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