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Six Serious Failures of the F2P MMO
by Michael Eilers on 12/11/13 06:48:00 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.



The free-to-play segment of the Massively Multiplayer Online genre is nearing maturity - some would call that saturation - and yet inexplicably, you see a constant repetition of the same set of mistakes, poor design patterns and clumsy monetization strategies that have plagued the genre since its very early days with O Game and FarmVille. Here’s a short summary of the most egregious failures and potential strategies for avoiding them.


1) The Energy/Fatigue/Action limit, or asking someone to play your game and then slamming the door in their face:


After a morning of searching I wasn’t able to identify the very first game to use the “energy” bar to limit or punish players for too much free play, but that is immaterial; once this feature was established it became nearly ubiquitous. Clearly designed by the accounting department while the designer was tied to a chair and stuck in the closet, this method of monetization essentially asks you to put in a quarter to keep playing right now or come back later for free, which is a bizarre way of doing business that doesn’t have a real-world analog. This not-quite-transaction attempts to catch you when you are “just getting into the game” and turn that moment into a few pennies. Typically, this is precisely the moment (from the designer’s perspective) that you have the rare chance to actually turn a trial player into a daily player. I’ve come across many games that took the “energy meter” so seriously that I couldn’t even finish the tutorial or introduction itself without running out of juice; what a complete failure to present your game to a fickle audience!


Punishing the player for playing, but not paying, certainly makes sense to the finance department - after all, servers and bandwidth aren’t free, and every second that a player is using your resources, they are costing you money you will not recoup. Yet giving the player an excuse to sign off and not come back for quite a few hours is handing your competitors an opportunity to make this departure permanent. I think the very idea of a limit on how long the player can play is idiotic - they are playing YOUR game, not someone else’s, and isn’t that the point? - and is an attempt to shoehorn the subscription model of MMO back into the F2P market. Players are playing your game precisely because they want to avoid the monthly fee; by attempting to force them to pay for a reasonable amount of daily play, you are turning them into stealth subscribers, and they are not fooled! Slowly turning the crank of the vice by making the energy limit more and more severe for veteran players as they level up just makes the situation worse.


2) Too many currencies:

Most articles about the F2P market distinguish between “soft” currencies (earned in-game only) and “hard” currencies (bought with real money, or earned through very rare or special events) and I will continue that distinction, but the issue here is not hard or soft but too many individual types. It isn’t unusual to find a F2P with four or more currencies, and I have played games with six or seven different types of money and arbitrary rules for converting between soft and hard.

Certainly this is the result of the industry’s continuing mutation of the carnival midway’s tickets and tokens; this is an obvious attempt to confuse the player or obfuscate the monetization strategies to the point that the player will just throw money at the game and hope for the best. That’s not a business plan, that’s just crossing your fingers.


If a player can’t tell what is “real” money and what is just filler, you’ve missed an opportunity to demonstrate to them what they are going to receive if they uncork the Visa card. I don’t go to the grocery store and wave some money at the butcher and hope to get some kind of meat; I ask for pork chops and get pork chops. Asking me to keep track of Energy, Gold, Platinum, Stars, Gems and Ingots without a clear-cut idea of what currency I will need and when is just making it certain that I will log into the game someday soon and ask “what was I saving up for, again, and how the hell do I buy it?”


Clarity of the transaction makes it easier for gamers and designers, and I daresay it makes it easier for accountants, in the long run. Having one soft currency and one hard currency, with rare situations in which you might get some hard currency for free, provides a kind of security and focus that allows the player to feel comfortable with making a purchase, knowing they will get their money’s worth. The very low percentage (2% to 6% in many cases) of paying users for any given game is a sign that the remaining 90%+ are uncertain about the value you are offering and what they would receive in return.


3) Relying too much on the gambling hook:


I have played many F2P games where gambling wasn’t a rare and fun event, but had penetrated into every single area of the game. Certainly gambling is a powerful behavior stimulus as the existence of the multibillion-dollar casino industry can attest, but turning nearly every significant action into a roll of the dice punishes both newbies and veterans.


