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Poisoning the well
by Andreas Ronning on 02/03/14 06:57:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

The past few days have, more or less, exploded with criticism of two principles that we can unfortunately consider core to modern, corporate game design: Free to play, and in-app purchases , or IAP. It's vaguely ironic to me that it took a single game to do so, with EA's Dungeon Keeper Mobile, a game that reportedly (I have not played it and have no interest in doing so) treats players to dramatically delayed action unless they buy in-game currency with real money so as to accelerate the process.

This is normal. It has been normal for years, and the biggest reason this single game has triggered such controversy is because it is an adaption of a beloved property, and thus draws the ire of the mainstream games press. "We" cannot believe a modern Dungeon Keeper would be such a cynical work.

This highlights two things. 

1. The "runt" status of the mobile games market, not worthy of the attention of the games press unless the two sectors of Real Gaming and Casual Gaming somehow intersect by way of a franchise.
2. The core nature of free 2 play, laid bare. 

It's a curious thing, seeing EA butcher Dungeon Keeper like this. Not because it surprises me to see the introduction of detrimental F2P/IAP mechanics - The past few years, every good idea on mobile has been cynically butchered in some way, be it through shameless cloning, or by the introduction of delay or difficulty mechanics bypassed through the spending of real world currency -  but because it demonstrates an incredible disregard for fundamentals of computer game  design. 

I remember playing the original Dungeon Keeper, and incredibly well. There is an immaculate synergy to its design, from the satisfying crumble of blocks as they are rapidly dug out by your growing army of beautifully animated imps, to the delicious sounds of gold being depositied in your growing treasury, and the cackling delight at seeing new adventurers prepare to make their way through your carefully laid network of traps and monsters. This dig-build-and-defend model has been attempted several times since, most successfully by Dungeon Keeper's immediate sequel. One of my personal favorites was Evil Genius, a woefully flawed game that couldln't pull off the intricate timing game of Dungeon Keeper, where satisfaction was always imminent and crunchy and good, whereas Evil Genius had to make do with immaculate visual design to offer joy where a rather plodding building pace couldn't provide.

So it's key, to me, to look at the original Dungeon Keeper as a game of timing, rapid creation and crunchy satisfaction focused on delivering your mind to a distant place of delicious comic evil, and then look at this modern variant as a game that runs directly counter to those philosophies. This game has no purpose if not to bind you to the reality of your bank account.

Debt of time

Vampiric. The concept of a game out to make less of your time stuns me. This game, and games of its ilk, set out, set out, to make your un-paid time less valuable than the time you paid for. 

I relish any ability to bring up Ghost Master, and there is no time like the present. Ghost Master, a deliciously drawn out and boring game by Empire released for the PC in 2003, is where I begin considering the value of time. I harbor somewhat of an irrational love for this game, mostly because it is an incredibly earnest and charming game on a presentational level, but also because it is one of those games that will happily waste dozens of minutes of your time simply because its basic design requires it. Ghost Master is a game in which you plot down daft AI ghosts in a location inhabited by dafter AI humans, typically to scare the humans off. Every ghost has some powers that can be used, and using those powers costs "points". Scaring humans give you more points. The balance, if there is any, boils down to pecking away at people until you get more points, so you can peck harder, and so forth. It is almost impossible to lose at Ghost Master. The best thing you can do is spend less time.

It can feel endless. But you (given that you are me) keep doing it because the music, the sound, the animation work, and the theme and basic interaction of the game feel good. This is for me the crucial intersection. The point where we are understood to spend time to acquire fun, or where fun is withheld from us at a ransom of time. 

Similar in description, the two concepts could not be more different, and it baffles me that some people seem to seek to confuse the idea of the time/fun transaction with the idea of the debt/fun relationship. A game design joke, of sorts, is that common Free 2 Play games fail at this bit of basic design philosophy because time and requirement are simpler resources for economists to integrate than fun and willingness, but look at a game like Dungeon Keeper, compared to another time-sink like Ghost Master, and it becomes sadly apparent that something today is becoming diffuse and lost. The ideas of generosity, of good will, and the hope, nay, confidence, that your creation is simply worthy.

