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There's good in you yet, F2P games, I can sense it!
by Lee Perry on 05/10/13 10:39:00 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.

 

Discussing F2P (Free To Play) gaming in many circles goes over aaaalmost as well as talking about STDs.  "I, um, have this friend... yeah... a friend who is working on a F2P game..."

To start with, some blatant wishy washy disclaimer.  Don't get me wrong, although I'm about to defend some F2P practices, I understand many of the counter arguments and share much of the loathing about F2P tactics that feel slimy and predatory.  I don't care for how designers have to be biz guys, I don't want to take advantage of playe... bah, I don't really feel like listing the negative aspects of F2P.  They're "known" by now.

But, you know that old saying about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater?  I'm about to wear that metaphor down to a nub.  There's a surprising amount of babies noodling around in the F2P bathtub, and frankly, there's some I think virtually all developers should at least consider adopting (regardless of their game's pricing model).

So, yes... in this post I ask of you to clear your mind for a few minutes, wipe away preconceptions about motives and skeezy companies, and lets pluck out a couple of these babies... I mean, facets of F2P gaming... and analyze them specifically for their own merits.  Grab a couple of those latex gloves over there if you'd like.

 

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 F2P devs constantly shift and react, they kind of have to.  As a jumping off point I ask broadly, "is there any other segment of games that watches so closely what their players are doing every single day in their game?"  I suppose some could argue classic MMOs maybe, or highly competitive multiplayer games... but even then I'm not sure I agree.  When I talk to F2P developers they are constantly A/B testing, digging through metrics, methodically optimizing their game based on data from just a couple days of observation.  It's pretty obsessive.

Now I ask "is that a bad thing?".  Not inherently IMO.  Again, set aside the negativity for a second about their assumed motives.  You can say they're greedily trying to extract nickels from people, but the truth is *also* that they're trying to keep people playing and experiencing their game.  They're evolving their already shipped games.

Contrast this F2P landscape with development techniques of a couple years ago.  We made a game, shipped it, and unless something was seriously jacked up... we moved on to another project.  Fire and forget.  No take backs.  In so many cases through the industry that process resulted in years of huge team's work literally amounting to nothing because of some bad calls that could quickly be changed with a few variables online.

I think it's pretty awesome that we're at a point where we create games as "living documents" and adjust based on findings.  As a designer that's a powerful tool, and F2P devs are on the forefront of this in many ways.

Let's grab that particular baby from the tub...

 

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 F2P games track player retention ruthlessly.  Sounds pretty evil to some... but, is it?  They track what makes people stop playing their games and what keeps them interested?  I wish far more developers cared to explore what specifically turned people off about their game.

Here's a harsh related truth that I learned the hard way many times, developers often can't judge what they're creating effectively, because they know their intent.  A creator has what is dubbed "the curse of knowledge" in the excellent book 'Made to Stick' (Great read, about how some ideas stick with us while others can't).  The curse is illustrated in one great example.  Think of a simple song like Jingle Bells, and try to get someone to guess what song you're thinking of ONLY by clapping.  It seems simple, but they rarely get what you're trying to communicate, even when you think you're doing an amazing job.  In your head you're humming the song and hearing it; you're 'cursed' with the knowledge of the song and consequently you're a pretty crappy judge of the difficulty of the task.

In Gears of War 2 I plead guilty to prototyping and scripting the 'Leviathan' bossfight.  Many of us played early builds, saw it evolve, and thought it was extremely easy.  Some of us could do it without running, literally casually walking through it and acing it on nightmare difficulty.  But oh man, the playtest data was a very different story.  We adjusted the sequence about 4 times, making it dramatically easier each time... to us anyway.  But post launch, it was still a huge issue for many players... a definite design snag I regret.

Wether it's a moment when loads of players quit your game, or simply data that shows "hey, 70% of players aren't making it to level 2"... it's not the worst thing in the world for designers to think about player retention.   Do me a favor, grab that baby too while we're at it.