From a design perspective, once you create a so-called “random” outcome to an event, this opportunity can’t be left up to mere chance; without a Federal Gaming Commission to regulate the “fairness” of your random number generators, you as the designer are certainly going to step in their and tweak the outcome so that the player thinks they are working with the laws of chance, but are instead just hoping for a few morsels from a capricious master. Of course you are ready and willing to tilt the odds in their favor, for a little cash!


Again, this is about the clarity of the transaction. Player expectations should drive these “random” outcomes, not the arbitrary needs of the designer or accountant. As with the energy meter, players have an instinct as to when they are being helped and when they are being played for suckers. If you rely upon the random outcome you’ve got two problems: if you make it clear that the player can improve their odds if they throw a few bucks your way, then you risk alienating the casual player who just wants a few minutes of diversion. Yet if allow truly random outcomes which also include high-level “payouts”, you don’t create a clear advantage for the paying user.


Valve’s DOTA 2 has an interesting solution to this dilemma - when you get a high-level chest. you have two choices: pay for a key to open the chest, or sell the chest itself on their marketplace. Since the market sets the value for both items, and the high-level chests clearly give a very large and clear advantage over the lesser chests in terms of the revealed items, you have a very clear and open transaction that uses chance and yet gives the player a clear sense of their risk vs. the reward.


4)Turning the game into a constant tap/click-fest, in the name of “juiciness”:


No concept has been more overwrought and overblown than the idea of “juiciness,” the theory that constantly presenting the player with many rapid tactile, audio and visual feedback items will keep their attention focused and adrenaline on on the boil. Certainly, this works to an extent. The grandfather of juicy play, the original Diablo, used a steady stream of mouse clicks and nearly constant jingly, clinking loot drops to drip-feed you tiny rewards in a formula that has been duplicated in many different genres on every platform.

As with any strategy, this has a risk of diminishing returns. Constantly having to tap, tap, tap the world of the game for a dribble of coins/stars/etc. has become such a constant element of the F2P that it is surprising we haven’t seen lawsuits for numb fingertips and RSI. Some designers choose to extend this “juicy” interaction right into the GUI, requiring several taps where one might do and loading everything with particle effects and event sounds. Particularly in the mobile space, where time to interact is limited and players want to make progress every time they play, loading the game up with many mandatory clicks or taps is just numbing and time-wasting filler.

The iOS game Pixel People exhibits both extremes of this trend. While it has a standard (and deeply irritating and boring) mechanic of forcing you to constantly tap your buildings to make them generate gold for you, it also has a very nice set of GUI elements that require just a single interaction to complete, and it segregates those interactions into a very specific “vocabulary” of unique gestures. One interaction is a tap-and-hold, one is a “tear” or swipe from left to right, and one is a drag straight down. By giving each action its own unique gesture, you feel more involved with the interface, without having to be constantly prodded to interact over and over again. If they eliminated the constant-tapping need to keep the buildings “recharged” then the game would have a clear, tactile signature that would leave a strong positive impression on the player.

Mouse-driven PC games also benefit from streamlined, vocabulary-driven interaction and should also work to minimize time wasting. Leaving the player with a numb mouse finger and hours of repetitive events just gives a game a generic, bland feeling.


5) The Non-Quest Quest


Almost every F2P MMO is guilty of this, but many are built around this strategy as a core foundation. Questing in the MMO was lifted from the RPG genre, historically, and therefore it used to have a basis in story and local play environment, as well as (hopefully!) the class and play style of the character receiving the quest. Now, many “quests” in these F2P games are just a list of accomplishments, a mix of tutorial elements and achievements which amount to rewarding the player for just repetitively using the basic mechanics of the game. “Build an armory” the game says; when you do this, the quest becomes “Level up your Armory,” and this continues forever, without these quests ever feeling personal, story-driven or even tied to the setting of the game.


