Are Free-to-Play Games “Crowdfunded”?
By Nathaniel Liles
Like many people out there, I don’t exactly have money spilling out of my wallet, and when I do have money, I usually spend it on trivial things like food and bills. I’m a silly, silly man, and I clearly need to get my priorities straight and buy some more video games, but until I can start focusing on what’s really important – again, buying video games – I’ve been exploring what many see as the “seedy underbelly” of gaming. Of course, I’m talking about the entirety of the Free-to-Play scene, specifically Hearthstone. For those of you who don’t know, Hearthstone is a phenomenal collectable card game made by Blizzard, developers of the Diablo and Starcraft series. It’s also completely free, and for every person that cries about it being “pay to win”, there’s a dynamite deck that most people can build with the cards they already have – no cash required. No card is cash-only, and money can’t buy you skill at the game itself, and since Hearthstone is based entirely on strategy (and a little luck), it’s a great environment where paying money can only be helpful – not game-breaking. This all got me thinking about a very important question: Are Free-to-Play games “crowdfunded”?
A lot of you probably had an immediate response to that, and a lot of the people I talked about it with didn’t even think that the question made sense at all. Crowdfunding, in the traditional sense, is basically a business pitch to the world, where a developer asks many people for small amounts instead of the long-standing traditional way of doing business wherein a developer will ask a publisher for a single large sum of cash. We’ve seen larger companies take to crowdfunding as well, because the mainstream gaming publishers have no interest in ideas that won’t net them several million dollars. Established companies with big (but unconventional) ideas see crowdfunding as a way to sidestep the normal avenues of funding to maintain their creative vision and make the game they want to make, not the game that will make the most money. Now, Blizzard is a massive company (even more so now that they’ve partnered with Activision), and while they haven’t started any Kickstarter campaigns, their entire library now features a free-to-play Starter Edition (excluding Hearthstone, which is 100% free to everyone).
Blizzard’s entire monetization model is interesting and, in my opinion, highly progressive, allowing players to try massive portions of AAA games for free. If you like what you’ve played and decide to buy the full version, your progress is even transferred over to the full version, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about. Blizzard’s massive “demos” are an excellent thing, but they’re not even close to crowdfunding. Hearthstone, on the other hand, might just be.
The initial development of Hearthstone didn’t begin with a crowdfunding campaign. It began with a well-known studio who had plenty of money in the bank creating a product. Simple. However, since the game is free to download and play, it doesn’t create any steady revenue for the company itself until you add in the optional cash purchases. We’ve seen this system perverted beyond recognition in games like Candy Crush and the entirety of EA’s recent lineup, but it can be a good system. Can’t afford to buy a game right now? Here, take it! If you want to show your appreciation for what we’re doing, feel free to donate to maintaining the game. Of course there will be added perks for your contribution, such as a few cards or a go in the Arena.
Wait… Contributing money as a donation to see a game reach its full potential? Being rewarded for your contribution with in-game items? Aren’t these… Backer tiers? Aren’t we all just donating to a crowdfunding campaign that has a massive free demo for us all to try out? See, this is the backbone of my thought process here, because the more I think about these two seemingly different methods of funding a game’s development – initial or continued – the more similarities I see. For instance, there are tons of people who don’t choose to back a specific Kickstarter. That’s fine, we all have limited resources. You might still play the game, however. Free-to-Play games just reverse this process. They go ahead and create the game, but when fans “donate”, they’re simply contributing to stretch goals and goals that have already been accomplished.
A good Kickstarter campaign always has something to show – artwork, gameplay footage, or even a playable demo. Hearthstone has an upcoming expansion coming out called Naxxramas. Now, if you replace the term “game” with “free demo”, you have an entirely different process going on. A company releases a free demo and offers people who enjoy the demo the opportunity to donate towards the expansion of said demo. On Kickstarter, it leads to a full game, and in Hearthstone’s case, it leads to an expansion and the continuation of the existing content. Both are additions to what the developer was able to make on their original budget, and both are paid for by people eager to see what new directions the project will go in. If Hearthstone suddenly stopped existing – or a campaign you donated to was suddenly cancelled – we’d both lose our initial investments, but we understand the risk associated and simply want to show our support.
I’m just trying to get people thinking, I suppose. There are plenty of different ways to fund a game. You can do your best on a $0 budget, you can appeal to the masses, you can appeal to a massive company, or you can simply create a product that customers are willing to perpetuate after playing. Blizzard had the budget to create the game before our donations started coming in because of course they did. They’re massive, but they’re not massive enough to throw money away on something that wouldn’t draw even more money in. Instead of using an exploitative system like Candy Crush, they reward players who like the game enough to donate – and let people play the exact same game for free if they want to do that. It’s crowdfunding, no quotation marks required.
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[author image=”http://cliqist.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/nathaniel.jpg”]Nathaniel Liles is a freelance writer, writing major, and indie musician based in Southern Indiana. While procrastinating or avoiding real-world responsibility, Nathaniel enjoys playing rhythm games, action RPGs, and very colorful games with many bright, flashing lights. You can listen to Nathaniel sing songs or download his music for free on his BandCamp page. You can watch him play games on his Twitch channel. You can also follow him on twitter at @NathanielLiles. And finally, you can read more of his writing over at EliteGamingComputers.com. He’s a pretty connected guy.[/author]