Determinance screenshot

Why Frozen Synapse Costs Money

Why Frozen Synapse Costs Money

The inimitable Nicholas Lovell over at Gamesbrief has cast Frozen Synapse front-and-centre in the interminable debate between paid and F2P.

Check out his “Why I haven’t bought Frozen Synapse on the iPad for £4.99 yet”.

I think this pretty much sums it up:

I had to put more “risk” into the decision to download a paid game than a free game. I will feel more stupid if I don’t enjoy it than if the only cost to me was some all-you-can-eat bandwidth on my wifi.

Basically, his point is that it’s harder (for him) to make the choice to try a paid game than it is to try a free game.

Now, everyone loves bullet points, so here are some:

  • It’s a personal article about someone’s own preference and how that relates to a wider theme; it’s hyperbolic…because it’s written by Nicholas Lovell!   I’ll be responding in a similar way
  • This isn’t really about Frozen Synapse, as Nicholas told me.
  • We get on well and I’ve written for Gamesbrief before: this isn’t personal, so be nice if you comment or respond to him

Let’s talk about me now:

I find it harder to try a free-to-play game than I do to buy a paid one. Here’s why:

1. Most free-to-play games are still terrible

I constantly see free-to-play proponents claiming this isn’t the case (Nicholas is doing it on Twitter right now!)  but it’s still true for a certain audience.  And it’s not just the stereotypical “core” or “indie” audience who feel this way.

“No!” they will say.  ”Have you tried [terrible core game]?”  It’s always an embarrassing conversation.

This is changing, but very very slowly: the prejudices are still valid.

Back to me again.  I like:

- Immersion which isn’t broken by payment prompts

- Thoughtful narrative (in single player)

- Exceptional aesthetics

- Skill-based gameplay and a complex multi-player meta-game (in multiplayer)

Many, many free-to-play games are designed for people who don’t give two hoots about all of that stuff and like putting things in lines, flicking little men inside buggies, or buying the shiniest gun with the best numbers next to it.  I still expect most free-to-play games I try to be terrible and I’m not often wrong.

Of course, it’s fine for things to be terrible, and such things often do well commerically.  Here’s Pitbull and Christina Aguilera to explain further:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jlI4uzZGjU

Is this a snobby, elitist, smug opinion? Definitely.  Show me a single person who isn’t smug, snobby and elitist about their own taste.  I’m sure there are people who love that song, and that’s fine.  I…kind of love it.  Because it is terrible.

THIS IS DIGRESSION

2.  The ones that are not terrible make me dread their monetisation, fear for their future or write them off as an anomaly

I think this is a more interesting point.

I’ve played some League of Legends: it’s definitely a fun game with a rich multiplayer meta-game, although it’s not really my thing.  I don’t want to get to the point where I feel compelled to buy champions…that just doesn’t appeal to me.  I want to pay and forget that I’ve paid, not keep reaching for my wallet from time to time.  That, coupled with the crazy impenetrable maximalism of the rune system, and the fact that I don’t enjoy watching it streamed made me stop playing.

Obviously aesthetic-only microtransactions avoid this problem.

However, I don’t really think that small indie developers can take many meaningful lessons from either DOTA2 or Team Fortress 2…aside from “people actually do like aesthetic microtransactions in big communities”.  I believe free-to-play in core games works at a massive scale with a well known franchise; if you’re at the stage where you can viably consider it you’re probably doing pretty well for yourself anyway.  If we considered doing a free-to-play game in future, it’d probably be aesthetic-only and we’d be aiming for a huge audience.

So, I have “wallet dread”: I know that there will be some reason to keep me paying regularly while I’m playing and I just don’t want that.  It makes me concerned about the design of the game and often not even bother to try it.

When a free-to-play game doesn’t induce that feeling in me, I have concerns about its future.  There’s very little data available from devs about this still at the moment, so it’s hard to know whether that instinct is right or not.

By the way, if you’re a smaller developer making core F2P games, please release some data.  You’ll get a massive amount of press and it will help a lot of us to understand these things more.

I don’t think I’m alone with my wallet dread: a lot of people value their time more than they value money.  They want to pay to experience an unusual, unique game design that won’t harass them with tiny charges later on.  The game is up now: people understand that “free” doesn’t really exist.

Here’s another thing: sometimes I don’t want to be “retained”.  Designing for retention isn’t the Holy Grail: sometimes something is really fun for a short period of time, then not fun any more. I found this with Chivalry: I’m still glad I paid for it, but I probably won’t play it again.  That sort  of game is valid, both creatively and commercially: it can’t be free-to-play.

Frozen Synapse

Frozen Synapse is doing well on the App Store: it’s hit the benchmark that we wanted it to hit.