I get it - stories are hard, and expensive to produce, and it is much easier to just use the game systems in this way. Even better, make some of those “quests” impossible to actually complete without the use of hard currency - fantastic, the accountants will love it! I have played MMOs that gave me pseudo-quests like these within the first 15 minutes of playing the game.


Again, this makes sense on paper (and especially the accounting ledger) but it is one of the primary aspects of the F2P template that makes the games feel so incredibly generic and bland. It may save on localization costs but it is a missed opportunity to stand out and hook gamers on the merit of the story and setting you have chosen, rather than just making them feel like they are being walked through a never-ending tutorial.


6) Clip-Art Mania


As with stories, art is expensive; it is perhaps the largest expense of your game project, and certainly the most time-consuming. Yet assembling your game from art with clashing styles and “feel” and clearly not optimizing for different device resolutions is unacceptable. PC F2P games are just as vulnerable to this clip-art look and feel; the Asian MMOs in particular tend to look like they all cribbed their models and faces from the same bin, though this may be a stylized element of the design.


F2P is now competing in the paid MMO space. They used to be seen as separate markets and worlds, but with former subscription-based games turning F2P and the subscription model itself starting to seem like a dinosaur of the industry, player expectations will transfer forward to the point that they will expect the visual fidelity of F2P games to be equivalent to the market’s best work. Free is no longer an excuse for looking like you randomly picked models and sprites from DeviantArt portfolios.


Tablet and mobile-based MMOs are also going to face increasing pressure to adopt a sharper look and feel as the GPU power of those devices increases and screen resolutions approach (and even surpass) HDTV and typical home monitor resolutions. Those crunchy corners around the edges of sprites not optimized for a device’s given resolution or DPI are going to become the hallmark of the shovelware game that gets deleted soon after install.


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Michael Eilers
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I should note that for the purpose of this blog post I am using a very liberal definition of the term MMO; Clash of Clans, for example, would be considered an MMO, as it does feature PVP and many players operating simultaneously in the same "environment," just not embodied in actual characters.

Maxim Zogheib
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You don't really play with or against other players in CoC. You play asynchronously against systems built by other players. You're completely robbed of real-time reactions from others. It's a pretty important distinction.

So it isn't, per se, massively multiplayer in the classic understanding of the term, as it is devoid of any live interaction between players within the game's systems. And it doesn't really possess any of the social dynamics we've come to associate with MMOs.

So yeah, pretty liberal =)

Michael Eilers
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Yeah, I feel a little silly about that, too late to change the title but now that I read it I realize my MMO definition is a little too broad. No one has come up with a glib term or acronym for "massively playing the same game together but not really interacting strongly with one another."

D.O.T. (Defenders of Terra) is the style of game I was really thinking about, although I have played quite a few F2P MMOs recently that still are relevant to #3 through #6 and sometimes #2. Thankfully, very few MMOs that feature direct character play are hobbled by an energy or fatigue system.

James Wang
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I think energy meters are severely misunderstood in the F2P industry, both by some dev teams, and many players.

When used properly, the energy meter is a great way to retain players over longer periods of time, as well add greater emotional impact and value to the core gameplay.

Take CSR as an example of the energy meter well executed:
- Although each race is short, it takes a surprisingly "long" (for CSR, that is) amount of time to actually burn through all your energy. The result is that you can have a very satisfying play session before you even burn through all your energy.
- Failure has greater impact. When you know you're "paying" for each attempt, each run feels more meaningful. You always want to perform at your best, so you're not wasting energy.
- Higher cost events indicate higher value. E.g., the bosses cost 2 energy - it's arguably a bald attempt to drain the player of stamina, but rewards scale appropriately (in terms of cash as well as mission progression), and it correspondingly ramps up the emotional impact.

The failures in energy systems, imo, come in when devs view energy meters as a source of monetization. It's almost always going to be a small source of revenue, and even in the cases of special events, the smart dev is going to add different merchandise to monetize, rather than relying on energy purchases.

