or Watch Dogs, a mobile game might be better suited being free-to-play.
“We are less and less about applying one specific business model to all properties and more about being able to apply the lessons we learn in one area to another.”
The ongoing, service-based nature of free-to-play makes it possible to experiment in this way, where refinements to a formula can me made if necessary. However, it’s also an intrinsically more difficult process to manage because there’s no natural end to a project and a persistent requirement to implement new features and content in order to sustain interest in the game world.
“Content is key, to enable you to refresh the game, which is why, for us, free-to-play is a philosophy rather than just a business model; a philosophy of live operation,” explains Paincon.
“When you launch a free-to-play game you immediately have a long line of people who want something: from business to community to management to marketing, it’s never ending. The goal of production is to prioritise that and establish what is most important in the long term and the short term.”
Evidently, it’s a daunting process and a difficult one for publishers and developers to adapt to. However, it’s encouraging to hear that there’s more thought and consideration for how a particular business model might fit a specific IP than there has been in the past.
Free-to-play is big business but it’s far from a guarantee of success or a licence to print money. You might have the fairest, most consumer-friendly way of monetising a product but if the underlying game is boring, lacks a satisfying progression mechanic or suffers from irregular content updates then nobody will experience your elegant business model because they simply won’t be playing your game.
It’s something that Paincon insists Ubisoft is very aware of, “People talk about Hay Day and Clash of Clans as if [free-to-play] is the magical solution but they don’t talk about the other 1,000 free-to-play games that don’t work, so we’re cautious but we’re willing to experiment.”
There will continue to be missteps along the way, but as the big publishers expose the mainstream console markets to alternative business models, the entire process across all platforms will become normalised and ever more refined. At that point, the method of monetisation will once again fade into the background and leave us to get on with the serious business of playing games.