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F2P and the Future of Games
by Daniel Slawson on 07/09/14 12:45:00 pm   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.


Right now, players who favor free-to-play games (hereafter, “F2P”) may actually be a majority — and if not, will soon become one. Because the barriers to entry are low, F2P is widely regarded as a democratic system where willing players are helping quality games rise to the top.

That’s wonderful on paper, but we need to be more critical of a model that is poised to become so dominant. That’s why I find the amount of glowing, optimistic rhetoric defending the model unsettling. Generally, these articles seem to come in two flavors: the most common paints F2P as a tragically misunderstood innovation to be warmly embraced. The other is more objective about the model’s flaws, but tends to shrug apologetically, saying financially viable alternatives hardly exist.

They both share one theme: F2P is the next thing, and we should all get comfortable with it.

This Gamesradar piece by Lucas Sullivan is a great example of the former type of article, covering most of the common arguments. When you get beyond the finely honed optimism, it’s an interesting collection of things that could be true of a new revenue model, but not F2P as it currently exists. It’s worth reading with that specific lens, if only because everything said is technically correct — except, notably, the final paragraph:

Success in the F2P market doesn’t come from bad, formulaic, or predictable design–these games have to put forward their best content first and constantly keep you hooked, in the hopes that you’ll leave a tip by purchasing a hero skin or convenience boost.

I wish the first part were universally true, but that isn’t actually what I want to explore. I think the second part of the quote is at the heart of the matter: these developers aren’t just hoping you’ll leave a tip. If players have to pay for a convenience boost, the game isn’t putting its best content first; it’s putting it second: after the player has paid for it. This runs afoul of the definition of tipping.

It’s obviously a mischaracterization, but it shows the basic mechanism of the F2P model: the incentive for players to spend money isn’t just the promise of more content after the transaction (as in earlier models: pay-to-play, shareware, etc.). It’s the ability to make their current experience better. Put another way, it’s the strategy of offering an inferior experience to get players to upgrade to the premium one.

While $0 seems like a very liberating price point, free games aren’t sustained from tips alone. As always, there’s an exchange of value happening. This isn’t about the worst examples of players being taken for a ride, though. In a sense, the amount of value the player gets from a F2P game is a separate issue of its own (though vital in its own right). I want to talk about something else: that a price of $0 will necessarily have design repercussions.

In his first paragraph, Sullivan’s defensive rhetoric is a great starting place to examine this:

[...] I’m perplexed by the unwillingness to acknowledge the stark reality of the free-to-play market. F2P games have to try even harder to make sure you have a good time, because no one will spend money to enhance an experience that they loathe.

He’s correct: players have to find some enjoyment in the game, so they’ll want to spend rather than quitting. But what’s glossed over is that F2P can’t go too far in the opposite direction, either: if a F2P game were to offer a fully optimized experience from the start, without making players pay for it, where’s the incentive? Then it would truly be a tip-based model — and while that’s interesting, it isn’t the model mobile developers have been adopting in droves.

Mobile developers have been leading the market toward F2P for a solid reason: it’s significantly more profitable than the old (“pay to play”) model. The F2P model generates profit by letting players optimize their experience in exchange for money. Some of the game’s pleasure must be locked behind paywalls, otherwise there’s nothing to buy you don’t already have.

That is F2P’s elephant in the room: for the model to work, enjoyable gameplay has to be intentionally diluted, or segmented, before it’s made available to players. Gameplay might only be diminished a little, but it must still be diminished to give players a reason to spend.

This describes a simple rule about micropayments in general:

If a game relies on gameplay-affecting in-app purchases (“IAP”) as its primary source of revenue, the game’s default experience (or sense of flow) must be purposefully suboptimal to generate profit.

To be clear, this only applies to gameplay-affecting purchases. Shareware/expansions, or payments in exchange for vanity items etc. are fundamentally different, because core gameplay isn’t affected.

With that understood, I’m not aware of a successful F2P game that broke this rule, or could.

So What?

Of course, I’m describing the content players are getting for free; the premium gameplay could still be excellent. Making games professionally is a business, after all, and developers deserve to be paid. Asking players to pay more to access the highest tier experience isn’t beyond the pale: it’s a tried and true business model (just ask your ISP).

So what’s the big deal?

In my book, two specific aspects of F2P are problematic:

  1. The deliberate creation of inferior gameplay to be used as a monetary incentive. And to a lesser extent,
  2. Incentivizing players to pay repeatedly to avoid this inferior gameplay.

Calling these unethical is a bit dramatic: at the end of the day, acceptance of these practices comes down to preference, legality, and cultural expectations. But they rub me the wrong way. As a player and designer, I know I’m not alone in my distaste for F2P: many people draw a line at creating purposefully stunted gameplay to be used as a tool to incentivize players. And really, can you imagine a designer who prioritized the player’s experience doing either of these things?

