Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
arrowPress Releases
August 1, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event





If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:


 
Free-to-Play is A-OK
by Chris Pruett on 05/01/13 01:58:00 am   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.

 

[This is a repost from the official Robot Invader blog.  You can find the original article here.  --CP]

Let's talk about free-to-play games.

I mean, really talk about them.  Pick them apart. Analyze them.  Maybe even learn a few things.

Because sometimes I feel like talking to game developers about the topic of free-to-play games is like talking to a brick wall.  "I don't play free-to-play games," one developer, who's work I really respect, told me smugly when he learned that our games cost nothing to try.  His game, an XBLA title, costs nothing to try either.

I don't think we even agree on what "free-to-play" means.  I think it means "a game that you can play for free that also has things you can choose to buy in it."  But when I floated that definition on Twitter, a number of people disagreed.

f2p1

f2p2

f2p3

(thanks to Teut and Raph for humoring me on this point.)

I've noticed that developers tend to get themselves worked up over a specific free-to-play implementation and then, rather than take that particular design to task, turn around and blast all "free-to-play" games.  You hate Farmville because you see it as a Skinner box thinly disguised as a game, created for the express purpose of extracting money from its player's wallets.  Fine.  But what does Farmville have to do with Temple Run 2?  Or Real Racing 3?  Or The Walking Dead?  These are all free games with in-app purchases built into them, but they have very little in common.  Too often the conversation ends before it starts with arrogant platitudes like "I don't play free-to-play games."

Welcome to the Dark Side

Thankfully some developers are willing to dive deeper.  Charles Randall's post on this subject is incisive because he captures the essence of what bothers many game developers about free-to-play games.

Charles manages to side-step a big red herring: the mechanics commonly used in free-to-play games.  It's not energy systems or grinding or unlocking content or wizard hats or consumables or in-game currency that bothers him.  After all, every one of those mechanics can be found in traditional paid games, and thus can be justified absent monetization.

Rather, it's the idea that a game that asks for purchases in the midst of play just might be designed to manipulate you into paying.  Charles sums up this general uncomfortableness well:

Beyond these issues, there are the questions that F2P games raise in my mind while I play. How can I know that I am not being manipulated? If I am playing the game, but it gets grindy, and there are purchases which will alleviate the grind, what were the reasons for the grind in the first place? Did the designer believe that the grind was the optimal path for the game to be engaging, or was the designer making conscious decisions based on conversion metrics?

The problem, according to this point of view, is that even if a particular game element (say, grinding) has real game design utility, the very existence of in-app purchases causes players like Charles to wonder if the element was inserted just to make money.  The design has been tainted, or "corrupted," as Charles would say, by the need to monetize.  This is, I think, a very common view amongst traditional developers.

I also think it's a pretty weak argument, for several reasons.

First, the basic premise of the "f2p corrupts game design" argument is that paid games are different.  It assumes that traditional games do not include elements that have no purpose other than increasing the developer's bottom line.  This is, of course, completely false.  Why do so many console games feature women in skimpy armor?  Why would a developer ever bother making a game featuring somebody else's intellectual property?  Why does Alan Wake have ads for Verizon, why does Peter Parker's camera say CyberShot on it, and why does the loading screen of Wipeout 2 feature the Red Bull logo?  Heck, why do we need better graphics in our game devices?  Developers may not think about it this way, but traditional games are designed from the ground up to be financially successful.

Game design: corrupted!

Of course, there are some games made without any concern for future profit.  I'm a big fan of Tale of Tale's work, for example.  But this is probably not what developers have in mind when they are thinking about the general merits of paid games compared to free games.  The truth is that all commercially produced games are influenced by the need to be profitable.  Whether it manifests as a character design (would God of War have been successful without Kratos?), superfluous sex appeal, reliance on a licensed character, or graphics tech to meet customer expectations, it's always there.

And because it's always there, it's better thought of as a design restriction than as a problem.  If your publisher tells you that market research has shown that the your new PS4 game must include elves, gangbangers, and a nail gun, you do your best to figure out how to make the best game you can within those restrictions.  And guess what, that's what goes into making a free-to-play game too.  If your market research shows that paid apps on the iTunes App Store and Google Play are dead (they are, but let's debate that point in a future post), your challenge is to make the best game you can within the format that the market accepts.  Your monetization scheme, much like your control scheme, is a design restriction that you must work within.  That there are restrictions that relate to your bottom line is a fact of life for all game developers, regardless of platform or price tag.

Importantly, this doesn't mean that you must trade fiscal viability for quality.  Many games do make that trade--I've worked on enough licensed character games to know exactly what that entails--but it's not a requirement.  Many developers are able to create financially successful games that are also quite good.  The fact that money must somehow be made, and that the need to make money will inevitably influence design, is nothing new.  It's just one more design restriction within which a designer must operate.  A mark of a good designer is one that can make a fun game given numerous restrictions.

Let's take this a step further.  It's better to think of free-to-play mechanics as a design restriction because it results in a specific player behavior: strategizing.  The folks playing free-to-play games are not the Pavlovian dogs we sometimes portray them as, listlessly clicking their way through CSR Racing and happily plunking down cash for the privilege of clicking faster.  Playing a f2p game seriously is all about figuring out how to get as far as possible by spending as little as possible.  It becomes a hardcore min/max strategy game, and figuring out the strategy is really fun.  Games like The Sims boil down to a mundane operation loop within a progression arc that the player is attempting to optimize; it is figuring out the parameters of that optimization that provides most of the enjoyment.  The same is true for free-to-play games: adding purchases into the mix gives the player an axis to strategize upon, and when it works it's really fun.

Of course it doesn't always work, and not all free-to-play games are fun.  But the point is that the monetization aspect of these games is absolutely a participant in the greater game design balance.  In fact, in my experience it's by far the most difficult part of a free-to-play game to design.  The restrictions imposed by f2p are dramatic.

Winner Take All

Speaking of balance, Charles goes to some length to make his complaint specific to games that have purchases that "affect the balance of the game."  That is, games that allow the player to somehow get ahead by buying stuff.  I appreciate the point; Charles is actually drilling down into the things he doesn't like rather than writing everything under the f2p banner off.  But his complaint hinges on a couple of assumptions that seem pretty rickety from where I sit.

greed484

She probably bought upgrades for those arms.

First, Charles notes that pay-to-progress is "corrupting" in games that feature competition between players because the competition is no longer honest.  I don't disagree in principle, but this is hardly specific to free-to-play games.  By that logic, performance-heavy multiplayer games like Far Cry 3 must also be a "corrupted" design because the player who can afford the fastest PC and the best network connection has the edge.  It also assumes that purchases that power the player up will always result in winning, while most multiplayer games I know maintain a delicate balance between skills and stats.  Not to mention the existence of intelligent match-making systems designed to pit players with similar stats against each other to maintain fun.

Second, this argument seems to have no bearing on games where the purchases are not directly related to "triumph over a player" that is playing for free.  I can pay to buy a crystal in Triple Town so that I can improve my town, but no other player is affected by that action.  Even in multiplayer games, there are many examples of purchases that are about convenience for the player rather than competition with another.  I have a friend who regularly buys World of Warcraft gold from China because he just doesn't have much time to play and wants to go on raids as a leveled up character.  This hardly ruins the game for other players.

In fact, I think we can expand upon this idea to find the fundamental disconnect in Charles' argument.  At the core of this discomfort that he describes is the assumption that the goal of a game is to win.  Paying to win just feels, well, like a bit of a cop-out.

The thing is, the majority of successful free-to-play games cannot be won.  They are endless.  Winning isn't the point.  In fact, the audience for these kinds of games isn't playing to win at all.  They are playing to have a good time.  They are playing for enjoyment of the moment.  They went to the movies instead of purchasing the Blu-ray; buying some popcorn while they're there isn't weird, doesn't mean they've been taken advantage of, and doesn't turn the theater into a casino.

