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Free for All: How will F2P fare at GDC?


GDC Online is one awesome event. Although I attended the event in the name of a different site last year, I remember it well. It was a mass of my favorite developers and inside-thinkers, clumping together to discuss customers, design and community. Of course, there were some panels and talks that, frankly, bored me to tears. Then there were many that were so exciting that they strengthened my resolve to be a games writer. In fact, it was around this time that dreams of design began to take a back seat to visions of writing. That's the power of attending such events.

On the other hand, these events have the ability to convince writers of almost anything. When attending, we must promise to always stay skeptical -- no matter what anyone says to us. Let the information sink in for a while before we take it as gospel. Let the varying ideas of the various speakers blend together a bit -- then let's form our opinions.

I am most excited to see how the last year's wave of free-to-play games and switch-overs will affect the chats. In '09, social gaming was the whipping boy (everyone said he/she hated it, yet everyone seemed to be planning some sort of social game), so will free-to-play receive the same treatment?

It's interesting to see otherwise-calm developers steam about a type of game or game development. I've heard some of the harshest criticisms come from GDC, and it's usually aimed at other developers or payment models. In my opinion as a writer -- as an outsider -- any group of people will eventually develop rhythms and traditions that should not be broken. It's natural for us humans: we like rules. When something does come along -- say, a Zynga or free-to-play -- and shakes the foundations a bit, then our teeth are bared. This is a good thing, if you ask me. Turmoil and change are always good things. Social games made developers question what gaming even meant, and free-to-play is making the largest developers wonder how it works and how they can offer the same choices for their players.

"Will free-to-play be discussed like social gaming was last year? Despite free-to-play's long history and success, will it be featured in most panels while being slaughtered at the after parties? This is what I want to know."

Constant change like this is good for the DNA of the community -- hell, it's good for design and consumers especially. Of course, try telling that to a room of developers who are scared that their jobs might soon be washed away or that they are not keeping up with recent trends. Game-making is a cutthroat business. You might literally be on top one moment, only to be announcing closure the next. Thanks to instant access to information and to other games, players are more impatient than ever. Your game might be really good -- and I mean really good -- but it only takes a short amount of time for players to post "meh" in comments sections everywhere.

While social gaming will still be king this year, free-to-play seems to be the current buzzword. Fortunately, predictions can often be so off-base that they have no basis in reality, so it's important to always remember how trends come and go. Do the developers know this? From my experience, developers often listen to those comments and buzzwords a little too much, or in the case of many newer and upcoming MMOs, they listen to the sound of money being made and try to imitate the product that made the breakthrough. Ironically, the developers with the largest budgets seem to want to take the least chances. Can you blame them? If they stray too far out of the box, players might not be comfortable.

Does this mean we will now see massively multiplayer Minecraft copies appear? Possibly. Does that mean that such games would actually make any money? I doubt it. The charm of a Minecraft is that it is Minecraft -- a unique experience that came along out of nowhere. You cannot re-create that.

This is why I am so eager to get to GDC -- to get a pulse on what the developers are thinking. I'm glad I am always the skeptic I mentioned above. After all, GDC is a gathering of industry professionals, minus the fans -- typically it's not the convention that huge announcements come from (that's GDC in California). It's the weekday gathering of the industry's best minds, coming together to discuss their art. That can be dangerous if you think that nothing but truth issues from the event. Discussion does flood the area, true, but a group of developers all together in one area acts as differently as a man surrounded by his friends. He might be the world's kindest gentleman, but give him some freedom with his tongue and he might confess to all sorts of "truths." This is normal behavior, of course, but it bears noting.

In other words, GDC needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The statistics and numbers that pepper every conversation are just that: numbers and statistics. Predicting game design is about as reliable as predicting the weather. Why? Because all it takes is one smash hit of a game or a recent upswing in a certain payment model to send everyone into a frenzy of redesign or consideration. The market is crazy fast -- when it changes, the entire community can feel it instantly. This is a new time, a faster time, measured in 140 characters -- GDC attendees like myself must be aware of that.

Will free-to-play be discussed like social gaming was last year? Despite free-to-play's long history and success, will it be featured in most panels while being slaughtered at the after parties? This is what I want to know. Is free-to-play, as a payment model (but not a genre -- it should not be considered a genre) really being considered for so many new and existing games? Is it really as popular as I've seen? What about cash-shop usage -- does the minority still generally pay for the majority? I have recent evidence to support that, but how do recent switch-overs like LotRO and EverQuest II figure into the equation? Will their comparatively complicated tiered payment models be the blueprint for future developers?

Whatever I hear, I will try to stay skeptical. I will try to listen well but will question everything. All the numbers, charts and graphics in the world mean nothing to me if we do not consider that they might one day be useless. There has to be a fluidity to truth for it to be taken as such. I want to see real discussions about free-to-play -- and I want to see developers discussing its arrival and that it might be a good choice for their games. A subscription or other similar payment plan is still a good choice for many games, but I wonder whether the "old school" mentality will ever admit to the power of free-to-play? Will some even go so far as to let a good game go down in flames instead of trying something new and different?

We'll see. I love GDC, despite a lot of the noise. It's truly amazing to see some of my gaming heroes standing there, even if their lectures go way over my head. I'll record it, try to make sense of it, and write it down.

I can't wait.
Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!

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