I don’t want to see either of the above become industry standards. The billion dollar question for developers is: does rejecting them mean leaving money on the table? Is there an alternative model that’s just as financially viable, or more? That’s a tall order. Too tall, if you’re trying to aim at the same type of players F2P is.

Before you can frame a competing model, you have to understand what makes F2P so powerful in the first place. After all, if all this gameplay is getting diminished, where does F2P’s competitive advantage come from? Diminished gameplay doesn’t seem that sustainable as an industry standard… But it does work well for the right audience.

In my view, there are basically three types of players, and F2P is optimized for the wealthiest segment of two types: incidental gamers, and casual hobbyists.

Incidental Gamers

(Games as time-killers)

To incidental gamers, games are little more than enjoyable ways to kill time, stave off boredom or otherwise serve as a distraction. They are rarely primary leisure activities. Quick, convenient enjoyment and easily-grasped gameplay are mandatory. Games based on widely-known genres or templates are preferred.

When it comes to platform, incidental gamers will simply use whatever device is on hand when they want to play. Because games are regarded as a commodity, it’s logical that they should all be available on any device. Thus, the amount of incidental gamers on a given device tracks very closely with that device’s ubiquity (which explains the wide popularity of mobile games).

F2P suits incidental gamers very well: those who don’t mind being monetized are, and those who do mind get to enjoy a lesser experience for free. Because games are time-killers, the diminished gameplay isn’t really a factor (usually well-masked by a game’s addictiveness).

Casual Gamers

(Games as units of entertainment)

Casual gamers enjoy videogames as a primary mode of entertainment, and enjoy games that give them most of what they want. They’re perhaps still the largest segment of the market, but the increasing ubiquity of mobile phones is likely to change this.

Quick, convenient enjoyment and easily-grasped gameplay are important differentiators, but not mandatory. For most AAA studios, the golden standard for capturing casual gamers is:

  1. Advertising, and
  2. Making the game good enough that a wide segment of players will buy it, and still be willing to buy the sequel afterward.

This is because casual gamers are more of a mixed bag: they’re price-conscious, and it’s no wonder that they prefer freemium games when AAA games retail for $60 a pop. They have a budget for their hobby, and they have room to pick up a few games at $60 that are established safe bets to get a good value. A glut of expensive, high quality titles is simply an embarrassment of riches for the majority of this audience.

Casual gamers are pretty evenly split in terms of platform. Because it’s a primary leisure activity, these players value getting the best possible experience — but cost, ease of use, and mobility are still important factors. As the performance gap between mobile and fixed platforms grows smaller, consoles and PCs won’t be quite as popular as they once were for casual players (accounting for human-interface factors, of course: currently, mice are clearly better than touchscreens for some games).


(Games as a pasttime)

The enthusiast wants quality, and is willing to pay for it (and often able, though not always). But they also have high standards and certain preferences about what constitutes quality.

It’s important to understand that in F2P terms, not every whale is an enthusiast. Being wealthy enough to purchase entertainment at will and being a selective, dedicated fan aren’t (necessarily) the same thing.

Clearly, many niches exist: because this population is the smallest of the three, games that cater to enthusiasts are typically crafted with a very particular audience in mind, usually a loyal fanbase who aren’t regularly catered to.

Also, I suspect there’s a meaningful subgroup of enthusiasts who want games they can sink their teeth into and enjoy long term. As Daniel Cook points out, these players are the most likely to enjoy deep mechanics that support long term play, and consequently are willing (even eager) to accept a learning curve. Investing in a long-term hobby is also a very favorable value proposition for them.

Enthusiasts by platform

Mobile: There aren’t many mobile enthusiasts, but enough of a niche to be worth aiming at. This is because F2P is much better at capturing wealthy incidental gamers who respond to a game’s addictiveness; enthusiasts who favor mobile games are a bit of a niche (and largely untapped) market.

Console/PC: Enthusiasts will go where the quality games are, and currently, consoles and PCs are where most of the highest quality games live. There are more PC enthusiasts than console, because enthusiasts will tend to gravitate toward a dedicated gaming machine that provides the best experience (consoles were once ideal for this, today the PC is very competitive, if not dominant).

Before moving on, there are some important things to note about this method of categorization:

  • No type of player is superior to another, and no value judgments are being made here. There’s nothing wrong with being a Candy Crush enthusiast.
  • In theory, each type of player can be a profitable base.
  • Obviously many players exist somewhere between these categories.
  • It’s also possible to be an enthusiast toward one genre while being more casual toward another.

