It seems odd to offer that a game consequently young is having consequences so broad for video gaming, intended for the PC, and intended for the charging replicas employed by software publishers. So far the influx and achievement of a once-small label through the name of Candy Crush Saga has lead to the software business into incredible of an unexpected result — and not of necessity for the improved.
Ten Years Ago
Back in 2004, the PC videogames industry was, not for the first time, in flux. Sales of games consoles were rampaging, piracy was high, and more and more publishers were leaving PC gaming behind for more lucrative waters. The number of interesting releases was seemingly in terminal decline.
At the same time, gaming in general was more mainstream than ever — though not always for the right reasons. 2004 saw, for instance, the hugely controversial Manhunt hit the front page of The Daily Mail — though on a more positive note, there was also lots of hype around Nintendo readying the soon-to-be- hugely-successful DS console for launch, and Halo 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas became big sellers.
As recently as March this year, World Of War craft still had seven million subscribers
Despite the seeming dominance of consoles, 2004 also had a trio of major PC games that resonate to this day, in different ways. Far Cry’s a gaming series that’s still going, albeit by reimagining itself with each new release. Not only was its first incarnation excellent, Far Cry pushed heavily against the boundaries of what even a high-spec PC could do. However, with one of the main criticisms of PC gaming being the investment needed to stay on top of it, Far Cry’s innovation also counted against it, and became a key piece of evidence in the argument; you were being railroaded into buying new hardware in exchange for one of the very best titles of the year.
Still, Far Cry did things that consoles struggled to match for a long time, and showed what PCs can do better than any other platform: to push against technical barriers, and take advantage of a continually evolving platform. Indeed, even the eventual Xbox 360 Far Cry spin-off lagged a long way behind.
The PC isn’t evolving at quite the same rate at the moment, though (some would preface that with ‘thankfully’) — and Moore’s Law, in any practical sense, feels long gone. Nowadays, a good spec PC bought in 2012 is likely to be perfectly fine in 2014; back then, two years really was beyond a lifetime in computing terms.
A 2004 release that was arguably even more important was Half-Life 2, a game so good and so genre-defining that we’re still eagerly awaiting the a sequel a decade later. It remains a flat-out classic, though one that’s since been successfully ported to other formats. As a game, however, it offered a real sense of storytelling progress, of a world you felt a part of as you worked your way through. What Half-Life 2, crucially, was the Steam gaming platform created by its developer, (Control Device) Valve.
Steam is now the main platform through which digital PC games are bought, and — in spite of some controversies — its continued success has helped maintain and secure PC gaming’s foothold. The flipside of this success is that it’s regularly cited as undermining the commercial viability of the PC as a gaming platform. That’s not an irrelevant point to what we’re talking about here.
The last of the three? That’d be World Of Warcraft, arguably the most influential of the lot. Whilst the number of subscribers paying a monthly fee to enjoy World Of Warcraft is long way down on its peak, it was a game that established and matured a new the revenue model for publishers everywhere. When World Of Warcraft hit big, the wheels of change were very much set in motion. Buying a game once, and never paying a penny towards it again became an anachronistic business model almost overnight.
All of a sudden, there was a proverbial gaming Holy Grail to aim for: customers who wouldn’t just buy a game once, they’d pay to play it each and every month. As recently as March this year, the game still had seven million monthly subscribers, and it’s estimated that WoW has brought Activision/Blizzard over $10bn in revenue so far. It is the top grossing videogame of all time, by a country mile, and is still bringing in tens of millions of dollars every single month.
These three games, each released in 2004, address different strands of an argument explaining why PC gaming is far from dead. At least one of them, though. Hints at the situation the market finds itself in right now: adapting to the realisation that getting small payments on a regular basis is more lucrative than up-front purchases.
The Changing Model
Since World Of Warcraft hit big, most publishers have moved away from wanting consumers to go into a shop, buy a game, and happily play it in isolation. As such, various tactics have been implemented to encourage them to keep spending on the games they are committing to.