 

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F2P devs care a great deal about Menus and User Interface and the complexities thereof.  I don't have to tell most devs that, on average, UI is a bastard stepchild of many projects.  First draft layouts are very often 'good enough'.  But F2P devs go to extreme lengths to create UI layouts that people can easily navigate.  Complexity is often inherent in their systems, but they have to keep the user flowing through the game as smoothly as possible.  Often they run groups of testers through entirely different versions of UI to find issues.

They care about being able to "pound through a flow" by making sure the buttons that advance you to gameplay are always in the same ballpark locations, they care about button size and accessibility, they care about discoverability and clarity... it's important stuff.

This might not be a huge aspect of your game (I'm beginning to think the single attribute of a smart designer is the ability to make a game not need UI), but in many dev's cases, we could learn from the their findings and techniques.  Quick, grab that baby and towel him off!

 

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 They care about games being social.  Now in many cases the definition of 'social' is a comically loose one, and often it's more about advertising and viral user acquisition... but let's keep those pesky motive fallacies in check for just a bit longer.  Perhaps we can take this baby and salvage it.

It's been a basic truth for many developers that things like online multiplayer or co-op were factors to keep your games from being mere rentals.  But as the age of rentals closes out, its important to also look at the other basic truth, games often really are more fun when your friends are involved.

Is it beneficial for word of mouth if your game has some cool social features?  Damn straight.  Is that inherently unscrupulous?  Certainly not to me.  One advantage of the industry right now is that advertising isn't a gating factor anymore... your game can be very successful with zero advertising, if you play your cards right.  This is an important card for a reason.

I know, some games are meant to be a very personal voyage through an experience, but being social is still a very useful tool.  Hand me that baby for a sec will ya?  Awww... he's a big fella.

 

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 They're trying to throttle how fast their games are 'consumed'.  Nefarious?  This is a tricky point that touches game economies, productive realities, and player interest.

The heart of this point is that bottlenecking the player in your game has been the right thing to do since long before F2P emerged.  In the original Gran Turismo circa 1999 you earned licenses, unlocked classes, saved up cash to buy cars, competed in side events to unlock tracks and new modes and paint jobs and new parts and... it goes on and on.  It was amazing, it was the game's framework, it blew everyone's heads clean off their shoulders and redefined racing games.  Those same techniques today, if GT were on mobile, would be raged against as money grabs and shifty eyed greedy designers.

It's hard to think of a genre that doesn't involve some sort of gating to keep their game's longevity up and make sure players "stop to smell the roses" (AKA, see the world you've built).  If you put in a traditional game disc and just flipped through all the content under the guise of entitlement because you bought the game, you would likely burn out your interest very quickly.  Even sports games don't often operate this way anymore.

It's critical to value your game's economy and how fast you allow players to access everything you have to offer.  Honestly, I think the reality is that you simply can't throw this baby out even if you wanted to.  Just stop sneering at it, this baby's bloodline has been around for many generations.

 

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 They want a low or non-existent barrier of entry.  I can respect this.  For so long now I've heard many developers lament the $60 price point of AAA games.  It kept games from being an impulse purchase.  It drove us to the situation consoles are now in IMO, where the top couple games are the only ones making money.  Average consumers only buy a couple games each year, and they pick safe bets.  When a $60 game turns out to be crap, it's a bitter pill, and it throws off the taste to buy a game that tries something unknown.

Maybe the pendulum didn't need to swing all the way to the free side, maybe the $15-$20 Steam market is the sweet spot... but the general concept of removing the barrier of entry so more people try your game doesn't sound crazy to me.

They simply want more people from all walks of life to try their games.  I know even that motive is not one that more eccentric developers strive for, exposure I mean, and I have respect for that approach... but I admit it's not me.  I want to make games that are fun, I want a lot of people to discover them, I want them to see the work and effort that goes into them, I want my work to be experienced.  Of that I'm absolutely guilty.

