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The Design of Free-to-Play Games, Part 2
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The Design of Free-to-Play Games, Part 2

January 18, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[The rise of the free-to-play business model has drastically changed the landscape of game development. In his last feature, designer Pascal Luban described the conventional wisdom around the process. In this follow-up, he takes a deeper look at the design elements which free-to-play elements designers can address and looks at future trends.]

In the previous part of my feature, I described the business environment of free-to-play (F2P) games and I covered their design essentials. In this part, I will describe how they are monetized, and I will conclude with a few short-to-medium term trends I have spotted.

In the present state of the market, making money out of F2P game is both science and alchemy. Should basic rules be applied, they are largely implemented according to the developer's intuition and imagination.

Let's start by understanding what motivates 5 to 10 percent of players to make purchases in a free game.

Buyers' Motivations

Generally speaking, purchases in a "free" game are motivated by the following desires:

  • To speed up leveling or get access to new features. Many free-to-play games are designed to create never-ending needs. The game gives you enough resources to get started and to discover what it has to offer if you level up. But as you go further in the game, three trends kick in:

    • The new buildings, units, or customization items become increasingly expensive.
    • New challenges appear.
    • The opportunity tree opens up.

    The player faces a dizzying choice of items he wants or tasks he wants to get done. It becomes difficult to resist NOT using hard cash (in the form of in-game currency) to buy either in-game resources (gold, food, energy points, etc.) or the much-wanted items themselves. And of course, the real money cost of the first items you can buy is always very low, so it becomes very tempting to spend a few dollars or euros.
  • To access the full game. Several very successful "free" games like Club Penguin or Dofus use freemium or limited access business models. They are so well-designed that you have access to enough free stuff to give you a real taste of the game; this will lead you to pay a small amount to unlock the full experience.
  • To ease one's game experience. Many free-to-play games require players to connect regularly in order to do their “chores” like harvesting their crops. Feerik's Poney Vallée makes it more compelling to do your daily chores by decreasing your horses' performance if they don't get taken care of. The automation of such repetitive tasks is one of the items that can only be purchased with real money.
  • To feed one's ego. Games with a strong social dimension are showcases that players use to display themselves at their best, to show their personality, or to impress others. Those free-to-play games offer numerous possibilities to appear unique. In Playfish's Pet Society, players can purchase unique interior decorations and in Zynga's Empires & Allies, one can buy powerful military units available for a brief period of time. This is especially effective since a player can use those cool-looking and mighty units to attack his friends!

    Avatar-based games also offer numerous opportunities for customization. To push players to do that, some free-to-play games make it impossible to customize basic avatars, so newcomers are easily spotted; nobody wants to look like a newbie! And customizing one's avatar is not the only way to appear "different"; for instance, some free-to-play games let you change the display color of the player's name... for a price, of course.
  • To make gifts. According to Akio Tanaka from Infinity Ventures, 29 percent of males and 21 percent of female players buy items to make presents. In fact, many users play F2P games to flirt. The playful and virtual game dimension plays down the flirtation and makes it easier than in the real life.
  • To access advanced features. Certain free-to-play games offer the players the opportunity to customize their interface, to create or manage a guild, etc. These items mainly address hardcore players and should develop with the rise of action and strategy free-to-play games.

A current issue regarding the definition of items bought with hard money is whether they should give a competitive advantage to players or not. To begin with, note that this issue is essentially debated in the West. In Asia, many free-to-play games feature items that will openly give an edge to their owners. In the West, this is not necessarily the case -- but some games, including major ones, reward players that open up their wallet. However, thanks to smart design, this does not create unbearable imbalances in the games.

Zynga's Empires & Allies

In Empires & Allies, units of increasing power are made available as you level up. For instance, the player unlocks the light aircraft carrier at a low level and the medium one at a higher level. Each unit features a unique figure that summarizes its strength. The player can upgrade his units with resources obtained in-game.

However, the last upgrade for each unit can only be purchased with hard money. And this last upgrade is a big one; for the light aircraft carrier, it will give it the same strength as the medium aircraft carrier, which the player knows is further away in the game. Thus, a player can easily boost its combat effectiveness by spending real money, and get an edge against the other players he decides to attack.

This is a very smart way to give a sizable advantage to a player that spends real money without upsetting other players who can obtain the same result by playing the game longer.

Allowing a player to "buy" an edge in a competitive game is very effective from the monetization point of view because the essence of the game pushes players to out-perform others. It is possible to do it without alienating the majority of the players but it requires a very precise game design.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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eric gideon
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One of these examples are flawed. In League of Legends, you can access any hero in the game without paying real life money. You just have to play the game a lot instead, which accomplishes the same goal.