Nicholas said this wasn’t about Frozen Synapse but, of course, it sort of is.   I’ve said this many times before: if there was a way of making Frozen Synapse F2P in a way which wouldn’t compromise its design, we would think seriously about doing it.

There genuinely isn’t: it’s not possible.  It wouldn’t be Frozen Synapse if you started to do any of the things to it which would make for a successful free-to-play game.

For that reason, I’m glad Nicholas hasn’t bought it.  If the relationship you want with creators is that of being gently cajoled into paying while maintaining the illusion that you’re getting something for free, we’re not going to do that for you.  We’re going to say: “Look, here is something which we spent four years making that has a massive scope.  You can read what people say about it, watch videos of it, read user reviews, talk to members of the community and make one decision about its worth to you.”

We are being straight-up with you; that allows us to be straight-up in our design.  Frozen Synapse was supposed to be a clear, simple tactical game which allowed the user to do anything they wanted: that wasn’t perfectly achieved but that was the original motivation.

You don’t have to puzzle out just how we’re going to extract the next $2 from you: we made a deal and we’ll stick to it.  This isn’t the way to make the most money possible from a game, but it’s what we wanted to do.

In addition, once you’ve bought the game, if you like it and you want to spend more money on it, you can!  There’s a whole Red expansion pack to buy (coming soon to iPad by the way!).  This is completely optional: there is a huge amount to enjoy in the game without it.  I have no problem with games allowing their audience to pay more to get more stuff, by the way: I do think indies should take this into consideration more as well.

Finally, FS is a niche game, so it’s more expensive than some other games on the App Store: that’s how niches work, you often pay a little bit more for something that appeals more directly to you personally.

I’m sick of people telling me it “should” be free-to-play: I feel like this opinion is as daft as telling me to put a banging donk on it.

Where am I going with this? 

We will never, ever make a game where the payment model constrains the design.  If a design fits into free-to-play then we would definitely consider using it, but it’s not ever going to be an a priori creative limitation for us.  There will be no donks.

Every payment model has its disadvantages: pay-once can put some people off.  It’s hard to get the price right, and sometimes people aren’t able to try a game in a low-pressure way.

Design comes first for us: that’s why Frozen Synapse costs money.

12 Responses to “Why Frozen Synapse Costs Money”

  1. Dynamic Sporadic:

    Additional reason; Frozen Synapse is hard.

    Multiplayer is not kind to new players. There’s a saying about Go that you should “lose your first 50 games quickly” and the same is true of Frozen Synapse. People who have paid £5 are way more likely to bother to play to 50 games; because they want to feel that they got value for money. Without paying any money, you have literally no investment in the game, and people who would’ve paid for the game and would’ve played longer if they had done will get turned away. Yes, overall you are going to turn away more people, but the people that you keep, and the people that you acquire are more likely to become “Regulars”. Evergreen players that will play it forever. That will buy the expansion.

    The other thing it means is that the game is not is inundated with new players. Some people will not play out their learning period, and will quit after a few games, maybe even a few turns. Leaving in their wake empty, abandoned games. That’s no fun for the other, committed, player, because they end up with a huge game list of unfinished games from people who just gave up for one reason or another. £5 gives you room to move, to price drop in future and maybe collect another bunch of people to filter into regular players. And again. Maybe one day you go free, and hope to turn the regular players from that into buyers of RED.

  2. Geoff 'Shivoa' Birch:

    The arguments for F2P seem to boil down to “but what a wonderful world we could live in if there was such a thing as a demo with a low friction upgrade process”, which describes the mandated environment on XBLA since launch (all games must have demos, the demo is the full game download, you can press a button to move from the demo version to owning the full version – even XBLIG keeps these rule) and any online aware evolution of the traditional shareware/demo sales model.

    We now live in a gaming space where a lot of sales are made by watching video of someone else playing a game and giving a bit of a review of the value in the systems, not even via the demo. To say F2P is some great leap up because it allows someone to (normally) connect to an always on DRM platform with no up front cost seems to ignore all the other free ways in which people legally get exposed to games, often without any DRM.

    When I see a game with a price tag then I know how much it costs, when I see an F2P game I expect that ‘ownership’ is an impossible bar in part because gathering all the least-friction options and content bundles for the game can run to thousands of dollars (shockingly in some cases I mean this literally) and that most F2P games are linked to an online system that mean at any point the owner can pull the plug. No offline mode; no right to personal reuse of the assets (while respecting copyright concerns); just an empty void of nothing baring whatever money was thrown at buying virtual currency or the items that it could buy to make the game a better experience. I pay £1-2 to rent a game. Always on DRM (even wrapped in the ‘more than a demo’ language of F2P) turns what looks like a purchase into a rental. We’ve already given up on the first-sale doctrine (and equivalent laws) at the alter of PC games and the digital future, I have no interest in weakening that position further with games that allow massive investment but no assurance they will permanently be playable.