When energy is a source of pain, rather than a driver of value, you've just failed your audience.

Ben Sly
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All the benefits you gave can easily use a currency controlled by gameplay actions, not real time. If, say, energy was regenerated by resting for a night in-game and not by waiting real-time then you would end up with much the same effect - as long as resting for a night in-game also had drawbacks significant to gameplay. Then you would never have a gameplay session broken by you abruptly running out of energy.

Making sure that that currency doesn't become trivialized becomes a bigger issue since time is valuable for almost every player, but it's not a much bigger issue - any decently designed energy system is going to have mechanics in place (caps on how much you can hold at a time, 'money' sinks, lots of utility, and everything else that keeps the value of the curency high) that help keep it important to gameplay already. With some tweaking, those will still remain important. What you do lose out on is the habit formation.

Michael Eilers
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I agree with you, to a point - in my research over the past 6 months, I have found the energy meters to fall on the "pain" side about 80% of the time; and as I noted in the blog post, on some occasions the energy meter even cut in before I was through the first few missions of the tutorial!

A perfect example: I just downloaded a game yesterday that allowed you to make your own game-like levels with simple drag and drop tools, the sort of thing I would love to turn my daughters loose on and let them really go nuts. The aesthetics were great, the controls were decent, the menus were clear - I was pumped! It was a very, very polished product.

Long story short, I loaded the very first example level and began to fool around. Within less than 5 minutes, I had exhausted the energy meter and it was steering me towards an in-app purchase screen. It was like taking a Porsche for a test drive and then having the dealer stop me just as the front wheels left the lot. I think energy meters were at one point a valid technique, and then (I am theorizing rather than reporting from direct evidence) the monetizing folks got a hold of it and figured "well, we are already only turning over 4% of our user base as paying customers, let's make sure the ones who pay, pay often."

Curtiss Murphy
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Concise list - Well done. Particularly agree with #1 and #2.

Ian Fisch
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Great article. This is the kind of stuff gamasutra needs more of.

Daniel Cook
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Each technique mentioned is the equivalent of a musical instrument. It can be played well or badly.

One way of looking these issues might include:
- Why you use certain techniques.
- Limitations of those techniques.
- Alternatives.
- Examples drawn from personal experience as a game developer struggling with market and development realities.

For example:
- Energy systems can be used to limit play in a positive fashion. By not letting players overdose on a game, they enjoy it for longer. They can also be used to ensure fairness in multiplayer experiences. (This was their original usage in old BBS games.)
- They can increase retention by giving players something to look forward to upon recharge. This might not be exciting for everyone, but it is an emotional texture worth using occasionally.
- They can add meaningful choices to games where you need to decide where to spend your limited resources.

Limitations include:
- When the choice palette is limited so you don't feel smart spending energy wisely.
- When energy is artificially limited at various choke points to force a purchase, you'll lose people. You'll also make money. That's called a design trade off, not a mortal sin.
- Some players dislike the aesthetic of having limited actions and prefer tools that can be used more regularly.
- Some players prefer longer session times. Again this is an aesthetic choice.
- The limits on energy and costs of various actions can seem arbitrary and lead to a feeling of lost agency. This is particularly problematic with obviously scheduled rewards or random rewards of energy that the player has no control over. See Farmville.

Alternatives: The following are some systems that solve similar problems, but are not really energy systems.
- Slow accumulation of spendable resources from production efforts: You set up a corporation in an online game that makes X credits a day. Your bank account holds a max of 50X. By playing the game in a smart manner you can increase X. Essentially an energy system, but with less of the agency loss. We use this in Leap Day.
- Limited activities: See Animal Crossing. There are only so many activities available in a day and less to do once you are finished them all. Activities recharge over time.
- Daily actions: The game extrasolar allows you to take 1 picture every 4 hours. This creates a pleasant pacing to the game. Since the actions are so chunky and regular, it becomes a predictable rule and feels less like a consumable resource.

All the best,

Michael Eilers
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Thank you for your feedback Dan, valuable as always.