F2P’s Secret Sauce

It’s tempting to think the price-point of $0 is F2P’s defining asset. But in fact, it’s no more (or less) than the ability to compete on the mobile platform. As I mentioned before, lots of people have mobile phones: and that number is expected to grow dramatically. But the majority of people who comprise this market are incidental and casual gamers, not inclined to dig deep into the app store to spend money on games of unknown entertainment value. To attract this market, your game needs to be on (or very near) the front page.

Pricing games at $0 was a necessary adaptation to an environment where mainstream popularity is vital. It drops all barriers to entry, but in doing so, diminishes the quality of the product.

The real strength of the model isn’t just the price point, but optimal adaptation to every level of demand. Specifically, it’s the ability to efficiently capture consumer surplus: the maximum amount of money any player is willing to spend on a game.

For example: if you’re selling a game for $20 but a wealthy or dedicated player would still have bought it for $60, you’re letting $40 go. This is a major weakness of the pay-to-play model, which some try to remedy with collector’s editions and other merchandise. High spenders are more than willing to spend $60+, but there’s a limited amount of money they can spend beyond that — and the rest of the market is discouraged by that price point. By letting all players in, and incentivizing them to make multiple, optional payments (whether impulsive or planned), F2P games are exceptional at capturing all the money they can, particularly from the wealthiest players.

Responding as a Developer

But it isn’t about capturing as much consumer surplus as possible. It’s about capturing just the right amount of consumer surplus for the audience you’re aiming at. In this, F2P isn’t optimized for everyone: the model is weakest when aimed at enthusiasts. They have the highest tolerance for barriers to entry, and the lowest tolerance for inferior gameplay. For this audience in particular, there are drawbacks to capturing as much consumer surplus as possible. Taking too much takes joy away from the customer, and diminishes their sense of having received a good value. When you want to maximize short term profit, you take all the consumer surplus you can. The most long-term move is to take only what is willingly given.

Compared to other groups, enthusiasts have a unique capacity for excitement about a quality product — that “throwing money at the screen” type of enthusiasm. There’s no monopoly on this, obviously, but they are the likeliest to get into this mode when they find something truly remarkable. Delivering high quality and high value is the formula for attracting enthusiasts.

But what makes them worth aiming at? There’s an order of magnitude more casual gamers than enthusiasts, and an order of magnitude more incidental gamers than casual (or will be in the near future).

For one thing, there’s a lot of risk in aiming squarely at the largest audience. Before you can think about comparing favorably with the competition, you have to figure out how not to drown in it: you’re only going to get to the front page if you get incredibly lucky or spend huge amounts of money on advertising. Enthusiasts may be the smallest group, but there’s a lot to be said for zeroing in on an audience that knows what they want, are vocal about good games, and are eager to support them. If you can deliver, there’s a lot of stability (and sustainability) in that model, a rare commodity.

AAA studios have a perverse obligation to maximize profit, so they have to aim at the largest parts of the market — employing the budgeting calculus of huge advertising campaigns, and gradually embracing F2P’s consumer surplus capturing mechanisms. Because of their huge budgets, AAA studios have to stand on casual gamers as a foundation, no matter how many enthusiasts they have.

Indie devs don’t have this burden. And without a massive advertising budget, they have to get lucky to see significant revenue from incidental and casual gamers on the app store. So unless you’re sure you can win in that arena, the way to compete is not to play a game of scale. Indie developers need to be Ferarri, not Honda.

There are never guarantees, but outside of a salaried position, making high quality (and perhaps also niche) games for enthusiasts is the best bet there is to make a living building videogames.

How To Price for Enthusiasts

Enthusiasts should be your core audience, your bread and butter. Casual gamers are your gravy, the mark of how widely received your game is. When it comes to designing gameplay, the pleasure of enthusiasts should be your only focus. If you manage to gather a large enough group of enthusiasts, you will end up approaching casual gamers without specifically trying to, from the top of the market downward (because enthusiasts tend to be vocal advocates for what they enjoy, and that sort of acclaim tends to spread). This type of categorization is more of a spectrum: by aiming at the choosiest of players, you’re also going to attract casual gamers closer to the enthusiast pole (naturally, this is just as true on the other side of the spectrum).

When it comes to pricing, therefore, enthusiasts aren’t your sole consideration. Remember that the majority of casual gamers don’t have the budget for too many $40+ titles. So to attract them, your game has to be one of the few they decide to spend money on: either by being that amazing, or being solid and reasonably priced (or, better, amazing and reasonably priced).

Build for enthusiasts, price for casual gamers. Casual gamers blink at a price of $60, but are much more amenable to $30 or even $10. Enthusiasts don’t really mind a $60 price tag, but if you’re playing your cards right, most of the revenue from enthusiasts comes from purchases made after the base game (expansions, development of new features, developer access, community status, soundtrack, artwork, etc). This is doubly true if you’re making an experience that players can expect to enjoy long term.