The gift of game

I believe, and this is absolutely core to the reason why I both play games and work to create them, that games are about generosity. Games are meant, I think, to be beautiful puzzle boxes, trinkets, mechanical marvels, that challenge dexterity both physical and mental, exercising your ability to understand the foreign and consider achieving the seemingly unachievable. Sometimes you just want to let off steam, and a game can let you do that. Sometimes you want to be taken elsewhere, games can take you there. Games are reality shifts, relaxation, white-knuckle challenges, gateways to friendship and antagonism, cathartic shocks of realization. 

Games are science, admitting its basic human ambition to be magical. 

Somehow, I suppose, coin doublers and random drop booster packs fit into this. I haven't figured that out yet.

Generosity

The very first game I bought with my own money was Monkey Island on the Macintosh. Have you seen that box art? In 1991, 9 year old me rode my bike across town to the one Trondheim Mac store that sold games and brought that gorgeous box home. I played with the code wheel (what a fantastic thing!) as I installed the game on my Mac IIsi from floppy disks. Thinking about Monkey Island today, part of me almost wants to cry, because I think back to those days and those games weren't just disposable methods of wasting my income. 

Uprising. Marathon. Duke Nukem 3D. No One Lives Forever 1 and 2. Addams Family on the SNES. Mega Man 3. Gargoyle's Quest. Zelda 3. Quake. Mechwarrior 2 Mercenaries. Grim Fandango. 

My god, the generosity. I paid the fee and never looked back.

Arcade culture

Some defenders of Free 2 Play design culture will tell me games like Valve's DOTA2 and Team Fortress 2 are proofs of concept. DOTA2 in particular is a spectacular bit of game, with real-money mechanics that barely surface at all in the game client unless you specifically look for them. I haven't played TF2 in a long while, but I understand its economy of hats and other superficial "upgrades" are much the same.

But here's the thing. They are not proofs of concept. They are the exceptions that prove the rule.

The overall defense is a drawn parallel to the coin-munching game designs of 80s and 90s arcade culture, with games like the Metal Slug series, so brutal that the ambition to beat the game would be realistic only to the wealthiest or the most inhumanly skilled at hand-eye coordination (though I've 1cc'd Metal Slug 3 so COME AT ME BRO), or games like Street Fighter 2 where paying for a round became a part of the multiplayer culture, with players adopting systems like stacking quarters on the cabinet to show who's next in line to fight the current reigning champion (an excellent player could stay playing for a whole evening if undefeated). 

To some people, the inclusion of cash into a game's loop is validation of the principle of IAP or F2P as some sort of fundamental frequency of game design. Gauntlet's badgering of the player's wallet to prolong a draining life bar is a particularly notorious example. 

But Gauntlet was fun. A single match of Street Fighter was the game. And have you seen Metal Slug? You could play that game!

Red Wizard, Needs Food, Badly. Don't Shoot The Food!

Arcade culture was absolutely about eating quarters, but it cannot possibly have been THAT far ago, that pundits choose to ignore the basic fact that arcade games survived in the market on the basis of their actual *ability* to draw money, not just the fact that they merely did.

Arcade games were about winning players over through spectacle, through fun, through generosity. Arcade games ate your quarters because you loved them.

Shareware

My opinions are generally more tempered when it comes to IAP as a basic principle. There is nothing inherently evil in a free game locking further content behind a paywall. I grew up in the shareware era; The idea of a demo offering more for a fee is perfectly sound, and it is the model I myself intend to apply for our own mobile outings. I think it is respectful of players' time to offer a solid slice of game to demonstrate what the paywall represents, as much as I believe it is respectful of developers for players to observe such a paywall and make the decision to commit their trust. 

This is the fundamental transaction I am personally after, as a developer and as a player. The point where I tell the developer that yes, I believe you will make me happy, or a player will tell me yes, I believe you wish me well. 

Without this trust between player and developer, my heart breaks: Why would I want to make games if my master plan is a shotgun approach where I swamp the market in advertising for my "free" monetization platform, hoping that for every 100 players that download and give it the middle finger, there are 10 that spend a few cents on a hat? 

I wasn't brought up like this. Games didn't bring me up like this. I was brought up to create cool, awesome shit, beautiful mysteries, terrible horrors, to want players to *love* me. This was the promise of shareware. "How incredible is this?" 

I think it's important to see IAP and F2P as different things. IAP is merely a process of purchase. F2P is a vampiric game design philosophy. There is nothing shareware about F2P, because F2P is not the conversion of a demo into a full product. This is not a complicated difference to fathom, yet Shareware seems to surface again and again as yet another example of F2P's natural place in the history of games.