Tuomas Pirinen
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First off, thank you for the article! I really enjoyed reading it! Out of curiosity, looking at both top-grossing games in the East and West (Puzzle & Dragons and Candy Crush Saga), they both use Stamina system. New Angry Birds GO! features stamina system as well. Clash of Clans is certainly no stranger to wait times and tap-fests. Yet these are the most successful games of their kind. Do you reckon they would be more successful without these systems, or are they part of their runaway success?

Michael Eilers
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Those games are actually the ones that are actually using many of these delicate systems correctly to some degree. If I had more time (and if I had known that the generous folks at Gamasutra were going to upgrade this simple blog post to Featured status!) I would have included more examples of games that get the balance right. Clash of Clans is actually one of the games that manages to not fail almost all six points I brought up here.

I tend to think of games like CoC as "apex predators" - they are big, powerful, backed by a lot of charisma and rarely score a kill, but when they get a kill they get a big, meaty antelope they can eat from for days. As Dan appropriately pointed out, there are indeed ways to get these things right - my point is that this is a very narrow target and it does exclude a lot of the potential audience. If we are going to say "OK, I am fine with having 4 to 5% of my customers pay for the rest of them" and develop from that standpoint, then yes you can succeed, but only by being (my terminology here) an apex predator that gets nearly everything "right."

I think a good lens for viewing this scenario is the reaction to Plants Vs Zombies 2, which went free-to-play for the sequel. If you read the app store and critical reception to the game, many many people just beg them to put out a paid version with everything unlocked. Part of this is expectations from the previous game, but also it is a reaction to the specific systems and also how they ramped the difficulty curve of the game to put even hardcore players in the position of having to pay up to reasonably continue in the game. I think that game is my prime example of a game that almost feels like the F2P trappings were forced onto the design, and deformed the design itself in the process.

For a certain gamer, almost everything in my list (except for #5 and #6, I think) would actually work very well and be a big success - however, that certain gamer is a very fickle, finicky and difficult-to-find customer! In the case of the games you cited above, a lot of their success is just sheer bloody momentum from having a great IP (or in the case of Clash of Clans, stellar amounts of polish). If you are a small-to-medium or indie team, I think the chances of you duplicating that success are almost nil. I guess my overall point was that these systems exclude potential customers, and if you are fighting for space in your genre maybe these systems are dragging you down. Read the user reviews of almost any F2P game and you will always see people complaining or begging for just a paid version of the game with a flat fee, even though that is somewhat nonsensical considering that F2P is the entire skeleton of the game itself.

Ian Griffiths
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None of these techniques are 'failures' of free-to-play games. A lot of games used them to make a lot of money while keeping players around for many years.

It's interesting that you talk about these titles as though they are failing when they are currently industry superstars. Companies like Gungho Entertainment, King and Supercell all use combinations of these monetization mechanics and make a lot of money from them. Moreover, spend on mobile titles is increasing so it looks like the party will continue for a while yet.

Fundamentally though, I think you are misinterpreting the purpose and function of these monetization techniques because you are not considering the audience they are being designed and balanced for.

Michael Eilers
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Thanks for your feedback Ian - I covered a lot of what I would say here in my reply to Tuomas above. I absolutely agree with you, but I also would argue that the audience you are citing is only a small percentage of those who actually play the game. I would also argue that the games that are a big success in this space are also known IPs or have established successful IPs, and IP drives a lot of their success; that's something that is quite distinct from game mechanics, though certainly not a replacement for it.

Paul Lenoue
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One of the biggest problems is with programmers who believe knowing how to code automatically makes them a game designer. Example: they see F2P games with energy bars so they code energy bars into their games without understanding how to make them work properly. When players post possible solutions in the forums they are ignored because they are not programmers or the game devs refuse to even consider changing their game. Sure, everybody _says_ they value feedback, but how many times have you seen a game studio change serious gameplay flaws based on feedback from the players? It's rare, so very rare and precious.