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F2P: Do or Do Not, There Is No Try
by Luke Schneider on 06/26/13 08:00:00 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.


Bombcats was Radiangames' biggest project by a sizable amount, and the one which I had hoped would finally break the string of critically-acclaimed-but-barely-successful titles that have been the hallmark of Radiangames' first couple years of existence.  But there was key mistake made with the launch version of the game:


I wasn't sure if the game should be paid or F2P.  So I compromised and made it a player-friendly F2P game with few, if any, paywalls.  And if there's anything you should not do with a F2P game, it's only going half-way.

The results, like other free indie games that were "generous" in their design (Punch Quest and Gasketball), were disastrous.  Bombcats has been downloaded 800,000+ times, but its average revenue per user is well below anything resembling a decent F2P game.

Even an update that added a timer of sorts, along with decent limited time deals, could not make a significant impact on the ARPU.  That update was definitely hurt by understandable player backlash (including some 1-star ratings on iTunes).  If the game had launched in its 1.1 iteration and avoided the backlash, it would have performed better (financially).

But better enough to stick with the F2P model for the Android version, whose launch was fast-approaching?

Once I started working on a paid-only version of Bombcats for Android (for non-Google and non-Amazon stores), the answer became very clear.  It was a painful but necessary realization, and one which I was hesitant to accept.

For Bombcats: Special Edition on Android, I've decided to completely abandon in-app purchases.  The game is one complete package for $2.99, and the balance has been radically altered to reflect having to earn the in-game currency rather being coerced into buying it.

Here's why:

The Free-To-Play Corruption

Free-To-Play corrupts the design and enjoyment of your game, it corrupts your soul as a designer, and it takes away time and effort from other things that would make the game better.  Here's a breakdown of those elements:

1) Time.  I spent about a month's worth of time (if not more) working on making Bombcats into a Free-To-Play game.  That includes adding a more complicated UI, balancing the game to encourage spending, and hooking up all the in-app purchases.  I could have made an entire small game (like CRUSH, Slydris, or Fireball) in that time.

2) Game Enjoyment.  Once I started playing Bombcats with the no-IAP balance, it was SO much more fun.  As a player, you're thinking about what to spend your gems on, instead of whether you want to spend money.  You have so many more balanced, meaningful choices instead of either a strong imbalance begging you to spend money, or an excess of bought gems that give you too much power.

3) Work Enjoyment.  As a designer on a paid game, you're thinking about how to increase the player's enjoyment of the game, not how to get more money out of them.

If you're considering making your game F2P, make sure you ask yourself whether it's really worth it.  There's a chance you'll make more money with a F2P game, but if the game's design doesn't lend itself to F2P, and there aren't other similar successful F2P games, those chances are very small.

Choose Wisely

If you're employed by a large company, many times you don't have a choice whether to work on a F2P game.  But I did have a choice, and I chose wrong.  I thought I was being smart and agile, able to change and adapt with the market.

But what I ended up doing was trying to be a salesman (that's what you need to be as a F2P game designer), but not becoming a salesman.  I hate being a salesman, and I always will.  I finally became one with Bombcats' 1.1 update, and by that time it was too late, and it hurt my game as well.

If you're not willing to go free-to-play all-the-way, then please, for your sake and your players, don't.

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Ramin Shokrizade
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Your insights are powerful. I would offer to slightly reframe your conclusion using the terminology I make public in my paper on this subject today. F2P does not require coercive monetization (the subject of my paper) but all successful social and mobile games that I can think of do use coercive monetization. Be careful in assuming that F2P = coercion, because even though this path is easier, it is not the only way to do it. If you do want to make a lot of money, and are willing to be coercive, then as you say there is no point in holding back and being merciful. Treat your customers like objects.

If you don't want to be coercive, and you don't know how to be otherwise in a F2P environment (totally understandable, these models are very complex), then the retail model you went with is totally acceptable. In giving up discriminatory pricing you won't get the "big sales" but you might end up with more sales. Still, your peers going "full dark side" are going to make more money than you will using the retail model, because retail models perform poorly for a number of reasons. At least your soul will be intact :)

Luke Schneider
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I think anyone would make more money than what I did, which was only going half "dark side". I would have made more money paid, and I would have made more money with a more coercive model.

That's really the point of my post. Going half-way is not an option. If you do, not only will you make less money, but your game will be almost as sucky as if it were fully F2P. Either embrace the F2P model, or don't bother.

If you don't, there's more than the benefit of having a game that's more fun: You'll be happier (if you value the games' intrinsic quality more than possibly more money), and save a ton of time as well. Time you could spend making the game better, or making another game.

Eric Robertson
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Excellent article. We are working on our first F2P game and these questions come up often.

That being said i'm leaning towards full F2P with soft obstacles that can be bypassed by paying or recruiting.

Do your games encourage recruitment as a pay alternative?

Luke Schneider
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No, Bombcats doesn't have any recruiting mechanisms. Those are very time-consuming to integrate, but obviously if you're going F2P they make sense.