The one that’s garnered no shortage of controversy is the online pass approach that’s becoming more and more popular on games consoles. This is an additional fee that’s required to continue playing a game online. Publishers have been looking for a return for the ongoing server costs that rack up when providing multiplayer support for a game, and at first, this applied to second hand titles. Why, reasoned games publishers,
If free to play is, in effect, a sort of extension of the shareware model, can we expect it to lend itself to other software too? After all, companies such as Adobe have moved away from charging hundreds — if not thousands — of pounds up front for extensive software suites. Instead, they charge a more manageable monthly subscription fee that achieves three things. Firstly, it basically pushes everyone onto the same version, courtesy of continual online updates. Secondly, it keeps a revenue stream coming in, whereas previously the firm may have just taken a single upfront payment. Thirdly, it makes products such as InDesign and PhotoShop affordable to far more people.
Will this stretch further? Will firms look at releasing tools that allow you to use certain functions for free, but make you pay for others? If they do, then it really does come full circle. That’s exactly what shareware was doing 20 years ago…
Why, reasoned games publishers, should someone buying second hand get the same online functionality?
should someone buying a game second hand be entitled to the same online functionality as someone who bought the game new? As such, a one-time use registration code was included in the game box, and second hand purchasers of the title concerned were invited to fork out if they wanted online features. In some cases, it worked out more cost effective to buy the game from scratch in the end.
More recently, the ‘season pass’ has become the latest wheeze. This also controls access to some online features, although is effectively a pre-order mechanism for all of a game’s subsequent downloadable content (DLC) — a feature that we’ll be coming to that little later.
Another underlying shift over recent years is that tablet and mobile market that’s been the driving force in gaming innovation certainly when it comes to payment models. With the rise of App Stores, getting an upfront payment of a consumer has become more and more difficult. Instead, we’re entering a time where games known as ‘free to play’ become more prevalent, with titles such as Candy Crush Saga leading the charge. It’s by no means the sole example of what we’re going to talk about, but it is the most staggeringly successful. To the point where it’s built a commercial model that hundreds of others are desperately trying to copy, whether it comfortably fits their products or not.
The Start of The Crush
The roots of Candy Crush Saga are entwined in a company called King that, at one stage, was staring down the face of going out of business. However, it eventually made a success of Facebook games, and has built itself into one of the biggest game publishers on the planet in terms of revenue. It’s not done this through cutting edge games. It’s done it through cutting edge revenue models. Candy Crush Saga made its debut just over two years ago, on April 12th 2012. As with many King titles, it began life as a Facebook game. Even to this day, it’s hugely popular on Facebook, and King built in a social mechanic whereby you request to another user that you get a fresh collection of lives when you run out. A simple idea like that is responsible for thousands upon thousands of social media posts each and every day.
Later that year, Candy Crush Saga was released for Android devices and iOS. It did not take long to become a huge hit. In 2013, it became the most downloaded app for Apple devices. Now, in 2014, its estimated that over 90 million people play Candy Crush Saga worldwide, and that the game brings in revenues of at least $800,000 a day for its publisher; hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue a year for a puzzle game. Just as this issue of Micro Mart was going to press, news reached us too that spin-off candy merchandise is now available to buy. Candy Crush Saga has become something of a phenomenon.
It’s Free! Sort Of!
What’s interesting about that the game though is that there’s no charge to play Candy Crush Saga. You can download it for free on whatever platform (you can even play it now, away from Facebook, in a web window on your PC). and you can get to the very end of
Console gaming popularized the idea of downloadable content for a game, whereby you could buy more levels/maps/add-ons for a small fee once you’d enjoyed the game proper. Even that though hasn’t been without controversy.
Take the excellent Need For Speed: Most Wanted. The Playstation 3 version of the game offered extra tracks for £6 apiece. If you paid, you might then logically sit back and wait for them to download; but no — the levels were on the disc already! This highlight a problem with ‘DLC’ — there’s a niggling feeling that, in some cases, what you’re getting is a bit of the main game that’s been sliced off so as to extract a few more pounds further down the line.