Pay 2 Play

F2P's closest cousin is online casinoes offering a few dozen "free dollars" to spin virtual slot machines, and at least those are honest about their intentions. F2P games are venus fly traps by their basic philosopher's stone conceit: The entrapment of players in a loop overtly designed to drip feed pleasure and pain to extract the most life possible, measured in time and currency. F2P breaks the basic bond of trust between designer and player by seeking to manipulate the player's wish for pleasure into a calculated expenditure of their very lifespan. How is this not ugly?

It's vampire game design. I'll have none of it. 

As for the designers of Dungeon Keeper Mobile, Candy Crush Saga and the endless others like them, I can only suppose it comes down to their upbringing. I hope the rest of us do our damnedest to be nothing like them. Teach our players to trust us with their happiness, so we can trust them to pay us for it.


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Comments


SD Marlow
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There was a time when the playable demo was a way to advertise/promote a game, but these days even a free demo has the same discoverability issues as a full priced copy. Plus, you don't have to wait for the latest issue of your favorite magazine or visit an actual store to see what might be hitting the shelves in the next few months.

These days, the drug isn't giving the game away for free in order to squeeze a few coins out of players later, but that these free games can rake in many times over what a single, up-front purchase price could offer. Just as it doesn't matter how few players actually spend money, to these game farms, dumping 20 or 30 crap games onto the market in the hopes that just one will strike it rich is all that matters.

Josh Charles
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Too true, unfortunately.

Marvin Papin
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I miss the time where we rushed demo to check if a game was good or to play it before it releases. That was one of the best way to advertise a game. I think even if that was expensive for editors, there was a true benefit (As a recent great example, Sniper Elite V2 which would probably never have reached that success).

Now people rush free to play and test low quality games for the most. And young children abuse of their parent credit cards to get seeds in farmville.

Tetsu Kamoshima
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THANK YOU.

GDI Doujins
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I couldn't have said it better.

The developer is giving the gift of experience, while the player is giving the gift of their time. Why abuse that?

We are already seeing what happens to the industry when bean counters are in control. I wouldn't dare imagine what sort of games today's kids weaned on smurfberries that cost the family $3,000 would end up making. Perhaps something more nefarious, we can only tell.

I also think games as a service (as opposed to a media product) enables developers to steal players from each other in a zero sum game, since the best customer "whale" would be one that spent unnecessary hours and money (i.e. in the thousands).

Wendelin Reich
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"I believe, and this is absolutely core to the reason why I both play games and work to create them, that games are about generosity. Games are meant, I think, to be beautiful puzzle boxes, trinkets, mechanical marvels, that challenge dexterity both physical and mental, exercising your ability to understand the foreign and consider achieving the seemingly unachievable."

Wow! One day, Sir, you will be remembered as the author of this quote.

Christian Nutt
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Dunno. Just had someone tell me that they specifically DISLIKE A Link Between Worlds BECAUSE it's a beautiful puzzle box. And this is someone who's becoming an influential critic.

That said, that doesn't mean the quote might not be remembered...

I guess my slightly less flippant point is: This is a perspective on games many of us agree with, but plenty of people don't, and they aren't all terrible, evil, profiteering automatons.

Andreas Ronning
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I'll rewrite it in less flowery purple prose:

I believe game development and design should be about giving pleasure to the player in a way that is generous, caring, and not about skinning the player alive.

I'm sure there are players who enjoy being skinned, but that's a minority I think we can safely disregard in general.

Mark Nelson
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Thank you so much for this article. Bookmarked and ready to be forwarded at a moment's notice!

Katy Smith
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Articles like this drive me nuts. I appreciate the passion, but F2P is not evil. It's a method to sell something. Just like pay-to-play is a way to sell something. Both methods can be used to sell something good, or to sell something terrible. I wish there was less hyperbole around F2P poisoning games and more constructive arguments on how to do it in a way that isn't skinning the player alive.

David Serrano
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I agree. The model isn't the problem, it's the questionable intent of designers, developers and publishers who use the model as a means to an end.

Andreas Ronning
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IAP and in-game storefronts is not evil. F2P is.

F2P is *entirely built* (and do correct me here if I've got it all mad and wrong) around influencing players towards seeing the benefit of investing money in a game that is otherwise free.