Baby, thanks.  Careful...

 

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 They're constantly updating their content... for free!  Sure, they do it to keep their user base interested and on "the hook", but really, it's still pretty awesome that they're always engaged in their community with content updates.

The closest thing to this behavior we used to see would be if a game like Unreal Tournament released some free maps online.  But now, it's entirely common for players to get new features dropped into their game at any random week.  When it's not free, this practice is called "paid DLC" and people certainly have issues with that.

I spoke to a developer of a stupidly successful mobile game not long ago.  They mentioned that monthly updates, even small ones, were critical.  They skipped an update one month and it nearly sank their IP... it was that important to their community.  As a developer, yeah, it's daunting that people are now expecting regular free content and improvements, but IMO it's awesome when any game has established a sense of community with their players through frequent content drops.

This is a heavy baby to carry, he's a lot of work to take care of.  I'll leave it up to you if you want to leave him in the tub, I won't tell anyone... ;)

 

__________________

 

They constantly try to quantify things.  This can be frustrating.  It's often a poke in the eye to a designer when a spreadsheet monkey challenges your artistic vision.

We don't like people trying to quantify what we consider art.  Understandable.

I've maintained a pragmatic stance on metrics for a while though, and have frequently said, "You are going to get raw statistical data on any game you make.  It will just be in the form of sales figures, reviews, and comments online.  I would prefer to get as much of that information before I ship, when I could still react."

If you play the artistic card of not caring about data, own that and consistently don't care about it.  Don't say metrics are evil and should be ignored, but then rage about poor sales figures or review scores after your release, they're two sides of the same coin.  Care, or don't.

Personally, I found it intensely interesting when I was first exposed to metrics and usability reports from talented test groups.  It fit nicely into the theory of "trust yourself, but verify", I never started designing to that data, but it's great information as to where you should can look for some solutions and issues.  It's an interesting challenge to use metrics and yet not be controlled by them... often you kind of lose your design wiggle room.  It forces you to confront slop.

There we go... one more lovely baby for us.


__________________

 

In general...

As long as your goal is still to make a great game, and not to simply apply these techniques to shovel-ware garbage in the hopes of winning the mobile gaming lottery, I encourage developers to look at these concepts and pick at least a couple to embrace.  Get out there and use these forces for good.

 

So there you go.  Grab the other side of this tub and help me carry it outside... we all know there's an assload of seriously nasty residue in the F2P tub that needs to be thrown out.

 

 

Thanks for hanging in there, I know that was a long post!


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Comments


Daniel Cook
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Great essay and I'm glad to see that the comments are moderated. :-)

Nick Mitchell
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I would like to possibly save another baby.

I currently live in China and from what I have seen the ONLY games that make money here are F2P. 60 bucks is a lot to pay for a game here. Especially when you can buy pirated games easily for a buck or two. Pirating games/movies/nike shoes/apple phones/everything IMO has become a kind of habitual culture in China. I don't think I've seen or heard of someone buying a game here. BUT I have friends who have spent hundreds of dollars on LOL skins and characters. I met the developer of a clone of a korean MMO and he said there are players who spend over 10 000 a year in game.

What I am getting at is there are over a billion people here, many of whom love games, and have money to spend on games. BUT currently IMO the only way to be involved in this huge market in any profitable way is F2P.

Jack Nilssen
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I'd stop calling it "free", just as a starter.

Reading the comments on Sid Meier's latest outing on the App Store has me wondering if it wouldn't have done better just as a flat-rate pay for the whole thing & get the whole thing.

At any rate, I'm of the opinion a new naming convention is needed because I seem to have developed a negative psychological reaction at the sight of "F2P".