    Buying and selling games has seemed to work rather well for decades, with demos and videos only getting easier to distribute and link to a quick buy for impulse purchases. Maybe we shouldn’t give up on that model so quickly and move to a rental service where the designers feel they need to push upsells at every turn to make their game profitable. Maybe we can all agree to show our cards, you’ve got a game and I’ve got some money: let’s see if we can work something out.

  3. Winged Nazgul:

    It sounded like Nicholas wasn’t sure if Frozen Synapse would be worth the his money simply because he had never played it before. It’s a legitimate concern and one that a free demo could fix instead of going F2P.

    I, on the other hand, have played it before on the PC so I will be ready to throw money your way once an Android version come out. :)

  4. phertiker:

    The Microsoft store has an interesting mechanic in that they have “Buy” and “Trial” buttons should the developer so choose. Provide a trial, equivalent to a demo, but also allow the customer to purchase straight from the ecosystem store.

    What I like is that A) it doesn’t require you to have Frozen Synapse and Frozen Synapse FREE! as separate apps, while B) allowing people to buy it straight from the store rather than, say, as an in-app purchase.

  5. Archagon:

    So here’s a question: if you don’t have the name recognition and multi-platform approach that Frozen Synapse has, how do you ensure that your paid multiplayer game always has players and continues to have players in the future? Almost every indie multiplayer game in my Steam list has zero active players, and it really saddens me.

  6. Ian:

    Hi Archagon, thanks for the comment. FS is designed to accomodate very few people playing the game. All you really need is one other person online, and if someone is on their own and is looking for a game (by going to green on the traffic light control) we get emailed and we try to get someone on to play with them.

    Real time games often need 8 or so people online at the same time as you in the same general region so lag isn’t too bad. This means that while FS can survive on an active user base of less than fifty, other games require more like five hundred or a thousand. And once a game dips below the critical mass, it’s usually dead.

  7. Geoff 'Shivoa' Birch:

    One approach I think indies need to consider (even if it is throwing time/money at the problem) is the online demo. Giving demo players access to a limited but competitive experience manages to feed their curiosity into the player pool (with the concern of turning away new players if the only people to play against are veterans so a handicap system is also needed for this design to be ideal) and give paying players someone to play against. It also means you can entice friends with the option to play against you without them buying (although this can also be done with a modern take on LAN spawn installs).

    LoL is currently giving every demo player access to a small selection of heroes at a cost of preventing them from doing a DOTA2 draft range (where you can make interesting draft rules as every player has access to every hero). Some FPS have demos where a single map is available (pushing the paid payer base towards that map, of which they may get sick so learn from LoL and make the map on a weekly rotation or make it so only paid players get to vote on the next map – neither are perfect methods but there is space here to experiment). With persistent bonuses and unlocks in many online games then you can even just give demo players access to the full online experience with a cap on games played per day/week; they can create as many accounts as they like but will only progress each at the capped rate.

    How you limit an online demo is going to depend on your game and plenty of iteration and checking how beta players respond if you start limiting a subset of them by the demo rules. But it isn’t a terrible idea and, as Ian says (with experience), without consideration then an online component can easily become dead so adds little value (for people who don’t play against friends on LAN or direct match). But developing any kind of demo is extra work with unknown gains (I might suggest that the toxic price/expectations environment on mobile might be helped to flourish by the lack of demos for a lot of that content and not enough online review work to make all purchases informed) and especially dangerous if you’re giving away a block of your online experience (new troll/undesirables vector into the community).

  8. Owen:

    Good article in response to an interesting original piece.

    Personally, the only topic the OP brought up that I was hoping to see a reply to was the one about demos, or trying before you buy. I found his argument about that to be compelling. The rest of it I 100% agree with you on,

  9. Why Are More Developers Seeking To Charge Upfront For Their Apps? - Indie Statik:

    [...] 7 Games more recently jumped into the debate after releasing Frozen Synapse on to the App Store, where it costs £4.99 and doesn’t contain [...]

  10. Colm:

    Hear hear!

    I really think the ‘free’ in F2P games often needs to be adorned with ‘dick quotes’

  11. Midian:

    “- Exceptional aesthetics”

    Does this mean iPad retina is on the way? ;)

  12. Gaming Links of the Week: May 19 to May 26 - JonLim.ca:

    [...] Why Frozen Synapse Costs Money – Paul Taylor of Mode 7 Games, the developers behind Frozen Synapse, walk through the logic behind making the iOS release of Frozen Synapse a paid app, rather than following the trend of free-to-play in the mobile space. [...]