In Charlie Brooker’s 2009 article in the Guardian, ‘why I love video games’, the UK satirist argued, ’If you don't play games, you're not just missing out, you're wilfully ignoring the most rapidly evolving creative medium in human history.’ This was certainly true at the time, but the industry has changed significantly since then. The rise in freemium games and the reliance on analytics as the driving force behind their design has greatly diminished their case for being considered in the same breath as cinema and literature, and it’s difficult to see a way the industry can move forward.
The Freemium model now dominates mobile gaming, with their in-app purchases accounting for roughly 70-80% of the $10 billion in iOS revenue each year. Tech investment giant Tencent’s recent decision to spend $8.6 billion on 84% of Supercell, the Finnish firm behind leading moneymaker Clash of Clans, valued the firm at over $10bn - reportedly twice as much as the combined recent purchase price of LucasFilms and YouTube.
The design of freemium games is driven largely by data analytics. Information is constantly streamed back to the creators detailing every touch a player makes during their time in the game. This enables them to develop a tremendous understanding of players’ habits and tendencies by comparing it to their similarity to other users doing similar things, providing insights that developers can leverage to effect the amount of money they spend on the game. In an article on Touch Arcade last year, an anonymous source described only as ‘a senior producer at a free-to-play games company’, wrote about the amount of data that developers stored about players and the lengths they would go to to get it: ’This is about how we can target you, because we (and our partners) know everything about you. We know where you live, we know your income level, we know your relationships, your favorite sports teams, your political preferences. We know when you go to work, and where you work. We can target an event to start for you when we know you have a long weekend coming up. We own you.’
The piece goes on to detail times that companies the writer has worked for have added their bigger spending customers on Facebook using fake accounts, purely so they could collect more private data to target them with certain products. This is sinister on a number of levels, but, leaving the morality aside for one second, there is also a strong argument to be made that such a focus has made freemium games boring, uninspiring, and highly addictive.
Providing entertainment used to be the primary objective in gaming. Developers had an artistic vision, they developed a story and artwork and everything was a surprise to gamers. Now users control the process, with the predictability of gambling websites replacing the shock and awe. The main objective is now driving profit, and data is the tool.
However, while it may be true that a focus on monetary return means a diluted playing experience, it could equally be said that the returns companies see enable greater investment into the game, providing a constant stream of revenue that incentivizes developers to keep making improvements. Analytics is often cited as the problem, but when used for the right purposes it can drive better gameplay as opposed to simply more revenue streams. Ultimately, the fault lies with the game developers who have forgotten that they started out with the aim of making great games and now simply want to turn a profit. They have a wealth of data available to them, but they need to start using it in the right way.