That’s less the case now than it was, but it seems major game releases now have to come with a bevy of added features that you no longer get with your initial purchase. That doesn’t really sound like progress to us.
the game without spending a penny. This is, as you’ve probably gleamed, known as the ‘free to play’ model, and the majority of people who download and try free to play games never surrender any cash at all. King, for one, is very keen to make this point. However, that fact is not for the want of trying on the part of the firm. On Facebook, generating revenue from free to play is relatively straightforward as advertising can be targeted around the game. As an app, Candy CrushSaga tries a few different methods to part you from your hard-earned. The big one is its attempts to sell upgrades, cheats and help to get you through the game. In days of old, if you were stuck on a computer game, you either had to type in a POKE from your favourite 8-bit magazine, follow a walkthrough, cheat some other way or Just bash your way through it somehow. King, however, builds cheating mechanisms directly into its game. Stuck on a game and just need a few more moves to finish a level? No problem… for a couple of quid, King can help you out.
For King has harnessed the micro transaction, a feature that gets Apple bad press over from time to time. This coverage is usually generated by parents bemoaning their offspring running up a big bill without them noticing; this time, though, we suspect it’s the parents spending the money.
King certainly offers lots of ways to help you spend. Further helpful options on the menu include add-ons to delay bomb explosions, smash any candy you like on the board, give you more time or get rid of any candy in your way. Basically, for every obstacle the game’s designers have built for you, King sells the deus ex machina to get past it. Most of these minor miracles are priced at a couple of pounds but, at the other extreme, you can spend nearly £30.
Turning The Screw
In principal, it’s hard to grumble too much about this. After all, you’re not being charged for the game up front. Yet there’s something a little discomforting about the way Candy Crush Saga turns the screw.
The game, as you might expect, starts off quite softly. It’s bright, colourful, attractive and simple — match three ‘candies’ and they disappear, while combos and longer links are rewarded. This is all genially explained for you, and the first few levels of the game are a breeze. Then it ups the ante gradually, and with skill. It’s as you get a bit deeper into it that alarm bells start to ring. For, as the game starts to get harder, the gameplay gets infinitely more frustrating — some may even characterize it as being unfairly difficult.
What we mean by that it’s fairly common knowledge now that there’s a degree of luck involved in Candy Crush Saga and not every level is beatable every time. You get a random selection of colours and candies at the start of each level, and the potential to complete a stage relies on having the right mix at the beginning of a challenge. From that starting point onwards you need the skill and fortune to do whatever you need to do, but it’s worth reiterating: sometimes levels are simply not passable, no matter how well you play.
That, then, makes it less a game of skill and a little more a game of chance. In fact, King has faced accusations, which it denies, that Candy Crush Saga is actually a gambling title. That, in the same way as a fruit machine works, you’re encouraged to spend more to beat it. It gives you enough victories along the way to keep you interested, but even a hardened player of the game may find themselves stuck on a given level for weeks if they’re not willing to fork out a bit of cash.
The further issue here is that Candy Crush Saga isn’t upfront about this. It lets you into the foyer of its posh building for free, but doesn’t give you the prices of optional extras until you’re likely to need them. Then, it rides in, a proverbial knight in shining in-app armour, and offers you things that can get you past a damningly difficult stage. Even if you’re resistant to this approach, there are times when you’ve been stuck on a level for a long, long time that temptation is likely to rear its head.
You can beat the game if you don’t spend any money, and it’s important to restate that, but it’s a lot harder and will take a lot longer — especially once you go above level 200 — if you don’t put your hand in your pocket. Some levels feel impossible, and sometimes you don’t want to wait a few hours for the game replenish the lives it gives you to play with (you can, of course, pay to have them topped up quicker).
On top of all this is the fact that there’s no option to buy the game outright. At no stage can you, for argument’s sake, just hand over a straight £20 (for example) and get everything in one package. The game wants to keep backing you into corners, convincing you that you’re on the edge of beating it, and then teasing you into more in-app purchase.
It’s the in-app purchase that’s the killer feature here, and no game has made anywhere near the success of it as Candy Crush Saga has. Unsurprisingly though, it’s this payment model that’s of increasing interest to PC game developers keen to find a new way to make cash from their wares.
