Why we can’t have nice things

October 28th, 2014

[This is an opinion piece by Adam (@costerad), and so any responses should be directed at him!]

A lot of major developments are coming out of our studio over the next few months. Things that we think are going to be really great for our players, if we can just work out the details. Unfortunately, every time we have a cool new idea we have to take a step back and ask three questions:

  1. How will this work if 50-99% of our players have stolen the game or its content?
  2. How will this work if 1-5% of our players hack the game?
  3. How can we make this work with the Free-to-Play model?
A lot of development time is lost trying to answer these questions. Most of our ideas are lost because we can’t answer these questions, and so we toss the ideas aside. The answer to many “Why didn’t the developers do [X]?” questions that we’ve had in the past about non-Bscotch games is a simple one. The players, the people we do this work for, won’t allow it. And I of course don’t mean all players. Sometimes a lot of them, but often only a few. In either case the number and diversity of interesting new game ideas/technologies that are lost because of player shenanigans must be mind boggling.

Don’t get me wrong. I make games for exactly two reasons: (1) so that someday I can contribute financially to my family, and (2) because creating something — and specifically something that brings joy to people — is deeply satisfying. I truly like our fans, as well as the “average” player who enjoys our games but doesn’t know we exist as people. And I am grateful that we are liked back. I even understand why it is that some players engage in behaviors that make my job financially unstable and limit our potential as developers. And I don’t hate them, or even dislike them, for it.

So how is that that choices made by a subset of our players can so dramatically affect our own, and lead us to follow different design choices than either we or our players want? I thought it would be worth taking the time to dive into this topic with case studies from our own studio (below the fold).

From paid to Free-to-Play with ads

We hate ads. We don’t want them in the games we play, the TV we watch, the books we read, or the games we make. Everyone hates ads. We also hate in-app purchases. It is insanely difficult to balance a game in the first place. Having to balance a game that comes with modular parts (in-app purchases) is impossible. But you know what everyone hates even more than ads and in-app purchases? Paying for things. This is why the Free-to-Play (FTP) model has become the dominant one on mobile and is on the rise on PC. The consequence of FTP domination has been to generate absurd and harmful relationships between players, games, and the developers that make those games.
Long before I joined my brothers at Bscotch, while I was just getting started on my PhD, Sam and Seth completed their first prime time game under the banner of Butterscotch Shenanigans. That game was Towelfight 2, and it is really good. Players and critics alike loved it, and at that time Sam and Seth truly believed the mantra found on indie game forums everywhere: if you make a good game, people will happily pay you for it. And so they made Towelfight a paid game. For a mere $3, a person could buy well over 10 hours of a really solid gameplay experience. That is some cheap entertainment right there.

The choice to make Towelfight 2 a paid game was a financial disaster. The piracy rate was 95-99%, and within weeks of the game going live it was only making between zero and a few dollars per day. And so the price was dropped to a dollar. Suddenly they were making up to $10 per day! Enough for them to each buy a sandwich for lunch in the middle of their 12 hours workdays. Try not to be jealous of this 60 cents per hour wage.

Because Towelfight lost more money than it made (it only recently broke even), it nearly destroyed Butterscotch Shenanigans. Sam and Seth had about 10 weeks of life savings left before they would be broke, and even still they made the crazy decision to try one more time. They did this because they love making games, and they still wanted to create things for a fanbase that had so far treated them very poorly.

 [Edit: Turns out I lied here. Towelfight is still only halfway to breaking even.]

The result was Quadropus Rampage, by far the most popular game put out by Butterscotch. With the total financial disaster that was Towelfight 2, Sam and Seth decided to try out the free-to-play model. At the time, Seth wrote up a wonderful article explaining this choice. Even still, a subset of our fans were furious. To them, this was an unfair “money grab” by people who “used to be our favorite developers” but have now “sold out” and are “greedy” corporate goons.

The inappropriateness of the anger should be clear to anyone who actually sat down and played Quadropus. Sam and Seth knew that some very vocal players would be very angry and would vent that anger online in an attempt to sabotage the success of the game. And so the devs built an in-app purchase (IAP) system that was so apologetic it bordered on the absurd. They didn’t want to be accused of making a “Pay to Play” game and so Quadropus was designed and balanced in the complete absence of IAPs. All of the IAPs were tacked on after the fact and had the result of making the player overpowered when purchased. In essence, Quadropus was a complete, well-balanced game that was designed to be played completely for free. Indeed, buying anything was essentially a cheat that broke the balance of the game! Even further, Sam and Seth did not put ads in the launch version of Quadropus. They felt (and we all still do) that doing so would be a disservice to our players because ads break immersion in the game.

And so while a vocal minority lampooned the IAP behind Quadropus, simply because that IAP existed, overall it was considered to be a beautiful example of “fairness” in the free-to-play model by critics and reviewers. And of course it was! It was a free game that just happened to have some IAPs in it! What could be more fair?

Which leads to the punchline. The payment model wasn’t fair to the developers.

A game has to provide enough money, for enough time, to pay for itself and for the development of the next game. Quadropus Rampage has only been successful enough to pay one of the two original developers, and all other Butterscotch games combined don’t even come close. To top it off, some experiments and number crunching 6 months after launch revealed that Quadropus would have provided at least twice as much revenue if it had launched with ads.

