As a journalist, you often hear that industry events are epicentres for networking, meeting developers, and hearing interesting stories. Never more has this proven true for me than during the day before this year’s Casual Connect, at a summit put on by the International Game Developer’s Association. I went into the morning’s first lecture – a unique one about learning from early failure – thinking I’d be covering the panel. Instead, I ended up digging deep with someone on it.
As the group packed up their bags, and the room filed out, it finally clicked. David Edery! He was half of the wonderful indie duo Spry Fox (Triple Town)… I’d been trying to put a name to a role all talk long. Hoping he was perhaps game to talk via e-mail after the week was done, I approached him looking to pass off a card and introduce myself. After the requisite crowd of developers and friends had cleared, I managed to get a hand shake in.
“Hi, I’m Eli! I write for –“
David had looked down during my opening spiel.
“Ah! Gamezebo! You guys have always been great to us. Want to chat?”
What followed was one of those spectacular, genuine conversations you always wish for with interview subjects.
Eli: What is it that defines a Spry Fox game?
David: “We like to make games that improve people’s lives in some meaningful way. And obviously if you make a game that’s really fun, that someone can relax and play, you’re already hopefully improving their life. But we want to take it a step farther [sic]. We’re always challenging ourselves and asking, ‘can we make a game that creates friendships? Can we make a game that makes your existing friendships deeper? Can we make a game that teaches you something interesting? And you know, I’d say that thus far, for the most part, we’ve just entertained people.
“And I say just, and I know that that’s great, and I’m super happy that we’re doing that, but I think we can do more that. In particular, I think we can help people make new friendships and strengthen their existing friendships.”
Eli: Let’s go down this road a bit. I’m very curious about that mandate. I was talking recently to a friend about the difference between Facebook and Twitter. And you see something like Twitter that gives you the chance to get the attention of someone who’s an opinion influencer, and they can help you create new relationships. Whereas Facebook seems more about cultivating and curating your existing friendships. How do you as a developer who uses Facebook feel like you can breakthrough and create new friendships?
David: “Yes and no, right? Words with Friends is on Facebook, and one of the things that most drives that game is relationships with strangers.”
Eli: Good point. Do you think then that it’s a certain type of play – whether it’s multiplayer or asynchronous that lends itself to creating new friendships?
David: “I think it’s fair to say that games as a whole have that potential, but I think in particular games that allow you to play with someone over a long period of time – or one after another… I think games that function in that way, and that encourage some type of conversation between players, that encourage people to collaborate as opposed to just simply beating on each other [are good examples]. That’s the kind of stuff we think about.”
Eli: What are some of the influences on this ethos? What in today’s landscape would you say you guys look at when shooting for this goal of positive connectivity?
David: “It’s hard because do try to avoid the idea of just looking at something and saying, ‘oh we want to do that but better,’ because that’s a dangerous road to go down. That’s the road most people go down. With that said, I look again to Words with Friends. I just think, ‘wow, even though this is basically just Scrabble Online, it’s perfect.’ It’s perfect in this regard. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to taking board games and bringing them into the digital world.
Eli: Now do you feel like that could be a trend? Developers looking to return to an analog style of play as time goes on, to recapture that sense of more intimate social interaction? Or do you feel like there’s room for both [intimate and impersonal experiences]?
David: “I feel like there’s room for both. I think that the beauty of the current state of the video game market is that there’s simply more opportunity to do more wacky things. It’s not like Call of Duty is going away, right? There are still tons of people making tons of money from that. And yet, you also have Words with Friends and you also have Minecraft… opportunities are just expanding. And that will probably continue for at least another five or ten years because the fact of the matter is, only now is there becoming this opportunity monetize through micro transactions. There’s this massive, massive multibillion person audience that you couldn’t tap into before in this way. That represents a lot of niches, a lot more experiments.”
Eli: If you had to prescribe a method to that end, how would you say one should do microtransactions? Is there a way to do them right? Better?
David: “I’m not sure if I’ve got it boiled down to a single sentence. I think there are a few different rules of thumb. In general, you shouldn’t have a sense that ‘I have to pay money to win this game.’ And there are all degrees, right? You have to ask yourself where the snowball effect begins. Because there’s no denying that paying will impact the game in some small, measurable way.”
Eli: Right. In Triple Town, for example, paying does impact the game.
David: “For sure, you’re right!”
Eli: It’s highly impactful in Triple Town. Because, if you’re willing to spend the money, you can pay to get yourself out of any circumstance.
David: “No, no. Because the inventory in the store is limited –“
Eli: But in my experience, the things you purchase – if purchased – can extend the life of the game well beyond the length of game that others might experience [if they don’t pay]. Is that fair to say?
David: “Well here’s what’s interesting. If you take two people with the exact same amount of skill, and one of them doesn’t save up coins – which is the thing, right? You can just save up coins and never have to pay… but let’s say that there’s a person that hasn’t saved up coins and they have the exact same amount of skill as this other person, and they all have the exact same pieces, theoretically, then yes. The person who spent money would have a better score than the person who hasn’t. But those things are not true.
“Skill matters so tremendously in that game that spending money has very, very little impact. From another angle, the difference between the person who’s good at the game and spends no money, and the person who’s bad at the game and spends money is still dramatic. The person’s who good at the game is still going to crush.”
Eli: Something I like to think about free to play is that it shouldn’t feel like buying the car and then being asked to pay for the wheels to make it go. Rather that you get the car, and then have the opportunity to buy heated seats, or the seat back TVs, you can pay for what you want out of a car.
