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F2P Gaming - Removing the Stigma
by David Paris on 07/10/13 12:51:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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


F2P has loomed large in discussion lately, and it is clear there are some strong feelings on the subject. We've got people declaring it to be the embodiment of the capitalist dream, people suggesting it is an immoral harvesting of victims, and a whole lot of developers in the middle just trying to figure out how to see their next paycheck in an industry that seems to be changing underneath them. It is here. It is loud. And we're all going to be affected by it whether we like it or not.
Ok, so time for me to be honest here. I don't like it.
That's my gut-level emotional response to the change. But the truth is, generally when my emotions are complaining about something, they are doing so for a reason. So the question then becomes, "ok, why?"
Mike Rose's recent article on the ethics of F2P puts forth an idea that the F2P model is particularly suited for harvesting individuals with poor money mangement skills. Perhaps, but I don't think that's where my response comes from. It also runs counter to my own experience with a RL 'whale'. 
This 'whale' is a fellow I originally met via on-line gaming, but who turned out to be local and we've met and hung out together on many occasions since then. He's not some starving barely employed individual, scrimping on his child support to buy purple ponies. Instead, he made a boatload of money in the software industry, loves online multiplayer gaming, and is perfectly willing to spend huge amounts of money (huge to me anyways, negligible to him) for advantage and prestige in that gaming.
In fact, he's not just willing to do it, he loves it. This is someone who wants every advantage money can buy to compete with the other folks. This is someone who buys every cosmetic item a game has to offer, precisely so that you, the other players, will see it and know that he's got what you don't have. He is the ultimate 'whale', buying all sorts of frivolous crap because frankly, he can, and I'm sure F2P shops love him for it.
But here's the truth of it - the fact that he can throw money at a game and have an advantage in it, or even just rub that money in my face while playing (with his ultra-shiny beam gun of super-sparkly zappiness that may functionally work the same as my dull grey pistol) makes those games suck for me.
I don't want my gaming to be about highlighting life's financial inequity. I damn well live that all day long in my normal life. I don't want my gaming success impaired by my reasonable income and a realistic life balance of spending on necessities vs recreation. I'm a competitive completion-centric gamer, and when I play something, I want to do it well and thoroughly. The ordinary nature of my normal life shouldn't be hampering my gameplay!
These days, it means I need to choose my games carefully. I need to recognize up front which games provide competitive or cosmetic advantage based on add-on purchases. I don't begrudge my 'whale's right to go play some game where he can feed it money to make him a God. I just don't want to ever soil my experience by playing that same game while he or someone else does so.
And thus we come to the core of the problem - the lack of honesty about how much impact IAPs have on games. The truth is that F2P monetization is frequently very much about concealing exactly this impact from its players so that we will either play until we are so invested that we will cough up and pay, or so that we'll provide an audience for the 'whales' to lord it over. Burying pay to win mechanics under an initial layer of skill to win, providing advantages that become required for competitive play, roadblocks or surprisingly reduced game functionality tucked underneath paid barriers that weren't obvious when you started.
If you haven't done so, glance over Ramin Shokrizade's recent article on F2P monetization tricks
Even though this only touches some of the techniques used, it should start you towards recognizing a theme. F2P monetization is rarely about telling the customer up front "this is what you get for how much, and this is how your experience will be affected by paid mechanics."
Call me old fashioned I guess, but I don't think business should be about dishonesty. I think you earn your money by providing a desirable good or service which your customer makes an informed decision to purchase because it benefits him or her to do so. Under this model everyone benefits. The customer gets something they want, the seller gets paid, and everyone goes home happy. You do this every time you buy a pizza, get a haircut, or take a trip to New York. Cases where the seller is dishonest about what is being sold lead to customer complaints, legal action, or a simple visit with a metal pipe to solve the problem.
I think this may be exactly what we are missing in the current game market. Clear product marking that let's the consumer know how much of the game is dependant on purchasing, and in what way. If games were required to clearly disclose this information, then I think all my F2P distaste would go away.
Let's apply this model for a second to some of the F2P titles out there and see what we get. Please recognize these are my rough estimates, so they may not be quite accurate. Feel free to get hopping mad and argue about specifics in the comments below :) They do however, give you an idea of how different games might fare.
League of Legends. You can play the whole game at full strength for free, but your champion pool is limited by time spent (requiring roughly an average of 8 hours of gameplay per champion unlocked). Cosmetic champion skining costing roughly 2-15$ per skin is only available via purchase. Faster champion unlock is roughly 5$ per champion unlocked early.

