A speech about Free-to-Play game design

About a month ago, I gave a speech at Creative Mornings in Portland about the way the Free-to-Play business model affects game design. I compared games to television, looking at the way television business models have drastically affected the composition of those shows.


(I didn't name this speech; the title given here was picked by Creative Mornings after the speech was given.)


    • Loved the video chat, and coming across something like this is good to hear, But we tend to live in the moment and looking back will always uncover something thats always a little nasty no matter what we look back on and see.

      But the talk was great enjoyed it very much and i would like to see more of :).

  1. As always, I highly enjoy your talk. You explain very clearly stuff that I kinda know and kinda think about myself but can never explain as clearly. Thank you for taking the time for these talks.

  2. I enjoyed the quote at the end and will probably look into Brian Moriarty and his work as a result. It’s no wonder that I don’t enjoy television shows, except for extremely short ones like the first season of the British series House of Cards from 1990. This was a nice talk as usual from you. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I’m interested by Jon making the reference to working 40 hours a week and the effect of that on your life. I’m only speculating that to be a reference to current development on the Witness. If so, that is most unusual for a game development team reaching the end of a project. Most dev stories you hear of talk of up to 80 hours a week in the final months of a game.

    • I work *way* more than 40 hours a week, but most of the team has reasonable working hours. We’ve had one or two short crunch periods (for a couple of weeks back in February when we were making that trailer, for example.)

  4. Great speech.

    Pretty pointed at the free-to-play model though.

    I would argue that some pretty amazing games came out of the arcade model though. Even though you have a financial incentive to keep the games short so that people keep pumping the quarters in, there were many games that once you got good – you could keep playing for a long, long time.

    Street Fighter, Double Dragon, Golden Axe, Gauntlet – even Pacman and Space Invaders rewarded skilful play and pushed players to get better and have a deeper, more meaningful experience.

    I think there must be some examples of free-to-play games that do the same. Sure – pay some money if you want an easier challenge, but that reward “good players” by not needing to spend the money.

    Imagine Dark Souls with micro-transactions. Could you play and not pay a cent? Sure. Could you pay a little to help get past a particularly tough boss fight? Why not.

    While I agree the free-to-play model is more restrictive than some others – it doesn’t mean there will never be good games come from these methods of making games.

    • “Imagine Dark Souls with micro-transactions. Could you play and not pay a cent? Sure. Could you pay a little to help get past a particularly tough boss fight? Why not.”

      That depends on whether you see the boss fight as an obstacle or an opportunity.

      If it’s an obstacle, why not pay to get past it? But if the boss fights are obstacles, that would imply that the game is just a string of things you *don’t* want to experience in the first place.

      IMO, the real purpose of the boss fight (and the entire game, and all hard-skill games) is that it presents you with an opportunity to feel a sense of accomplishment. You could pay to bypass it, but that would literally mean you’re paying to NOT receive the precise emotional reward the game is designed to give you.

      • In MMO’s there’s quite a bit of prestige to downing a hard boss, people can inspect your gear and tell you were part of a guild that killed it.

        In some specific conditions, guilds have been known to sell a boss kill for quite a bit of in-game money. But it only works if the game runners aren’t selling anything. When they start selling boss kills, the prestige goes away.

        Personally, I wouldn’t mind if the game runners sold high powered gear, as long as it was all colored hot pink and had butt ugly textures, so that everyone knew you bought it.

        I dunno, I’m one of those that really doesn’t care about achievements or prestige, but just wants to beat the game and see all content that is practical to see while on the way to beating the game.

        Would I pay for gear? Probably not. Some people would though.

        What I think would be interesting in an MMO, is some of the tension that exists within the guilds – if that were made part of the game. Like if you get a really nice piece of gear, and then decide to ditch that guild to apply to a more serious or better playing guild, if that would affect how the game itself started to treat you.

    • “Imagine Dark Souls with micro-transactions. Could you play and not pay a cent? Sure. Could you pay a little to help get past a particularly tough boss fight? Why not.”

      For me that introduces an additional trust dynamic between the player and developer though. You have to trust that the developer has made a good game if you pay up front (and there are a number of established ways to help build that trust – reviews, previous work etc). With the addition of micro-transactions, that trust shifts to: has the developer made a fair game? Fairness is hard to judge, especially in a bubble where the value of a game is unknown.

      To continue the example, if Dark Souls had micro-transactions, I would have likely called bullshit at the Taurus Demon. :)

  5. Aww, I wanted to hear the Q&A :(

    Lemme guess – and for just 99 cents you can get the code to download the Q&A expansion pack of the talk you just heard.

    And it’s not just F2P games anymore, they’re all trying to nickel and dime you every chance they get. Every new AAA title you download, they’re all subtly cajoling you to look at their latest DLC, where for 99 cents, well, you’ve seen it too. Everybody wants you to register and login these days. And then turn around and leave their systems unsecured so that smart poor people in eastern europe can break in to steal the data.

    It’s much more offensive when they do it to you after you’ve paid the $50-60 for a standard AAA game, not so much when it’s a F2P model.

    But hey, look on the bright side – maybe after watching lots of bad TV, they’ll eventually be read to watch the good stuff later on.

  6. As someone who has been trying to figure out the right path through all the new business models that are emerging in game development, I want to say thank you for posting this.

    For me, the best part of this talk is that you’ve identified desirable player experiences that simply can’t exist in F2P games. You’ve laid out clear reasons why a designer who wants to provide a certain type of experience MUST NOT choose F2P, period.

    It’s much easier to reject F2P, even in a very competitive industry, when you stop seeing the business model as window-dressing and realize that it’s fundamental to the player’s overall experience.

    When you see that F2P will prevent you from creating the kind of experience you want to create, it stops being an option at all. You can dismiss it from your mind and refocus on creating a great game.

    That’s really valuable and I appreciate you helping me to see that — thanks.

  7. It is unfortunate that ‘casual’ is being associated with games that are trivial. What are we supposed to call ‘maximally dense’ games that are accessible to everyone and can be played in a well bounded timeframe? Pure? What does one call the witness?