You can already see the influence of Candy Crush Saga in the huge collection of Apple and Android titles that work on the same model. One, in particular, attracted ire recently — Electronic Arts’ mobile version of the 1997 PC game Dungeon Keeper. it free to play billing quickly attracted controversy because EA offered plays a straight-up choice between waiting extraordinarily long periods of time to do something in the game, or paying to get it quicker. Trivial tasks like digging land were set to take a day (in real time) to complete. A whole day, for a real time strategy titles that hardly drop-in, drop-out.
Fast-tracking through the game’s many slowdowns requires the in-title currency (gems) and topping up the small amount you’re given to start with, you need to get your wallet out. Helpfully, you’re told that the best value transaction is for 14,000 gems, for the princely sum of… wait for it… £70!
That’s twice the asking price of Dungeon Keeper when it first arrived on the PC. Double’ What’s more, that original asking price got you the full game, without you ever needing to trouble your piggy bank again. For this mobile version, EA offers various packages of gems, with no guarantee at all that you’ll not need to go back for more. Staggering — and a policy that virtually
What would have been standard full price releases are now being put together with a free to play model in mind
forces us to point out that the full original game can be bought online (at the wonderful G0G.com) for well under a tenner. Unsurprisingly, we — alongside many others — opted to go for that deal instead.
While Dungeon Keeper serves as a headline example, in truth there’s no shortage of alternatives. Farmville used to be the poster child for this sly business practice. The Simpsons: Tapped Out and The Sims: Freeplay also work hard to make you poorer. Indeed, if you go down the list of the top grossing apps at the Google Play Store, the majority of them are free. In fact, free to play dominates the chart.
That seems like a contradiction, but you only have to dig into the in-app purchases to find the real story of why free to play is the most lucrative model in videogaming right now, and why more and more publishers are looking to bring it to the PC.
Games that once upon a time would have been standard full price releases are now being put together with a free to play model in mind instead. The effect is so marked that John Romero, one of the people behind games such as Doom and Quake has argued that “free-top-lay has killed a hundred AAA studios” — and presumably, many of the innovations and games they could have bought to the table.
Ironically, Romero is a defender and exponent of the free to play approach, having released Doom and Quake as shareware on the understanding that people would pay for more if they liked what they saw. It’s not hard to see the advantages, especially as AAA videogames are falling into a similar trap to movies: if they don’t make lots of money in a week or two, then they’re swiftly dumped pending the arrival of the next big title. Given that some are costing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, studios and publishers are looking for a longer term return on their investment. Free to play offers such a chance.
The Game Benefit
Free to play, for all its problems, does offer a clear benefit to the gamer. The lack of an upfront charge allows you to try the game – after which you’re only likely to hand over any cash if you like what you see. Yet, we inevitably come back to the effect of Candy Crush Saga: King has not only taken a relatively basic game and made it successful, and made the model – whether we think it’s exploitative or not — stick. This means that, while World Of Warcraft’s was one the setup publishers, if not developers, were striving for. Now, their sites are being set lower.
There may yet be further ramifications: Candy Crush Saga has questioned the need to invest millions into developing games that are a flat out gamble. Free to play appears to be a market that rewards simplicity and familiarity — and, at the end of the day, you can add parts of your game as you go along. If it’s successful, then you can bolt on extra quests and levels, without the expense of having them finished from day one. Put simply, the incentive to put together a deep, engrossing videogame lessens with every $800,000 that goes through King’s coffers.
That’s King’s fault (although its aggressive attempts to trademark common words have won it few friends). If it hadn’t established the model, another company would have eventually made it pay — but it feels like it’s the champion of a model that promotes piecemeal over substance, where games can be served up in little pieces, and beaten faster if you’re willing to pay up.
While consumers who are actively buying full priced games and spending a lot of money of software and hardware are seemingly less likely to purchase something this way, it doesn’t matter because they’re in the minority. By asking for a pound here and there, and by breaking up what it has to offer, King has made a raging success of a revenue model that the videogames industry can’t follow quickly enough – even if it means angering these diehards. While it’s hard to make a case that Candy Crush Saga is killing videogaming. There’s a sense that its success is dumbing it down, and diluting some of the things that made computer.