Responding as a Player

Vote with your wallet. Keep doing what you’re doing, and developers will eventually adapt to you in optimal ways. The trouble is, it might not happen soon enough — or perhaps you’ll disagree with their definition of “optimal”. Realize that you don’t have to settle for suboptimal gameplay: annoying micropayments, silly vanity items, and grind are tricks to capture a particular type of consumer. There is a better way, and it exists already.

Many casual players have never had the pleasure of being catered and listened to. If you’ve never had that experience yourself, consider attaching yourself to a game or project that caters to enthusiasts, and give it a try. See what the community and gameplay are like. You may be surprised at what you were missing.

There is an alternative to F2P, and it’s where the best experiences are.

This article was originally published at If you enjoyed this article, consider becoming a patron.

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Daniel Cook
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There are quite a few assumptions here, especially around market segmentation, that may not be tested with data. Especially the segregating of groups into incidental, casual, and enthusiast categories.

Thought 1: Free and enthusiast are compatible concepts with a change of perspective.

Here's an exercise for breaking out of a segregated view of games.

What if we think of 'F2P' (of which there are many divergent types) as a broad class of marketing and distribution tactics baked into your game that helps you *find* the 'enthusiasts' that form the core of an ongoing community.

Sad fact A: The ratio of players that will convert into avid lovers of your particular service is quite low. Perhaps 1:1000. So you need to have a lot of folks try your game before you find enough to form a stable community.

Sad fact B: Our modern game development landscape is such that distribution is hard. A successful indie game with a $5 gate might reach 100,000 people. (That may seems lovely until the money runs out a few years later and it it takes you five additional 2-year attempts to reach that same level of success, but that's another discussion). In terms of distribution, you've now got an avid community of 100 people. That likely isn't sustainable.

So to make the community hit 1000 or heaven forbid, 10,000 people, you need to have a lot of people try your game. (and there's churn, so you need a stream of folks, not a 1-time PR hit.)

This is where free, long term trials start to make business sense. I think of it as inviting people into your church on Sundays for free in hopes that they'll see the light. You could charge them, but for most churches, that would be self defeating. Free is just one useful tool in the search for true believers.

Thought 2: F2P is a crappy term for a wide range of business models.
I'd caution against mixing single player F2P models and multiplayer F2P models. They are radically different beasts. As are content focused models (selling you stuff) versus service focused models (providing access to a community and tools that sustain that community). DOTA 2 doesn't even exist in the same business or design galaxy as Candy Crush. There's a rapidly reached point where it becomes less helpful to hold up a F2P strawman.

There's a deep lack of language and aesthetic understanding as we create new generations of service-based games. Our memories of how games were sold as boxes packed with content don't give us a lot of emotional clues for instinctively judging a new services with new business models. The source of the blindness is that many of these games are not about 'content' or 'media'. There is no box.

The idea of a 'complete game' doesn't compute (These worlds are never complete and have ongoing costs). Nor for that matter does 'the best possible game' (Some frictional systems have great gameplay value) It is a new world.

I always wonder if F2P essays are really at all about F2P. Or are they more about a way of life that feels threatened. Welcome to the future; that point in time where the truths of our childhood become shredded by the present.

This is cruel advice that leads down a hard road, but I give it nonetheless. If you really want to advance understanding of free games, I highly recommend engineering a mildly successful one and then tell people what you did and why. What worked? What didn't work? What are your theories? Heck, shares some data. Makers critique by building something better. There aren't many other activities that increase our knowledge as game developers.

Bob Fox
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"I always wonder if F2P essays are really at all about F2P. Or are they more about a way of life that feels threatened."

It's both, because F2P games are worse generally than regular videogames. Neverwinter nights was made worse by being bought out by perfect world.

League of legends found that there's an island of stupidity to mine players for money. F2P isn't really a "business model" because it relies on tech illiteracy, it's pure exploitation of the stupid and ignorant.

Everyone rightly fears F2P because it's going to fuck up games and gaming history, games are simply going to disappear and it allows developers and publishers to 1) confiscate games and 2) control the market.

There'll be more of this:

"Sorry you can't play this game anymore".

All because the masses are stupid illiterate people who have no clue what they are doing to those of us who care about gaming.

It takes players money and gives them the big middle finger, F2P games need to allow players to own the game if they shut off servers. All that money is just scammed out of the stupid section of the population.

Christian Nutt
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@Bob Fox: You have a tendency of consistently calling F2P players (and a variety of others) "stupid" or "illiterate." I think that's highly debatable (given the volume of people who play these games, they can't all be stupid) but more to the point it's neither constructive nor useful to people developing these games when it comes to discussing them, or even when it's a flat-out debate about the viability or ethics of the model, as in this post. Take it easy, please.