Matthew Burns
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Great article! It was and is a dilemma I had to deal with also.

Eric Finlay
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Really good article. This sort of issue is the reason Foosler started (my startup From what we could see, mobile game developers are getting squeezed by 3 bad monetization techniques. Paid - your game reaches far less people (most game developers seem to like having many people enjoy their game). Ads - you annoy your users and sacrifice a smooth design. IAP - you sell your game's soul to push people towards buying things that should ideally be part of a whole and balanced internal game system.

Our proposed solution is to integrate cash tournaments into games. The whole game can remain intact, but players will have the additional option of competing in tournaments.

Damn, this turned into a lot more of a sales pitch than I wanted.

Thanks for validating what I'm working on. I'm sorry your half-dark side approach didn't work out.

Peter Eisenmann
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quote -
Paid - your game reaches far less people (most game developers seem to like having many people enjoy their game)
- end quote.

That was my main motivation for going F2P. (For the other ones, see below). But now, a few months before release, I start doubting that decision.

1. There is a very high chance that someone who would not get the game if it was not free will never ever even consider paying a cent on IAPs. This was Luke's problem it seems. Look at all the reviews stating proudly how it was possible to finish some game without a dime. It's even like a contest for the players.
Many will not even have the chance to pay (being a kid, or being from a country with low credit card prevalence).

So, from a pure commercial standpoint, having far less players (maybe 1/100 or even 1/1000), but every single one of them garanteed to having paid a little, may be better or at least not that much worse for you.

2. My game is not real-time multiplayer, but still does quite a lot of work on the server. In case the game gets featured by Google, which is the goal of course, it's possible I have to continually invest far more on infrastructure than originally planned. Every player costs money, but few bring any in. With the far lower numbers on a paid game, it would definitly be a lot easier.

3. Like stated, free-to-play is quite some extra work, and if you slack here (prices not adequate, loosing track of purchases due to some bug, getting hacked etc.) you risk angry customers and a myriad of one star ratings.

That said, I should not withhold the reasons for going F2P in the first place:

1. Avoiding the customer split between free and paid versions. You never get too high on a ranking if your player base is divided between two games.

2. Avoid having people get a paid version that does not work on their phones for some reason and leaving ANGRY reviews for the wasted buck or two.
Even if you have a free version and tell people to try them first, even if players can get a refund, even if it is just a dollar we are talking about - you WILL get the this sort of angry reviews for your paid game, if you don't have a test crew of a dozen and a hundred different devices on your hand.
For a free game, it's more like tough luck. You will still get some 1-star reviews, but it seems more people will jump straight to the next game and not bother giving an angry comment, especially if it was a rather small download. It didn't cost them anything, after all.

3. I believe to have found a rather nice motivation for getting better equipment without stepping into evil territory.
IAPs are not only helping yourself, but also others, because they can choose you as an ally. The better your stuff, the more often you will be chosen and the higher your reputation. There is no PvP, only players vs. AI, so no pay-to-win either. All players are on the same side, fighting a common enemy. Better stuff means you will have a greater part on the overall goal.

Being that far into development, I'll stick to free to play for this game. We'll see how it all works out in the end.
Wow, that has become a pretty long rant. Sorry Eric, this should have better been a separate comment instead of an answer to yours.

Ramin Shokrizade
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" Look at all the reviews stating proudly how it was possible to finish some game without a dime. It's even like a contest for the players."

This is exactly what happens. Players wishing to play a skill game will make a skill game out of your money game by trying to see how far they can get without spending, before quitting.

Robert Barker
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Too often F2P becomes "pay to win", and that's when your game gets destroyed (from a design standpoint). The upper echelons of your game should never be behind a paywall if you value balance in your game design.

Fortunately, F2P doesn't have to be "pay to win" in order to be financially successful. For an example, look no further than League of Legends, which does F2P the right way and is widely successful. In LoL, the only things behind a paywall are convenience (get XP and currency faster), and cosmetics (character skins). Game balance remains intact. A "coiner" in LoL will have no real advantage over someone who hasn't paid a dime; they just get to top level faster and look better along the way.

Ramin Shokrizade
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In response to both Robert and Peter, the "pay to win" effects I describe in my Supremacy Goods model disappear as soon as your game becomes cooperative. Now when players spend, it is to help each other and the effect reverses, becoming a positive peer to peer effect.

Joe Blow
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Luke, excellent article from someone who has actually been there.

(As opposed to dribble from academia.)

Thanks for taking the time to post that, cheers.

Ian Snyder
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Great article, thanks for taking the time to write it up and share your experience. Totally agree with Joe Blow ;)

Megan Fox
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Another +1 from the "been there" crowd. Great article, very true. I hit the same conclusions with Jones On Fire, more or less.

I hope the swap nets you a useful amount of revenue. Your game is certainly bigger than mine was, so hopefully, it'll do better as a premium game.