How this does not fundamentally alter the relationship between player and designer from salesman and patron to first-taste-is-free drug dealer and potential user I have no idea. The game designer's *job* when making an F2P game is to influence players towards spending money. It is a philosophy founded on awareness of cashflow.

It drives me mental to see defense like this without actual argument other than "Well it COULD be good..?" Let's put it this way: F2P is on trial now much more than it was a new exciting thing in the past and we'd "see how it went".

Tou could say that heroin has influenced some of the greatest musicians and artists of modern times, I think we can agree that the substance is, at its basis, a Bad Thing. It's the Guns Don't Kill People argument, and that honestly doesn't really fly when maintaining a society.

Katy Smith
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We need a Godwin's law equivalent when discussing F2P. As soon as someone brings up heroin, the argument is done :)

The purpose of any commercial game is to have the player give the developer money. Yes, there are a bunch of other reasons, too, but if a for-profit company doesn't make money, they aren't going to be a company for very long. A commercial game designer should know something about cash flow and revenue. Even if it is to only argue against "evil" methods. I didn't name anything specific because I could throw out something like "energy gate" and I could name a dozen games that do it well and even more that do it poorly.
I think most people would say LoL is F2P done well. However I could point to every single one of their monetization strategies and find another game that does the same technique is a way that is not good.

Stefan Park
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Is there a way to do it without skinning the player alive? Are you sure you aren't confusing F2P and IAP as the author suggests?

I have no problem with a free game where the developer would like some cash for it by offering "items" for a fee. However, the model of F2P that has been developed is one that nags the player to CONTINUALLY pay for resources that run out. This is especially bad when many of these games are quite obviously aimed at the younger generation. It then becomes a predatory business practice, where the designers KNOW what their audience is and KNOWS they do not have the same concept of money as adults. It even comes down to the order in which the apps are shown. Take Simpsons: Tapped Out for example. The order the apps are shown are MOST expensive to LEAST expensive, with the promise that the "$130 pack" is "best value for money". I'm sorry.. $130? Where is the value for money in paying $130 for some virtual money on a casual game?

Having watched my young boy play Angry Birds Go! (a game he absolutely loves), and questioning him on why I had 150 gems and he only had 11, I soon discovered he was spending all his gems on "waking" his tired racers back up so he could race again. He had no idea that pushing the button was costing him his hard earned gems. He also had no idea that pushing the icons at the top before the race started was actually costing him more coins than he'd ever earn in that race (don't worry, you can buy a "coin doubler" for the low price of $8.50, or a pre-upgraded car for the low low price of $60).

Katy Smith
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Considering I've made p2p and f2p games, I'm pretty sure I'm not confusing the difference between IAP and f2p ;)

I think f2p has a (mostly deservedly) bad rap. You mention continually nagging the player for more money. There's nothing in F2P that requires developers to constantly nag players for money. There's nothing that requires developers to constantly put up friend request pop ups, insert pay gates, force a purchase to be competitive, hide premium currency spends, etc. So, above, when I said these types of articles annoy me, it's because I don't think f2p developers are heartless beasts that go into this with only money on the brain. if that's true, the game will fail (see Dungeon Keeper). I would rather see articles talking about the creative things you can do in a f2p model that aren't "evil" and don't take away from the game experience.

Sam Clifford
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"The purpose of any commercial game is to have the player give the developer money."

I hope everybody who thinks this would please leave the industry. Not specifically you Katy, I respect and appreciate your discussing this, but the above statement will destroy our industry. Its like saying the purpose of writing a book is to make money. The purpose should be "Make a great game that will hopefully be successful", and I agree monetary success is fine and good. But we are chasing dollars instead of making good games.

Ben Sly
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At its most fundamental, I like the idea of F2P. Giving the game to a player for free and letting the player choose the parts of the game he considers worth buying is an excellent model to fuel continued development, and much better than the flat rate up front ethically. Moreover, seeing what sold well and didn't sell well provides future data for guiding further development. I've never liked the expectation that games are to be tossed out of the door once development is done and abandoned for a new project; instead I prefer that they be slowly refined with player input. F2P is a much better model for that than buying the whole game once, or paying a flat subscription fee.

The issue with F2P (and microtransactions as a whole) is that the developers have latched onto making the cheapest-to-make monetized content possible that people will buy. And that content is, by-and-large, content that gives gameplay advantages. The real issue crops up when the rest of the game is designed to make the paid content more persuasive. The less exploitative but much less effective cheap content production method is to put a price tag on purely optional cosmetic things. It doesn't affect gameplay, so it doesn't annoy anywhere near as many people.