Daniel Slawson
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@ Daniel Cook

Thanks for the response, this could be an interesting conversation.

For thought #1: well, I clearly don't have poll data. But I think it's safe to assert the existence of a group of people to whom gaming is a primary leisure activity and dedicated hobby, and a group to whom gaming is an incidental activity (and a group in the middle). That feels like a safe assumption to me, and I don't think it's contentious that there are an order of magnitude more casual players than enthusiasts (we both assert this).

I guess my argument is, why use the "funnel" method to attract enthusiasts? It doesn't make sense to me to lower barriers as far as you can to get thousands of people to play it, hoping enthusiasts are in that number.

Why not market to enthusiasts directly? Unlike most casual and incidental gamers, they frequent forums, blogs, read reviews, sign up for newsletters and mailing lists. The game might not even be released yet, and they'll be excited about it. I think the success rate of Kickstarter game projects shows that the funnel isn't the only way (or the best way) to build a sustainable audience.

My argument in the article was that you can reach enthusiasts this way (directly), but you need other techniques (the funnel method) to capture large amounts of incidental and casual gamers (to sift through them for the high spenders). That's where F2P excells: getting the most amount of people to play the game. I agree that F2P can capture enthusiasts. It just doesn't seem optimal for that.

Thought #2:

I don't (yet) see how it matters whether a game is "complete" or ongoing. We conversed briefly on twitter regarding this, but I'm not quite to a point of understanding yet.

Either way, F2P brings in revenue by incentivizing players to upgrade their experience as they play, right? And whether the specific thing being offered is community access, an in-game item, etc., a player's experience is still lesser before they have that thing (if it were equal or greater before they purchased the thing, there's probably not enough incentive to be profitable).

It would help me understand if you could give a detailed example of a model that was different enough that this diminishing of gameplay doesn't happen.

For me, it isn't about attachment to the "old ways of yore". I'm excited by the possibility in new models (especially a more "service" oriented model of games as long term experiences). But I see gameplay getting diminished by F2P as a fundamental part of the formula, and that sends up red flags to me. I do intend to make something better by way of example, but in the meantime I think critique and analysis have value.

Daniel Cook
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For Thought 1:
I'd file this idea under the 'if you build it, they will come' fallacy. Enthusiasts are actually incredibly difficult to reach and keep.

People targeting traditional PC gamers create a marketing funnel. You talk to a ton of people, press, hubs, promoters, curators. You write, you blog. This is a form of advertisement. It has a cost. Often, you track it with a funnel. It isn't magic. And it doesn't (usually) happen without serious effort.

And the items you mentioned aren't as effective as one might imagine. All these forms of media make a ton of noise, but most of the time, they aren't why games become popular. A 20 to 50% boost? Backroom distribution deals, timing and luck have far more influence than popular gamer culture understands.

There are indeed 1 in 10,000 outliers (Minecraft!) which had a lovely organic funnel. Lock 10,000 starving game developers in an apartment and you may be able to replicate that. But as an individual developer? I'll be lucky to put out 20 solid games in my entire career. Chances are against me replicating Minecraft. Lotteries are not business strategies.

For Thought 2:
I'm not sure I follow that the act of buying stuff inside a hobby somehow makes that hobby fundamentally sub-optimal. There's an exchange of value, but that's capitalism, a much bigger beast to take down.

- In sports, players purchase equipment, event fees and training.
- In CCGs, players purchase cards for a richer set of decks they might build.
- In crafting hobbies such as woodworking, enthusiasts purchase tools, space and materials.

A mental shift for me was that 'gaming' in the sense of collecting boxes and beating games is one sub-hobby that is quite distinct from being dedicated to a service like League of Legends or World of Warcraft. We conflate the two, but the play habits, purchase habits and social habits are all quite different. Bundling these groups into a category of enthusiast doesn't tell us a ton about the business model they prefer.

"Game development" is an industry that supports multiple hobbies and the values of one community's hobby are not applicable to those of another.

Daniel Slawson
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@ Daniel Cook

Thanks for the debate :).

Thought 1:
There's always risk and luck, obviously building it doesn't guarantee success (I say as much in the article). But quality matters too. The success rate of non-F2P Kickstarter games I consider to be high quality is *way* better than 1 in 10,000, so it isn't as if quality can't compete.

There's an interesting nuance to the Kickstarter success rate in another post in this site:

The data's a year old, but apparently only 1/3rd of video game projects meet their funding goal on Kickstarter. 95% of them asked for 100,000 or less; the number of massive successes are small. But 1 in 3 is much better than 1 in 10,000. And as I mentioned, indies are in a unique position to call less than $100,000 a success. So in more ways than one, I think your lottery analogy is flawed.