Christian Nutt
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Yes -- we determined that example was inaccurate and it was deleted from the article.

Louis-N Dozois
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Non only did the article originally misrepresent League of Legends but it also missed a very important point about player retention.

Competitive games offer us a chance to go tow to toe with other players on a theoretically even playing field in a way life just can't. My skills VS your skills, my choices VS your choices. As soon as a players start to sniff out unfairness they start to leave the game. Game balance keeps players playing and if a game experiences balance issues it's up to the developer to address those issues and let the community know so they won't drop the game for being unfair. In the Pay 2 Pwn model where a player can simply pay to have even a slight advantage it sends the message to the player that the developer doesn't care about fairness.

That's where LoL got it right IMO. You pay for choice, not wins. Good for them. I hope more devs go this route.

Eric Schwarz
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This is what bothers me the most about a lot of freemium-type games (and especially social games). There's nothing wrong with paying for extra content, whether that's new characters to play as, abilities to use, cosmetic packs, or even new levels and game modes. Some free-to-play games are actually quite good and I could see myself playing more of them if I had the time to invest. Unfortunately many of them instantly turn me off from wanting to, because inevitably 30 minutes to an hour in, I'm hit with the realization that the only way to compete with others is to purchase things with real money, and that I'm in for weeks of repetitive tasks just to see a modest increase in ability.

The strict time limits especially tend to bother me - right now I'm playing D&D: Heroes of Neverwinter for review purposes, and while I'm not interested in spending real money on it, frankly I find it rather annoying and difficult for the review process to be limited to effectively 10 minutes of gameplay a day. If there were other soft limits in place, or ways of mitigating the existing limit save for paying a chunk of cash, I wouldn't mind... but as it stands there is no way for players to attempt more than one mission a day, and I think that right there, aside from being not very fun for players, actually limits people's progress and willingness to keep playing (and spend money as the challenges increase, for that matter).

I appreciate that some games are based around grinding, repetitive tasks, or creating a sense of disparity for the player to overcome, and you do need to give players a reason to keep playing of course (and hopefully, paying), but the design of so many of these games is just too openly and transparently manipulative for my taste. I think it's a very delicate art and needs a lot more work and thought than it appears to be given. When games are spamming me with pop-ups asking me to spend real money every five minutes, or offer insta-win items on-demand that completely ruin the game balance, I have trouble taking them seriously as games and pieces of entertainment anymore.

I've held the belief that freemium and free-to-play games should be about value-added features and not obvious and instant boosts on tasks specifically designed to be boring, and I don't think the current hamster wheel/gambling model will last forever, especially if social games want to grow and develop.

With that out of the way, I did enjoy this article. I think it was fairly thorough and gave a nice overview of the motivations of players and how to effectively build the monetization aspects of free-to-play games. Aside from the one inaccuracy, I appreciated the examples provided as well - they were helpful in illustrating the various points made. That said, I still disagree with the idea that revenues should have to break down in a particular way (it limits design possibilities significantly). For instance, I think the idea of being able to buy "packages" of features, like a) ad-free gameplay b) a suite of customization options c) exclusive game modes, would benefit players greatly and would justify higher prices... at this stage I'm not aware of any free-to-play game that offers such options. Paying subscription fees in exchange for no ads and some extra content also seems useful, but gets away from the microtransaction model and thus is not seen too often in this market.

As for the future of freemium, I have to agree with the general sentiment that traditional console and AAA games will make the jump at some point... gradually, but it'll happen. I think that's why it's important now more than ever for freemium etc. games to help solve their existing stigma and image crisis in the eyes of the more hardcore gamers, because right now the biggest enemy of the market are those who simply want nothing to do with it out of that perceived lack of integrity and quality. As a nice side-effect, I think this will also get rid of the thousands upon thousands of shallow copycats and make innovation important again, as the standards simply get too high (what mobile games on phones are starting to go through now). Getting big brands and developers on board is important, but I don't think it's enough, and won't help during the transition over the next few years.

Daniel Balmert
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I feel like "purposely creating frustration for players" deserves its own article. Everything else in the article is self explanatory, but the balance of "good" and "bad" frustration in a f2p game is one of the defining traits for retention, customer loyalty, and good faith recommendations for a social game. I will quickly and honestly tell my friends "Yeah, I play this game, but you shouldn't - it's just a chore" if the frustration isn't balanced well.

Matt Hackett
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Surprised Team Fortress 2 wasn't mentioned here, as a pioneering F2P FPS with UGC and microtransactions.