I disagree with people heralding DOTA2, LoL, Path of Exile or TF2's F2P model as being ideal. Their focus on purely cosmetic items is not directly funding elements that add to the gameplay. Commissioning items in Path of Exile (paying $1000 to design an item with the developers) makes it closest to the ideal that I can think of, but somewhat pricey. TF2's model - letting the community submit custom items to the game and earn royalties when people buy them - is also something that impresses me, but I'm not sure that the players decide what gameplay effects those have. The ideal might be something like community content creators getting paid for royalties on purchases of Neverwinter-Nights-esque modules in a marketplace curated by other community members (who also get a cut), which Valve may be moving towards.

Sam Clifford
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"The" purpose of a commercial game is NOT to give the developer money. It should be to make a great game that hopefully results in success, financial and otherwise. Profit can be "A" purpose. This distinction is critical. Failing to make the distinction results in the state our industry is in today. Would you say that an episodic TV show like Breaking Bad or a good novel has its central purpose to make money? Perhaps reality TV or an inflight magazine exist only for money, but I dislike them as well.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I am hoping that when Wargaming's Blitz mobile game is released, it will do some good in reversing these stereotypes. Yes the use of the F2P business model is getting a lot of bad press for good reason, and this is especially true in the mobile space. It does not need to be true, and good products take longer to bring to market. I was very careful to not include any of the mechanisms railed against in this article in designing the F2P monetization model for this game.

We may make some mistakes as this is our first attempt to bring AAA to the mobile space, but I am committed to creating a product that will earn the trust of our customers.

nicolas mercier
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@Katy: you're a bit set on the terms F2P and IAP, but if you had a look at the player response on Metacritic for Dungeon Keeper, you'd recognize that players didn't like the way it was made. (http://www.metacritic.com/game/ios/dungeon-keeper)
average user score of 0.2 is... really low, even on a metacritic scale.

So now maybe you don't agree on the terms that were used in the article, maybe your definition of F2P and IAP don't align perfectly with the definitions the author assumed, but all in all, he has a point.

I think he is simply criticizing games that change when you pay; you get a game for free, and if you pay you get a different one. Like dungeon keeper. Not like DOTA or TF2. Call these categories how you want then, and come to the dialogue on the content and not the terms.

Katy Smith
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People don't like Dungeon Keeper because it's a poor game with very expensive monetization. It has very little to do with in-app purchases or the concept of free-to-play. It also doesn't help that the first Dungeon Keeper games were complete PC games that had a cult following. The point I'm trying to make is that it's not f2p that's bad, it's f2p done poorly that's problematic.

Dave Bleja
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You make a good point, Katy Smith. But I think the answer is touched upon in the article, when the author brings up DOTA and Team Fortress 2.

DOTA is a shining example of what youíre talking about: a F2P game that is done right and in good faith. But look what it took to get it there: A massive dev with money to burn, the hiring of a genius of the modding community, years of development and fine-tuning, and another couple of years of beta testing.

DOTAís advantage is that the game is so damn good, so well thought-out, and so meticulously crafted, that hordes of people can and will fall in love with it and stay in it for the long haul. Inevitably, some of them will happily pay for perks, for a game they adore.

And oh, what perks some of them are! For example, you can buy voice-overs done by GlaDOS, or other celebrity voice actors.

All in all, DOTA is a game that could only be pulled off by a company as perfectionist and ludicrously wealthy as Valve. Team fortress 2 is a similar story of intense iteration and perfection (and it had the advantage of starting from a P2P base).

The bottom line? Doing F2P thatís both ethical and effective is HARD.

The lead designer of Plants vs Zombies 2 wrote about the excruciating amount of balancing and redesigning he went to to ensure that his game had a fair and generous F2P system that would be embraced by players, as he was very much of your view that F2P neednít be scummy.

Even so, not all players agreed that he succeeded, with some condemning the gameís F2P system as being exploitative.

Let me repeat that: a very talented lead designer, from one of the most successful casual game companies in the world, tried his darndest to implement a fair F2P system but, at least by some accounts, *couldnít manage to pull it off*.

I believe thatís the crux of the issue here. F2P done in good faith is possible, but itís very hard. Scummy, vampiric F2P is much easier. Worse still, the F2P model, if left to its own devices, seems to naturally veer towards the latter direction, with only great effort and impeccable design being capable to heaving it into the former.