Thought 2:
How could I believe "the act of buying stuff inside a hobby somehow makes that hobby fundamentally sub-optimal", when I recommended charging for games? Please give me some credit :). I specifically address this in the piece: what I take issue with is the creation of inferior tiers of gameplay that are used to monetize players.

I guess I still need a concrete example of F2P gaming that doesn't do the above. It seems to me that games as ongoing services can do this in the same ways "single-shot" games do. The spending habits of these players may (or may not) be different, but they're still being exposed to free and paid-for tiers of gameplay, aren't they?

I agree that players have different values, I made a distinction between incidental, casual and enthusiast players in an effort to broadly categorize those differences.

Andrew Pellerano
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I still don't see how F2P is killing the "old way" of making games. Looking at the Playstation as an example, each release of a new console has outsold the previous generation and had more initial sales velocity. That looks like a growing industry to me.

All that has happened is a perspective shift. The swords and wizards and space marines that dominated our industry a decade ago were just catering to an exacting niche of players who were early adopters of the medium. As video gaming continues to reach wider audiences we are able to see that niche for what it really is - a mere fraction of the available audience.

Many complaints which argue that something fundamental to gaming has been lost or poisoned (by F2P, casuals, moms, cell phones, whatever) need to be pointed out for what they really are. These are the complaints of people who are so passionate about games that a large piece of their identity is defined by their game playing. For these people an expanding game audience is akin to their favorite underground band "selling out" and becoming world famous. These aren't rational business arguments.

Kudos for your passion guys, and I think because of that passion there will always be developers who want to make games for your niche, but there's no reason to childishly pull down every other gaming structure the industry tries to erect. Especially if you never even plan to step inside them.

Daniel Slawson
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@ Andrew Pellerano

You paint with a wide brush. Others may take issue with casual gamers and cell phones etc., I do not. I'm asserting that F2P has a gameplay tax associated with it, and that this is distasteful and suboptimal for certain audiences: specifically, enthusiasts (and some casual gamers). Would you agree that's a rational business argument?

It isn't very charitable to say I would "childishly pull down every other gaming structure the industry tries to erect". As I said, I'm interested in new models (is that so hard to believe?), but I have specific issues with this specific model.

I would really like to see you engage with the core premise of the piece: that if a game relies on microtransactions as its primary source of revenue, the free gameplay has to be diminished to provide incentive for players to spend money. That's what I take issue with.

Andrew Pellerano
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You're assuming that there is a directional or familial relationship between premium (console/steam) and F2P games. They're not so strongly related and it might not make sense to even place them on the same sliding scale. This is similar to danc's point.

If you take metaphors from one marketplace and retrofit them to another you end up diminishing gameplay. This might mean drawing a d-pad and buttons onto the iphone screen so that your platformer is now mobile. It can also mean retrofitting at the business level and converting a game that was meant to be a premium title into a F2P one by erecting pointless pay gates and equipment charges long after the game was designed and tuned.

Most MMOs are doing this conversion and we also see it when Ubisoft charges money for cheats that give you more gold in Assassin's Creed. These are chimera business plans that ultimately diminish gameplay as you describe. But it's not F2P's fault, it's the retrofit's fault.

Disco Zoo, Boom Beach, these titles have been built for their marketplace from the ground up so there's no sign of retrofits. Those titles are state of the art F2P.

Daniel Slawson
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@ Andrew

Thanks for the discussion :).

It was not my intent to assert a familial relationship between console/steam games and F2P... Where did I say it? It's possible I was being unclear. I believe F2P is a model being applied to all kinds of games (and across all levels of quality). I don't think games or platforms exist on a linear spectrum of quality. Rather, as I wrote, I think there's a spectrum of different players with different attitudes and preferences toward games.

I agree that adapting a "premium" game to make it F2P after the fact will be extra suboptimal. But my point remains, untouched: if you build a F2P game from the ground up, there are still pay gates. In the case of Boom Beach (I admit I had to look it up), players are incentivized to purchase a virtual currency ("diamonds") for gameplay-affecting rewards (resources needed to build units, and reducing the time it takes to train units). This is textbook pay-to-win: the consequence of this is that players who don't spend money are disadvantaged compared to those who do (seems players can compete directly with each other in this game).

In other words, the default, non-paying experience is inferior to the paid experience. Deliberately so, in order to incentivize payments and generate profit.

Andrew Pellerano
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If you play Boom Beach you will see that they are very generous with the premium currency (as is Disco Zoo) and it is expected that you play and regularly use the premium currency without having to spend cash on it. This is something SuperCell pioneered with Clash of Clans and streamlined in Boom Beach.

Their conversion rates are more fun, 1 gem is roughly 1 cent so for $5 you get 500 things that can go a long way. Older games would do something like 10 cents to the premium currency and you run into the integer problem when trying to fairly price things in such a small range of numbers.

