Selling gameplay-impacting items is a controversial topic among developers. Those are items that will make the player more powerful in the game, and therefore, could give an edge in competition. Shocking? Let's debate this.
In early core-targeted freemium games published in the Western world, the developers took a great care to make it impossible for "rich" players to outgun the other ones. That was especially noticeable in Battlefield Heroes or Team Fortress 2. Items for sale were essentially cosmetic. But things changed when Easy Studio, EA's free-to-play operation in Stockholm, introduced "better" guns in 2011.
Ben Cousins, then its general manager, stated then that it had no negative impact on the game and its community -- but revenues soared. Similar gameplay-impacting items can now be found in Battlefield Play4Free; even Team Fortress 2 features a few of them.
Actually, I see monetizing gameplay-impacting items as a genuine trend: In Need for Speed World, one can buy power-ups. In World of Tanks, you can buy premium shells that feature better armor penetration.
There is no doubt that anything that could improve a player's performance in a competitive game will sell well. The real issue is how not to upset the players that don't buy such items. How do successful core-targeted freemium games manage that?
What about items with no impact on the gameplay?
Cosmetic items. Those are items that have no impact on the game but allow the player to change the look of his avatar, city, vehicle, etc. Battlefield Heroes, Combat Arms, or Team Fortress 2 largely rely on this type of item. One can buy costumes, weapons, taunts, facial features, decal or tuning items for cars, etc. The choice is often dazzling. These items have absolutely no impact on the player's performance, and this technique has been the choice of early Western attempts at doing a freemium game. Recent core-targeted games are still using that family of items, but they don't rely exclusively on it anymore.
Frustration-alleviating items. These are big -- we find these in nearly all freemium games, but in vastly different forms. The idea is to sell the player items that will temporarily speed up his game progression: It could be XP (for leveling), money earned in game (to buy or repair equipment), or time (to more quickly complete the construction of a building or a unit, research, or the harvesting of a resource).
Miscellaneous items. These don't represent the bulk of revenue, but they are still worth noticing because they show the diversity of ideas that can be implemented to generate revenue. Here are a few examples:
To monetize players, you want them to play for a very long time. You want the game to become part of their daily life. Making a game fun is not enough; there must be something more that will drive them to play "a few more games" every day... for months. Recently, Gameforge's CEO told the media that it makes most of its revenues with players that have launched a game at least 50 times. If you consider that a gamer plays a title once a day, that's about two months.
Scorekeeping and leaderboards are good tools to keep players committed, but they will affect a small percentage of players -- those 10 to 15 percent that are highly competitive. To get more players to play over a long period of time, especially a free game, you need a more powerful mechanism.
A leveling tree is the key feature that will drive the players to play longer. It rewards their progression. It gives them short, medium and long-term objectives. It participates to the renewal of the player's experience by introducing novelties. It greatly expands the game's lifespan by allowing the player to experiment and develop new strategies.
Good leveling trees must meet the following needs:
Offer several parallel item-unlocking trees. You want to offer players more than one leveling tree so she can begin her leveling "journey" by selecting the one most appropriate to her taste. Of course, eventually, you'll want her to progress along all leveling trees.
Build progressive acquisition curves. Make it easy to acquire initial items and then ramp up their cost. Getting the first items must be painless in order to teach the player the game system, but also to give him a taste for rewards. Then, as the player levels up, he will earn more in-game credits thanks to newly acquired items, a strong motivation to level up, but rarer or more potent items should also be increasingly expensive in order to balance the game... and to generate this frustration that will lead to monetization.
Offer a very broad choice of items. The player should have the same feeling as a child exploring a toy store, dazzled by the diversity and wealth of "toys" he wishes he could get. But offering numerous items is not enough; they must also belong to numerous families of items. This will reinforce the perception of the game depth.
Design items that matter to the gameplay. As explained earlier, this is very effective.
Clearly differentiate items from each other. This can be achieved thanks to the use of numerous and meaningful parameters.
Make the trees visible upfront. The player must be aware of the leveling trees available to him. He must see very early on in the game what he can get if he levels up.