In case you missed that point: Our games only generate enough revenue to pay one of the three Butterscotch brothers a salary damn near the poverty line, and that brother was battling cancer at the time (he’s now in remission). Two of us are currently working for free (and one has been doing so for two years), being supported by wonderful wives and ever-deflating personal savings.

The essence of corporate greed, amiright?

So where are we now? Well, after realizing that we can’t financially succeed as a company or as people with families without using payment models that are fair to us as well as our players, we are going back and updating our game portfolio. We’re adding new content, throwing a fresh coat of paint on everything, and putting together the cross-game and cross-platform Bscotch ID system to tie our portfolio together. And, *gasp*, we’re updating how we deal with ads and IAP.

The first phase just completed with the relaunch of Quadropus Rampage on Android. As part of that relaunch, we added new difficulty modes, new masteries, new weapons, new effects, and updated animations. You won’t hear much about those in the Google Play comments nor in our inboxes. What you will hear about, just as when Quadropus launched, is how this update is just a “greedy” “money grab” and that now we’re just like all the other evil companies. One star.

Much of this backlash is because we increased the ad frequency to guarantee that players would see one ad in an average play session (the average session is 2-3 minutes), meaning we had to interrupt gameplay by showing ads between levels instead of just at death. As before, absolutely any purchase in the game removes ads (because ads are only there to subsidize non-paying players). This means that the same people who are calling us “greedy” for increasing ads have never paid us for this game that they supposedly love.

Let that sink in a little.

Most of the remaining backlash is because we changed things so that Grubby takes Doubloons (the premium currency) instead of Orbs as payment. I totally get why this makes people upset — for players with maximum character upgrades and tons of Orbs, Grubby purchases were completely inconsequential. They could buy his wares whenever they wanted, and we have now taken that away. So why did we do it?

Early players do not buy Grubby items with Orbs, because all Orbs are being sunk into leveling up the character. By using a different, non-competing currency this problem is removed. Further, I believe that Grubby should have only taken Doubloons in the first place. Just as with all other Quadropus IAPs, Grubby purchases are not required for balanced gameplay, as artifacts and better weapons that are perfectly balanced to the game difficulty are abundant. If a player never buys something from Grubby, that player will experience completely balanced gameplay. For free.

Free-to-Play sucks for everyone

So I’ve now told you a story about how our payment models have evolved over time. What’s the point? Towards the top I made the statement:

The consequence of FTP domination has been to generate absurd and harmful relationships between players, games, and the developers that make them.

Free-to-play makes players feel that they are entitled to free game content, and that any attempt by developers to be paid for their work is unethical. Our experiences with Quadropus illustrate this perfectly. Some players who had never paid us were furious that we started to have advertisers do so on their behalf. We didn’t change the game, we didn’t force them to pay, we simply said, “let someone else pay for this if you won’t.” The change to Doubloons made it so that a non-required component of the game went from being free to still being basically free but more available to players who pay for it. As a consequence of these changes — changes that made it so that Quadropus is still a game that can be played forever, perfectly balanced, without a player ever paying for the service — a small but vocal subset of angry players are throwing down 1-star reviews and assaulting our character.

In essence, we are being told, “You developers do not deserve to be paid for your work, but we deserve to enjoy the things you create without having to pay for it, and because you dared to continue allowing us to play this game for free but asked ‘hey could you maybe throw us a bone here’ we are going to DESTROY YOU.” Fortunately, Quadropus has enough delightful players who don’t feel that way, and enough positive reviews overall, that the game and our studio will both get through the knee-jerk responses to the new payment model.

Free-to-play makes developers feel like the things they produce are literally worthless and, as this long article demonstrates, makes them feel antagonized by the very people for whom they develop. Players are angry when we have advertisers pay on their behalf, and they are angrier yet when gameplay requires or is buoyed by some sort of in-game purchase. How can players simultaneously claim to love our games while stating that they shouldn’t have to pay for them, sometimes in the same sentence?

Free-to-play makes it hard for us to make well-balanced, complete games. We have to make design decisions based on what we think players will or will not pay for within the game, waste development time to design in-game stores and balance the myriad of possible sub-games created by IAP combinations, and deal with the APIs for having Google or iTunes handle in-game purchases. We have to build security systems to prevent fraud, and then figure out how to minimize the negative consequences of the fraud that still occurs (5/6 in-game Quadropus purchases are fraudulent on Android). All of this is time that could be spent making the game better, or moving on to the next big project.

Finally, Free-to-Play also takes power away from the players. FTP is only successful with a massive player base, because the average revenue per player is miniscule (about 3 cents for Quadropus Rampage). If you, as a player, are upset by choices that a game developer made, or if you need help with a support issue, or if you want to boycott a game by not downloading it, your power is taken away because your financial contribution to that game is essentially zero. For example, after the recent changes to Quadropus, we got an email from a player saying that he and his friends did not like all of the ads or the IAP changes, and so they were going to stop playing Quadropus until those were fixed. This kind of threat does not work, because the fact that he noticed the ads meant that he has never paid us for the game. We are completely unaffected by such a boycott.

We don’t want to put ads in our games. We don’t want to have broken versions of our games that require various in-game purchases to fix. We just want to make an awesome game, and we want our players to buy that game from us at a fair price.

And we know that this is too much to ask.

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Posted by Adam Coster

Adam is a co-founder at Butterscotch Shenanigans, and programs all sorts of the nifty tools that make our studio special, like BScotchID and the Crashlands Creator. Follow him on Twitter at @costerad