Disco Zoo's incentivized ad integration is another great F2P-first implementation. Sure you could let somebody watch an ad and award them some premium currency but DZ's implementation is just next level compared to that. You will watch ads in DZ and love every second of it.

Whether this experience is inferior or not is left for the player to decide. I eventually got priced out of Boom Beach after playing for a month but 1 month of fun for $0 is a lot better deal than any premium game is giving me. My $15 Shovel Knight experience, while enjoyable, lasted me all of a Sunday afternoon. I personally don't evaluate my play experiences with time-per-dollar but that seems to be a viable metric in a discussion about games becoming unfun because businesses seek to make a profit. Perhaps F2P is actually the better deal.

I am trying to be polite and you are articulating your points well, but I have to admit it is weird to be debating the merits of F2P with someone who had to look up what Boom Beach is, since it's the latest release from one of most well known and most successful F2P developers. When SuperCell decides it is time to move their clan players from Clash to Boom it will become one of the most profitable games mobile has ever seen, with a 4.5 out of 5 star rating.

Daniel Slawson
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@ Andrew

Thanks for bearing with me, even though I'm not as familiar with F2P games on the market.

I don't doubt that those games (and many others) are generous in the value they give to players. I think we agree that giving players a good value is an optimal flavor of F2P (and I know what you mean about Shovel Knight). I think time-per-dollar is a perfectly fine metric.

My point is that, regardless of the value proposition for players, there is still a free tier of gameplay alongside paid tiers. And the paid tiers must always, necessarily, be more enjoyable to incentivize players to pay.

Let's use Boom Beach as an example. For you (and probably most people), 1 month of fun for $0 was a great outcome. Nothing wrong with that. But instead, what if you paid $10 outright to enjoy the highest tier of gameplay in Boom Beach, forever? The latter might be the preferred option for many (not all) players; particularly for players who were only interested in the highest tier experience to begin with.

F2P might be quite good for players who are okay with the free experience, but for enthusiasts who are only interested in the highest tier gameplay, it's much more attractive to pay a fair price outright and own the game, rather than pay repeatedly to retain access to the highest tier experience (like a treadmill). Would you agree that F2P might not be the best value for enthusiasts?

Andrew Pellerano
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There's precedent for this with existing enthusiast games. WoW for example is rarely criticized for nickel and diming players they have on the hook (compared to the flak F2P gets from the same audience.)

To remain competitive at the highest tier of play you need to buy expansions on launch day which can cost you anywhere from $40 to $100 depending on what tier you buy at. You have to buy because each expansion introduces new level caps and power creep. This is bald-faced moving of the goal post to make more money, the very thing you and many others criticize F2P for.

In addition, the little extras that make up the Deluxe Collectors editions and what not are a mixture of powerful artifacts and cosmetic prestige items which all have very real value to the players who pay extra for them. They're also no different than any F2P game's digital items. Just because WoW bundles up their microtransactions to make it look like a retail purchase does that alter the game's morality or exploitativeness?

Just because WoW's demographic are people like you and me with geek-like devotion and ample enthusiasm, and therefore highly relatable, it doesn't mean that the love people feel for WoW is any different than the love Boom Beach players feel for Boom Beach. More players, different demographic, not Like Us, but still human and still love to play games.

We could have a similar discussion about the countless collectible card games that have captured enthusiasts' hearts and wallets and even question the sainthood bestowed to a select few F2P games like League of Legends and Hearthstone. Turning to board games there's about 8 Dominion expansions by now for what is considered a well respected and genre-defining board game.

My point is that the moral and experiential objections to F2P are not arguments that apply only to F2P, and F2P is not some new cancer. We could have been asking ourselves these questions for the past decade about all sorts of games but we only started asking now, by shouting outside F2P's door with pitchforks in hand. My theory is what I originally stated, that this is video game xenophobia wearing the mask or morality in a bid for the high ground.

Daniel Slawson
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@ Andrew

Thanks for the debate!

I think this will shed some light: I don't consider WoW to be an "enthusiast game" in the slightest: it doesn't rely on (or cater to) enthusiasts as its primary audience.

This isn't about defending the subscription model vs F2P, either. I'm not defending any model, at all. I'm indifferent about subscriptions: players can get a good or poor value from any game using any model. I agree that some games with subscriptions are a poor value for players, as you said.

My objections to F2P do, in fact, apply only to F2P (and CCGs, too, actually, good point). The subscription model (or board/video games with expansions) doesn't have to offer multiple tiers of game quality to succeed. F2P (and some CCGs) does. That's the difference.

I'd be grateful if you could move past calling me a xenophobe: as I've said in the piece, I don't mind if players enjoy F2P. I'm not in favor of it because it necessarily diminishes gameplay, but as I say, it's an ideal match for many types of players (and there's nothing wrong with people enjoying what they like).