Hm, not too bad. Kind of expensive for unlocks, but possible to play the entire content without any. It does reveal another common issue with F2P games though. You either have to pay a LOT to unlock content, or you have to play a LOT to do so. There's no option that just says "ok, I want to get all the content for my nice easy 50$" like I would have had with a normal standalone game purchase. Nor is that game going to come down in price if I am patient and wait for that 50$ to drop a bit, like most all standalone games do. I either have to pay a lot or play a lot to get the full experience.
Let me try that same pass on another F2P game that I hit recently:
Marvel Heroes. You may play the full game content for up to 3 of the 5 starting heroes for free. It is possible to unlock random other heroes on a chance based system that averages to roughly 40 hours of gameplay per random hero unlocked (duplicates possible). You may purchase individual heroes for 6-20$ each, cosmetic costumes for about 5-12$ each, cosmetic pets for 10-15$, and in-game loot drop increases for a couple $/hr. 
Ugh, no wonder that game pisses me off. The ability to actually collect all the heroes (a clear want for any Marval fan) is completely unfeasable by any other means than simply paying for it, and the price to do that is insane. There are paid boosts to give you better odds for stronger stuff or a slightly better chance to find random heroes (oh boy, gambling). For a game I really wanted to like, the pricing just makes me loathe it.
I could keep going, but I think you get the idea at this point. Try it yourself. Grab any F2P game you have played and write it up. What exactly are you paying for and when? How does it impact the game as you play it? What advantages (temporary or permanent) can you pay for? If games had to be completely honest about this up front I think it would be massively healthier for the industry as a whole. I don't actually know how to enforce such a practice, but I'm going to put this out here as a starting point for discussion. I contend clear and up-front pricing on F2P game purchase options would remove the problems of F2P gaming.
I'd love to see that happen.

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Ramin Shokrizade
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I think Mike Rose mentions that one solution would be for journalists to actually start listing the prices for the F2P games they review, and how much those prices affect the gameplay for payers and others. Unless the developer helps them, this would of course get very expensive during the review process since as you point out the ultimate costs are often hidden in these games.

I'm trying to introduce new transparent F2P models, but good games take time to come to market and my clients like to be secretive about my involvement, which is understandable. I do think that once it is demonstrated that serious money can be made without using dishonest business models that the industry will shift, and I don't think that shift is far off. Maybe a year or two. I'm feeling optimistic.

Simon Ludgate
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Although I think this is a good idea, presumably the solution would be to establish some kind of standard "basket of goods" similar to that used in CPI calculations, but what would be the "basket" for an F2P game? For LoL, would it be every hero and every skin? At launch? A year after they kept adding new ones? Two years? An estimated lifetime of every hero and skin that would ever be released?

What about F2P games based on gambling? How many gamble boxes and/or keys do you include in a standard basket? How many consumable account services (XP Boosts, character re-names, respec tokens) do you include?

I think the incredible diversity of F2P make the standard basket very difficult to model. I suppose experienced journalists could estimate the cost to play a game that would be similar to an older subscription model, but that comparison becomes increasingly irrelevant as subscriptions drift further into the recesses of memory (fond, fond memory...).

On the other hand, if we did create some kind of clear demarcation between "content" and "cosmetic" and simply tallied up the cost to have 100% content, that might provide the "boxed cost" as it were. And if any content were locked behind gambling, the declare the price as incalculably expensive. It would be nice if there were some decisive way of eliminating real money gambling as a necessary step to unlock content in games.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Simon, the game devs are either selling a finite amount of goods or an infinite amount of goods. If the are selling an infinite amount of goods then it would be cool to say so and then say what the maximum spending per hour is. In a game like Puzzles and Dragons, for instance, the maximum is infinity and the spending can hit $500 per hour if you are hammering the rare egg machine.

