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Deconstructing Free To Play
by Ara Shirinian on 03/24/14 05:47:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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


Deconstructing Free to Play is a talk I delivered at Phoenix IGDA. It's long, so here is an outline of the topics covered:

  1. How Jetpack Joyride Jacked Learning
    • Learning Curves and how F2P monetization manipulates them.
    • Details about how Jetpack Joyride statistically constrains progress for monetization.
  2. The Pay Wall Dynamic
    • How successful F2P games create situations to compel real money spending.
    • Jetpack Joyride, Real Racing 3, Candy Crush Saga, Puzzle and Dragons examples.
  3. Gameplay Depth & Monetization
    • How monetization techniques are really independent of gameplay depth.
    • How PAD's basic gameplay design is good, deep and accessible despite coercive structures.
    • How random factors can dismantle a game's depth.
  4. Puzzle and Dragons' Compulsion Devices
    • How manipulations of resource availability confound players' impressions of abundance.
    • How free rewards actually catalyze player anxiety and subsequently lead to real money purchases.
    • The effects of complex special limited-time event schedules.
    • The conventional F2P Stamina/ Energy meter and how it psychologically works.
    • How the true nature of various systems are deliberately obfuscated.
  5. Concluding Thoughts
    • Buyer's Remorse.
    • F2P as dopamine hacks.
    • Learned Helplessness.
    • Long term implications, Q&A.

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Tuomas Pirinen
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Interesting! Thanks for posting this! One question: what would you change in Puzzle & Dragons? You seem to enjoy the core gameplay, and yet I can see that you are dissatisfied with the progression design. In order to make the product better for the player, what steps would you take and why? The success of the game of course cannot be denied (and it is very much sustained), but I see you would want it to be better, and I'd like to know in what way. I think the real logical step to this presentation would be how to evolve the model to be the best possible for the player.

Ara Shirinian
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Well, there are two separate aspects about that game that are primarily (but not wholly) negative but work in conjunction with each other. One is the grinding aspect, and the other is the slot-machine-style monetization.

On the other hand, it is neither trivial nor beneficial to just strip such things out of a game and expect that it will become better without consideration to the entire systematic product.

I will say that my theoretical ideal game that is 'the best possible for the player' is one that has all the good aspects I mentioned in the talk, without having to resort to trickery or feeding the player with extrinsic reward to motivate continued engagement, while also properly feeding the player with challenges they are intrinsically motivated to (and subsequently learn to) surmount. It's a tall order.

Tuomas Pirinen
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First off, thanks for a well-thought answer, F2P discussions tend to devolve into very nasty level quickly. I agree that changing the core mechanics of the game would change the game itself, and it might well be far less enjoyable.

The random Gacha system is of course cultural: Japan is absolutely full of physical "Gacha" machines that are immensely popular, so it is no wonder Japanese games are using the same system -they are as Japanese is Sushi and Samurai, though I would personally prefer that I could choose at least some monsters I can purchase outright. Grinding is also very typical for JRPGs -I admit I enjoy it myself in a a game like this where I can continuously build up my skill level. But obviously, not all gamers are going to agree with me.

Removing extrinsic feedback is a really tough nut: F2P games need hugely long engagement if they are to be successful: it is no wonder a lot of effort is put into them as you need to have gamers playing for months rather than days like in traditional retail product.

I do think that eventually the market will find the right balance -the bottom line is of course that ultimately gamers decide what games are successful.

Ara Shirinian
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I do want to clarify that I am not just talking about the overt slot machine that is gacha/ egg machine in PAD, I am also talking about the covert slot machine that is a function of rare drops + randomized inputs and outputs within the essential gameplay of PAD itself.