Andreas is right: your argument essentially boils down to the ďguns donít kill peopleĒ style of argument. The fact that there are responsible gun owners and gold medalist clay pigeon shooters does nothing to change the reality that guns on the whole cause a lot of mayhem.

In the same way, we can all agree that F2P can in theory (and occasionally in practice) be done in good faith. Yet the reality is that most of the time it isnít. Few would deny that itís done more harm than good, both in terms of ethical practices and in terms of game design.

But unlike guns, which it can be argued are necessary to at least some degree (police, bank guards), I donít think anyone could reasonably argue that we *need* F2P.

So, since F2P is unnecessary, and does more harm than good, it seems to me that the rational response is to wish that it would go away.

Who cares that 1 in 20 F2P companies manage to make a great game, if the tradeoff is 19 disingenuous ones? Especially since that 1 in 20 could have easily been made under the P2P system anyway.



Iíll add another point that I believe Andreas overlooked, when discussing the similarities between F2P and coin-op arcade games.

Coin-ops were often disingenuous money guzzlers indeed, and we shouldnít let nostalgia cover up that fact. I myself grew so obsessed with Double Dragon at my local supermarket that I eventually spent every cent I had trying to beat it. I never did beat it. But boy did my parents beat me when they discovered that I had been stealing money from them for several months to fuel my Double Dragon obsession!

But a key difference with coin-ops is their damage was mitigated by the fact that they were in a pub or shopping mall, and not in your home or palm of your hand. They didnít have the same potential as F2P games of being a dirty little secret one indulges in 24/7, at home, at school, on the bus, at work. Nor could they so effortlessly extort hundreds of dollars out of a 4 year old.

Josh Charles
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Well said.

G Irish
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I think the key difference with the arcade is that you had to produce hard currency to play, it wasn't tied to a credit/debit card. If there were a credit card swiper on arcade games, not only could someone play for hours, the arcade games could've charged a lot more.

If you remove the physical act of retrieving a big bill and putting it in a machine, it's a lot easier to spend more money than you intended to.

At any rate, F2P is the natural result of the distribution costs falling to essentially zero and the market getting flooded with poorly differentated competition.

I think if the App Store and Google Play did a better job of discovery and maybe did some game curation, better games would have a better chance of attracting users without having to start with the price of FREE. But because the main way to be a big hit in the app stores is to be at the top of the charts, and the best way to be at the top of the charts is to have a ton of downloads, it quickly became a race to the bottom.

I think if either of the app stores fixed discoverability it would be a big help. Unfortunately with the money F2P games bring in I can't imagine they'd be terribly motivated to do anything that might slow them down.

Michael Mullins
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Yes, but one man's discovery/curation is another man's barrier to entry. There's ways but even Steam hasn't figured out how to do it.

Michael Mullins
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@Dave: Wow, that was very well considered.

Andreas Ronning
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Don't worry, I have very recent memories of how brutally coin-ops could treat your wallet ;) The difference, beyond what you describe, I think is that they typically *trounce* you for money, rather than insidiously make you invest enough time to the point where you feel like that time should somehow "count" for something. With a game like Metal Slug, you know very quickly whether the game is going to ruin your economy or not. There is honesty there, where a F2P game will tend towards building player investment before closing the trap.

Mark Velthuis
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While I agree with the idea behind the post, I disagree with the fact that F2P is "allways" evil and built around skinning the players, and definitely not "entirely".

Do agree that there are games that fit this description. And quite a lot too. But it was allready mentioned more than once that there are exceptions. And I believe that by saying "they are exceptions that prove the rule" diminishes the actual impact that these exceptions could have. The reason for that is that these exceptions still make the developers lots of money, showing that you don't need to skin your players in order to be successfull. I think that by denying these exceptions that credit, you reduce the possibility of them to grow into becoming the norm.

Andreas Ronning
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But they *are* the exceptions that prove the rule, you can't really deny that on the grounds that the implications are unpleasant. I like to think of ideas in terms of the healthiness of their implementation. We forgive ugliness when it is the exception, but there is no reason to forgive it when it is the rule; Highlighting the pretty in a sea of ugliness is a lovely gesture, but it does not alter the rule, nor does it give the uglier implementations any impetus to become prettier.

