Jagex Game Studios, UK developer of browser MMOG Runescape, has cautioned developers against blindly joining the current rush to the free-to-play model.
In recent months, a number of existing and upcoming online games have adopted the free-to-play model, which relies on a small percentage of paying players to effectively subsidise a game's wider userbase by buying virtual items through microtransactions. On average, just three per cent of players do so, but in an interview, Jagex CEO Mark Gerhard tells us that three per cent can spend vast amounts.
"[Some players] can spend thousands of pounds a month on content - they just have to consume, they have to be number one," he tells us. "But at the same time it's a very small percentage. This is single-digit at best, and that's even fractional.
"Then you've got people who'll almost violently never pay: 'I'm going to stick it to the man'. But you need them to balance the game, to get it to critical mass, for virality."
While the free-to-play model has proven lucrative in many cases, Gerhard says that developers who think that all they need do is hitch themselves to the bandwagon and sit back and watch their margins skyrocket could be in for a shock.
"It's less about what's the right model, less about how to take money from a customer's wallet, and more about what kind of gameplay you have that's conducive to that type of monetisation mechanism," he says. "I think a lot of people say: 'All the successful games are doing this now, so you must, too'.
"We've looked at that and said it's the substitute of thinking. If you copy it wrong you might be copying the things that work, but you're probably also copying the things that don't."
Gerhard's comments go some way to explaining why traditional publishers experimenting with free-to-play for the first time are reluctant to go all-in, clearly wary of alienating their existing userbases. Blizzard has made World Of Warcraft free-to-play, but only up to level 20 and with several restrictions on game features; when Valve introduced microtransactions to the now-free-to-playTeam Fortress 2, the only virtual items for sale were cosmetic, or "vanity" items.
Yet German studio Bigpoint, which has been built from the ground up as a developer of free-to-play games, thinks differently. Last month chief games officer Philip Reisberger slammed traditional publishers' approach, telling us those that were terrified of selling a gameplay advantage rather than vanity items were, essentially, doing it wrong. "If selling an advantage ruins the game," he said, "you haven't done the balancing right."
Gerhard's comments are extracts from a feature in our new issue which looks at the rapid rise of free-to-play, with further input fromLord Of The Rings Online developer Turbine, mobile analytics firm Flurry, Eve Online studio CCP - which knows more than a little about how microtransactions can alienate a playerbase - and more.E234 will be with subscribers any day now, and on newsagents shelves from tomorrow.
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