  8. Thanks so much for posting! I really enjoy your talks :)

  9. I end up watching a speech by Brian Moriarty as a result of this since I’ve already seen all of Jon’s available ones on youtube. It’s really great and if you haven’t seen it already you should. Jon you seem like you’re cut from the same cloth:

  10. Could you suggest some quality ios games?

  11. Your point about loss aversion is exactly why I stopped playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf recently. ACNL is basically a free-to-play game that you actually have to pay for, and it gives you all sorts of random carrot-and-stick rewards to keep you playing (mostly with the promise of getting all sorts of new content if you keep on going long enough and doing mindlessly repetitive tasks).

    When a halloween prank ended up instantly, permanently, and unpredictably destroying one of my favorite (and hard-to-replace) items – and I felt genuinely hurt by this – I decided I’d had enough.

  12. Do you take any pride in that fact, that you aren’t overworking your employees?

  13. I really wish you hadn’t attacked Christianity in the middle of your speech. It’s obvious you have little to no respect for a good half your potential audience – and I have to say, seeing people I respect look down on me for my beliefs – or what they imagine to be my beliefs, based on the caricature of third-hand knowledge and half-understood childhood memories – is severely damaging to my respect for them. “Let they who preach tolerance first model it,” or something along those lines.

    Aside from that, it’s a good talk – just very difficult to listen to, for completely unnecessary reasons.

    • I think you didn’t understand what I was saying there.

    • What are you talking about? You think you might be making stuff up or imagining things?
      That’s not cool.

    • The lines Zoe seems to be referring to:

      [37:33] “Here’s a game – this one’s a little subtler and harder to talk about. But it’s “The Binding of Isaac”, by a friend of mine named Edmund McMillan. And this game takes place against this sort of background of weird insular Christianity that happens a lot in America – I know this first-hand because I grew up at least a little bit in that kind of situation. The story in the game is that Isaac’s mother hears a voice from God, paralleling the biblical story, that orders her to kill her son. So Isaac flees into the basement, and the game then sort of takes place in his twisted imagination…”

      #1: This would be better described as 3/4 of the way, or “toward the end” of the speech. This is kind of a petty complaint but it took me longer to find this segment looking around the middle.
      #2: “Weird insular Christianity” implies additional beliefs and behaviors that are part of a culture/lifestyle rather than part of the Christian religion.
      #3: I think Zoe is the one making the leap – from Jon talking about a game with an openly Christian villain and making a passing remark about his experience with some Christians, to him attacking Christianity and looking down on all Christians.

      • Indeed, I was not making a blanket statement about all Christianity. Specifically I am speaking of the kind of insular “us vs. them” Christianity that sees plots of Satan in all major news events, thinks every little thing is a sign up the upcoming Rapture, thinks D&D is a secret plot by Satanists to corrupt young minds, etc, etc. I lived some of that and it is not pretty.

        • I know what Jon is talking about here. I grew up in something similar to this. Except that I thought it was only peculiar to the southern US, I only though poor ignorant southerners did this and that the rest of the country was more or less sane. Had no idea this existed in places like California.

          I feel your pain dude. I feel your pain.

  14. I was with at the beginning. You described how the format of commercial television forced the show runners to construct shows around the limitations. And, validly, you describe how this applies to game design – how the game must be designed around the desired user experience, whether it’s F2P or other.

    Later, you take ten minutes to imagine how to shoehorn F2P concepts into three indie games that were not clearly not designed to have it, and then use that strawman as demonstration on why F2P is bad.

    • The whole point of that section was to adopt the thesis “F2P is the future, you might as well get used to it” and to observe that if that is true there is a loss, because these types of games cannot happen in that framework. Possibly you can’t do any kind of personal / vulnerable / honest games. This would be a serious problem.

      If you want to address the actual critique with a counterargument, go ahead and do so. Claiming it is a straw man is not a very interesting debate tactic unless you show *why* it is a straw man.

  15. I am a huge fan of Braid and am really looking forward to The Witness. I have enjoyed some of your other talks. I have some problems with this one though.
    First, the evidence for your TV argument is completely one sided. You have chosen some fluff TV shows from the past and compared them to some great modern dramas. You mention MASH but fail to mention shows like Hill Street Blues, Thirtysomething, St. Elsewhere, etc.
    There will always be “good” TV and “bad” TV. Actually, I don’t even like to use those terms. More like there will always be fluff TV and thought-provoking TV.
    Also, let’s not write off The Six Million Dollar Man and Knight Rider. They were extremely innovative for their time and had their places in the history of TV. I don’t regret watching them at all.
    Which leads me to my second problem with this talk. Who am I to judge what is good or bad for anybody except me? As they say in France, chacun à son goût. Nobody likes the smug vegan telling someone who is eating a steak that they should be drinking a wheat grass chia smoothie instead. The majority of people are happy eating McDonald’s and playing Candy Crush Saga. If developers want to make Super Candy Crush Saga Turbo II, go for it! I won’t play it and the people who do probably aren’t going to play Your Papers, Please! or Antichamber or The Stanley Parable.
    Another thing, Breaking Bad faced the same problems you claim caused past TV dramas to be so bad (commercials and syndication) yet it was the greatest TV drama ever made. Why? Because of the story and the people involved in telling it. And the story was a story that has been told over and over again since the time humans started telling each other stories around the fire.
    I bet I still would have played Antichamber if it was free and after reaching each matter gun, I had to pay little bit for it. So I don’t think there aren’t any great thought provoking Free 2 Play games because of some inherent flaw in their pay structure. I think it is because nobody has tried to make one as far as I know.

  16. Hi Jon.

    I appreciated this talk and agree with your points.

    I think one way I summarize my thoughts on this is that there are folks who make a game with the intent of making it great, and hope that greatness leads to sales of that game in return.

    And then there are folks who make a free to play game, and unless it’s entirely charitable and they want no monetary reward (possible but atypical), they have to make the experience of it the opposite of great, in order to incentivize people to pay to make it better.