Josh D
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That's my point exactly (which hasn't been posted yet due to the moderation...). I think Ace Patrol will make more money with its current pricing model than if it sold for $4.99 (I believe that's what it costs to unlock all the missions, correct me if I'm wrong, but my point remains the same). I wasn't particularly interested in this game, WWI, or fighter planes, and would not have paid any money for this game. However, it was made by Sid Meier and Firaxis, and was free, so I downloaded it. I like the game and am seriously considering paying to unlock the rest of it - something I didn't even consider when it first came out.

The problem with the game (and many other F2P titles) IMO, is the gross forms of IAP like immediately asking you to pay when you have a plane damaged or captured. These mechanics give all F2P a bad name, and are really harmful to gaming in general, but they evidently make the developers enough money not to care.

Ramin Shokrizade
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As my Engagement Equation shows, converting players is all about engagement. Once you have the player engaged, that is a good time to ask them to pay. But, every time you ask them to pay you significantly lower their engagement. Many (if not all) F2P companies seem to think that the more times they can put payment requests into their games, the more money they will make. They just do not understand how their consumers are making decisions. Very few consumers are automatons with no concept of the value of money that can be plugged successfully into these types of Skinner's Boxes. The few that do have this vulnerability are spread thin across a dizzying number of products and probably will have their credit cards revoked soon enough.

Josh D
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I think you barely mentioned the biggest point in favor of F2P games with regards to the non-existant entry barrier. This essentially makes F2P games demos, which can be a really great thing, especially when you don't have to download a new game or redo the progress you made originally.

With so many games in the App Store, I actually pay (up front) for only a couple a month, but download dozens. If I like a game and want to support the developers, I'm more than happy to throw a few bucks their way, but there's no way I'd be willing to go out on a limb as often if a pay barrier existed from the start. F2P is a great option in this way, making the game accessible to everyone, and those who enjoy it are able to unlock the rest of the game for a small cost.

Great piece overall, really hit a lot of important points. The "all F2P is evil" argument really kills me, and I now have another resource to turn to in defense. Thank you.

Dave Long
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Some good points here, but many of these points didn't start with F2P, but were instead aggressively adopted by them.

- Games like used metrics before F2P, and thought about things like retention as well.
- UI has been an obsession for some devs since well before the rise of F2P.
- Even social isn't 'new' to FTP, although the rise of Facebook clearly changed what social meant from integrated websites like Bungie.Net and Blizzard's work to spamming people's Facebook pages with likes and game requests.
- As for longevity, that's definitely always been around, but the nature of forcing people to go down a particular track to enjoy certain types of gameplay is very different in (most) pay up-front games to F2P. Compare learning to appreciate the unique handling of different cars in GT to sitting around waiting for repairs in Real Racing 3, and you see very different styles of throttling, and very different levels of enjoyment!
- You even had (rarely) free content updates before F2P came along. Successful games did add multiplayer maps or single player content for free in a few PS2 and Xbox games. It's a bit hard to say how much this is driven by F2P, or by the capacity of the internet to allow free content updates.
- The last point is just metrics all over again. Good pay-to-play developers are already over this, and have been for a long time. Some are still learning, but it's not something that started with F2P.

So, rather than thinking of these as F2P babies, these are really a range of often best-practice elements from paid-to-play games _adopted_ by a number (but far from all) of the more successful F2P titles. This could have equally read as a 'best practice in paid-to-play games' article. There's nothing wrong with developers looking to make a quick buck through F2P - it's a business, and it's a way to make money, and definitely beats dealing drugs, but I also think it's important not to idealise F2P development and all of these things like they're somehow magical and new.

Lee Perry
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Oh yeah, definitely agree. F2P for the most part invented none of these attributes. What I see in the "F2P is evil" crowd is that often these features are associated with a feeling of predatory business practices, and get lumped together. Suddenly things like "free updates" gets sneered at, and that labeling trend that isn't really productive IMO. Thanks for the comments!