For a game like Marvel SuperHeroes you could treat the non-soft boost items as finite content, which would probably be between $1000 and $2000, and then mention that boosts can be up to another $20 or so dollars per hour (they let you stack 6 boosts of each type at the same time).

Josh D
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Great article, but I'm wondering if this only applies to social F2P games. I play a lot of iOS games, many of which are F2P, and they run the gamut from great to awful. When the game is single-player, it seems to matter much less (at least to me). Do you feel the same way, or does the knowledge that there are people out there maximizing on this system bother you too?

Josh D
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Currently, iTunes shows you whether or not an app includes IAP, and if so, you can view the most purchased ones. If something that should be a key game mechanic appears on that list that's an automatic red flag to me.

That's not to say there can be plenty more transparency, but I think you're pointing to a fairly extreme hypothetical. Not saying that IAPs like that don't exist, but I feel like most developers these days are trying to be at least somewhat responsible regarding their freemiumization. The ones who are in it solely for nickel-and-diming users don't seem to last very long.

I don't know whether it's optimism or naivety - probably some of both - but I'd like to think things are getting better in this sense.

Mike Upton
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David imagine you applied that same challenge to the typical $60 packaged goods title. Ask yourself if the same transparency were applied to these traditional models would the average consumer not come away with the same discontent and buyer’s remorse? Have you never been mislead by pre-rendered game trailers, unscrupulous marketing, slick packaging, and purchased game reviews? Where is the transparency there and why is my only recourse to give it up to Electronics Boutique and trade for something else?

After all, the reality of those “nice easy $50” games that apparently give you “all the content” themselves impose huge time barriers to actually enjoying all that content. Time many people don’t have. And the reason those same games suffer price drops and end up in the Walmart bargain bin, as you indicate, is because no one is buying them.

There are good and bad examples representative among both the traditional packaged goods and free to play models. In my 20yrs in games I’ve seen many, and participated in a few.

You “don’t like it.” And you know what? That’s OK! In fact it puts you in the majority since people who do spend money in these games only range from 1% to 20% (exceptional examples do much better). But at least you had choice, and you saved yourself a trip to Walmart, and ultimately EB. And with that time you saved you could try 5 to 10 free games instead.

But be careful not to paint an entire, and massive, section of our industry with the same brush. While ignoring the parallel failings to be found in “nice easy $50, normal stand alone games.”


Robert Green
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It should also be noted that misleading retail games have had some serious consequences in recent years. TV spots have been banned, companies have taken criticism for portraying pre-rendered scenes as gameplay and one company is currently being sued because the public demos they gave were significantly better than what shipped.

By comparison, if you just look at the top 20 F2P games on the iTunes store, which are probably making half the money, how many of them hide the total amount you'll be expected to pay?

So while complaints about F2P can sometimes seem hypocritical, I really do think we're looking at the small minority of worst cases in the retail sector compared to the majority of the most successful cases in the F2P world.

Dustin Hendricks
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It seems like articles I have read on gamasutra seem to hint that the f2p business model works best when the purchase of things is abstracted behind layers of game mechanics.

Katy Smith
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In some of the F2P apps I've worked on, the reason we used an alternate currency was pretty benign. The cheapest you can sell something on the app store is $0.99, and we wanted to have things that cost less than a dollar so we created currency packs that could be broken down into sub-dollar values. So the intent was not to hide the real cost, but to make it so that there were more, low (real world) value items to buy.

Dustin Hendricks
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That's a good point.

Eric Salmon
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I hope you divided by 10/100 if that was the reasoning. It drives me crazy when I have to, say, divide 20 by 1600 and multiply by the number of points I'm spending to get my exact real life cost. (*cough* Microsoft *cough*) Can't see much reasoning behind it except to make it look like you're spending less than you are, either. I mean, it's pretty easy to ask 80 points/coins for something that's $0.80.

