Glyph Quest is a fascinating little game that seemingly uses the free-to-play system against itself.
It has just one in-app purchase, made available about half an hour in, and that single purchase unlocks the rest of the game. It was that unusual business model that initially had me interested in Glyph Quest and influenced me to reach out to its developers, Alex Trowers and Leanne Bayley.
Trowers started his game development career at respected UK studio Bullfrog in 1990 and worked on everything they did up until Dungeon Keeper 2, then jumped around to different companies until he decided to go indie. Bayley, on the other hand, worked at a UK studio called Remode that focused on free-to-play mobile and online games for a year before leaving to move in with Trowers because they were having a baby.
The two created Glyph Quest out of a desire to design a game that could make familiar match-three mechanics fun without exploiting players through excessive in-app purchases, and by most accounts they succeeded. I chatted with Trowers and Bayley about what's coming in Glyph Quest 2, the greed that's ruining video games, and more. Check out our full conversation below.
TabTimes Games: So why did you choose the business model that you chose for Glyph Quest?
Alex Trowers: Well, I've had a lot of experience certainly just recently working in the free-to-play space, and I understand the principles of it. And they're good principles—they work. We're not opposed to free-to-play at all. But the way it's been implemented in a lot of games, just—I think it's been implemented for the wrong reasons.
It depends on your perspective. If you're in [free-to-play] to make games that are fun, and you want people to play them because you want to entertain people, then these are the wrong reasons. If you want to make a shit ton of money, then these are very much the right reasons. So we kind of went half and half, insomuch as: if we did a pay app, there's a barrier to entry there. You're asking people to take a leap of faith and give you some money up front. Whereas if you go free then a lot more people are inclined to try it, and then hopefully, based on the strength of the game that they play, might be prepared to fork over some cash.
But then rather than us giving them these constantly moving goal posts of "Well now you need to give us more money and more money and more money," we essentially reverted to the old shareware model of try it, if you like it, buy it, and then once you've bought it, that's it. You're done. So that's how we kind of ended up there. There's no way we could have gone full free-to-play, either, because there was just the two of us working on it and we didn't really have the resources to do that sort of model justice.
It's also like the model that we saw a lot early on in the App Store, like having a "lite" version and then having a paid version you could upgrade to.
Trowers: Now we considered that, but again—one of the things you'll obviously have heard an awful lot of in the free-to-play space is the whole "frictionless barrier to entry." So while part of that is the low price point, i.e. zero, the other part is the amount of effort it takes to be able to get the full content.
If you have to then go, "Actually, I quite like that. Let me download the full version." I think that's a barrier to some people. Whereas if it is just, "No, stay in the game, we'll keep your saved game, keep all the progress you've made so far—just essentially flip this switch, buy that one IAP, and then you're away," then you end up with a smoother process.
Sadly we got that a bit wrong insomuch as the first versions that went out we didn't make it very clear that that's what we were doing. And so an awful lot of people sort of balked when they got to the paywall.
Were you confident that people would be willing to cough up a couple of dollars after playing the beginning for free?
Leanne Bayley: That would be the people who would kind of play tested it for us.
Trowers: And ourselves.
Bayley: And ourselves.
Trowers: We were confident that we had a decent game. What we didn't have was a name or a pedigree or anything like that—a marketing budget, essentially. But we knew that if people played the game they would enjoy the game, simply because yes, all the people we had testing it for us, they couldn't put it down. And the problems we ran into in development, when one of us would fix an issue, and then spend the next hour playing the game before we realized, "Oh, hang on, the issue is fixed. I need to get on with some more work." So we knew the game was pretty good and it was just a case of getting bums on seats—you know, getting as many people to play as possible, which meant free.
Do you find it sort of a bummer that game developers now have to focus not only on making a good game, but also on pricing, "putting bums in seats," etc.?
Trowers: How long have you got? [laughing] That's a whole different rant. Short answer: yeah. I want my hobby back. My hobby has been butchered by money men, and I'd quite like it back, thanks.
A lot of people would agree with that. One of the reasons I wanted to speak with you is because I like the model that you chose.