The thing is, and this is where it gets truly depressive, is that for all my feelings about this, the majority have voted, and the majority thinks these tendencies are alright. The hard core (though I don't like that term) play games deeply, and F2P "rewards" deep players with taxation. The brief-go-on-the-subway crowd do not share this perspective, and, for all I know, ditch a game within a week for the next big thing. For them, spending a dollar or two for the duration of the honeymoon is no big deal.

The sense I'm personally left with is that the mobile gaming space is a hostile market for my kind of developer, the one that craves the deeper love affair with the player, and I think the way new players are being treated/groomed in the mobile market are shaping a form of future game customer less likely to invest in deeper experiences, which again gives less survivability for an industry built on the deep experience. That really, really bugs me.

Elisabeth Beinke-Schwartz
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Personally, I'm a proponent of capitalism and feel that if people don't like being gouged, then they will quit/stop putting money towards games they don't like. Obviously, some people like this type of game design and have the disposable income to afford it, otherwise they wouldn't be as profitable as they are. I mean, I'm not a fan of F2P games myself as I prefer the "pay once and you're done" approach as a gamer, but as a developer I don't see a problem with this style of game if people want to play it. We all don't have the same preferences and needs from a game.

G Irish
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I'd agree for the most part but I think the F2P market runs the risk of poisoning the well to the point that it damages the market, the same way aggressive spamming damaged the Facebook game market. If that comes to pass, hopefully the damage will be contained to just the F2P model.

Elisabeth Beinke-Schwartz
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Hmm. That is a good point.

Craig Bamford
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This is somewhat less compelling of an argument when we're talking about literal children.

It's also hard to make this sort of case when these games feature immense information disparities. You know as well as I do that markets can and do function inefficiently in situations where one side of the transaction has more information than the other. If players don't know whether or not the game will be extortionate and psychologically manipulative, they can't make an informed decision whether to try it out.

(And because of the current problems with discoverability, they won't know whether better, more suitable options are present in the market, leading to de-facto monopolies by whoever has the biggest marketing budget or the best relationship with Facebook.)

There's a lot of ways that you can defend these titles...but, no, market fundamentalism just won't wash.

Ben Sheftel
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We're not talking about literal children. There are 0 major game genres with an average age less than 20 according to this data from Flurry: http://blog.apptopia.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Demo-Graph-1.
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Dave Bleja
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We certainly are talking about children, a lot of the time. There have been a number of cases where parents find thousands of dollars charged to their cards by their children playing apps. Those are just the cases that make it to the news, since they involve such hilarious amounts of money.

Many of these games are specifically targeted at children, with cartoonish graphics and themes. Smurf Village is a notable example. Here in Australia, a legal watchdog has recently started investigating and considering legal action against games such as Smurf Village: http://m.theage.com.au/digital-life/smartphone-apps/watchdog-cons
iders-legal-action-against-free-apps-that-trick-kids-20131209-2z1
ht.html

That's why laying back onto the "the free market will sort itself out" argument isn't enough. There's a reason we don't allow children into casinos.

Susan Cummings
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I think that if designers want to make a F2P game which doesn't fall into the issues listed above, they can. I believe that so many don't for one reason - it works, people pay. It's going to take small companies, not established publishers, to make F2P games which are not seen as exploitative.

"Doctor Who: Legacy stands out as one of the more moral free-to-play games when it comes to how it treats its players." (DigitalSpy http://tinyurl.com/m3smp7y)

"It's about time: How Doctor Who Legacy got free-to-play right" (CVG http://tinyurl.com/mknozdk)

SD Marlow
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Examples of games that are "F2P done right" are not REAL F2P games! They are free games with IAP. They use a different business model. Free to play is not the same as free to pay. One has built-in obstacles while the other has built-in add-ons.

Craig Bamford
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I feel like the terminology is failing here, but this IS a really important distinction.

Games like TF2 and DOTA2 are exactly as SD Marlow described: free games with optional IAP. The IAP either doesn't touch on the core gameplay loops at all, or does it very, very lightly.

(Team Fortress 2 is an excellent example: the game is carefully and exquisitely balanced so that the free, basic weapons are as viable as the paid ones, and gameplay-complete versions of the paid weapons are available within the game.)

What people complain about (as everybody kinda understands) are games that have IAP intricately and intimately tied into players' experience of gameplay. That's what's meant by F2P, and why the name is somewhat terrible, because the term "free to play" doesn't capture that at all. As Marlow says, it's about obstacles vs. addons.