 

I am the Audience

I think that some traditional game developers and hardcore gamers haven't figured out that there's a new audience for games yet.  An audience that doesn't share their tastes and has a wholly different idea of what games are worth.  An audience that the traditional game industry has repeatedly failed to reach for thirty years.  An audience that likes to be able to try things out for free and then make their own judgements about whether or not potential purchases are worth it.

I also think that many traditional developers shy away from having to participate so directly in marketing.  That's what a lot of free-to-play design is: marketing to try to get the player to want to spend money.  In the traditional game space, marketing is always handled by somebody else, usually off at a publisher somewhere, often demonized by the team.  So it's natural that traditional devs are wary of stepping into this role, especially when it effectively becomes a part of the core game design.  But of course, marketing is a fundamental component of all successful games.

geoff-keighley-doritos

What most of us think about when we think of marketing.

The point isn't to paper over the offensive things that some free-to-play games do.  I just don't think that free-to-play game design is intrinsically evil, or corrupting, or actually all that much different from all the other stuff that already goes on in the game industry.  There are plenty of paid games that I find offensive as well, but I also know that they are not representative of their price point or platform.  Packaging up a bunch of games and categorically declaring them to be the online equivalent of casinos because they can be played for free is, in mind, a gross generalization.  Worse than that, it's a meme that blinds people to the actual merits--and problems--with this type of game.  It's a stereotype, a way for people to stop thinking about things they are not initially comfortable with, a way to casually dismiss them with "I don't play free-to-play games." 

How's this for an alternative theory: traditional game developers look at some popular f2p games and find them lacking.  The graphics are bad.  The game play is simplistic or almost non-existent.  It's a knock-off of a better game from fifteen years ago.  And then they see that some of these games are making insane profits.  Inconceivable profits.  And to the seasoned developer, who has excellent taste and experience in video games, the only possible explanation is trickery.  The players must be getting duped.  It's the only way to square the apparent popularity with apparent lack of compelling content.

But really, it's just a matter of taste.  Traditional game developers who dismiss f2p are like hardcore wine connoisseurs complaining about the popularity of Trader Joe's Two Buck Chuck.  By writing off the entire category these developers miss the nuance.  They miss the opportunity to learn about a different kind of game design.  They miss the opportunity to speak to an audience that does not care for traditional video games.  Worst of all, they miss out on some great f2p games that have top notch production values because they've decided that the problem is the price point.

I have eight different consoles connected to my TV.  I own (and have played to completion) hundreds of console games.  But I've also spent more on free-to-play games than console games so far this year.  Which box am I supposed to fit in?  Am I a wine connoisseur or a two-buck-chucker?  I don't even drink!


Related Jobs

Nix Hydra
Nix Hydra — Los Angeles, California, United States
[08.01.14]

Game Designer
Bigpoint GmbH
Bigpoint GmbH — Berlin, Germany
[08.01.14]

Lead Game Designer
Bigpoint
Bigpoint — Hamburg, Germany
[08.01.14]

Game Designer - Strategy MMO (m/f)
Firaxis Games
Firaxis Games — Sparks, Baltimore, Maryland, United States
[07.30.14]

Senior Visual Effects Artist






Comments


E McNeill
profile image
Why do you denigrate casinos?

Amir Ebrahimi
profile image
Thanks for the article, Chris. Insightful and challenging to not take the easy way out by dismissing the whole topic as being beneath traditional (console/PC) game development.

David Ngo
profile image
Thanks for writing this. I'm tired of F2P games being trashed simply because somebody doesn't enjoy that particular game, or because they just don't like the game mechanics. The monetization model has nothing to do with a lot of their complaints.

Bret Dunham
profile image
I view F2P not as a "Corruptive" force but rather another evolutionary step that game design is undergoing. We might just see it slip away 5 or 10 years from now (maybe sooner) in favor of the next new "thing" that drives the all mighty coin from the end user to the developer. Get used to it folks, it's not going away.

Tyler Wright
profile image
F2P is not only a design restriction but often becomes the primary design goal. Learning that some small studio is bringing in a million a day is certainly a motivator. Thus the gold-rush ensues, bringing prospectors from all walks of life and varying motivations. F2P isn't always money manipulation, but the model attracts those who would do just that. It also produces very specific types of gameplay when it becomes the primary goal of design, which means less creative exploration.

In the end, if a player feels like they can't have fun without buying into the club, they'll probably feel manipulated. Even if they might have paid the same amount up front. It's a designers job to balance all of these considerations and keep F2P safely positioned as a design restriction.

The best games are yet to come, and many will probably be funded by F2P successes.

Jorge Diaz
profile image
"Your monetization scheme, much like your control scheme, is a design restriction that you must work within." Love it. Great Job Chris

Sun Moon Hwang
profile image
Yes. I liked that part too.

Chris Pruett
profile image
Thanks, man!

Keith Thomson
profile image
Just because grinding existed in paid games previously doesn't make it any better of a mechanic. There's been a trend in paid games as the content got broader, the grinding percentage of the game has been going down. Grinding is now considered a bad thing in game design for the most part. It's been given a new lease on life as a mechanic because of the free to play model.

Instead of using it as a device to stretch the content over a longer period of time and extend the gameplay, it's being used as a device to induce people to pay to skip it. In the first context, the developers had a reason to make the grinding interesting and enjoyable to keep them playing the game and buying future games. This includes MMO games as well as older RPGs. In the latter case, the most profitable course of action is to make grinding as boring and miserable as possible to get more money out of the users. This includes F2P MMO games and most other F2P games.

Other than that, I don't have too much of an opinion about F2P games myself, other than I tend to avoid them because of that grinding.

Chris Pruett
profile image
I generally agree with your thoughts on grinding, but then again, not all free-to-play games have grinding in them. It's a mechanic that appears all over the place in paid and free games; I don't think it's always as explicit as it is in, say, JRPGs, but it is widely used. And while I'm not a fan of grinding (I can't play JRPGs at all), there are games in which it doesn't feel like work that I want to skip (e.g. Real Racing 3).

That's why it's so hard to talk about a specific mechanic (or monetization scheme) in isolation. It works differently in different games.

Nicholas Lovell
profile image
For any F2P developer worth his or her salt, the strategy you put forward would be worthless. The key metric for an F2P game is retention. Keeping players is key. Monetisation is secondary. If "the most profitable course of action is to make grinding as boring and miserable as possible", you may get money out of some users, but you will have very few users in total.

In other words, I think your fundamental assumption about what F2P designers are trying to achieve is wrong.

Keith Thomson
profile image
You're forgetting about the Skinner box aspect to it though. They use that as the carrot to the grinding's stick. By giving you those little tidbit rewards, you keep them engaged and addicted to the end result of the grinding, while progressively making it take longer and longer for each reward until they decide to pay for that next reward instead of grinding it out.

Kevin Nolan
profile image
I think the optimum grind in terms of retention, enjoyment and monetization lies somewhere between Keith's and Nick Lovell's summaries. The grind must be fun or most players won't stick around even with juicy Skinner box features. But I think players are paying money for control - to decide at some point that you've enjoyed the game loops at level 3 but the higher levels beckon with their shinier objects and bigger worlds, so you throw some money at the game to leap into level 6 and enjoy the game loops there instead.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
I think it is great to see people talking about F2P with an open mind, trying to see the possible benefits of it without trying to put it into a specific mold. I realize right now people try to stereotype F2P to better understand it, but it really is much more complex and potentially liberating than that. The point is that now the consumer has the opportunity to evaluate your product before they commit to spending.

