GamersFirst was started with a noble enough mission statement: give players a choice in how much they pay for their interactive entertainment. It is one of a number of “free-to-play” companies that have popped up in the last 10 years offering alternative payment options for the players. Of course, this new form of revenue model is not just a charity to the playerbase; it is also solves many of the money-making problems in our current game economy. In this sense, it can be seen as mutually beneficial solution, and has proven to be a successful alternative to the standard business model of up-front payment for games.
While there are many companies that fall in the category of free-to-play, GamersFirst makes a claim of unsurpassed community involvement and management excellence. Their methods appear to be working as they have remained monetarily successful without jacking up prices, while the mainstream game market has struggled to make money off of the now-standard $60 pricetag for games. Some companies have sought to make smaller-scale titles at a lower price, such as Ignition Entertainment’s BlackLight: Tango Down; however that title has not achieved its sales expectations. Other companies are resorting to various forms of “online passes” to prevent gamers from buying their games used. Perhaps a more direct correlation can be drawn to the $15-a-month MMO model. GamersFirst arose during the time when Everquest dominated the MMO world, and players expected to pay monthly for an MMO experience. Jon, a producer from GamersFirst, told me he has a different goal to keep their revenue flowing: “Make our games out-of-this-world fun.”
While this may sound trite, it makes sense from a business perspective, and is rooted in the GamersFirst trademarked “Free2Play” business model. As a gamer, if you cannot sample a game, the best way to approximate your interest in it would be to listen to the marketing machine and critical reviews, ask your friends, or try a demo. None of these options are particularly informative about the quality of the prolonged gaming experience in regards to your own personal taste. As such, if you use the traditional business model, the standard way to increase revenue would be to increase the retail price, force players to pay for online play, or create low-cost expansions and hope that a percentage of the playerbase will buy them. And, in the MMO world, with monsters like World of Warcraft dominating the scene, you’re either in or you’re out, and there’s little flexibility on the part of developers or players looking for an alternative or more personal experience.
GamersFirst, however, capitalizes not on whether or not people will buy their games (they are free, hence the term Free2Play), but whether or not they will have enough fun to buy in-game content. At its heart, GamersFirst is all about community; they have come to realize that a thriving and content gaming community means a group of players happy to pay for bonus content in their games. And this is where it gets tricky, because all free-to-play companies handle it differently: GamersFirst prides itself in not restricting content with a monetary barrier, but rather augmenting a fully-fledged gaming experience with flavor content for the truly passionate players. In essence, it rewards those players who just want to play the game by giving them that experience for free, while also rewarding the hardcore players by giving them an opportunity to get fully immersed in their virtual world, at a cost that is essentially up to the players themselves. Some examples of content available for purchase are potions, bonus experience points, costumes, and a particularly intriguing item called a “random box” which gives the player a random weapon that they cannot view ahead of time.
It would be easy throw around terms like “nickel-and-diming” when it comes to free-to-play, and this article does not comment on other companies; however, experiences with GamersFirst games have proven that this win-win dogma holds true most of the time. While one of their more recent games, Sword 2, had some content locking on release (which would prevent players from accessing certain core content without paying), the producer of the game quickly realized it went against the company’s intentions and the players’ desires. As such, this content locking is planned for removal as of the next update.
This quick response to wants and needs of the playerbase is really where GamersFirst shines. The decision-makers within the company are all hard-core gamers, according to the representative I spoke with, and they are obsessively active in the community forums and are constantly interacting with players in-game as GM’s. I asked whether or not it was tempting to make players pay for more core content as opposed to flavor in the periphery, and I was given an anecdote about a game for which the monetization system was designed before the game itself – the system failed, and the company learned its lesson quickly. It was explained to me that monetization often isn’t even discussed until a game is finished, which speaks to the company’s focus on quality and fun. The idea makes sense: make a game that’s good enough, and people will pay. It’s positive reinforcement at its best, and it seems to be working.
Jon, the representative that I spoke with, explained it this way:
“Free-to-play is a moniker that I don’t think a lot of people fully understand, and it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But I can tell you that the ‘Free2Play’ that we trademarked, as a company, definitely means that when players download the game, they get it for free, they can log in, and they can play it forever, all the way through the game, for free.”
He went on to say that other companies use content locking, or content unveiling, where you buy portions of content; GamersFirst has tried these things, but found that selling optional benefits instead of core gameplay made players the happiest, and thereby grossed them the most money. It is worth noting that many of the games also feature in-game and browser-based ads, and although I have not witnessed in-game ads myself, I have been assured that they fit the feel of the games they reside in, and are “weathered” to appear as realistic level props.
GamersFirst makes a wide variety of Free2Play titles; some popular ones include War Rock, Sword 2, Knight Online, Victory, Taikodom, and MKZ. Knight is a MMORPG, while Sword 2 is an intriguing mix of RPG and RTS. MKZ and War Rock are MMO First Person Shooters; the latter has won awards in a few publications around the world. This brings up a great point about the community at GamersFirst; it is highly international, bringing in players from all over the globe. When I asked about what type of people he meets on a daily basis, he laughed, and told me that “you meet strange, weird, fun people from all over…like India, for example.” (Don’t worry, all ye politically correct, he mentioned a number of other places as well).
To try out one of GamersFirst’s many titles, just go to their website, GamersFirst.com. Stay tuned for the next installment of Free2Play, where I will go into some of their games in more detail!