Dave Long
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Aye, I definitely think things should be viewed on their merits. While I'm yet to find more than one F2P game that impresses me from a 'fun' perspective (Jetpack Joyride - plenty impress technically or from a monetisation angle), we should definitely judge everything on its merits.

Randy Angle
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Game design is about making successful games, and there are a lot of types of games - there is also a lots of different business models and there really needs to be, because different kinds of games require different kinds of distribution and business models. Story games, and games that have limited amounts of content (games that end) should probably never be in the F2P category. Instead those games should be P2P (pay to play) or episodic (P2P for each chapter). Paid games that have DLC add-ons but don't really have an item shop for IAP (in-app purchase) should not be in the F2P category. That leaves F2P games as the kind games that are endless, have multiplayer co-op or PVP (player verses player), and/or UGC (user generated content) as likely candidates. This is great, because I like playing and making those kinds of games... but not everyone does.

When I was learning the ropes of F2P - some 4+ years ago, I already had more than 25 years of game design experience. I realized that the lessons of prior online games, or games as a service (GAAS), were some of the best places to learn about retention, community building, telemetry based iteration (using analytics for good), and the more business side of designing a game with multiple ways to play and engage a variety of player types. I embraced the lessons I could find from companies like Nexon who had millions of players in their F2P games. I worked on some great F2P games, and some of the earliest mobile F2P games while at SGN - where we learned how to match our player's expectations while delivering deep and engaging games. Those players were happy to pay for upgrades and consumable items - if they wanted to. We learned a lot in those early days, especially how to not be 'evil' by staying player focused. F2P games are hobby games - games players will come back to, week after week, engaged in a lifestyle entertainment choice. They are not meant to be 'beaten' in a certain number of hours and the story is the one the player brings to the mix... not a story the designers concocted. F2P games are paid for by the players who engage the most - the costs are inline with your personal experience... with the free option for players who are casually trying it out.

These days I belong to a game design consulting team that helps teams who are learning the F2P ropes - and coach them to make good choices - www.luduslabs.com - we help make games better!

Ramin Shokrizade
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Wow, where to start? As an experiment I decided to start a conversation about F2P with the consumers of Trion World's upcoming End of Nations game in 2011 when it was announced it would use a F2P business model. The thread soon went viral, easily dwarfing every sticky thread on the forum and becoming the most posted thread on their boards before Trion closed it. Most of the responses were just reflexively negative. The feedback was useful to me (and hopefully to Trion as well), but just the amount of anger expressed in that thread also was educational. I would say that despite the advantages of F2P, its perception goes down with consumers the more hardcore and competitive they are since there is the presumption of "pay to win" which completely neutralizes their motivation to play (and pay).

On the subject of analytics... bleh. I have written a number of cautionary papers on this subject. Before I became a virtual economist and statistician I was a scientist. What people in this industry see as A/B testing to me is really A/A testing. They are testing content in models that never change, and thus their product never changes. This wouldn't be so bad if "A" was a good model but it isn't. The problem with "A" in our industry is it targets "whales", the same vulnerable population that Las Vegas targets. What happened to the other 98% of gamers? You really don't want their money? You don't want to even run a test with a model that the other 98% would pay into to see the comparative revenues? This is in no way business "intelligence". If 100% of products are targeting 2% of consumers, and 0% of products are targeting 98% of consumers, you don't have to have an MBA to figure out how the first products to serve that other 98% are going to perform.

On the subject of throttling or rationing game content, it just seemed obvious to me that this was a necessary component in all games, especially Games as a Service. You don't want your consumers going through your content faster than you can deliver it. I agree with you that this is best performed by a gaming economist in complex products. I call these "applied virtual economists". Back in 2005 I figured it would only be a matter of years before all major game companies employed applied virtual economists, and it still puzzles me that this is not the case (though it is changing rapidly).

Jonathon Green
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In my opinion, Free to plays biggest issue, is that it gives away so much and then consistently tries to charge so much for the little that remains, the majority of which is left on the shoulders of a small minority of the larger payment base.