Whether the user spends or not is going to depend on how much value you present them, and how you present it. Dropping ads in front of them frequently actually rapidly degrades the value of your product to them and thus hurts not helps your revenues. There are better ways to get a consumer's attention. The move to Facebook and Mobile has lowered the barrier to entry at the same time we are considering new business models. These products tend to be poor quality and they tend to be F2P. This does not mean it is the F2P model that is making them poor quality, it is more because of the platform they are designed for and the perception that competition in those spaces is still weak and forgiving.

That perception is quickly changing, just ask Zynga and EA about that. You can make a AAA product F2P, but making it work well takes just as many years per project as the game design itself. You can't separate the two and be commercially effective. Right now F2P is working well on relatively simplistic products like World of Tanks and League of Legends. When we get better at it, we will be able to apply it to more complex products without the end result feeling cheap.

Dave Long
profile image
A great article, but one that works better in theory than in practice. For example, the idea that gamers are min/maxing the payment side of things clashes with the data that show that most money is made by 'whales' - ie, the most enthusiastic playing players are spending the most, and oodles of it - ie, the data don't support the contention made in the article.

Best part of this article is highlighting that F2P games aren't made for traditional gamers - they're made for a whole new audience. This is the clincher. Traditional gamers find most of the mechanics in F2P games dull at best, and exploitative at worst. Casual gamers seem to fall for it hook, line and sinker. Whatever blows their hair back, but note that exploiting people's need for progress to make money may not b an ethically neutral endeavour (just like exploiting sex appeal in traditional games isn't - but two wrongs don't make a right ;)).

F2P (in the narrow sense of free to play everything, but you can spend money to speed up things - which seems to be what we're getting at here) _has_ to compromise its game design to make substantial amounts of money - there's just nowhere around this. If you make gameplay that's so enjoyable that gamers don't need to spend any money mid-game, then you won't make anything (or very little). You need to encourage people to spend money somehow, and if the game gives you everything for free, you need to put up a barrier to that, that otherwise wouldn't be there, to trigger the need to spend. Dust 514, the F2P shooter on PS3, is the biggest F2P game I've had a crack at playing, and it's a solid game, but it's also the most unbalanced by design shooter I've ever played (and with the likes of Call of Duty on the scene, that's saying something). Skill is important, but the grind/unlocks are more important in Dust than any other shooter I've seen. This is because they have to be, or no-one would ever pay CCP any money, and the project would hardly do well. However, it also deeply compromises the quality of the shooting gameplay for anyone other than the most casual shooter player. Compromised gameplay for monetisation is also all over Real Racing 3, or Dungeon Hunter 4, or pretty much any other F2P game I can think of.

I agree that F2P games can be fun, and they are absolutely a legitimate form of gaming, but I also argue strongly that they their design is heavily influenced by the nature of F2P, and that this in the vast majority of cases results in a less deep and enjoyable gaming experience. Granted, an experience many still enjoy, but that's no measure of quality (lots of people eat MacDonalds, but no-one in their right mind would argue it's quality - I'd put F2P in the same basket - cheap, nasty but accessible and there is a market for it ;)).

Of course, paid up-front games have design limitations as well (for action games, they need to have enough flashy setpieces to support marketing and the like) but, to date, these limitations have had a far smaller impact on gameplay.

James Yee
profile image
How does Team Fortress 2 fit into this section:
"F2P (in the narrow sense of free to play everything, but you can spend money to speed up things - which seems to be what we're getting at here) _has_ to compromise its game design to make substantial amounts of money - there's just nowhere around this. If you make gameplay that's so enjoyable that gamers don't need to spend any money mid-game, then you won't make anything (or very little). "

Is it because TF2 was a paid title and hence balanced BEFORE it went F2P that balances it?

How about Mechwarrior Online or World of Tanks that let you buy arguably GIMPED vehicles with real money just because they "look cooler" or offer increased XP/In game money gains. Wargamming is doing extremely well and Piranha games seems to be doing a good job as well on the money side of things.

Richard Black
profile image
I think you've missed the whole point of the article, but that's me. Personally I don't need to be encouraged to spend money, and generally take a dislike to the attempt of it. I see something I like or find endearing and I'll buy it. You attempt to 'motivate' me to buy something and I'll find myself another game that's less encouraging.

Kevin Nolan
profile image
Richard - most folks aren't quite that generous. They _do_ need to be encouraged to pay money for a product because if they aren't pressured in some way they will just take it for granted, like the air we breathe. Conventional games put the pressure on right at the start - you have to pay for the product. F2P puts the pressure in gradually by letting you play for free but requiring you to pay for added perks.

Adrian Chmielarz
profile image
There are so many flawed arguments in this post, that I honestly don't even know where to begin. So let's just focus on one thought here for a second.

I get it that F2P "works" (even though so does heroin). I get it that possibly it's the only model that makes sense on mobile. I get it that making money is cool and that "greed is good". But that is not exactly the same thing as F2P making games better, or just as good when compared to the P2P (pay to play) model.

Imagine a world where F2P gets banned one day. "Dang, video games are going to be so much worse now. Their designs will suffer, and people won't have as much fun anymore" - would think no game designer ever.

This is very simple, really. Imagine a different scenario: you have all the money in the world and you can hire the best studio to make a dream game of yours, and then you will release it for free - just so the entire world can enjoy it. Now tell me how many of the F2P mechanics (energy limits, etc.) will that game have.

Wes Jurica
profile image
I like this method of taking things to extremes to test a notion. F2P needs to die! I just wish there were some way to tell the people doing the paying.

Chris Pruett
profile image
Hi Adrian,

Are you responding to my article or one of the comments above? I'm assuming you meant my article, since your response isn't directed towards any comment, but I'm confused because I don't think I actually made any of the arguments that you rail against in your second paragraph. And your last sentence equating "f2p mechanics" to "energy limits" suggests that maybe you missed the whole first part of the article? I'm not trolling here, just legitimately confused about whether we're talking about the same article.

Here's a question for you: if I have a game that can be downloaded for free and offers some form of payment system within it, I think I can safely call that a free-to-play game. That definition includes games like Farmville and Clash of the Clans, but it also applies to XBLA games (free demo + in-game upsell + in-game content unlock purchase) like, say, Limbo. It also applies to The Walking Dead, which has a free version on iOS and sells episodes. The Walking Dead was everybody's game of the year last year, but given the definition I propose at the beginning of this article, it's a free-to-play game.

I suspect that your complaint is with games like Farmville and Clash of the Clans and not games like Limbo or The Walking Dead.

So here's my question to you: given that all of these games can be played to some extent for free and feature in-app purchases to grant access to more content, where is the line between "game of the year" and "basically heroin"? Because it seems to be that the common feature of being a free-to-play game isn't a very good way to differentiate between the types of games you like and the types of games you don't like.

The purpose of this article is to propose that when we talk about games we like and do not like, that we talk about them in detailed terms rather than writing all of them off because they share a common price point. Rather than say "f2p is terrible", let's talk about specific games and specific mechanics. Because there are thousands and thousands of free to play games out there today and they are not all the same. Some of them are doing things that the console industry has no vocabulary for. But we can't learn from them, or even learn what types of things we should avoid, if we just write them all off.

Let's stop complaining about the initial price point and start talking about specific designs of specific games. That's a much more useful discussion.

*** Edit: Gamasutra won't let me respond to your response directly, so here's a quick note.

"although for the time being we can easily use F2P to describe Skinner box designs and Freemium to describe content unlocks."

The problem is, nobody agrees that those are the definitions of those terms. The terms are muddy and imprecise. There are a lot more models in play than just "skinner boxes" and "content unlocks," so even the dichotomy you suggest isn't really sufficient to discuss this type of design. I'm absolutely, 100% agreed that the world is not black and white. What I'm saying is, when you say "all f2p games are bad," you are making it black and white. I want to talk about the thousands of shades in-between. We can't get there if one half of the conversation assumes that all free to play games are Farmville.