Katy Smith
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Mostly! In Book of Heroes, if you buy 20 gold shields, it is $2. However, the game does offer reduced costs if you buy in bulk. The largest IAP in game is 750 gold shields for $50, so you could either say that you bought 500 and got 250 for free, or that the cost of each shield is less. Doing it the latter way makes the math more abstract. We did leave it up to the player to figure out that an energy pot is 5 GS, which means it's $0.50 real life money.

I also hate figuring out how much money a game is on XBLA. The fact that you can't buy Microsoft points and not have some left over also drives me a bit bonkers.

Eric Finlay
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Definitely a good article - I really like the new perspective on it "I don't like this, let's figure out why". I would say that the future of mobile games is not going to be F2P, well maybe the kind that Ramin Shokrizade is working on, I'm damn curious about that.

With regards to writing of F2P games in a way that makes the impact of money clear, one very important metric would be "Completion Possible".

Hmm, it'd be kinda cool to have a game review website purely for mobile F2P games that had a consistent way of rating the F2P content...

Robert Boyd
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Actually, your League of Legend analysis is missing a major element - runes. At max rank, you're able to equip 30 runes at a time, each of which gives a statistical bonus to your character.

Runes provide another money/time sink to the game. Without as many (and as good) runes as your opponents, you're going to be at a disadvantage. The weaker runes aren't too expensive but the more powerful runes can be as costly as buying a whole new champion (and you're going to want duplicates). Runes can not be purchased directly with money meaning but they encourage the player to spend money either by buying boosters that increase your rate of earning in-game currency and/or by spending all of your in-game currency on runes (thus needing to spend actual money if you want to buy champions).

Craig Hauser
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There are a lot of free to play games I feel great distain for. Champions Online is usually my go-to example of a game that was great when it launched as a P2P title and was utterly ruined when it was reworked as a free to play game. To recreate my character I made on launch day now would cost me $15 for the cosmetic parts and $2 for the travel ability.

Conversely, DC Universe Online is my go-to for a F2P MMO done right. Nearly the entire game is open to you as you can reach the level cap, participate in instances, complete the main story, etc. Players can either buy a subscription or purchase DLC content packs to get access to the new raids, maps, levels and game modes. There are a few odd systems such as the $2000 wallet (in-game money, not real money) and the pay-to-access cash escrow (exceed $2000 on-hand and this is where your in-game money goes, something subscription players don't even see) but it's almost a moot point because no single item in the game will cost you more than $2000 of in-game money until you get to the DLC raids. I can't speak for the game's long-term profitability since I've only ever been a player, but it still seems like a very player-first system to me.

Booby K
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As a player I like F2P. Recently, I have played Puzzle and Dragons (P&D), LOL, and Tiny Troopers 2 without spending a cent on any of them. P&D I'm really getting tired of playing and LOL I'm starting to tire of. Tiny Troopers 2 I finished. The main reason I go back to LOL each day is to get the first daily win LOL.

As a business model I also don't like F2P that much since I'm more old school.

Stock Watcher66
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Since you linked to Mike Rose's article see my comment here. Perhaps it is time someone did some research of the actual customers to see that they universally despise (or at least 81% of them did in my survey) the F2P business model.

It is continued to be debated among the actual producers of games. Perhaps it is time you actually include the customer base in your debates.

This is why, in the comment I made in Mike's article that I would put money on the F2P model coming to a very, very hard crash over the next five years. Reasons are given in my comments in the same article.

Jungwoo Lee
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Have you heard of JC Penny's effect?

One of the largest department store chains had a CEO who made a bold initiative to be honest with their customers. No deception. 100% transparency. Result? A big failure. My argument is solely based on this one episode of Extra Credits, but the reality is that honesty doesn't necessarily mean win-win for everyone.