The second biggest issue. F2P games don't need to be good enough to warrant money down or subscriptions to gain initial up take. Because they're giving so much of the game away for free, what you typically end up getting is a more generic game because you're both trying to appeal to as many people as possible to increase the potential paying player base and because there is no drive to make something that is exceptional when developers know that's not what they're selling ... they have to sell bags, mounts, clothing, weapons, classes, skins, boosts etc ... most of which shouldn't even need to exist in a game in the forms it will be created - but money has to be made somewhere, and you end up with less game and more store - in some cases the money/store meta is more involved or more developed than the gameplay itself.

When it comes to F2P there's an entire meta game being played by the vast majority of publishers and developers in regards to how they make money - and customers are being forced to play along, where as a simpler more straight forward payment model allows everyone to concentrate on real gameplay without incentivised payments.

F2P has some benefits, but I'm struggling to see why these things are specific to the payment model, and not specific to the quality and capability of the development studios, budgets and staff involved. I'm also struggling to see why some of these things are immediately presented as being postive.

Free content? Yay! Though personally I'd rather have paid, and received /better/ content and more of it that wasn't dependent on furthering or creating new incentives for more payments.

Why is it just F2P games that track retention statistics so well? It seems like it'd make sense for subscription games to be most concerned with retention as it's much harder to replace a subscription based community, hence why the trend is... Subscription > F2P. Maybe if these games were tracking their retention statistics better in the first place, they wouldn't be going F2P and then worrying about retention statistics.

F2P games care about UI...? Erm, not in my experience. My worst user interface blunders have been in F2P games, recently Warframes marketplace, and APBs ARMAS market ... two interfaces that wouldn't even exist if they weren't F2P games. The majority of F2P MMORPGs I've played have dumbed down interfaces to the point of being mind numbingly boring except for where they incentivise purchases, this can be seen all the way from OMGPOPs Draw Something to Neverwinter.

Low or non existent barrier to entry...? What does that replace...? Player commitment? It's one of the core reasons most people keep telling me F2P communities are terrible. Yet you say F2P cares about the social side of gaming... how? I told a friend who's been wanting to get back into Rift that it's going F2P, and now he's worried that what he would be heading back for will no longer exist, ... sometimes barriers protect things on the inside.

I can understand that there is a flipside to most aspects. But the recent penchant of "looking" for the good in F2P, or simply trying to defend the bad to bring about debate seems nonsensical.

Shouldn't the idea be to look at the good, the bad... And maximise the good and minimise the bad, thereby developing a new system. Rather than continually trying to save something that, from a game players perspective (versus a developer perspective), is inherently broken in terms of making good games.

Randy Angle
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If 'X' amount of content costs 'Y' dollars a game has to recoup that 'Y' amount to justify making 'X' or it won't succeed. P2P games have used the model: make a game and hyper market it to players in a way that 90% will never experience the entirity of the content they paid for so that 10% can enjoy it. See www.gamesbrief.com or my own blog posts about this. F2P just flips that - let the causal players in for free - they provide the necessary community, UGC, and multiplayer until they sense value enough to convert to paying hardcore players. The game budget and content actually match the amount players actually want - games that give players what they are interested in succeed. Can this be abused - sure, like any other business model - but it doesn't have to be... it is simply another business model that works given the current digital distribution business conditions (app stores, billing mechanisms, advertising...). I'd certainly rather have this digital distribution system of the app stores than the 50% or more going to middlemen instead of developers that the old retail distribution did. F2P isn't right for every kind of game... figure out which business model works for your game and use it. Don't play the games with broken features - and certainly don't pay for them.

Juan Mora
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Nice read and comments. About tracking and metrics, in my opinion, they'd be Ok if applications asked for your consent to collect data. But right now it seems like part of the price you have to pay for using F2P apps.


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