Trowers: I like the free-to-play model. I like the principles of it. Like I said, it's a tool. But the psychological trickery that goes on for the simple reason of fooling people into spending money—it's the dishonesty of it that I don't like. And it's the lack of imagination. There's a way of doing it, and there are spreadsheets that will tell you how to do it, and there are master classes that you can go to which will tell you how to do it. And no one is deviating from it.
There's no craft to it. They're just, you know, verbatim putting these formulas in, and saying, "Well this is how we do it." Even to the extent that the color green you have to use on a button. That's established! You know, how long you let a person play for before you start hitting them up for money—that's established. The formulas that you use for that, for the A/B testing, no one's actually putting craft into it, because any deviation from that formula is a risk, and people don't want to take those risks.
They don't want to be creative. They just want to make money. That's what upsets me. It can totally be done right. There are totally some really good games that come out using the free-to-play model. But it's just this unimaginative, cookie cutter crap that is really beginning to piss me off.
Has the model you chose been successful so far?
Trowers: Yeah, insomuch as we had low ambitions for this game. We weren't being greedy. It needed to make a certain amount to keep us alive. It has done that, and a little bit more. We're no Candy Crush. This isn't the next Minecraft. We're aware of that, and we never needed it to be. But it has made enough money for us to then start thinking, "Actually, maybe this is something we can do. Maybe we can carry on with this and we don't have to start looking for work straight away."
Why did you choose not to include any in-app purchases beyond the first one?
Bayley: There's really no need. We would have had to dramatically change the way you played the game to warrant people wanting to buy anything else in it. We didn't have enough content, really. That was the reason. Like Alex said before: if we were going to go full-on free-to-play, we just couldn't support it. We would have needed extra people. It would have been more dungeons, more content that we just didn't have the time or the resource to make.
Trowers: Because, you know, we were doing this whole thing up against a quite ridiculous deadline that wouldn't move [laughing]. And as we've subsequently found out in the last months, yeah, had we tried to finish this off after the baby had arrived, there's no way we would have been able to do it. So it was very much a resource issue. Now we've got someone working on a Japanese version, which may well—because it obviously is a completely different market out there and all the qualms about free-to-play just don't exist. They just approach it completely differently.
So they're doing a different version and the model that they're going to try does include more IAPs. It'll be balanced differently so there will be a bit more of a grind for the cash, but you can buy cash. And I think there's two mage licenses rather than one. So the first one gives you levels five to ten or something, and the next one gives you levels 11 to 14. So yeah, they're kind of experimenting with a different model.
But that's the point; we've handed it off to them, and they'll just do all of that on their own. So we'll see how it works. I think it's an experiment from their point of view as well. They want to kind of test the water with different models out there.
Were you worried about the game starting too simple and people giving up before they hit the paywall?
Bayley: Well that's why we went free—because we knew that if you just look at us at a glance we're a match-three game and there's so many of those on the market that if we tried to charge for it up front no one would ever buy it. But we were pretty confident with the differences that are in it and how much fun it is to play, that people would go for it if they enjoyed it.
Trowers: In hindsight though we probably—it would need a bit of a rebalance just to front load things like the combination spells, because there's the huge change in gameplay when that happens. And that seems to be the bit that everyone really, really enjoys, so there's a load of people who've played the free build and haven't—I guess what I'm trying to say is the free version isn't necessarily indicative of the gameplay that you're going to get.
The question is where do you bookmark it with the pay wall? Further up or further back into the game?
Trowers: It's literally one number that we can change.
Bayley: It was a difficult decision to make, because you don't want to give them too much so that they think, "I've had my fill of it," and you don't want it to be too little that they still don't get it and they don't see why they should invest in it. If we had advertised it a bit clearer at the beginning that it's a try-before-you-buy and there's not going to be another pay wall in five levels—some of the feedback that we got was from people saying, "I don't buy in-app purchases regardless." But it's not really what people think of as an in-app purchase.
Trowers: The semantics are wrong, aren't they? It's just, we're using the free and in-app purchase model not in a way it was intended to be used. I mean, it's geared for free-to-play. So we're probably misusing it and there's a lot of confusion there, which is something that a lot of developers are going to have to get on now, especially with the OFT [the UK's Office of Fair Trading] stuff coming through. I don't know how aware of it you are out there, but in England things are going to get tough for free-to-play.
Do you view that as a positive thing, the government intervening in the game industry?
Trowers: It's one of those occasions where I think it's a shame it's gone this far. I liked it when we as an industry could clean our own house. So, for example, voluntary certification. We stepped in and started sticking age ratings on games before, in our case, the BBFC stepped in. We acknowledged that, hang on—there could be this potential problem, and so we kind of nipped it in the bud before it got too far and before someone else had to step in and say, "You guys can't look after yourselves, so we're going to do it for you."
I think it's a bit of a damning indictment that because free-to-play is such an effective model, and it can be used for good and can be used for evil, and it's just too many people have been using it for evil, that somebody else has had to step in and say, "Right, look, hang on, there's a gold rush going on here, but the tricks you're using—and they are tricks—to take money from people who are ill-prepared to make that judgment call—that's out of order."
Yeah, so it's just a shame that the only reason we're here is because of excessive greed. And not on the part of game developers—it's survival from their point of view. This has all come down from publishers and investors and people not necessarily associated with the games industry who can see an easy way of making a lot of money.
The bottom of the barrel was probably the investor who told Nintendo to put Mario on smartphones and charge players money to make him jump higher.
Trowers: Yeah. And it's curious, because again in somewhere like Japan, that would work. And South Korea.
Bayley: And China.
Trowers: Put it this way. If it was a competitive environment, i.e. you were racing Marios against other people's Marios, then a higher jump would fly off the shelves [in Asian markets] and people wouldn't think twice about it. But over here we still have a real aversion to pay-to-win. So it wouldn't happen.
Do you think it's because that model originated in those countries? Will we be there in a few years?
Trowers: I think it's a combination of things. I think it's the competitive nature of stuff—i.e. in the east, one thing I really, really admire is the fact that gaming is a skill. To be good at a game you invest your time and effort into it, and you become good at it. And these things are stuff that's helping them improve that skill and demonstrate that improved skill and kick the crap out of other people, which they enjoy doing. So it's much more sort of competitive slant to it.
In the west—and this is something that disturbs me as well—it's all about entitlement. "Well, I paid money for this, therefore I should see everything the game has to offer." That's something that I really don't agree with. I think you earn it in the game. If the game is done well, you won't realize that you're earning it, but just because you bought the game you don't have the right to see everything straight away.
That just ruins the pacing. It's like, you don't buy a novel and then immediately turn to the back page and go "Oh, alright, OK, now let me enjoy the rest of the novel." You work through it.
Well, some people do.
Bayley: Yeah, some people do [laughing].
Are you working on more content for Glyph Quest?
Bayley: Well, we're looking at sort of the sequel because what we realized when we made Glyph Quest is there's a lot of stuff that came up that we would love to have put in the game, but couldn't, because we just didn't have the time or the resource. So that's where our heads are at now.
Trowers: Yeah, doing Glyph Quest again, but properly.
Bayley: As it were.
So what can people expect in Glyph Quest 2?
Trowers: A better spell parser, more combinations, more elements to mix up, customizing your wizard with new and interesting gear, possibly even being able to bring your friends' wizards into battle with you—there's a whole host of stuff.
Bayley: More monsters, more dungeons—a lot more content.
Trowers: More story! We've got some people on board who want to do us little story arcs. More exposition, boss monsters…
Will it take less time to develop now that the framework is in place?
Trowers: If we were in the same situation, this would take less time to develop. It's going to take longer to develop because we can only devote 25 percent of our time to it, it would seem at the moment. Have you got kids?
I have a dog.
Trowers: [laughing] Right, I guess it's similar. Imagine the dog's walks took up 50 percent of the day. So yeah, we don't get to devote nearly enough time as we would have otherwise.
Bayley: Also imagine that your dog will not be left on its own and has to be held constantly by at least one of you [laughing].
Trowers: But incidentally the takeaway from all this though is that it is absolutely, unequivocally, totally worth it.
If you say so. Do you have a time frame for the sequel?
Trowers: Well first of all we have to move house, because we're getting evicted out of this place. And then, I don't know, we'd need to get something done in the next three or four months. Because then the money runs out again.