I disagree with the core conceit that these games are all terrible. You can still have games that are fun that do this sort of thing. I really enjoyed what I played of Dust 451, for example, and I've played my share of Korean and Chinese MMOs that are absolutely soaked in IAPs. But Marlow's right: they aren't the same genre at all, and really shouldn't be treated that way.

Andreas Ronning
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Agreed. We definitely lack some appropriate terminology here.

Tasos Rizopoulos
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BRAVO! Could not have said it better myself!

Marvin Papin
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One thing that has not been said,

It's not really a way to sell a game since it alter gameplay in certain way.

Would you think that zelda could be a free to play ? Changing skins ?

Except some good exception said above (TF2, LOL, DOTA) most F2P games are low quality game to extract money.

Can somebody give me an example of storytelling F2P game ???????????

Alexandru Bleau
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I'm not sure if it counts or not, but our game The Way Home (arcade meets time traveling Quantum Leap type story - iOS) is free to play. Although we have consumables (powerups) we made sure that all levels could be completed with enough skill and some luck + we do have an unlock all that removes lives and unlocks all levels. The price for the Unlock All will probably go up as we add more content to the game.

Amir Barak
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I like the hilarity of the term Pay-2-Play... as if calling the more traditional purchasing method something akin to Free-2-Play legitimizes F2P on any level.

Yes, F2P is popular. In Hebrew we have a saying; "ha'tsiboor metumtam ve'lachen ha'tsiboor yeshalem".

There is no such thing as ethical or moral monetization of mechanics, no matter the lyrical ballet some people dance. There is no difference between Defense of the Ancients, League of Legends and Candy Crush Saga in terms of a monetized game design. Calling them free is a lie. And playing them is empowering companies and developers to lie, cheat and steal. IAPs are of no exemption to this; if you really want to monetize on a free game build around it, for example a website where I can buy a plushie or something -> something that has no influence in the game whatsoever! Once we, as designers, monetize a mechanic (be it skins, textures, sounds, or anything else) which has an effect within the game world we've already taken power away from players and changed our relationship with them from beneficial to predatory.

Katy Smith
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I know you and I are on opposite sides of the f2p debate, so I'm not going to respond to that. I doubt either of us would change the other's mind. I am going to ask what the translation of your Hebrew saying is, because not knowing is driving me crazy :)

Mike Jenkins
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Spot on Amir

Amir Barak
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well, for a simple transaction of 0.99$ I'll be glad to tell you! :D

***
Also,
it translates as:
"The public are morons and so the public will pay".

Sam Stephens
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I am not a huge fan of F2P games. They tend to feature decisions that compromise on the design of the games to serve the business model. The games often don't give players the tools they need to learn and play well at the beginning and/or allow players to skip/remove the parts of the games they would rather not learn and accomplish. It can negate what I feel to be some of the most meaningful aspects of gameplay. That is, F2P puts what players want over what would be "better" for them.

But I can't accept the animosity found here in this article. F2P games are not "vampiric" and "evil" nor do they devalue people's time anymore than any game does. If we are to better understand games and players, then we must throw out all of the acidic terms and assumptions such as the ones about the developers' "upbringings." So let's take a step back, calm down, and try to discuss the subject without anger or confusion.

Andreas Ronning
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There is a core beauty to the role of the toy maker in society.

Building toys around the extraction of money perverts that beauty.

Call it what you will, I think it's pretty ugly if not evil, and I have no issue calling it vampiric. Otherwise, I feel my article (which I'll admit was written in an emotional state, mind you) is fairly calm and collected.

Shane Lee
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I dunno. I mean, every gamers are entitle to make a decision.
That includes IAP. If you don't like the game, don't use IAP or you can just delete them and never play again.
I thought the logic was the same: don't like it, don't play it.
If good old pay-to-play was buying a bread from well known bakery without knowing what it would taste like (or buying kind of bread that satisfies your palate), F2P is a bakery offering a smaple of what they got and if you like it, you buy one.

Leandro Pezzente
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Such and excellent , beatifully written article! I completly agree with you.

Glenn Royer
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I can't take you seriously because of this:
"(I have not played it and have no interest in doing so)"

I started playing this game because of all the bad press it got. I expected to hate it; instead I've enjoyed it for weeks.

If you're going to critique a game, or even blog that you agree with all the criticism of a game, PLAY THE GAME.


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