On that note, I quite like the Nimblebit approach. In speaking with them, they’ve said they approach things like the game currency and in-app store last, and ensure that as users themselves, the experience balances what it makes you pay for, and what you can do for free.
David: “It’s funny… I’ve never thought of it that way, but we also do it that way. The store is one of the last things to go into any of our games. We know – you have to know from the beginning – that there’s a monetization plan. Otherwise you’re going to get in trouble. You need to be able to pay for your game. But beyond the loose idea of ‘this is how we’re going to monetize the game,’ it always goes in last for us.
“And of course, the game has to be fun.”
Eli: You’d think it’s so obvious. I think there’s a surprising amount of people – of developers – who don’t ask the question. Who build business models around animations.
David: “It’s hard to believe, but you’re right. For me it’s just core to what we do. I mean, if you’re not making a fun experience [first], why are you in this business?
“But let me go back, because I didn’t give you a good answer to your question. So clearly, try to avoid pay to win. But it’s more than that. It comes down to: can a skilled player with no money always triumph over an unskilled player with lots of money? And there’s obviously nuance, but that’s very important.
“There’s also a concern about… is there a limit over how long you can actually play? For us, in all of our games going forward, there is no energy mechanic. There is no limit to how long you can play. We don’t want to charge you for that, we’d rather you play so we can charge you for other things.”
Eli: What, then, is the viable alternative, then, to energy?
David: “The solution to energy is, I’m going to sell you things that you don’t have to have to play the game, but that will enhance your enjoyment. I’ll give you an example. You can play golf with some really crappy clubs. You can absolutely play the game, and, in fact, a skilled player with some crappy clubs will crush a new player with the nicest clubs you will possibly buy. But at a certain point it’s reasonable for you to go to that person and say, ‘look. You’ve been playing golf for hundreds of hours, you clearly love the game… you might want to buy yourself some nicer clubs.”
Eli: I think a team that did that particularly well was Robot Entertainment with Hero Academy or One Man Left with Outwitters. There it felt like the things you were paying for were completely unique, beneficial to gameplay, and – the same time – balanced in a way that didn’t punish the non paying players if they were skillful enough.
David: “And I think this is something… this is a thread with developers of free-to-play who ‘get it.’ It’s different, not better. That’s a theme you hear a lot in free-to-play development. This idea that we’re going to sell people stuff, and it is going to impact the functionality of the game. But it will make that functionality different, not better. That’s super, super, super crucial.
“I’m a big fan – and obviously I have a bias as a developer – of business models that allow people to take the game I love, and make it better and better forever. And perhaps the only thing I worry about with games like Hero Academy is that eventually they may stop supporting them because it’s not profitable enough for them to do so. And I love that game. So in some ways I wish they would take more money from me, or add purchases that they can scale more easily.
Eli: And the problem with that too, is that as a developer in this climate, you can never go back on your word. They’re [Robot Entertainment] never going to be able to go back on their word and say ‘now we’re monetizing differently to support the game!’ And I think that part of that is down to this intense race to the base in pricing we see in the App Store. What are your thoughts on that?
David: “Oh wow. It’s so intense.”
Eli: I feel like a jerk saying this, as a gamer. But I feel like among gamers, it takes a certain brand of entitlement to complain that you have to spend one dollar on purchasing a game for the two-hundred dollar phone you just purchased.
David: “So here’s the thing, and it drives me completely insane. It’s so easy to get upset about exactly what you’re saying, and I deal with it every day. But at the same time, I know: everything is relative in life. So if you’re on a platform, and everything is $0.99, then $1.99 is going to be expensive. And that’s just how it is.
“If you look at Triple Town – and this is obviously the thing that’s closest to home for me… Triple Town is a game that, had we launched it ten years ago, would have sold for twenty dollars as a downloadable game on the PC. And nobody would have blinked twice. Then the prices of downloadable games drop, and say $7.00 is the new price point. So $20.00 is expensive, but $7.00? That’s okay. Now, $0.99 is what’s considered a good deal, at most.
“Does this mean as a developer your content is worth less than half the price it was worth a decade ago? Of course not. But that’s just how it is now. And you live with it. And the way we’ve chosen to live with it is by not playing that game. We don’t want to sell games that you buy for a fixed price. We make games you play for free, and if you choose to, because you like the game so much, you hopefully give us more. And over a lifetime, then, you may give us $60.00.”
Eli: Are we running out of this room for mobile experiences to be for pay at all?
David: “No, I think there will always be both. I suspect the free-to-play model will make make more money than a… ‘premium’ – I hate that word – title. Part of the reason there’s room for both are initiatives like App of the Week [now Editor’s Choice]. If your game is App of the Week, you’re going to do fine! But again, how many people can succeed at that level? The difference between me and a developer who makes $0.99 games is that if my game has 50,000 people who play it regularly, that’s enough for me to turn a profit.
“Whereas a guy who makes a one dollar game, if he sells the same amount of units, he’s probably hosed. Yes, people will continue to make premium games, but the fact of the matter is that for the average developer, it’s a no brainer as far as I’m concerned.”
Leaving the room, I looked over my notes from the panel, and realized I had stopped keeping track half way through, so preoccupied was I by my brain fritz about David’s identity. Then again, it was okay. I managed to have a pretty great discussion instead. The kind they say happens at industry events like these.