David Navarro
profile image
@Chris

Under your broader definition, shareware Doom and Quake would fall under the "F2P" category, and I don't think anybody has ever complained about those. Yes, there are many types of monetization strategies that can be defined as "free to play", but generally, when people moan about F2P they are talking about Skinner boxes passing off as games, not about game demos with IAP.

It's the same as when people talk about "JRPGs"... they don't usually mean "All role-playing games developed in Japan", but a specific subset of them defined by specific game mechanics.

Of course, it is legitimate to ask for clarification when there's a risk of ambiguity and miscommunication; I'm not arguing with that.

Adrian Chmielarz
profile image
@Chris, just as David said (and you suspected). And indeed we need better descriptions and terms, although for the time being we can easily use F2P to describe Skinner box designs and Freemium to describe content unlocks.

You say: "So here's my question to you: given that all of these games can be played to some extent for free and feature in-app purchases to grant access to more content, where is the line between "game of the year" and "basically heroin"?"

And where is the line between a good book and a bad book? :) This is not black and white situation. To me, it's about the level of abuse and psychological manipulation.

You say that even P2P (say, your standard $60 game) is manipulative. It's a siren's song, right? "We're promising you that our game is what you need, because dragons and forgotten temples".

However, one could argue it's not exactly manipulation, but an offer - because once the price has been paid, the game is now doing everything it can to deliver on the promise. The service has been paid for, and any trick that the game does from now on, every gameplay mechanics, and every pixel exist to satisfy the player's needs - the reasons why he bought the game in the first place (the need for escapism, or the need for katharsis, or the need for silly, relaxing fun to pass the time, etc.).

F2P games add one crucial thing to the experience: features that exist exclusively to either lure the player into paying for his addiction to the experience, or to spread the game around. It is no longer purely about the needs of the player, but also about the needs of the developer. It is no longer a fun drinking night with a friend, it is a drinking night with a friend who is a spy and tries to get you so drunk that you'll spill all of the company secrets.

But why do I say it's not "black and white"? Because P2P designs can also be partially corrupted. For example, I consider features like "grinding" in P2P games (or subscription based MMOs etc.) almost as bad as some F2P designs. They exist to give an illusion of value through addiction to the the fact that humans "love seeing numbers grow". But they are worthless experiences. Another example is padding, e.g. that one more enemy wave that we spawn just to increase the gameplay time - but not the quality of that gameplay.

Richard Black
profile image
Well Adrian once I fork over 60$ I'm largely stuck with that game though aren't I? I don't know of anyone who lets you return opened games and largely the entire game industry has essentially become buyer beware. Personally on your distinction I'm almost happier with the f2p games you compare to heroin because I can try them, ascertain if they're crap, and then decide if they're worth my money. In terms of price on release day there is very little to distinguish a game that will become game of the year and a game that spent more on marketing covering up what crap it is than on development and aside from complaining on the internet you're left with little recourse. A bad game is a bad game, quibbling over payment methods or formula seems rather silly me.

Dane MacMahon
profile image
@ Adrian

I think you got to the heart of the matter rather quickly. Thank you.

Robert Green
profile image
I want to point out a potential flaw in one of the arguments in the OP. Chris says that paid titles are also designed around making money, and uses examples like "women in skimpy armor", licensed brands and better graphics.
Here's the problem with that - those things are things that the market has shown it likes. They are things which make people more interested in the game. The only example he gives for which this isn't true is advertising, and players hate that unless it's in context (e.g. billboards at a sports venue), but even in the worst case (like a brand logo on an ingame cellphone), you're unlikely to see the game design actually based around this.

Now compare that to the 'designed around making money' decisions that people hate about F2P games, especially those most common in facebook and iOS games. Things like excessive grinding, energy meters, etc. Almost without exception, they're things that players DISLIKE, and would prefer not to have. That's why the model is based around things like removing wait periods or removing grind - because the game contains things they don't want.

Whatever may be wrong with the console market (and I'm sure there's plenty), the one problem it didn't have was selling quality. With some notable exceptions, if you made a 90+ rated game, you probably sold a lot of it. So while many decisions may have been made with profit in mind, the end result was a market where quality was rewarded. The F2P market, relies on giving away the quality parts for free, and then charging for something else.

Chris Pruett
profile image
I think that F2P is also "what the market has shown it likes."

Game developers and gamers with high taste in video games might dislike some of the things that certain F2P games do, but I don't think the general audience dislikes them. Otherwise there would be no market. Why would people play a game they dislike? That's what I meant when I wrote that it was a matter of taste. I think some types of music are complete garbage and I can't understand why anybody would listen to them, but there are lots of people who like what I hate and are happy to spend money on it. It's a fallacy to believe that we know what /everybody who has a phone/ wants.

And I think you're agreeing with my point about designing for profit. A paid title would not get funded if the executives didn't think it would make money. That might be because it's "what the market wants" or it might be because it's a movie tie-in that's going to ride on the coattails of a giant movie marketing budget. In any case, those types of projects, high-quality or not, are embarked upon for the purpose of making money, and that directive has a major influence on design. I mean, why do we have so many war-themed shooters? It's not because all of the designers in the world want to make Call of Duty. It's because Call of Duty et al sells.

But then again, my goal here was not to defend icky things that free-to-play games might do. It is to call attention to the fact there are a ton of different models already in use within the free space, and to write them all off because you dislike a single game (or even a whole class of games) is foolish. SOME F2P games might do things that players dislike, but others probably do not. SOME players might like certain mechanics more than others. SOME mechanics might have side-effects that, depending on the game, might be desirable or something to avoid.

We can't have this sort of detailed design discussion if the conversation ends with, "f2p is evil."

*** Edit since I can't respond directly below.

Call of Duty is a great game for a certain segment of the world. Regardless of its metacritic rating, though, it's probably not what other segments of the market are particularly interested in. To them, Candy Crush Saga is a much better game because they have different tastes. I think it's hard to draw value conclusions about games aimed at different market segments because these things have value to *somebody*, even if it's not you.

Jonathon Green
profile image
> I think that F2P is also "what the market has shown it likes."

... I paid $50 for APB at release and got all the content and a decently playable game.

APB then releases as the F2P game, APB:Reloaded.

... I've paid $1000 > over 2-3 years, have not received all the content and development has centered around vanity items whilst the game itself has reached a state that most would call unplayable. And it's a similar story across the entire F2P space.

You're being a little manipulative with your wording Chris, and I hope it's unwittingly. F2P versus a Subscription or a Flat fee is not a customer preference, it's a Developer/Publisher preference.

*Accessibility* to games is of course a preference, but this was never dependent on a wholesale shift to the F2P model. Again, this was a Developer/Publisher choice.

F2P is good for the market. But in the eyes of the huge number of gamers I've had pass through my communities over the years, it lacks accountability and for consumers is a short term boon with a long term burden in terms of cost and quality.

> We can't have this sort of detailed design discussion if the conversation ends with, "f2p is evil."

*sigh* How can an abstract idea be evil? Again, you seem a little manipulative. F2P is not evil, it is an abused concept that should have been used to save and improve games, and grow the industry, not pilfer the pockets of the top 10% whilst trying to "incentivize" the rest by wasting their time.

With this frankly widespread negative perception of F2P, it's not surprising some developers avoid it.

If F2P is to work for _everyone_, it needs to be rebranded and rethought. The age of micro-transactions was supposed to bring about a new golden era in accessible gaming, instead we have a stagnation of design and mechanics and greedy mega-transactions that can cost between $10-$40 a pop and mystery boxes that see people sinking literally $100s into cash shops for an item that would've once been at the end of an epic quest or accomplishment (zero content and something akin to +1000% income from desperate players? Shareholders for many F2P games must be laughing their asses off at the gaming public).

