After six years of preparation, Square Enix Montreal studio launched its first free game on Thursday, Hitman Sniper: The Shadows. This new business model is to free, which completely turned the mobile gaming market upside down for a decade.
Posted 4 March
It’s been nearly six years since the 171 artisans at Square Enix Montreal delivered a game, one of the latest mobile game studios to offer paid games, including blockbusters Lara Croft GO et Gunman sniper released in 2015, it was quietly preparing to get in line and change its business model.
The result was officially launched on Thursday with Hitman Sniper: The Shadows.
In appearance, this free game, available in the Apple and Google application stores, is reminiscent of the previous works of Square Enix Montreal, with the same graphics and the same mechanics already present in the first. Gunman sniperwhere the player essentially has to take down thugs from a distance without arousing suspicion.
Mais comme dans l’écrasante majorité des jeux mobiles aujourd’hui, le joueur est maintenant encouragé à sortir sa carte de crédit ou à regarder des publicités pour améliorer ses personnages. Un nouveau mode d’affrontement entre joueurs en ligne est apparu. Onze ans après sa fondation, Square Enix Montréal, propriété du géant japonais Square Enix, est officiellement devenu un studio produisant des jeux appelés freemiums, le modèle qui s’est graduellement imposé dans la dernière décennie (voir autre onglet).
Pousser la technologie
Jean-François Dugas, gestionnaire de produit chez Square Enix Montréal, a été aux premières loges de cette transformation, lui qui était derrière le premier Hitman Sniper en 2015, vendu à l’époque 4,99 $.
« Souvent, on a tendance à considérer les jeux mobiles comme des jeux de moins bonne qualité visuelle, note-t-il en entrevue. Il y a bien sûr des contraintes, mais on essaie d’obtenir le maximum des téléphones pour offrir de très beaux graphismes. Hitman Sniper l’a démontré en 2015, et The Shadows continue de pousser la technologie avec des environnements riches, beaucoup de détails, des éclairages dignes des jeux de consoles. »
Contrairement aux jeux payants, où l’acheteur hérite d’un scénario complet qu’il peut boucler en quelques dizaines d’heures, un jeu gratuit comme Hitman Sniper : The Shadows n’a pas de conclusion. Théoriquement, toutes les missions proposées peuvent être bouclées sans que le joueur ait à débourser un sou.
En réalité, il faut souvent faire preuve de beaucoup de patience et accepter de rejouer souvent les missions pour pouvoir avancer. On compte en fait sur une minorité de joueurs, entre 5 % et 20 %, qui accepteront de débourser de petites sommes pour améliorer leur personnage, accélérer sa progression ou acquérir des pièces d’équipement personnalisées. En y ajoutant l’affichage de publicité, très discrète dans le cas de Hitman Sniper : The Shadows, mais parfois plus envahissante dans d’autres jeux, ce modèle s’est avéré depuis une décennie nettement plus rentable que la vente du jeu à sa sortie.
« La monétisation est présente, mais elle n’est pas aussi agressive que dans certains autres jeux. On a trouvé un juste milieu, affirme M. Dugas. On peut tout obtenir en jouant gratuitement, mais ça prend du temps d’engagement. C’est la beauté de ce modèle-là, il démocratise l’accès au jeu. »
Ce que la gratuité a permis de façon indéniable, c’est une masse critique de joueurs pour offrir des affrontements en ligne. Essentiellement, dans The Shadows, il s’agit d’une course contre la montre où deux joueurs ont la même mission. Celui qui amasse le plus de points en 1 minute 30 secondes gagne. Après les missions principales, c’est la seule façon pour un joueur d’accumuler des récompenses pour poursuivre sa progression sans payer.
« Si on était restés premium [jeu payant], it would have distorted the experience because we didn’t have enough players, explains Jean-François Dugas. Becoming freemio, we are able to operate internationally. ”
The other convention of free games is that you have to accept that their first version at launch is not complete. In about ten hours of play we had to redo some missions several times, the number of which is much more limited than the first Gunman sniper. The experience will be constantly enriched in the coming years, promises the product manager.