    The difference to the player, in hindsight, becomes obvious. With one they are relishing their experience and looking back on their time spent playing that game fondly. With the other they may wonder why they wasted so much of their time and money playing in the first place.

  17. That ending… holy crap. Jonathan Blow, that was beautiful.

  18. Every time I watch J Blow talks, I think to myself, wouldn’t it be great if I could live from making video-games. He makes it looks like an exciting adventure trough the creative process of exploring the amazing world of game making. He pitch to us, this delightful amazing universe waiting to be explored. He makes me want to pack my stuff and head on this great adventure. But then work calls and I come back to the reality, I come back to my miserably average life. To my reasonable paying job that demand of me 8 hours a day of extensive dedication, even though it makes me feel miserable. It is kinda depressing. But I got to work, everyone does, and most of us need to provide services or products that are necessary and demanded by the society. A few of us, lucky ones, can live of entertainment or art. But you can always dream…

  19. Jonathan, your speeches are always insightful and poignant. I’m confident that by listening to your opinions, as well as other people that identify with them, someday I’ll become the game designer I want to be. But I was hoping you could offer some advice.

    You reference Prof. Moriarty’s Psalm 46 lecture that say the best things in life are generous. He says, “If a player wants more power, give it to them – the treasure is right there.”

    Yet you have been vilified in the past for saying games that are over-tutorialized or “hand-holding” lead players to infantilism.

    To boot, you need to walk the line making sure you are being creative without being gimmicky and exploitive.

    How do you keep yourself from going over to the dark side? Is there an easy checklist to look at a situation in a game you’re creating and ask yourself, “am I being generous or am I just scared the player might get stuck so I’m lowering the bar?”

    • The thing that keeps you from going over to the dark side is an internal compass. Checklists might help but ultimately it is very easy to rationalize anything you want, even in the face of a checklist or something.

  20. You could argue that HBO are a business and making money through shows like Deadwood and The Wire is a big part of what motivates them. What makes them different is that their strategy of dropping many of the limitations old shows had to deal with appears to be financially successful.

    Perhaps this could be contrasted with the music industry. I believe Pink Floyd’s record label stuck with them through tough times and as a result are still selling copies of Dark Side of the Moon. As I understand it, today’s artists are dropped the moment they’re not profitable.

    If you put aside the moral argument about how people make money and what makes a good game, this could be a lesson to game publishers, a genuine lesson. Open up more creative control to the right designers in the right way and you can reap financial rewards. I also think this is a more powerful message, one that could make a few publishers consider the the constraints they place on game designers.

  21. The container argument was strange, given The Witness is iOS, and there are F2P games on consoles, there are even non-F2P games with micro-transactions within full priced games which serve a very similar purpose, such as the Mass Effect 3. In the same way consoles have arcade style experiences, even today, maybe the container is the inspiration for the design style, but the container isn’t dictating what can be contained in the sense this presentation suggests.

    I think in it’s essence, it’s true that actually awe inspiring moments would be much more difficult to achieve within a F2P structure, would the bridge scene in Ico be as resonate if you’d constantly been forced to pump in transactions? Almost certainly not. Just the interface alone required to allow micro-payments is an unpleasant distraction from an experience, but in the same way that the end of Twin Peaks is awe inspiring (or to go back much further, The Prisoner), and vast amounts of TV at the time was garbage, maybe it’s a question of the designers just failing to excel to that extent.

    I also disagree someone isn’t a good designer inherently for working on a F2P title, to use the TV comparison again, Vince Gilligan, the showrunner of Breaking Bad, was also a major staff writer on The X-Files, was he a bad storyteller then, and a good one now, purely because his canvas is more liberating? Of course not.

    It was an interesting talk, and it had a great conclusion, but it was certainly spotty.

    • “Container” toward the end didn’t refer to hardware, it was a slightly more abstract thing about the general constraints on game design. The Witness iOS is going to be the same game as The Witness PC or PS4; it is a single-player pay-up-front game, and this is what I mean by the container. I guess the fact that I laid out the timeline in terms of different hardware did not help clarify this, but the point of that segment was not really that the hardware was different, it was that the economic models were different.

      On iOS you have your choice of a few different economic models, but the newer games that are capturing most of the business are all F2P. Just like, as you say, on consoles you have your choice of a few different business models; arcade action challenges exist, but they are a tiny minority of what happens there.

      About this:

      “was he a bad storyteller then, and a good one now, purely because his canvas is more liberating? Of course not.”

      But that was my whole point, and in fact I pretty much explicitly say this during the talk: it is not so much about the skill of the practitioners, but about what they are able to do within the commercial constraints, that is the overriding factor in the quality of the work. (I mean, if I understand what you are saying. I think the X-Files is generally a pretty bad show [that happened to be a relatively entertaining show for its time], and Breaking Bad is generally much better [though it also has ups and downs], but if you disagree with that then we just think very different things).

      • I absolutely think Breaking Bad is a much stronger show, but I don’t think that means the writer is a better writer, my point was in response to this part (30mins in) of your speech (unfortunately it’s tricky to quote, because the first part is you quoting a hypothetical designer):

        “you’re still a good game designer, you’re just working in a different format”
        “but the case I’ve been trying to make here is that’s completely untrue”

        That is what I don’t agree with. To use the Vince Gilligan example again, he was (let’s say for the sake of argument, of course time will have evolved his skillset) as good of a storyteller during The X-Files, it’s just that the format (or container restrictions, if you prefer) and control he had was different, and the result was a much weaker show. Is the designer only as good as the design? It’s really just a semantic distinction though, I guess.

        The point regarding The Witness being on iOS was more in relation to the idea this style of game design could be more a case of the current trend than the device on which it’s executed. If you look at the Square Enix releases on iOS devices, the Final Fantasies, or The World Ends With You, etc, are all the full experience, and with the same price you’d pay on a handheld, more or less, and upon release they always appear high amongst the Apple popularity section on the store. Obviously they have somewhat of an unfair advantage in regards to a preexisting fanbase, however.