I want to stress that I definitely do not think any player is lesser to another, "geek-like devotion" nonwithstanding. I was particular about saying this in the piece.

Would you agree that single-price and subscription-based games can offer one tier (quality level) of gameplay for all players, and be successful doing so?

Would you also agree that F2P games have to offer multiple tiers/quality levels of gameplay to be profitable?

Andrew Pellerano
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I disagree with even framing the discussion in terms of multiple quality tiers. Going back to the time-per-dollar metric, all F2P is doing is layering a game's complexity such that it buckets similar players together at a given depth. Similar in strategic understanding, time commitment, whatever. The deeper you go the more the game might suggest you pitch in some money to participate in that depth of play.

This doesn't have to be viewed as nefarious. There are players at every depth enjoying themselves. If you want to go deeper you can, and there will be players there waiting for you. This matches up very well with how hobbies organically grow in people. Your friend might invite you over to check out his train set and then six years later you're bidding $1000 for an antique model train on ebay. You were able to take controlled steps towards that level of devotion over those six years.

What was weird, in a disrespectful to the players sort of way, was the period in video gaming where we insisted you commit to $10/month before you had a good read on whether you wanted this game to be your hobby or not. As if your friend said he'd show you his trains if you paid him $10.

What was weird, in a inefficiently run business sort of way, was the same period in video gaming where you could have people whose primary hobby was your game and you were not fully monetizing them. As if your ebay auction was taken down for exceeding the maximum train sales price of $50. (Remember, we're in the business of selling fun not the charity of giving fun.)

Perhaps the misalignment in our viewpoints stems from the uncapping of hobby spend in games. Before, there was a very real cap on game spend. If you've been in WoW for the past decade and bought all the expansions at launch you'd have spent a total of around $2000 USD. $200/yr for someone whose made the game their hobby for ten years seems low when compared to just about any other hobby. It may also have been just the right amount (given this theoretical player's financial troubles) per year. Why inefficiently monetize either category of players with one-size-fits-all pricing?

Also don't forget that the existence of gold farmers and character black markets stemmed from a very real desire for players to spend even more money on their hobby than they were currently spending. These activities were blocked because they would ruin the way the game was balanced but it's up to us to please our customers by listening to their demands and finding fair ways to incorporate those demands into our business.

So in the old days of boxed games $60 would get you the maximum experience. Pay it or leave. Then subscription models let us make living games that continued to update and change and charge a continued price for access. You could still get the maximum experience at roughly some multiple of the monthly fee. Pay it or leave. Now we continue to make living games and the pricing has changed yet again to allow for a sort of pay-what-you-want model.

There are criticisms to be made in how some developers price too aggressively but I think as F2P matures those developers will be left behind. Everyone in F2P is slowly learning that customer loyalty and long term retention are key contributors to lifetime value. Because we're building hobbies. With all the marketplace competition a slash and burn approach will leave you choking for air in between successful titles.

Sorry about the name calling, it's not even directed at you, just toward some generic-in-the-ether criticizer of F2P. Even if these aren't your motivations for questioning F2P it definitely is the motivation for some people.

Daniel Slawson
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@ Andrew

Thanks for the response and civility. I'm going to try and address your topics in the order you typed them:

I realize looking at quality tiers isn't the most flattering way to study F2P, but the fact remains: they're always there.

Whether it's nefarious or not, on a practical level, a F2P game designer creates a highest tier of gameplay, along with additional lesser tiers of gameplay (including the free tier), separated by pay gates. To my knowledge, there are pay gates of some kind in all profitable F2P games (except maybe ones that rely on vanity items only, as I said in the article).

If buying an in-game reward makes the game more fun, you've been monetized and cross over into a higher tier of gameplay. If buying the reward doesn't make the game more fun, why would anyone buy it?

At what time players choose to upgrade through these tiers is (to me, in the scope of this article/discussion) immaterial. That's simply a question of value, which is an interesting discussion, but separate to my point (as I say in the article).

On to the train set analogy: that train set has a set price, and is what it is, whether you're a beginner or an enthusiast. Under the F2P model, that specific train set would be free, come with a credit card reader, and only move around on a track after you paid a certain amount. It doesn't matter to me how much the user is charged: it's that the base experience is deliberately diminished, utilized as an incentive to monetize customers.

I don't have a problem with credit cards or trains (not a sentence I imagined using today), I have a problem with specific, individual products having a base experience, and a high quality experience.

I am not necessarily calling for one-size fits all pricing: I agree that variable pricing is pretty cool (and represents an evolution of sorts in how it adapts to consumer surplus). Unfortunately, based on how F2P fundamentally works, it also involves intentional diminishment of gameplay quality (for the base/free experience) that can't be decoupled from the model.