Many "implementations" of F2P are great for making money. Bad for making actual games.

Don't just say, F2P isn't evil guise! Define the alternative design goal that Developers need to comprehend, explain how that will help develop bigger communities, stifle mediocre competition by creating better games with more longevity.

You can't defend F2P as a means to having a "detailed design discussion", it's a misused tool and moniker, and by association and semantics trying to champion it with the modern conception of what F2P is as it's been heralded by the Developers that have made considerable money from it, is just argumentative - as this comment shows.

When Robert talks about the F2P market and it's reliance on giving away what quality it has and then charging for the necessities. You can clearly see the definition that has been established.

Change that definition. Not what people think of it. And when you've worked out what that definition is, rebrand it, because despite how much money people are willing to pour into the plethora of F2P games currently available it very quickly becomes a toxic acronym for those that actually want to play these games beyond simply trying out the hundreds of games in the overly saturated F2P space.

Robert Green
profile image
"Why would people play a game they dislike?"
Slow down Chris. I didn't say they dislike the game overall, I said they disliked those elements. And they do. You do, I do, everyone does. It's barely even an opinion in some of the examples - like can you really explain why anybody on earth would appreciate having to wait for their new car to be delivered in Real Racing 3?

You mentioned Call of Duty on the other hand, and it's a really good example of my point, because the CoD games are actually pretty damn good. Modern Warfare 1&2 are among the 360's highest rated games, and even the lowest rated games in the series are still 80+. Where else in the entertainment world do the highest rated products also sell the most? And sure it sucks that everyone is trying to make a better FPS instead of trying to do something different, but again, those designers are going to try to make the best FPS game they can.

The market as a whole obviously likes F2P primarily because of the F. I'd encourage anyone who doesn't think there's a big difference between free and any price to read Chris Anderson's book Free. The short version is that far more people will try something that's free than if it cost any amount of money. I think I brought this up in another thread, but check out the google play store pages for the new cut the rope game. The paid version ($1) is in the 10k-50k downloads range, while the free version is in the 5m-10m downloads range. And that doesn't even take into account people pirating the paid version. The fact that the market has chosen free games over paid games unfortunately does not in itself prove that the market prefers these games.

I'm pretty sure this isn't just my opinion either. If you look at the top-grossing games from last year, it's basically F2P all the way. If you go to metacritic and look at the top-rated games though, it's the other way around. The first exception is Punch Quest, which was a notable failure as a F2P game, because a lot of people downloaded it, a lot of people liked it, but because the economy was too generous, nobody felt the need to pay anything. And that's where the problem lies - the app store is dominated by games that make you feel a need to pay something, not a desire.

Bob Charone
profile image
"I think some types of music are complete garbage and I can't understand why anybody would listen to them, but there are lots of people who like what I hate and are happy to spend money on it."

what does spending money on something that appeals to peoples tastes have to do with spending money to not wait 30 minutes for a car or building to be delivered in Real Racing or Clash of Clans

Steven An
profile image
"Why do so many console games feature women in skimpy armor? Why would a developer ever bother making a game featuring somebody else's intellectual property? Why does Alan Wake have ads for Verizon, why does Peter Parker's camera say CyberShot on it, and why does the loading screen of Wipeout 2 feature the Red Bull logo? Heck, why do we need better graphics in our game devices? "

I actually don't think all F2P is bad, but the argument you gave there was not very convincing..those are all things I dislike about games, period. And sure, there are plenty of licensed games with skimpy armored women that are actually great (Arkham Asylum for one), but those are pretty rare. So I agree that there's nothing INHERENTLY wrong with F2P, however you interpret that, but you have to agree, with the F2P gold rush bubble right now, most F2P games are pretty terrible. It's like that with any bubble.

Chris Pruett
profile image
Oh, I didn't mean to suggest that those things in games are /good/. The point was that those things are there in paid games not because they make the game better but because they make it more likely to make money (at least in the eyes of the people who fund the development). The idea that paid games are developed in an ivory tower, art for art's sake, immune to the taint of marketing is fallacious. It's disingenuous to take all free-to-play games to task for being "for profit" because every console game is as well.

What's /not/ disingenuous is talking about specific examples of what you like and what you do not like. I was very sad to see the big Verizon ad in Alan Wake--I even wrote an article about how this kind of marketing is detrimental to some of the core design tenants of that kind of game. But I wouldn't blast all paid games because I didn't like this one thing in Alan Wake. I am not a fan of free-to-play tower defense games, but that doesn't mean that every other free-to-play game is also bad.

My purpose with this article is to propose that we often write off an entire class of games simply because we are unhappy with a few specific examples in that class. We blame it on the price point and then decide everything in the class is bad (and also that anybody who likes the stuff we don't like is wrong). I don't think that's a very useful way to discuss game design, and so I think we should stop doing that and talk about specifics--specific games, specific mechanics, specific implementations--instead.

Steven An
profile image
"I don't think that's a very useful way to discuss game design, and so I think we should stop doing that and talk about specifics--specific games, specific mechanics, specific implementations--instead."

I can whole-heartedly agree with that. Let's get away from the generalized witch-hunting and start talking about specifics. Everything can be done well or done badly.

Right now, I really don't like a lot of F2P games, but I'm willing to bet that some day, I'll find one I really enjoy.

Thomas Creutzenberg
profile image
Very good and open minded article.

Phil Maxey
profile image
Everyone who has a problem with F2P, answer me this one simple question. How would you charge to add extra content to a game after it's been launched?

If you answer "DLC", "Subscriptions" that's fine, but how far is that really from IAP's? The bottom line is, the player is paying extra after they have already paid up front because they want to keep on enjoying the game.

Ok, now take away the up front payment. That's F2P.

Robert Green
profile image
"how far is that really from IAP's?"

In concept, not far. In practice, very far. Go look at the iTunes store and see what the top-grossing games are selling. Chances are, 9 times out of 10, it's not 'extra content', it's virtual currency.
The problem with selling content (e.g. map packs for Call of Duty) is that it costs money to make, and once the consumer has bought it, they're never going to buy it again. The more profitable F2P games quickly realised this and so have settled on models that involve selling things that are consumable and cost basically nothing to produce.

The problem is not that people haven't found 'good ways' to do IAP's, it's that the bad ways have shown to be far more successful.

Amir Barak
profile image
"Free to Play" (F2P) is a gimmick moniker designed to lure people into buying a product that is designed with a very specific monetisation scheme. Calling those products (ones that are designed to be anything but free) "Optimized For Profit", "Rape Your Wallet" and/or "Spend Because You're Dumb" just won't move as many units. I suspect that the reason this whole "F2P" thing came about is from companies wanting to excuse their god-awful exploitive designs under some legitimate games... "hey look, Team Fortress 2 is also free-to-play so our game Skinner-Box-12-We-Want-Money is just the same".

You can make ALL the excuses that you want, "we need to make money of it", "people pay so they must want it", "it's the way of the future"... whatever... Those are still excuses. We as developers and content creators have a responsibility over our products. And seeing that this responsibility is shirked by the majority of the larger industry saddens me.

Products should be sold as products. Games are not services, they are toys. Even MMOs should not be treated as services, you pay a monthly subscription to upkeep the servers and that should be it. Any item that affects game balance should either be in the game to begin with or given for free if a player wants it. Buying items in shops should be restricted to personal graphic/audio items that have NO bearing on the game whatso-f***ing-ever. It really really isn't that hard...

Just because companies get away with it doesn't make it right (don't think I'm naive enough to believe this will ever come about though, I have a very very low opinion of humanity as a whole).