Gil Salvado
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I would like to separate F2P from monetization, but of course that's not as easy as I might hope it is. F2P game mechanics are often heavily tied into monetization by nature. But that is only the case as long F2P continues to receive its income by in-app purchases. If the revenue would completely or in majority be generated by commercials for example, there would be no need to adjust or create game mechanics that are immoral and force users into purchases.

Personally I like to think of F2P as a students party where the booze is for free but limited due to high demand, but if you like cocktails or hard liquor you'll have to pay. Maybe someone will give a round or you'll share the extra expense with a couple of friends.
But I haven't seen this level of social benefit in F2P as of yet. There are no options for one person to enhance the gameplay of an entire server or community. There is no split-pay option for groups. And most F2P games tend to limited their end game content by a payment wall, alienating the majority of their community doing so.

As a developer I have had to experience the jealousy of non-paying users towards paying users, especially whales of course. This resulted in users lying about their willingness to pay for a game they liked and felt worth the money.
I believe if we could offer users the ability to pay for benefits that groups and entire communities could take advantage of, we could change peoples minds. Making them more altruistic. But of course this can also be corrupted by social pressure and immoral game mechanics.

Eric Robertson
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If players want upfront info on billing, they will reward businesses that do that.

The invisible hand of the market drives the monetization of our game design. Currently, that market wants F2P. I think of it as Cloak and Dagger monetization. Its like a game within a game. A mini-game!

Nick Harris
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How about only having to pay for two things:

1. Persistence
2. Hats

Erin OConnor
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I personally have reached the point where you can't pay me to touch F2P.

I am not an ATM.

John Flush
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I've come to the point that I use 'free' anything as a demo. If the money scheme eventually says "spend $1-10 and get the whole game" then if I like the game I dive in and buy it. Most games won't even get a free download from me anymore as I use the IAP list to quickly tell me what type of a game it is.

If it is coins or gems or something like that it is usually a good indicator to me that it is a 'grind' game - one that I could either play forever to finish slowly working up all the coins I really need, or I'm going to have to pay to get to the point. With all the games out there I don't even have time to waste to find out if I might like this one... the only thing that can still get me to download it is if the theme is so unique and looks like something I don't already have out there... then I'll try it against my best judgement. But if the theme isn't perfect, the game is Free, and all the IAP are these types I won't download it.

The problem is I want to game, and with so many chasing the trend it always appears the only way I can support the devs is to follow along.

I wonder if anyone has ever tried a 'tip' system in their game. Instead of tricking people into buying virtual useless shit, is there a game out there that I can leave a tip for the developers and a comment or something.
"played your game 3 hours straight and loved it. I wish it had more .... but hell, still loved it. thanks for the 3 hours, I'll probably be back too" and some choices like
"Like a good meal, 20% tip - $3", or
"Definitely worth skipping coffee for to play it - $5", or
"Worth more than the last movie I saw - $8 bucks" ("With popcorn and a drink - $10")

Put the cost of game 'pay structure' into context that people aren't worried about really giving every now and then. Added bonus - tip your customer back with bonus stuff. Instead of saying "Get a new skin $.99" - prompt them with the above 'tips' and then if they buy give them a skin for free or profile upgrade or something. I can tell you right there that sounds like you are giving them something in return for their love of the game instead of the other way around. Call it PR done right.

Then instead of making your whole mechanics around whaling you can actually make the game you want to make.

On top of that, you now get to see how many people are suckers for IAP or that actually want to support you. Maybe even throw in both schemes and make it so those that are against F2P have a way to reward you for the game without supporting the model they loath.

Am I really in the minority here? the ones that actually realize you need to give something to receive? if so this problem is so much worse than gaming...

side comment:
I loved Plants and Zombies a lot. More than I should have. When I finished the game I realized I could grind this game forever, but I didn't really want to anymore. All the stuff I could buy helped me grind away... I didn't want to support EA getting any ideas, or popcap (I'll be honest, I even forgot it was an EA game or I probably wouldn't have tried it for free). But if they would have had a 'tip' model I probably would have given them $5-10 for making something that took up a week or two of my free time. Alas, they got nothing from me.