        It would be one thing if this poisonous design trend was limited to the tablet/cell phone market, but it’s already seeping into the console market, and it’s increase in popularity on the consoles is fairly inevitable.

        As much as I’m only really invested in the medium for the rare quality single player experience, I have to also submit that most people don’t even complete eight hour campaigns, they’re a colossal waste of resources for publishers at this point. With TitanFall being the new hotness in the press, and completely lacking a single player experience, and with the Ghosts and BF4’s campaigns being slated publicly, it’s only a matter of time before publishers push for multiplayer only releases, and with CoD’s ‘upgrade’ RPG-lite design which has infected every other game this generation, those multiplayer-only games are already designed in such as way that F2P elements can be near seamlessly integrated.

        To use container as less literal concept, the touch generation’s favored design is seeping into console/PC game design, and it’s perched to become completely pervasive over the next three or four years. Hopefully, as the publishers push for this direction, we see more independent games produced at a higher production standard. It’s not fair to expect every indie title to be as visually refined as something like The Witness, but in the same way games that inspire awe don’t look like Candy Crush, I don’t think they look like many of the most popular indie titles either.

        • Okay, here’s the thing:
          “To use the Vince Gilligan example again, he was (let’s say for the sake of argument, of course time will have evolved his skillset) as good of a storyteller during The X-Files, it’s just that the format (or container restrictions, if you prefer) and control he had was different”

          I actually agree with this completely and this is what I was trying to say in the talk! It is my main point! So I think you are hung up on just one or two sentences in the talk that I probably said incorrectly. And to confuse it a little, there are sort of two things going on.

          So instead of “still a good game designer” (are you sure I didn’t say “still being a good game designer”? That’s a little different)… substitute “still doing good design work”. What I am saying is that the container makes the work poorer if you consider the work in the absolute sense (and not in the relative sense of “this is really good work for a drama where you have to reset the world after every episode”).

          At the level of the individual I am not saying anything about individual skills. Very skilled people can be at work anywhere, and that is obvious. I am not sure why it would make sense to think I was saying otherwise.

          *However*, I do also think that there is a “culture of quality” or its opposite, as I said in the talk. I think that the format of dramatic television led to a culture of relatively poor quality, at least in the 70s and 80s. Yes you can have really good people who are exceptional within that culture, but the overall culture is poor. Lately this seems to have turned around — the general quality of films is now really poor at least in some specific areas (like narrative), and there are enough high-quality TV series, that there is sort of a flight of quality actors and writers away from movies and back to TV. (These actors bring it up briefly in this interview from last year: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVEparrBK8A)

          But one of my points here was that if you have strong opinions about what you want to do, and your goals are confounded by certain commercial constraints, and you have an alternative place to go, you will probably go to that alternative place and practice there, which is what leads to e.g. a culture of low quality (the people with standards are going somewhere else). Of course this doesn’t mean people with standards *must* go somewhere else, there can be high-quality people working in any particular time and any particular place, etc, etc.

          • I wouldn’t say I was ‘hung up’, just a little confused, as I said, I think the talk was a little scattered, and that was one of the things that stood out.

            I think TV has become a hotbed for quality, while Hollywood has taken an ever more perverse focus on vapid content designed to sell toy ranges and energy drinks, and while I can see a relation to the design of F2P games, unlike TV, which has the HBO and AMCs to pool that talent, I don’t see the alternative to F2P software for those designers. They could work on AAA games, which are mostly horrible, they can work on arcade style games, which are never going inspire awe either, or they can work on the indie ‘art’ style games, which don’t tend to have the resources to be astounding.

            I think the speech felt like it was building to you suggesting the alternative for those people, but it never came. The Witness is probably amongst the highest budget indie games ever made (unless you count privately owned AAA releases, obviously), it’s just not in the realm of possible for the majority of people who might feel they’re not contributing creatively to the extent they’d wish.

            That’s not to suggest they can’t save and make something akin to Braid first, maybe they could, but much like Final Fantasy on iOS still makes a killing, you’re in a seemingly unique position within your subset of the industry.

            (As an aside, and an odd one given the nature of these posts, is The Witness 60fps on PS4? Everyone’s saying it’s pretty, but I’ve not seen anyone comment on performance.)

          • I don’t actually have a solution. For me it was enough to highlight the problem clearly, because I had never seen the problem in quite this way before.

            I do think the business climate is changing rapidly, and in 1-2 years I do not know what it will look like, so it is hard for me to really say anything like that. However, it is easier now to get funding for an indie game than it ever has been in the history of game development. Right now the ceiling for relatively easy money is in the low 6 figures for most small teams, but it gets into the 7 figures for people with track records (the Obduction kickstarter just succeeded today, for example), and maybe that will keep improving. I am on the board of Indie Fund and we are often thinking about how the situation is changing around how games are funded, and what we can do to keep improving the situation.

            But yeah, having said all that, I don’t really know.

            About the specific Witness questions, we are still optimizing the game. What we are demoing at places like this PS4 event runs smoothly, but the frame rate has dips occasionally. I think if we were to ship right now, we would run at 1080p locked at 30fps most of the time, with occasional dips. However, our plan for release is to run at 1080p and 60fps, and we have a reasonable route to get there.

            Because The Witness is an open-world game with no max view distance, we have some issues involving triangle count that a lot of games don’t have, and so we have to work extra to solve those issues. A game like Skyrim can fog out the view after a while, and as long as that is far enough, you don’t really notice. But it is a basic design parameter of The Witness that you need to be able to see the whole world.

          • And also, as with anything financial, success is shaped like a power law, rather than linearly. Braid is one of the more financially-successful indie games, but to make The Witness I basically had to spend all that money (and borrow some), making me broke again, which is something that many people would not do. Some other indies with roughly equally successful games would not be able to fund a project of equivalent ambition (because their earnings are split more, or they had a publisher, or whatever). Meanwhile, Markus Persson, Minecraft creator, could probably fund 100 or 200 games with the budget of The Witness, and the money is still rolling in.