Here's a couple of how-would-you-feel?
* After you buy a ticket for a movie you have to buy earphones to listen to it.
* There's a really high ledge in the game but you have to buy the "Double Jump" ability.
* You have to buy a patch to fix that weird crash in the game (how's that for DLC eh).

By the way,
"If your publisher tells you that market research has shown that the your new PS4 game must include elves, gangbangers, and a nail gun, you do your best to figure out how to make the best game you can within those restrictions." - no, you tell him to either f*** off or you quit.

" I have a friend who regularly buys World of Warcraft gold from China because he just doesn't have much time to play and wants to go on raids as a leveled up character. This hardly ruins the game for other players. " - Then he should not play the game. And yes it does, it belittles the achievements of others because it's cheating. Not to even mention the moral issues this raises with your friend supporting slave labour.

"By that logic, performance-heavy multiplayer games like Far Cry 3 must also be a "corrupted" design because the player who can afford the fastest PC and the best network connection has the edge." - Errr, yes, but it's not sanctioned by the developers and I'm pretty sure that the guys and gals coding the network side of things didn't just think, "well, it's hard to optimize so f*** people with slower speeds". If the Far Cry 3 team made sure that people with an NVidia card had better performance thus forcing people to buy NVidia cards then we could talk about pay to win and corrupt design.

Anyway, I'm not against games that are free to play. I'm against games that are monetised and are really just optimized for profit.

Chris Pruett
profile image
"no, you tell him to either f*** off or you quit."

Haha, I think the whole game industry would pretty much quit tomorrow i this were the way it worked!

Nicholas Lovell
profile image
Wow. Just wow.

Curtiss Murphy
profile image
"I have a very very low opinion of humanity as a whole"

When my daughter was born, my world changed. She was complicated. So we spent much of the next 5 years in and out of hospitals. Along the way, I became very bitter and angry. Depressed.

I remember one day. I had just brought my daughter home from another major surgery. Doctors, nurses, medications, packing and unpacking equipment. I was disoriented; exhausted from lack of sleep. As I tucked her in, I realized things could have been much worse. And my brain filled with just one thought. I'm grateful. She's alive and she's home. The next night, was much the same - I was grateful. This became a routine that went on for almost a decade, until one day, my kids said, 'Dad, we're too old to be tucked in."

As I closed the door, I realized, I had a good life. Despite everything, I was happy.

@Amir - The anger in your words is limiting your ability to enjoy life and possibility limiting your skills as a game designer. And, one way to work on that is to develop a habit for what things went well today. Little things, like pizza, and big things, like family. Gratitude goes a long way.

(Apologies for taking this conversation sideways. It needed to be said.)

Amir Barak
profile image
@Chris
And would it be a bad thing if they did :P

@Curtiss
I have a one year old (nearly) and a six year old (slightly over) and I love both of them dearly. Those two have taught me what pure joy really is and how deeply I can feel fear for something. It breaks my heart to hear of the hardships that you and your daughter faced and face but it also inspires me to hear that you've found a way through the pain.

I'm not really that angry (try talking to me about religion if you really wanna hear some vitriol) it just worries me that we're in the process of normalizing design mechanisms which are predatory and destructive (as far as I can see it).

Again, I'm not against downloadable games that are free. I'm against games that have monetisation as a gameplay mechanic.

Alexander Symington
profile image
A fascinating and thought-provoking article. Thanks.

The terminology point is quite well made. I imagine some developers or experienced players may not associate games that sell content out of an initially free download with 'Free to Play' because we already have names for this model (demos, shareware) that predate the existence of the former term. Furthermore, it's very typical for F2P evangelists to recommend avoiding selling content in favour of models like 'Pay to Win'/supremacy goods or 'Pay to Skip Grind', which, having been popularised alongside the term 'Free to Play', have become deeply associated with it in many people's minds.

To an extent this is just semantics, but it is a real business problem if 'free' becomes a dirty word with some demographics. Although the original point of F2P was to reduce friction when trying to address new or casual audiences, it counter-intuitively seems to *increase* friction with more experienced audiences, who, as in the initial example, will often dismiss a game out of hand if it doesn't have an upfront fee, due to assuming the worst about its monetisation. Perhaps more often pointing to trusted implementations like shareware/demos as examples of freemium done right is one means of addressing this.

The parts of the article that try to justify models like Pay to Win are much less compelling to me. P2W isn't an alternative to practices like product placement and over-sexualisation; they are often used alongside each other. I imagine players that strongly object to P2W also aren't the biggest fans of in-game advertising, and there is already a large pool of quality-focused games which don't employ either from which they can choose instead. Moreover, not all design limitations are equal, and very few are as comprehensively invasive as losing creative control over game balance - while a more skilled designer can somewhat cope with this, it is only *to an extent*. Even if you were to argue that every game is in some way 'corrupted', personally I'd prefer to spend entertainment time and money on ones that are at least less flawed, with, for example, min/max systems not designed to be circumvented with arbitrary external resources.

To respond to some of the specific points made in the 'Winner Take All' section... The example of networking problems unbalancing the gameplay in Far Cry 3 is an interesting point, but I think that the physical restrictions of existing technology are more genuine and absolute 'design limitations' than the choice to use a specific business model, for which alternatives are viable (as FC3 itself demonstrates). The point here again seems to ignore extent: while online FC3 is possibly already somewhat unbalanced by its nature, the hypothetical P2W version would inherit these balance problems and make things worse still. A consideration of extent is also important in the case that the P2W implementation only gives incremental advantages rather than an outright victory; these advantages will still decide the outcome in a match between otherwise evenly matched players. A scaled match-making system is a way out of this problem, but it seems an overcomplex and inelegant solution compared with simply balancing the players' stats in the first place, and defeats the original business purpose given for selling competitive advantages.

To me, the case against P2W is equally relevant in purely player-versus-engine games. There may not necessarily be a direct 'victim' who loses out because their competitor has gained an arbitrary advantage over them - although it is extremely likely this will happen somehow, either through a leaderboard system that does add in fact add multiplayer competition to games such as Triple Town, or because a conflict of interest causes the developer to unbalance the game in order to increase revenue from IAPs. Yet even outside of these cases, I think single-player P2W is a more complex situation than being a 'victimless crime' because it creates conflicts of interest for the player that make the game less fun to play: should I really min-max this problem, or pay an arbitrary, extra-game cost (that has a very different value depending on the player's personal situation) to skip it? In the best case scenario, where the designer has overcome his own conflict of interest to deliver what he believes is the most interesting content possible, the player who pays cheats himself out of it (and the one who engaged with the content and most enjoyed loses use of the mechanism to pay the developer if he wants to show his gratitude).

The point regarding differing audience expectations is difficult to argue with. It's reasonable to say that many audiences aren't too interested in 'playing to win', although on the other hand the desire for fair play seems to be something quite universal. My biggest concern here would be that while using models that intentionally focus on accessibility at the expense of quality may quickly grow an audience in the short term, many new players may be rapidly churned through several poor quality games without getting a very positive impression of the medium, preventing them from forming part of a sustainable market (the Zynga effect). I think it may be more sustainable to address different audiences with quality products that cover more diverse themes, similar to how other media have expanded their audiences.

Chris Pruett
profile image
Hi Alexander,

Thanks for the close read and detailed reply!

There isn't a lot for me to disagree with in your post. I'll offer a few comments about the topics you raised.

I can see why F2P is a tainted word. I'm all for coming up with something else. Before we can do that, I sort of feel that developers have to accept that this class of games is a lot wider and more interesting than "Farmvillelike." Coming to terms with that seems to be really hard for a lot of folks, which is what prompted this article to begin with. We're in the "doom clone" era, looking for our "first-person shooter" definition.

