Online and Facebook game developers face new challenges

Free online and Facebook game developers are encountering more and more challenges when it comes to monetizing their games, according to a recent panel at PAX.

Free online and Facebook game developers are encountering more and more challenges when it comes to monetizing their games, according to a recent panel at PAX. Several PopCap team members spoke on the topic of bringing a game from concept to creation.

By Ed Allard of PopCap's account, the horizon is different than it looked a few years ago. Ever-growing teams continue to exhaust themselves until the date of release, but a game launch doesn't mean the same thing as it used to.

"All of those rules have changed now."

"You'd ship a game, and shipping the game was the finish line," said Allard, the VP-Head of Worldwide Studio for PopCap. "Everybody was exhausted. Everybody would go on vacation, and we'd find out how many games we sold or didn't sell, and the team would come back from vacation and start working on a new game."

"All of those rules have changed now."

For the team that completed PopCap's newest IP, Solitaire Blitz, it was only the beginning. Once the public had access to the game, a new round of work began.

"The day after you're done and you ship the game ... that's when a million people show up at your door and start playing the game, telling you what they love and what they hate, breaking your servers, making a bunch of stuff not work—that's when you actually start the job of running a Facebook game," said Allard. "It's a really different mentality for how you build teams and how you invest."

Good investments can be half the battle for companies that make free games. Of the many that play PopCap's online games, less than one percent actually pay.

"You talk about games as a service, but I think that one of the key things is that this is a free service," said Andy Federspiel, PopCap's Monetization Designer. "One of the things we struggle with [is] that we have to figure out how much fun we can give players before we ask them to pay."

According to Federspiel, developers need to have some idea of where they'd like to take the game after launch, and if the game is successful, it's still difficult to attach a monetary value. If the game is initially offered free, people might view it as being taken away.

"It's a hard call to make, because you don't know if it's the right one," said Federspiel.

There has to be some source of income to keep the lights on.

Despite what players do or don't pay, every game has a price. There has to be some source of income to keep the lights on.

"That's the crazy thing about this new industry," said Allard. "We spent millions of dollars making and running these games, and most people that play them play for free ... The balance between asking for money and providing free gameplay for lots and lots of people to come check out your game is a really hard one. It'd be great if we could just make games for free and not think about monetization, not asking for money, but they're not free to make."

When proposed with the idea of asking players for money after the game has proven itself to be a success, there's still a very basic problem.

"As much as you want people to have that empathy when they see your game, when they see how great the content that you put out is, I think that you do have to be very aware of the fact that most people inherently don't want to pay for something that they can get for free," said Jared Neuss, one of the senior producers. "... They probably won't really care if you spend X amount of dollars. What they're saying to themselves is, ‘Well, it's your job, man. Deal with it.'"

Neuss' solution then is simple in theory, difficult in practice: make the game so good that people will have to want to pay for it.

It's a philosophy that's not far off from Senior Game Designer Jason Mai's goals.

"What I'm mostly trying to do is make a fun game," said Mai. "That's what we're all trying to do." When putting online game development into perspective, Mai's outlook is positive.

"Don't be too upset about the 99 percent that don't pay, because they're still playing your game. They're spreading word of mouth."

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