        • I would like to call into question Stewart’s assumption that great games (whatever that may mean to you) that are immensely popular or have some grand contribution to culture, somehow need to be of a certain scale of production to be taken seriously.
          This feels to me to be an ever-pervasive fallacy within video-games. It’s important to look beyond what we define as a ‘big selling game’ like Uncharted or Halo and see that not a large amount of people in society play them, and yet they are monstrously expensive endeavours. Board and Ball games like Go, Chess, Football or Golf have far greater player bases and are, in my opinion, greater contribution to culture and society. It is clear that amount of content is not the driving force of a game being important to the world. You can say that maybe these specific games are culturally enamoured because of specific historical circumstance and that their renown has been compounded with their long history. But, even taking that into consideration, these games speak to more people than any video game. Production size, I believe, will not be the defining factor of what games become important to many people.

          • Thanks for the replies Jonathan.

            As for Stuart, I didn’t say to be good, or great, or important a game must be of a certain production standard, Chess is more than a thousand years old, and still vastly more relevant than practically any video game.

            It was purely in relation to the end of the speech, which pertains to awe inspiring games. Chess is an excellent game, but does it inspire awe? For me, certainly not. Does football? For some people, it’s almost a holy ritual, they attend on Sundays as if one might go to church, and they weep, and they spend thousands of pounds to travel the world to watch it. But do I find it awe inspiring? No, I find it extremely boring.

            Beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, and maybe for some people F2P games could be awe inspiring, just the use of money does impact ones enjoyment of something. Take poker for example, anyone who’s played poker for pocket change, or for nothing at all, will probably find it a fairly bland experience, but the more money on the line, the greater the emotional reward for being successful. It’s akin to how most FPS campaigns are terribly poor, because there is zero punishment for death, there are no stakes, and because of that, there’s no significant reward. Maybe F2P games could be designed in such a way that the reward feels inline with winning actual money, I have no idea.

            I’m not saying a game has to be The Witness, or Journey to be awe inspiring, it doesn’t have to look that good, but I do believe production quality matters deeply. If you take something like To The Moon, while it plays on the collective knowledge of 16-bit JRPGs (ironically akin to Braid’s allusions to 2D platformers), there are moments which certainly appear as if they’re intended to inspire, like riding the horses, or the ending ‘cutscene’, but in reality, for me at least, all they did was boldly display the limits of the production.

            I think Journey was an important game, but it came out of an unusual situation, much like Ico/SotC had before it. I’m confident The Witness will be an excellent game, but again, it’s not going to ever be the typical instance. It reminds me of people like David Lynch, Darren Aronofsky, P.T. Anderson, struggling for years to get funding. One would imagine they have track records which make securing money trivial, but that’s not the case.

            If there are games which do evoke awe, the road to achieving them appears to have more in common with a minefield than anything else.

    • Read “Understanding Media” by Marshall McCluhan. I think it will help you understand the main point that is being made in this talk. Also, it’s a brilliant classic and every human who consumes any type of media should read it.

  22. Really loved this talk. Mr. B is a true intellectual/artist… fun to watch.

    I just wanted to add something that reared it’s head in my mind a couple days after watching this. You could argue that arcade-style games, with their super challenging ethos and design, still have a legitimate place in higher gaming (recent great examples, Meat Boy, VVVVVV). You could probably even argue the same about the new free-to-play style of addicting and low-investment games.

    However, it seems to me that with home gaming you still have the option to create those kinds of games. So arguing the validity of those kinds of games is a moot point – it’s all about giving game creators and game players more options. Choice and variation is key! As soon as you start creating anything to fit to superficial medium constraints, you are merely limiting the potential experiences.

    I feel that this is a similar phenomenon in much of art in general. Allow a wide context and infrastructure for people to utilize, and they always create epically amazing things. In my field of music I feel that we’re also seeing an unfortunate movement towards the cheap. You used to create a masterpiece album, to give people an immersive experience. They had paid their money, and were at home with a physical object that contained a mysterious little universe inside. You weren’t as much shouting over other voices, going for cheap listens. Production itself could be more dynamic…

    In many areas of our culture we’re seeing an unsettling degradation of popular culture. I hope it turns around! The annoying part is that most people don’t usually see it or understand it, even though I believe they can tell the difference on some level, and that most people actually want a quality experience in the long run.

  23. What about games like League of Legends or DOTA2, where the revenue stream is primarily/only generated by non-gameplay enhancements? Aren’t these games incredibly generous to their respective audiences?

    • My understanding is that Blow was saying F2P games build into their design incentives to get the player to buy things, whether or not those things are important to making your gameplay experience more complete or are arbitrary upgrades like skins.

      It’s really the mentality behind this he seems to have a problem with (and I do as well). These games are designed, to varying degrees obviously, with the intent of getting something “from” the player rather than giving something “to” the player. The ideology behind the development has changed. You’ve gone from creating something for the benefit of your audience to creating something for your own gain.

      I don’t think he’s meaning to say that it’s absolutely impossible for a game like that to coincidentally end up being good (though he does seem to be saying that they can never end up being truly awesome—a sentiment I agree with), but instead that the F2P compromises the artistic integrity of the game.

      • I get what you’re saying, but I’m not trying to argue that those games are *good* (although I think they are both quite good), but rather that they are both *generous* in a way that is the inverse of the usual exploitative nature of free to play games. Someone who enjoys MOBAs can play League or DOTA2 nearly endlessly with no real cost besides the time they would be sinking into the game anyways if they enjoyed it.

        Basically what I’m saying is that the free to play model is not always bad, even if it is mostly bad. You could argue that any other model produces mostly bad games as well.

        • There are things that LoL (and presumably Dota although I don’t have as much experience with it) does that are purely to get money and would not be done if they weren’t using a free to play model. Obviously the biggest way they get money is by releasing new champions regularly. This would be fine but they often make the new champions a little too powerful to get more people to buy them. Of course they are nerfed later to even the playing field once again, but this clearly is not an ideal situation.

          That’s sort of beside the point though. The talk isn’t exactly saying that free to play is always and necessarily bad… just that it’s restrictive. You can’t push the triangle through the square shaped hole, but you can push a perfectly good square through the square shaped hole. If all you need to get through the hole is squares, then there’s no need for any other holes. But if you also have triangles and circles and stars, you’re not going to have a good time.

  24. Wow, very inspiring speech. Thank you very much Jonathan!

  25. Wow, very inspiring speech. Thanks you very much Jonathan!

  26. Jonathan, I think your talk could have been much more impactful if you had been able to establish some sort of objective criteria by which F2P game design is failing. As it is, your argument seems to boil down to, “This is what I want out of games. Don’t you want the same thing? F2P can only hinder that.”

    However, I think we can draw something of an objective line around what might be called “exploitative” game design. I would like to suggest that exploitative game designs are those that, once understood by the player, lead the player to not want to play. Good game design, when understood by the player, does not lead the player to not want to play, and may even encourage the player to play more.

    Now, I admit that that standard doesn’t seem very objective, but I think it’s a more objective feature than it might at first seem. For example, I believe that the increasing flight from World of Warcraft and other traditional MMORPGs is because increasing individual and cultural awareness of the illusions they make use of and psychological tricks behind their “gameplay.” Metaphorically, people in general have started to realize that the Wizard of Oz is just a man behind the curtain. I predict that exploitative F2P games will, for similar reasons, be the next game design gravy train that will suddenly and “mysteriously” begin to lose profitability. (There will of course, be an element of society that will persist, just as there are gambling addicts and addicts to other self-destructive behaviors.)

    (Just a random thought, but I wonder if the entertainment industry in general has started to catch on to this frightening (to them) phenomenon and that’s the reason why we’re seeing films promoting blind faith uncritical consumption of entertainment in movies like Now You See Me, and Oz the Great and Powerful.)

    I would like to hypothesize that, slightly more generally speaking, good game design encourages and desires knowledge and wisdom in its players while exploitative game design requires ignorance or foolishness in its players.

    • “I would like to suggest that exploitative game designs are those that, once understood by the player, lead the player to not want to play.”

      Yeah, uhh, that does not sound very objective to me. I don’t think you can blame decreasing population of WoW on something like this, because it has had greater longevity than just about any other video game. You can’t look at something that is objectively success and call it failure because you want an example that fits the pattern you want to see.

      It is easy for people to understand slot machines, but for some reason people still want to play them. Rationality is not in control in these cases.

      • I don’t quite understand your comment. I am not calling WoW a failure, I am saying that it and the whole monetization system it is the paragon of has already seen its heyday. A few pretty big subscription-based MMORPGs are coming out soon, so they have the potential to either corroborate or falsify my theory.

        I believe the explanation is that the cultural awareness of what WoW-style “gameplay” basically reduces to has increased and therefore less people find it fun.

        I predict that the same thing is in the process of happening for Farmville-style F2P games.

        Regarding gambling, only 10% of the U.S. population generates 61% of casino slot and table revenues, while about 33% of the population don’t gamble at all. Given the fact that it’s the oldest and most pervasive “exploitative gameplay” in existence, I think it fairly fits my theory. I predict that after the percentage of the U.S. population that has grown up with the internet reaches close to 100%, gambling revenues as a percentage of GPD will go down, because the internet is a great vehicle of demystification.

    • I can tell you why people are leaving WoW – it’s just simple economics. If you like small group co-op, there’s the TF2 co-op maps, and to a lesser extent, Borderlands 2. If you like PvP of any scale, League of Legends offers some pretty compelling PvP action, from what I’ve heard. And Valve keeps working on DOTA2, which has a pretty big fanbase. And then there’s other little ones, like World of Tanks, etc.

      What those games offer is a similar sort of experience you get in WoW without 1.) having to level up or build out your character and 2.) no $15/mo you have to keep paying to play either. I mean, they’re still nickeling and diming you, but since they’re not charging that $15/mo, it’s not that big of a deal.

      God help Blizzard if Valve ever decides to really get into large scale co-op. Or decides to invest in making their own MMO.

      The only thing they have that nobody else does is large scale co-op, and as frustrating as it can be to wipe from someone else’s mistakes, it’s still more fun to some gamers than anything else you care to play.

      Their mistake is surrounding the only real remaining thing they offer with all of this crud that’s more or less designed to evoke as much sunk-costs psychology as possible without being fun to play. In order to play what you want, they make you play all this other stuff that you could really care less about.

      At some point, the large scale co-op isn’t really worth it anymore, and you cancel to play TF2 co-op occasionally and wonder if you feel motivated enough to try whatever the next expack will be called whenever they decide to push it out.

    • “(Just a random thought, but I wonder if the entertainment industry in general has started to catch on to this frightening (to them) phenomenon and that’s the reason why we’re seeing films promoting blind faith uncritical consumption of entertainment in movies like Now You See Me, and Oz the Great and Powerful.)”

      Maybe it’s like when some geek culture media markets Not Caring What Other People Think stories to kids who already don’t have many friends?

      Could that one count as story-sellers being frightened that if they tell stories that are *less* Don’t Care What Other People Think then the kids will value friendship, go give more other people a chance and make more friends, and spend less time and parents’ money obsessively consuming more of their media?

  27. Great speech Jonathan. I’d really appreciate your thoughts on these two questions:

    1) I was wondering how you felt about other forms of structural constraint in movies and modern TV (i.e. HBO). Short of Art House films, it seems like structural constraints are inevitable in the entertainment industry.

    For example show runners for Breaking Bad wouldn’t be able to kill off a key (and likeable) character like Jessie Pinkman. Doing so would potentially result in a loss of viewers (and revenue). Is this constraint somehow worse than the “user retention” tactics used in a game like Candy Crush Saga?

    I can also see a constraint placed on directors like Quentin Tarantino. In order for an studio to greenlight his films, I’m sure that his film would need to look and feel like a “Tarantino Film” (Lots of violence and profanity). It would be tough for him to sell a comedy to a studio because it wouldn’t be commercially viable. Isn’t this also a constraint on the design of his films?

    2) Does your point about design also apply to games that are focused more on fun factor based on strategy or coordination (e.g. RTS game). Does the design of a game like DOTA2 also get hindered by free to play.

    I would really appreciate your perspective on these questions. No pressure or anything!

    • I know your questions aren’t directed at me, but I just wanted to comment on your first question.

      My interpretation of the talk wasn’t that there’s anything wrong with structural constraints. In fact, the structure is what defines one artform from another. I thought the talk was more about artificial constraints that serve a purpose other than the artform (like stopping the story to sell product advertisements.)

      It’s interesting you use Pinkman as an example, because I’m almost positive I read they were going to kill him off in season one until they themselves decided they liked the character. That seems more like a decision an artist might make, rather than for business reasons. There have been attempts to mess with the ‘structural constraint’ of killing off a protagonist before, such as No Country For Old Men. I seem to recall that caused a lot of anger in the theatre I saw it in.

      Similarly, the red wedding scene of Game of Thrones (mentioned in the talk) takes a massive artistic risk, which actually caused me to no longer want to watch (just personally, I have nobody left to root for) but that doesn’t mean GoT is more artistic than BB. Either way, keeping a character or not is artistic, not something done just to keep the audience. If anything, BB makes many choices that seem to dare you to keep rooting for characters you don’t like. None of it seemed like decisions designed to take you out of the experience and pay more money.

  28. I think what really differentiates a “good” or “interesting” (for lack of a better words) design, from a “bad” design. Is that a good design is the most romantic possible, opposed t0 a calculated, market-driven design. As silly as it may looks I think the artist/writer does his best work when, he does what he really wants to do in opposition to what it is expected from him or what sells, or has been established as the right thing or right way to do something.

    For instance, I don’t believe in difficulty curves, I don’t think the difficulty of a given game should have a linear progress. Maybe that is because I have been playing games since I was a kid and the idea of an obvious, predictable order of events, for me is unbearably boring. I like to be surprised with difficulty spikes that makes me furious and even frustrate me. I like when a game, or whatever medium surprises and frustrates me.

    As it could happen if one of the main character of a given series dies in an unexpected moment. TV writers would judge it a very bad writing, they would presume some people would stop watching the show. But for instance, what make Game Of Thrones so interesting and exciting to watch? I would argue one of the main reasons is this. The surprise, all characters can die anytime. One character may be getting 80% of screen time in one episode, and in the next one he is dead. And this can really frustrate you, at a first moment, but doesn’t it make the show better? I believe it does.

    I thing this resonates well with a phrase Jonathan said in one of his talks, I believe i was something along these lines : “the role of the artist is to give people what they need, not what they want.”

  29. I just wanted to say that talks like these make me more excited for The Witness and any future projects than any amount of screenshots or gameplay previews do.

    Knowing that when I purchase The Witness I’ll be getting a game that respects me as a player makes me more excited for it than any other game on the horizon.

    With the “maturation” of video games as a business instead and not an art form we’re seeing so many new ways to exploit the player in order to maximize profits, and it’s becoming increasingly rare for a publisher backed game to fully respect its audience. This generation I’ve seen cliffhangers at the end of $60 games, multiplayer games that essentially force you to purchase DLC once it’s out in order to not be a tiny fragment of the player base, on disc DLC, season passes, treadmill style or boringly drawn out linear progression in almost everything, yearly sequels that amount to less than an expansion pack used to be, and lots of other shady practices that I’m probably forgetting about.

    All of these things along with f2p games are foreboding a grim future for what has been my favorite pastime since I was a child, which is upsetting to say the least.

    Luckily as you point out, there has been another change in the games industry, which is an increase of ease in obtaining financing for “indie” games, through crowdfunding or elsewhere.

    I think the indie fund is great and I hope The Witness brings in a lot of money that will help you to further quality game development, whether that’s through making your own team’s games or funding other developers that you see promise in.

    There isn’t really a point to what I’m saying, but I’m just glad that there are still people who can resist the easy money and develop games for the players, not the publishers.

  30. Hi Jon.

    I just read this article about Microsoft’s usage of F2P elements in its Xbox One games and thought of you: http://penny-arcade.com/report/article/welcome-to-our-free-to-play-generation-how-f2p-mechanics-are-infiltrating-f (sorry, it’s on PA)

    It’s interesting that instead of having a clear delineation between traditional and F2P games, they seem to instead be working microtransactions into many of their top titles (potentially to avoid the stigma of F2P).

    The arguments from your talk would suggest that this inclusion is also at the detriment of creative freedom. Do you have any additional thoughts on this particular practice?

    -Paul (@paulogy)

    P.S. Once again, really enjoyed your Twitch stream this weekend.

  31. Interesting talk. Inspiring.

    It strikes me how people keep avoiding talking about what is maybe the most important point about this industry (and whatever other activity): What am I doing this for? What is the point of doing what I am doing?

    I read in Reddit:

    >I think a major bias you can see in Jonathan’s evaluation of things is the pursuit of artistry and grand impact instead of capital gain. This, his thesis is compelling and real, but largely to people who have similar core values.

    Do you imagine someone talking in a similar way about food?

    “I think a major bias you can see in Mr. X’s evaluation of things is the pursuit of healthy and pesticide-free food instead of capital gain. This, his thesis is compelling and real, but largely to people who have similar core values.”

  32. Would the original DOOM count as free-to-play? You could get the first 1/3 of the game for free, and you could even play multiplayer in those levels, but to get the rest of the levels, you had to buy the full version. A game like Gone Home, in theory, could do the same kind of thing: make a free demo that contains enough of the story to get you interested, then charge you for the rest of it. (The iOS version of Ghost Trick, a game I would recommend highly, does exactly that.)

    • Nah, if Doom were made today for the smartphone market, the boss battles would be tuned to be really tedious to beat, but for 500 Doombucks, you could hire an additional Marine to fight alongside you during some phase of the boss fight where they intentionally designed it to need that additional NPC.

      Basically you would either stop playing it because it wasn’t fun to play or you’d buy the 500 Doombucks you needed to win the boss battle.

      Definitely cuts down on piracy, that is until someone figures out how to spoof the client/server protocol that governs who gets the glitterbucks. Except that the warez dudez don’t really play casual games, cracking a casual game is considered beneath them, I’m guessing. Any warez dudez want to chime in here?

  33. I enjoyed this speech, and I think everyone who plays free-to-play games should watch it. I think some free-to-play games are OK, but the ones that really fit what you are describing are about as bad for gaming as you can get. I played Puzzles and Dragons for about a week, didn’t spend a single cent on it, and got rid of it because of what you described.
    I think some older games worked as free-to-play. Tiny Tower is an excellent example. It’s free, but it’s not open ended (unless you want it to be and make a trillion floors) and the cash currency in the game is mostly non-invasive. I have been playing Tiny Death Star, but I think Disney is going to ruin it. I give them about another month before they take something that could have been as successful as a Star Wars themed Tiny Tower and turn it into a Farmville/Puzzles and Dragons piece of flotsam.

  34. I wonder if F2P designers all over the world got mad over this talk. “That Jonathan Blow guy, who does he think he is?! It’s like he thinks he’s better than us, revealing all our tricks!” I suspect they’re right. Anyway, very persuasive and enlightening talk. It’s one of those things that seems so obvious that I thought I knew it before I heard the talk, but I most certainly did not.

    Looking forward to playing The Witness.

  35. Hi, Jon.

    Yesterday I had a exhaustive, yet interesting conversation, at a facebook group about games.
    There was that guy who was congratulating the developer of “Pou” (the recent successful android/iOS game), because of his “smartness” of beying able to earn a great amount of money with such a simple game.
    Well, I’ve posted your video and said that that game was junk. That caused huge counter-arguments saying that he was just making what people want, and that was not his fault they loved his silly game. Also there was things like “he did very precise decisions when he made it simple, in contrast with so many developers who spend a life-time in their SO MEGA COOL games that don’s make 10 dollars back”.
    But for me it’s so clear now. Today I’m making an educational game for children about 7~8 years old. At the beginning I thought “Yeah, I’ll sell it for all the schools in my city and it will work and I’ll earn money and bla bla bla…”.
    But after this conversation I had, and after your speech as well, I’m just thinking “I’ll put my best effort in my game and it will help a lot of kids in their studies in a funny way”.

    So… Thank you =)

  36. Im pretty sure that JB wore this same shirt in one of his interview, I cant remember with whom, but it was recent. Nevertheless, its nice to see someone else finds themselves attatched to good tastes lol that or, like most that work extensively, has limited time to shop. All I could think about in that interview was how I wanted a shirt with such intense color, lol

  37. By the way, my project will have to be F2P, due to SSI and the prohibiting of extra earned income. So, I wouldve made exceptions, for those limited in choice such as myself. But I understand, those that choose F2P as a marketing procedure more than likely just want the equivalent of what is (to those in literary cycles) as vanity press.

  38. I think the marvel cinematic universe is a very interesting subversion of this, in that it has a conscious manipulative element, of wanting to draw you in, and have each film become a teaser for the next one etc. So you go into the cinema, and each film is implicitly or explicitly also a trailer for future films, a framework developed from comics with their highly serial narratives.

    The advantage of how it currently works is that the accepted length of a film is sufficiently long to weaken that constraint. In the long term it may actually be a strong advantage, in that each film is expected to have its’ own conclusion, but contribute to a longer arc. One element that has helped hold it together is keeping the links as an after-credit or pre-movie thing. Deepening and interconnecting the universe has largely been about consistency between depictions, and once the novelty wears off, may be more about overtones and hidden references. This hasn’t yet reached the stage of putting in advert style cliffhangers at the conclusions of movies. It could do though.

    In the same way, games like portal have been made narratively incomplete in order to support their sequels, portal most obviously because it was done retroactively. This is changing the reason a player buys the next from gratitude to or respect for the creator, in a sense getting more than they were expecting, to puzzlement and a feeling of incompleteness, giving them less than they were expecting. I think part of the complaints about mass effect relate to this idea of a narrative that moves forward seeking completion. The ending being a bit rubbish was actually a failure of the promise implicit in their game model; next game you’ll see the consequences, next game the broader resolution. In contrast I’d say halo succeeded, because it promised a bigger and more cinematic battle each time, and delivered each time, at the cost of certain kinds of simplification.

    In the case of games that don’t go by this model, those that go on the basis of gratitude, (which is actually a category I put your style of game making in before hearing this talk) I think you can only continue to sell games by keeping secrets, by surprising the players with how good it is. Sometimes those secrets will be held automatically in the depth of the game itself, other times in things that are good but hard to describe. Then people will partially buy the game for normal reasons “preview/demo looked interesting” etc. and also because of a kind of faith in the creator of that work, their potential to bring something unique and valuable.

    That seems to me to be a business model that is more fragile, but also more rewarding; releasing bad games is a breach of the hope/trust dynamic that forms, so you can’t really skip ahead when in trouble and make something rubbish, although you may be able to do an emergency kickstart at the cost of moving back closer to equilibrium with your audience, calling in some of that feeling of debt that can otherwise give you forward momentum. But if you find some way to start ahead, and just release something pleasantly surprisingly good, and as you implied, continue to develop in projects that get deeper and more generous without increasing their technological/development time footprint too much at each step, then you should be onto a winner.

    • I just realised that “feeling of debt” is not quite right, I mean feeling of gratitude that can be converted into a feeling of debt.

  39. Thanks for this Jon. For two reasons.

    1.) That comment about not being able to work on something for 40 hours a week without feeling some kind of care or connection to it really resonates with me. It’s made me reconsider what I’m doing with my career in software.

    2.) This notion of the container shaping its content applies to so many areas of design. I’ve had random thoughts about this idea, like the difference between timeshares and hotels. In one, you get a nice relaxing vacation. In the other, you have to wake up at 8:00 A.M. to hear a sales pitch. The model shapes the experience.

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