I think you confused two of my points related to "pay to win" and marketing (sexualization of characters or whatever). The latter point was about the need for all games, free or otherwise, being influenced by the need to turn a profit. We often complain about how some F2P mechanics are only there because they relate to the bottom line, but I think that's quite true of paid games as well (it's just not always a mechanic that is in play).

On the point about paying to win, I have two thoughts. First, I was responding to Charles Randall's article in which he (seemed) to suggest that purchases in multiplayer competitive games are always game-ruining. I don't think that's true, though I don't disagree that they can easily screw up game balance. There seem to be a number of free-to-play multiplayer competitive games that allow purchase upgrades that are wildly popular (I think World of Tanks fits this description), so I thought that Charles dismissed the model too quickly. I'd be the first to admit that striking the right balance might be a very hard problem, though. It's a problem that we'd have to think about, which is not what people who write the whole model off want to do.

My second thought is that while the appearance of balance is highly valued, the highest value thing in a game is fun. Fun is more important than balance. If the game is fun, I don't think it requires balance (though many games are fun /because/ they are well balanced).

There are some games that are all about honest challenge. Super Meat Boy, Dark Souls, this kind of thing. A highly fair, highly balanced simulation. And those games have huge numbers of fans. But they tend to be very hard, and aren't for everybody. There are other games that are obviously biased and unbalanced, usually in the player's favor. Everything from aim assist in a shooter to Crash Bandicoot's famous DDA system. These are examples of games that are definitely not a balanced, fair experience--they are weighted in one direction or another in order to make the game more fun. So I don't think we can safely claim that balance is a requirement for fun, or even that it's the most important factor in a fun game for all genres for all players. That's why I don't see any reason that F2P multiplayer competitive games must be absolutely balanced to be fun. Maybe some types of games for some types of players must retain this requirement (and I think it is maintainable), but we can't write off the entire class just because of the possibility that balance isn't there.

I am in complete agreement with your final paragraph. I think that the models that are generally disliked by the traditional gamer community (the Zynga effect, as you call it) are basically a bubble that relies on huge marketing spend and revenue generation from a very small number of wealthy users. I don't think that's sustainable long term. But I also think that, to make it better, those of us with traditional game experience, the wine connoisseurs, have to get involved. We need to teach this new group of gamers that there are better things out there, but to do that we have to speak to them in the language that they are familiar with. As far as iOS and Android goes, that's not games that require payment upfront.

And that's really the driving force behind my work at Robot Invader and this article. I believe that we can speak to this new audience, but not on traditional game terms. We need to learn how to speak to them, and that requires nuance that this conversation so frequently lacks.

Thanks for the thoughtful response.

Curtiss Murphy
profile image
"The point is that the monetization aspect of these games is absolutely a participant in the greater game design balance. In fact, in my experience it's by far the most difficult part of a free-to-play game to design. The restrictions imposed by f2p are dramatic."

^ This!!! F2P is hard. It's taken me a long time to figure it out.

Bob Charone
profile image
"I have a friend who regularly buys World of Warcraft gold from China because he just doesn't have much time to play and wants to go on raids as a leveled up character. This hardly ruins the game for other players."

"I've also spent more on free-to-play games than console games so far this year."

"Am I a wine connoisseur or a two-buck-chucker? I don't even drink!"


i read article for free, and i would PAY MONEY to not have to read anymore of them

if i had kids, i would PAY MONEY to keep you 100m away from them

if you offered me a 'two buck chuck' (what ever the hell that is) i would PAY MONEY to not drink it

Chris Pruett
profile image
@Jonathon Green

Sorry I can't respond inline to your comment, Gamasutra's comment system is stuck in like 2002.

I really enjoyed your comment. I think that we actually see eye-to-eye on this stuff. My purpose was certainly not to be manipulative, though I am playing Devil's Advocate a bit. And I definitely do not mean to champion "F2P" (that is, "skinner box money sucking garbage heroin games"). I actually say that in the article.

My honest goal is to ask developers who write off this class of games because they assume that all of them are skinner box money sucking garbage heroin games to think about it a little harder. I mentioned an encounter with a (fairly famous) developer in the article where he flat-out refused to even look at our game because the price was set to free (a game that, for the record, has no grinding, no energy systems, can't be played forever, and doesn't require any purchases to beat). This is an attitude that I've encountered many times since, sometimes from developers who are way too smart to have such a naive view.

I can't stand Farmville. But I'm not the target audience. I didn't like CSR Racing very much. I enjoyed Real Racing 3. I'm not interested in Clash of the Clans. Candy Crush Saga is really fun. My favorite mobile game last year was probably The Room, which isn't even free. Or The Walking Dead, which is.

I'm a developer making games for mobile platforms. I want to make good games. I want my company to stay in business. Changing the definition is the purpose of our company. But it's almost impossible to talk about this stuff with some segments of the development community without somebody assuming that I'm making Skinner Box Money Sucking Garbage Heroin Game #245 because we happen to be making something that is free to download.

Robert Green
profile image
I totally get what you're saying with that last paragraph. We recently released a F2P sequel to a paid game, and some people immediately wrote it off for being free, even though what you get for free is more than the previous game.
But that's just the reality of the market right now, and I hope you appreciate that the reaction you get from the development community is a sign of how the market as a whole will react. Some will ignore it due to being F2P. If you're lucky, many will try it and some will earn you money. But unfortunately the app stores don't really do a good job of promoting games that don't monetise that well. Quite the opposite actually.
In the short run, that'd be a solution really - if apple could combine how long people are playing F2P games with how much they're spending and what they're rating games, it could highlight games like Punch Quest that many people loved, but would otherwise not show up on the top grossing charts.
In the long run though, that situation leads to no one making any money.

Curtiss Murphy
profile image
Chris - Liked this reply. I like plenty of F2P games and I liked the Room too. I'm willing to pay $2.99 for BattleHeart and I enjoyed dabbling (for free) with Rainbow Unicorn Attack. When I see a new game come out on New and Noteworthy, the first thing I do is look at the In-App Purchases. And they often look like this: $0.99 for Coins, $1.99 for More Coins, $9.99 for Bucket O Coins, $99 for Treasure Trove.

A $99 IAP should come with a disclaimer: "Warning - this product uses psychological trickery intended to milk you for cash. You should not make this purchase!"

And still, these companies succeed! Popcap's Solitaire Blitz has the nerve to charge $2.99 for 10 additional solitaire matches. I like the gameplay, and yet, I am disgusted by their obvious intention to milk me. Give me a purchase that has value, and I'll make it if I like your product. I'm not a whale - I'm a customer!

Jorge Ramos
profile image
I see that you put a lot of thought into this article, and while there were some good, idealistic points that would work *on paper*, I have to say that in practice, are never, ever obeyed from a player's perspective.

I can only speak from my experience here, but... here goes.

In the MMOG space, I have been burned left and right by so many different games that were either subscription-only, pay-once, or 'free-to-play', which becomes a condescending usage of the term to really mean freemium, or pay-to-win. Some games were more obnoxious about this than others, but it is without exception that "free to play" games were unfairly skewed toward those that were willing to pay upwards of $20/month for the privilege to play. I've seen restrictions such as:
- inability to stack otherwise stackable items in inventory
- flat out blocked from being able to equip rare drops
- 'offered' better sell rates on my items' in-game values if I paid for a sub...
- new gear with bonuses not found when purchasing with earned in-game currency (bad move, bro...)
- requiring the purchase of in-game items at inflated rates in order to even START missions

The shining turd in the room in this space was Star Wars: The Old Republic. The chart provided here ( http://www.swtor.com/free/features ) does little justice but clearly paints a bad picture for anyone who actually wants to do the free-play experience.