“In a game freemio, it is a quality standard to see updates. During the year there will be new agents, new maps, new points of view … ”
Fans of the Hitman franchise will immediately notice the absence of the main character, Agent 47, who is presented as “missing” and who has been replaced by six shadow shooters. The return of the bald man with the icy gaze is not excluded. “It is something we do not know for the moment, we are discussing it, explains Mr. Dugas. Shadows just out, I see it hold up for the next few years. This is our great challenge. “
The irresistible onslaught of freemio
“The freemio it is not going to disappear. In fact, it’s probably the future of video games. “
It is difficult to be more prophetic than the article published by the IGN site, which specializes in video games, in July 2012. It is that, like millions of players who are following more fleshed out paid works, we have seen this wave of free mobile games called freemium. The economic model of these games, already all the rage in China and South Korea? Free to download, they offer the option of purchases to improve characters or simply complete levels faster. It is estimated that between 5% and 20% of players will agree to withdraw their credit card.
Ten years later, with 96% of revenues, the model freemio dominates the mobile phone video game market and has almost replaced the pay game, called prize. The star of the genre, which makes the studios mouth water, is Fortnitewith revenues of 9 billion in 2018 and 2019.
The freemio has even, the utmost indignation for some gamers who love big productions, has far outstripped the revenue of console games.
Retarded and precursors
The transition was not painless. Hundreds of studios around the world, specializing in more traditional mobile video games where the customer pays per download for a complete work, have disappeared. In Montreal, it is generally believed that the demise of Hibernum, which had achieved some success with pay games before closing its doors in 2017, was linked to this shift in the industry.
Square Enix Montreal, which made its mark between 2014 and 2016 with pay games, recently entered the world of freemio after six years of preparation.
Other Montreal studios such as Ludia and Gameloft had quickly made this change. The first, founded in 2007 and acquired last spring by the American Jam City, is currently focusing on updating six mobile games, out of the sixty products since the beginning, which attract two million players every day.
Jimmy Gendron, Ludia’s vice president of strategy and business development, recalls the beginnings of the industry transformation, around 2011. “I’ve been through the transition. As soon as we put our free game on, we multiplied the number of installs by 10. It’s not just the model prize was not paid, but the freemio has reached such a large audience that it has changed the paradigm of mobile gaming. ”
Ludia’s vice president believes the explosion of gaming freemio it was caused by a “perfect” combination of factors, first by the emergence of more powerful and tactile smartphones such as the iPhone, then by the evolution of cellular networks and the popularity of Apple’s and Google’s app stores. The latter two “have changed the distribution network: you can download your game on the way to work on the train, it’s very fast. ”
At Gameloft Montreal, we continued to launch pay-to-play games until 2016. “We clearly saw at the last launch that the results weren’t there at all,” recalls Mathieu Dupont, director of the studio. There had been an economic paradigm shift. The phone is in everyone’s pockets, it reaches an audience that traditionally was not a gamer audience, who started playing because it was free. ”
The change obviously affects the design of the games. Instead of spending several years preparing a play that will be the event for a few weeks and then gradually die out, we now devote more energy to enriching the game after its release. “Before, finishing a game was a sprint,” Dupont observes. Now it’s a marathon. ”
The studios now rely on teams of several dozen developers, up to half a thousand for such a success Genshin Impact, whose job is to offer regular updates. ” With the freemiocommitment is no longer measured in days or weeks, it is measured in years “, explains Mathieu Dupont, recalling that the Gameloft studio still maintains the games released in 2016.
“It’s expensive, but the upside to the developer is that you’re working on a game that’s alive and well. You have immediate return on investment, you can make informed decisions. Numbers don’t lie. ”
For many players who enjoy AAA productions, those with budgets reaching hundreds of millions of dollars, the freemio stands for poor quality clicker. This is no longer true in 2022, argues Jimmy Gendron.
“There are many games that can be called mobile AAA, which are of high quality visually and in terms of game mechanics. […] The commitment of the players is proof of this quality. We invest a lot in creating life experiences. ”
Monetization: the three models
Freemio : game whose download is free. Sometimes translated as “freeware” in French. Revenue comes from display advertising and in-app purchases to enhance the player experience.
Premium : the classic video game model, where you pay a fixed price for the purchase. Studios sometimes offer after the release of supplements, additional episodes called downloadable content or DLC.
Subscription: offer of one or more games at a certain price, usually paid monthly. Practically gone for a single game, the offering model of a catalog of games is the one adopted by Apple with Arcade in 2019. Ubisoft, EA, PlayStation and Xbox, in particular, also offer it.