Sensible Software co-founder Jon Hare hates free-to-play, and despairs at the current state of the App Store. His next release is, of course, a free-to-play iOS word game.
Word Explorer is the result of four years’ work, an anagram-based game set on a worldmap which opens out with every correct answer. It’s Hare’s first original game for 20 years, and the result of “obsessive research” – it contains over 2,500 photos of famous sights around the world.
“The level of detail and content in here is far beyond what you’d ever sensibly give away for free,” says Hare, and yet that’s exactly what he’s doing, seeking to monetise the game through its in-game shop. It’s a ‘soft sell’ free-to-play game, he says, and paying is entirely optional. And though his next game is free-to-play, he’s not a fan of the model, which he describes as “bloody nonsensical”.
“I’ve hated free-to-play for a long time,” he tells us. “For ages I’ve been saying it’s like going to a street full of restaurants, eating the starter for free and getting a main course if you want to. But usually, you go to another restaurant and have another starter for free. I’ve never seen any restaurants do that, and for good reason.”
He’s also fiercely critical of the current state of the mobile market, flooded as it is with a “morass of crap,” as Hare puts it. The biggest problem, he tells us, is that releasing a game is such a financial risk, as the investment required to develop, release and promote a mobile game usually comes out of the studio’s pocket.
“It’s shit,” he says. “When we made our games at Sensible, from 1986-1999, we always got an advance within two months of development starting, with the exception of one game. We never took any risk, we never borrowed any money – or at least no more than five grand – and we made a profit. Are you telling me this is better? It’s shit. A one in 50 chance of not dying on your arse? For fucks’ sake.”
He’s fiercely opposed to Apple’s laissez faire approach to its storefront, and believes that more barriers to entry – perhaps even a fee up front to release an App Store game – would help ensure developers’ work gets discovered. “The problem is that people get sucked into the success stories and not the failures,” he says. “Trying to market a game – working out how much money you’re potentially just throwing in the bin – is bloody difficult. There are loads of middlemen at the moment that we don’t need, making money because of Apple’s system.”
He also counters the suggestion that today’s more open marketplace can be compared to the golden age of ‘bedroom coders’ – the scene from which Sensible Software emerged in the late eighties. “It’s better now than the console times – which were bloody awful – but when people look at now and say ‘it’s just like the old days’? No.” he tells us. “I got paid upfront for my game based on people believing in me, rather than finishing a game all at my own risk and taking a one-in-fifty fucking wheelspin on it. At the moment, it’s only a good model for people desperate to do their own thing or with nothing to lose. Anyone with any financial sense or with big financial responsibilities is not going to do this.”
There are still “genuinely good and talented young guys” breaking through though, continues Hare. He singles out Hotline Miami developer Dennaton, New Star Soccer creator Simon Read and London indie Johnny Two Shoes as “young guys have the same fire in the belly and same artistic approach that we had [at Sensible] in the old days.”
Creators like these ought to be celebrated more by platform holders and press alike, says Hare, as currently they are being drowned out by bigger players. “Apple has the mentality that all developers are the same, they’re all dispensible and interchangeable,” he says. “They don’t care as long as they have content coming through the pipeline. Apple are allowing the big companies to force their way in.”
So with such fierce criticism of the current mobile market, why release a game into that space? “I personally want to prove I can still design good games,” says Hare. “I would like it to be successful, have a long tail, get good reviews – I want to be known through the quality of my work. What would make me happiest would be if it does well in America, where no-one knows who I am.”
Word Explorer has been soft-launched on selected English-speaking App Stores across the world and is coming to the UK and US stores soon.