On the mobile space, the MLP FiM game that Gameloft provides is rather obnoxious about attempting to induce payment from players (and what they want for any sizable amount of either of the in-game currencies). Just two particularly recognizable characters can go for 1000+ gems, of which your only real way to earn that sometime this DECADE would be to pay them $100 for the privilege. Even more obnoxious is being invited to gamble for the privilege of certain characters or shards to complete the overarching objective(s) of the game. Another obnoxious aspect are those items and characters that can only be purchased with hearts that can only be obtained by basically registering for their own social networking setup or linking your facebook and obnoxiously spamming any and everyone on your friends lists to come and play, which is not only broken, but also falls against my better ethics. I actively avoid spammy apps on facebook and such 'game' invites from glorified cow-clicker games... yet the game is actively punishing me for it by basically not allowing me to get the characters I want to advance the game.

The worst thing is that these are just 'modest' examples compared to some of the other obnoxious and debilitating experiences created for people that are playing for free.

One person here brought up TF2... to which I'll chime in that I basically played the game since it was part of the Orange Box. While the class-specific achievements required to unlock new weapons for each were particularly obnoxious (especially if you're just not that good at a certain class in the game), I pretty much actively avoided the game when VALVe started going hat-crazy... and this was well before they chose to make it free to play. I only recently started playing it again because of the Mann vs. Machine mode brought back much of the same elements that created such joy for me in the early days... which basically was that I/we didn't need voice chat to play to an objective, which is far more than I can say for the overwhelming "dude brah" crowd that yells racist remarks on any given round of Call of Duty (and why I actively avoid Xbox Live, since it has never NOT paired me up with douchebag players for the price of $50~60/year ).

The reason so many deride free-to-play is because 99.9999% of such games don't even wait ten minutes before they try to induce you into paying for SOMEthing... or artifically penalize you for opting not to do so. This isn't conjecture... it's practically documented fact.

I'm not saying that such obnoxious behavior is entirely the domain of free to play. We can easily point to EA and Capcom for the likes of mandatory DLC, Day-One DLC, and Activision for charging $20 a pop for 3 maps that would otherwise be added in for no charge. But there is usually a point where it stops with a game that cost SOME money up front, where there is no limit to said spending in a f2p game, ever. Just a month ago I was reading a story about how someone got a $9000 charge on their credit card because their kid jacked their iPad and just started buying everything in sight for an f2p game.

There might be ydillic ways to implement a free to play that isn't obnoxious or seen as unfair for players, but I've yet to come across a single example in practice that abides or respects the player whether they paid any money into it or not. And THIS is why I'm a bit leery whenever someone mentions 'free to play' for any kind of game or genre... I've yet to try Hawken (despite looking phenomenal) because as impressive as some of the in-action videos make it appear to be, I just know it's going to slap me with enough "buy this to improve!" things that I'd sooner be able to assemble my own 50-ft. mech to do that crap for real for what they want to charge.

Simon Brislin
profile image
I think we need a better definition of F2P. It feels like waters are being deliberately muddied with talk of DLC, episodic games and aesthetic items. Part of Chris' original idea was to critique F2P games on specific mechanics as opposed to their overall business model.

I think most people's problems with F2P are to do with purchasing items that materially alter the existing gameplay in free games.

I think it is more productive to talk about that. Otherwise we will be talking in circles. Any argument against F2P can be thwarted by the technical assiciation with The Walking Dead.

Simon Brislin
profile image
I think there's another thing that worries developers of F2P games. And that is the pressure to make a skinners box. Skinners box like games have proved to be very good at making money. When you've got mouths to feed making the ethical F2P game we all dream of is hard. Adding a new wallpaper to the box and painting the button green is easy.

Richard Black
profile image
I think new methods of obtaining games is largely of matter of their growth in the market as well as a reaction to that growth. You've got substantially more competition in gaming now than ever before while people are often less satisfied in what they purchase. There is quite simply an over abundance of marketing from those who can afford it and how much of it is even trustworthy? I remember as a kid reading Nintendo Power magazine which actually had reviews of Nintendo games at launch that it panned. Hell I think I used to read Seanbaby reviews of current Nintendo products that were often extrememly memorable but he tended to review the worst games available for a reason. These days I've seen triple A releases with game breaking bugs across all three platforms without any mention of them for months at a time. It's often hard to find a badly reviewed game although many deserve it. Developing has become so expensive these days though that, much like Hollywood, those with the money to devote to games are more likely to follow a formula that made money before. You wind up with ridiculous amounts of expensive, formulaic games, which little new or endearing to them.

So what are gamers going to want to do? After dropping a few hundred or a few thousand on games they didn't end up liking and being burned they're a hell of a lot more likely to try games they don't have to pay for until they want to. You've got mmo's and even triple As releasing loaded with bugs these days figuring they'll fix them eventually, even though they already have your money, and frequently with pisspoor customer service when you find one that affects your gameplay. I don't think it takes too much as a gamer these days to be extremely suspicious of new releases, which often try to combat your suspicion with pre order rewards.

I think that results in a lot of piracy as well which often seems pointless to try to combat. I haven't pirated a game since high school but every now and then I seriously think it'd be worth researching whatever replaced edonkey just so i don't get surprised by crap releases anymore. That many games let you start free and upgrade if you like it seems a good trait to me. I bought the elite version of Cyber Knights awhile back after a couple days with the free version because it's engrossing cyberpunk game the suits me until Shadowrun Returns comes out. It's a got a fairly complicated ruleset but it works and I don't mind at all kicking 7$ or whatever I paid to the developer for a good mobile game but I doubt I would have paid for it unless I'd tried it and liked it.

A lot of developers now seem to be turning to kickstarter now to make games like they used to make and the way they want to make them that aren't instead dictated by the board room, demographics, or marketing but I think gamers are looking to f2p. If you look at releases like Aliens: Colonial Marines which intentially released doctored game footage it's not hard to see why. A lot of even major game companies seem to be releasing games earlier and earlier as well, without much polish, just to get it out there and start taking your money right away. F2P in many ways is a reaction to the abundance of buyers remorse that has little outlet. Are people still going to take advantage? Of course, but I'd rather regret a microtransaction than pay full price to own something I don't enjoy yet can't return.

Jorge Diaz
profile image
Lately I feel as if the models are colliding and overlapping in very interesting and challenging ways. Pre-order content, season pass, kickstarter, DLC or in game purchases are becoming part of the design plan for traditional pay to play games. P2P is competing with F2P for attention or trying to secure purchases in advance.

I like the idea of F2P being framed as a design restriction more so than a business model. I mostly design console (pay to play) games and thus have to wrestle with many restrictions based on license, platform and demographic. When it comes down to it the F2P model is a restriction which has unpopular and popular implementations.

I think its worth stepping back and looking at the F2P model for its ability to help developers(specially small developers) get the attention of players in a very diverse market.

My wife and I used to own a brick and mortar store. Getting people in the door was the most important thing for our small business and we looked for opportunities to attract customers in ways that big retail chains don't have to bother with.We didn't have the budget.

Once the customer was in the door our job was to offer them service that would make them want to come back. To stay in business you try sell or introduce them to your products them while being careful not to scare them away. That is an art all on its own and also is the way to stay in business.

Some customers didn't have a choice of store so they came to our store. This is not the case in video games but F2P games are a service.

Using this analogy the most important question for the designer of F2P is "Once you get the customer in the door, what do you have to offer to them to give them a good experience and keep them coming back?"

Every game wrestles with this issue but for the F2P developer you have to figure out how to get that sale because that customer may never come back again.

Going forward we are seeing that the next gen consoles are focusing on more video sharing and social networking as next big feature. I suspect for many designers this too will be both a blessing and curse to figure out how to take advantage on with our future games. As we struggle to understand the nature of that beast I expect to see terrible implementations outnumber the clever and good.

Back to topic F2P is just a design restriction wrapped inside business model name there will be "bad" implementations but there will also be "good".


none
 
Comment: