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Designing Freemium Titles for Hardcore Gamers

December 12, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Monetizing the game: Should items give an edge?

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?

  • The foremost technique is to plan a gameplay that essentially rests on players' skills, not equipment or anything that can be acquired. In a shooter, the main skill to develop is accuracy; in League of Legends the success rests on team tactics; in World of Tanks, it is to know where to position your tank and when to move, etc.
  • A second strategy is NOT to sell items that are significantly more powerful than free ones. In those games, money can buy a 10 to 20 percent increase in performances, rarely more.
  • A third approach is not to base matchmaking on the player's level, but on his equipment. That's how World of Tanks manages to create balanced games in spite of the fact a player can buy a heavy tank without going through the long process of earning in-game credits and XP.
  • A last technique is to sell items that offer both advantages and handicaps. For instance, In Team Fortress 2, the Direct Hit is an RPG that inflicts 25 percent more damage and features 80 percent faster missiles, but its damage area is decreased by 70 percent.

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:

  • Team Fortress 2 sells stamps that allow a player to show his gratitude toward a level designer that has done a map.
  • In Battlefield Heroes, one can rent a dedicated server.
  • In League of Legends, the player must pay with hard currency if she wants to change her in-game name.

Leveling tree: The neverending story

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.

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Diana Hsu
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Like you said, freemium is a business model. You can optimize your game for micro-transactions (and it's crucial to do so), but there are many way to do so.

FTP has been stuck in a rut of only being able to generate money through frustration-generating game mechanics, and it definitely works. However, it's unfortunate to see that not many designers have tried monetizing in other ways.

For example, Team Fortress 2's recent Mann Up tickets. It's impossible for play Mann Up maps without them no matter how much you grind, but you can play newbie maps for free without restrictions. However, if you want more of a challenge and a chance to play with other dedicated players, you can pay a dollar to play each map. You're paying for the opportunity to face new challenges rather than the old "give players a partial or semi-broken system and force them to pay to fix the system."

Matt Robb
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To simplify that, you're referring to paying for additional content.

Garrick Williams
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I strongly oppose the idea of "selling power" to players. Any purchasable content should be balanced in accordance with content that don't require micro-transactions to obtain. Not only is this a balance issue, but also it paints a negative image on your game to new players. Your game's reputation will suffer. I know of severalgames that went under as soon as the developers began monetizing items that granted significant gameplay advantages.

You cited League of Legends as an example, but Riot Games is very strongly opposed to selling power. Any content that affects gameplay can be reasonably obtained without real cash. League of Legends does do a decent job of freemium. It does its "frustration" curve by offering in-game currency bonuses to new players and a level up system that grants new features. When you reach the maximum level, the game unlocks the final feature: ranked mode, where it becomes very important to own many different types of heroes to counter-pick your opponent. Thus, new players get many rewards early while experienced players are encouraged to spend cash on heroes and cosmetic content to stand out among other ranked players.

I think it's also worth mentioning that making a change to your economic model, even a minor one, can have a major impact on player opinions, which can affect sales. Even League of Legends suffered this. Riot Games tried to introduce a new price tier of hero skins that was slightly above the average, but below their premium tier. The skin had an overwhelming amount of negative feedback as players perceived this as an attempt to drive the average skin price up. The skin sold very little. Even players who loved the skin refused to buy it on principle.

That being said, I do favor the freemium model when done right. This is a fantastic article, giving the low-down to game designers working with the model.

Christian Nutt
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Interestingly, if you look at the Ben Cousins writeup Luban links, the most vocal opponents of paid items on the forums for Battlefield Heroes were actually the biggest consumers of the items.

Jason Lee
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Christian, great point, and I think I want to chime in with a small observation too. A fan of an Asian F2P shooter S4League I met pointed out that the most hated players were "Hackers" and "Payers": those that blatantly cheated and those that felt like they had an unfair advantage due to monetization. S4League had a strong "Pay For Power" monetizaion model where premium equipment was simply better than free equipment. However, a reason for why this existed seems to be that pay for power is much more widely accepted in Asian Cultures, where a lot of the premium good would be readily available to most players who played the games via internet cafe or public space. Because Western Players don't actually have an opportunity to "try out" premium goods in an internet cafe setting, the Pay For Power model is seen as much more unfair and hence draws more vocal opposition.

@Christian: I'd like to compare on how the numbers and success of Battlefield Heroes measures up to the success of games that have been cited as side-stepping "Pay for Power" like TF2, LoL, and Tribes. People who are vocal are also incredibly invested in a game, while those who are quiet tend to pick up a game after a few days then drop it.

Alpha Diop
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I do not remember anywhere in the presentation where they said the actual vocal opponents of paid items actually went back on their words and proceeded to buy those items.

If I understood it correctly it was more a case of this vocal minority who then proceeded to leave the game, and despite that the game still had a viable population and proceeded to make more money.

The only thing that can be learned from this presentation is that you can sacrifice your more hardcore population to make some quick bucks and that a vast majority of people don't have any idea what items are fair or unfair.

In my opinion the consequences of their shift in policies toward item with powers will have consequences in the long run, even though it made them more money in the short-term. Time will tell. They sacrificed any hope their game can have to foster an hardcore population for short-term gains.

TC Weidner
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I would say that one of the things that kept BFH from being a great game and reaching its potential was the ftp model. Giving an unfair advantage to those who paid created a lopsided playing field, plus with no barriers to create an account, banning meant little to aimbotters. They simply created another free account and went back to ruining the game for many.

BFH could of been something pretty special, its FTP design I would argue kept it from getting there.

Luis Guimaraes
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I agree the design of BFH was one of the best I've seen for multiplayer games and there was a lot of strategy into the game if one looked past the casual visuals.

But then there was P2W, where one is faced with the following options:

a) buy power and have non-paying players become boring to play against.
b) stop playing because paying players are impossible to beat.

Alpha Diop
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The problem with BF P4F is that they use the argument that they are making more money to blur the lines on what is supposed to be acceptable or not as paid items.

What they don't realize is that all they did was remove the most hardcore part of their population that actually knew they were being ripped off or unfairly treated. The game population is probably too casual to realize they are being milked.

They pretty much killed any hope their game could grow a reputation, and that for short term gains. They had a product that could follow the same growth as the like of LoL, but now that they have switched to this P2W mentality, nobody will play that game seriously or recommend it.

Simon Ludgate
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I know this is kind of tangental to the article, but something Christian Nutt said up there really resonated: vocal complainers aren't necessarily active opponents of F2P. I've recieved similar feedback from Craig Morrison about people complaining on forums and then buying tons of stuff in-game, and there's strong anecdotal evidence that most people who complained about the infamous World of Warcraft Sparkle Pony on the official Blizzard forums had all bought the damn thing.

As the article points out, the steps to successful frustration-based monetization are (1) make a good game (2) make players want to keep playing the game and (3) screw them as deeply up the ass as possible. The three steps are the key point here: players who care enough about the game to complain about it are players who are invested enough in the game to be right at the border of phases 2 and 3.

I think there are two kinds of player out there: those that look ahead when they start playing a game, look at the item store and try to anticipate what kind of ass-screwing they'll get based on the kinds of things for sale; and those that don't look ahead and just play.

The forward-looking players aren't going to be monetized by the game at all because they're going to churn out between phases 1 and 2: they aren't going to let themselves get caught and they aren't going to let themselves be frustrated.

The people complaining on the forums are people who, it seems, are genuinely SURPRISED by the reaming to which they are subjected at the hands of F2P developers. They seem to think they were actually going to have a fun, free experience and by the time the compulsion to pay hits they're too deeply involved to easily disengage. They're upset and post about it, but it's too late, they have to pay anyways.

The real problem I see with frustration-based F2P design is that it seems unsustainable: how often are people going to fall for the same bait before they stop playing F2P games? How many times will people be coerced into paying through frustration before they wise up? To be sure, there's a not-meaningless subset of the population who will never wise up. But I suspect that the current profitability of F2P games based on frustration-induced payments is only going to last as long as a untapped population of innocent victims remains.

Muir Freeland
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"Fall for the same bait" is a really good way of phrasing it. I think that fundamental dishonesty is at the core of the problems with F2P: the developer's job is to convince people that the game is a. free and b. just as good as a paid game, even though, by design, it's neither of those things.

Diana Hsu
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That was a great read. Thanks. =)

"The real problem I see with frustration-based F2P design is that it seems unsustainable: how often are people going to fall for the same bait before they stop playing F2P games?"

You're right. But by that time, the early movers in the F2P market will have made their fortunes and moved onto other business models.

Rob Graeber
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Well said. I lost it by the 2nd ass-screwing comment.

Jeremy Alessi
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"vocal complainers aren't necessarily active opponents of F2P"

So the people who got ripped off complain but because they opened their wallets in the first place they aren't 't opponents of F2P? Some logic there.

If your actual customers are your most vocal complainers then you're not doing your job correctly.

[User Banned]
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Joe McGinn
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Good post but I disagree about the problem of "falling for the same bait". That's presuming that people have *any* problem of distaste for F2P at all. And even just asking about sustainability of F2P is a bit of an odd question, since the most successful F2P platform of all time - television - has been running since before most of us were born.

Curtiss Murphy
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@Simon - It makes me sad! As a type #1 - I look ahead and realize, a sham is incoming. F2P turned south the moment 'whales' became a term.

Bob Charone
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Whale is a term that has been used in the gambling industry for a long time, its rich person who willingly spends lots of money(not much for them of course). Except in freemium many of them are not rich nor willing!

Stock Watcher66
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You are correct, the model is both unsustainable and, while popular at the moment, their is little evidence to show it is a success (at least as success in the eyes of someone strictly looking at the potential from a business standpoint) from a long-term financial perspective.

The "create the problem-sell the solution" popular F2P model is short-term in it's thinking a diametrically opposed to creating a long-term business, especially one so reliant on long-term customer engagement. Something that is critical for a product requiring such a heavy investment up-front and a long development cycle. The issue is the MMO market in not big enough to sustain (or, I would argue, to even have adopted this model in the first place).

When I witness so many AAA-titles, with 4-6 year development cycles, coming out to raging fanfare and struggling six months later, it is obvious something is not right in MMO land. When I review the presentations from so called "experts" who don't really understand the market to begin with (all I see is reporting on trends, which does not make one an expert) and see such negligent comments from those responsible for the industry that incorrectly believe that can dish out anything to their customers and they will take it, I know you are witnessing an industry in trouble and also ripe for disruption on the incumbents.

I would have figured that the rapid increase in customer dissatisfaction, higher churn rates on new titles and increased rise of crowdfunded projects would have at least woke one industry executive from their clueless perch, but I guess I was wrong and this industry is in bigger trouble than I thought.

Nick Harris
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Our adventures should never frustrate us, but always seek to entertain us.

Exceptions to this rule include: simulations of sport, racing, city-building, etc. and puzzles - which all fall inside the broader categorisation of Games.

Alpha Diop
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Unfortunately, I think the current success Planetside 2 is likely to disprove part of this article...

Of course we need to wait to see how much it has grossed since its release, but early signs show that the game is likely to make a lot of money, and that by without relying on frustrating the player.

Ian Welsh
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Have you played the game? I have. Many of the new weapons you can buy are, absolutely, not sidegrades, they are upgrades. And many of them are a 1,000 certs, which is not fast to get. It is designed to create frustration, and convince people to spend money.

Now I'm enjoying it well enough (though I liked the original better, as it was more cleanly designed), but it follows the suggestions of this model.

The question is not how many people are playing it and spending now, the question is in 9 months to a year.

Zynga did very well for a while, then people realized that the games were rigged, and stopped playing the new ones. PS2 isn't designed to force people out, the way Zynga games were, but we'll see.

Cheating and griefing is also a problem. SOE has been very aggressive about it, but I wonder if it'll work.

And yeah, I spent some real money on PS2. I don't mind, I have the money, and I don't want to spend that much time.

Still, the model I would prefer, if you must do a non-subscription game, is the Guild Wars one - make people pay for the account. Helps a lot with the griefing/cheating.

Still, I prefer subscription models, because freemium games never feel entirely fair, and I don't like the way they encourage the devs to be constantly playing psychological tricks to get me to spend more money. I'd far rather pay $15/month and earn everything through play.

[User Banned]
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Alpha Diop
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I did not play the game, but I talked to people playing it and from their perspective the purchases they make are *not* upgrades, they are merely ways to customize their playstyle.

All F2Ps have to rely on time-as-a-price to fuel player activity, BUT it doesn't imply that this time should be spent in frustration.

It's pretty much about making your customer feel good about their purchase instead of them feeling like they have been forced.

PS2 and LoL proves that all you need to do to create a game that will gross money and generate support is to encourage genuine player interaction and make them active in your game, done!

No need to play mind games! One day or the other players will wise up and see that they are being played as fools, this day you WILL lose their money!

Also, implying convincing you to pay $15/month for the same content doesn't involve some psychological tricks either...

The subscription model is going to go through a crisis for two reasons:
- People don't have the time to make the most of that $15 spent.
- It creates a barrier of entry in a world where we want people to flock to our games.

Cordero W
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Freemium should die, to be honest. Like, waste away in a corner and never be opened again.

Carlo Delallana
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Let's not kid ourselves here. Frustration has been an essential tool in the game designer's arsenal. It's how we build player mastery. We introduce challenges that will require players to develop skill over time before they can move on. Of course this is balanced out by giving the player an opportunity to release their frustration. You worked hard to get that new ability (tension) and you become a bad-ass for a few moments as you wield said ability (release) before the cycle repeats itself. Long-term engagement is born out of this tension and release loop and skill is what connects both of these opposing experiences.

Paying to remove frustration might be dangerous to long term engagement because it robs the player of that essential growth, the development of skills, the frustration and ultimate joy that mastery brings. this also applies to games that are Pay-To-Win. Money used to substitute for skill can also hurt long-term engagement because mastery and skill are no longer required.

We know that flow and a sense of mastery (or the illusion of mastery) are what makes games highly engaging. So what if monetization served to enhance flow and mastery? It's no so far fetched when you consider that we already spend money to enhance both of these things. My favorite personal example are LEGOs. It's interesting to note that complexity and frustration increase the more I spend. The kits range from $5 mini-sets to the $300 Mindstorms uber-kit. The amount of money spent does not make things any easier for me but I am able to see the value of my investment when I've completed the kit. I was able to internalize the rewarding experience that frustration, triumph, and mastery bring where I begin to value that more than the money I spend.

Can we do this with Freemium Hadcore games? Can we monetize to enhance flow and mastery without affecting the intrinsic satisfaction of achieving these two experiences? I think it's a worthy goal because it leaves you with more engagement and none of the cynicism that follows when the curtain is pulled back and players see what's really happening.

Ramin Shokrizade
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All F2P is is a business model, as stated. That said, there are many ways to do it. The "frustration" approach aims at manipulating the dopamine cycles in the subject, but these can be kept in check by higher brain functions. The best models don't use frustration to sell product, because if you can capture the higher brain functions along with the dopamine cycle, the subject will have no resistance to your product.

Yes I am being intentionally cryptic :)

Luis Blondet
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Meanwhile, at The Legion Of Doom;

"Frequent, but short, game sessions foster addiction."

Carlo Delallana
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This is true and it's why I still play Counter-Strike to this day

Thom Q
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I wonder how much the F2P model damaged the industry.. All those people feeling ripped off and empty when they're done with a F2P game, they must be adding up..

Jeremy Reaban
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Or worse, when the company closes down the game, even though it's still profitable. Just not profitable enough for them.

Alpha Diop
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The future fate of SWTOR?

Alpha Diop
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Overall this was a pretty interesting article though!

Lewis Wakeford
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I don't have a problem with deliberately frustrating people for cash, at the end of the day you need to give people an incentive to give you money. What I can't stand is when you don't get good value for money when you do shell out.

Blacklight Retribution, for example, is a very fun and generous F2P shooter. The default gear is quite strong and arguably the most versatile loadout in the game. But everything in the store (at least when I played it) is horribly overpriced, like "$5 for this attachment" overpriced. I got so annoyed with that game because I liked it enough to spend money on it, but there was nothing worth purchasing.

Harold Myles
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I might have missed it, but what is a 'hardcore gamer?' The article mentions it over and over, but never defines it. If you asked 100 people what 'hardcore gamer' means you would probably get 100 different answers.

Again, my apologies if somewhere in the article defined the audience. But I didn't get to it on the first page and stopped reading. Kinda pointless reading 'how to design for a particular audience' when the audience was not defined.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Harold you make a good point, and this is something I struggle with in my papers. I tend to group game players in four groups: "Casual, Mid-core, Hardcore, and Whales". I describe casual players as those relatively new to gaming, who like to play in short bursts in low immersion games between other daily activities. Anything over 30 minutes at a sitting is rare for them. Hardcore gamers have made interactive media their main form of entertainment and tend to let the rest of their life revolve around gameplay. They almost always get at least one game session exceeding 2 hours in per week, with some 8+ hour days not uncommon.

Mid-core gamers are in the middle, with play sessions usually over 30 minutes and occasionally over 2 hours. I see mid-core as a transition state between casual and hardcore. Sometimes real life will push a hardcore player down to mid-core, but they will usually attempt to move back up.

Whales are very difficult to define. Many here have attempted to do so. The primary characteristics are compulsive/addictive personalities, and a poor ability to keep track of money. These same individuals would be called "Marks" in Las Vegas. Note that whales can have casual, mid-core, or hardcore play lengths. Those that play competitively in pvp games also tend to have the "bully" and "low self-esteem" characteristics, based on my many interviews with them.

Note that whales don't have any more money than people in the other categories, they just are not as sophisticated in how they spend it. There are hardcore gamers that will be willing to spend $1000 per month but they will require value for that money. The trend in the industry as it targets whales is away from quality and towards unbalanced and smaller products.

I agree with you here that the original author could have defined hardcore better. Confusion between hardcore and whale players leads many to come to false conclusions about business model efficacy. Also note that Zynga, for all its failings, brought a huge number of new casual (mostly women) players into the space. This meant that a year or two ago there was this huge bulge in the distribution on the low end of the playtime scale (where the casual players were). Now those new players are getting bored and are ready to step up to mid-core games, but there is a marked shortage of mid-core games available to them.

Most independent studios seemed to be making casual games, and AAA studios are making hardcore games. Those few studios in the middle like, RIOT, Kixeye, and Kabam, are doing really well for themselves.

Carlo Delallana
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@Ramin - That's an interesting take on the definition of "Whales". There's a lot of romanticizing going on about whale behavior and how these players are your true fans but I'm starting to see your definition as more accurate. Highly addicted and compulsive spenders who are hooked by the psychological game more than the actual game that they're engaged in.

[User Banned]
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Curtiss Murphy
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@Ramin - nicely said. Games are addicting, and if we're not careful as designers, can stray into unethical. To draw the line - any game designed for the sole purpose of bilking whales borders on criminal.

Thibaud de Souza
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I'm still getting my head around this but, it's been a long time since an idea related to FTP appealed to me, either as a game designer, or as a player.
So, than

Rik Spruitenburg
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I see the idea here as "Let them play for a while, but eventually conclude they need to buy something to get the things they want." The main problem is that Facebook games have run this ship into the ground. Everyone who quit Farmville because they couldn't keep up (grinding, cash and/or harassing friends) is likely to quit the next game they try when they hit the same point. And every game they quit makes it easier for them to quit the next one, or give up on games altogether because "they are all the same." If you were the only game with this trick, then you might do pretty well but at this stage it's too hard to sell snake oil to the same guys again.

Henrik Strandberg
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To be quite honest, I don't see a ton of differences in the above advice between regular retail-style business models, and freemium/paymium/F2P models. You need a high quality, captivating, engaging and addictive game to succeed, regardless of your business model. TF2, WoT and LoL are very popular titles even for those who play for free - and would have been popular even with $60 price-tags or $15/mo subscriptions - but they're magnitudes more profitable with a F2P model that does not have a cap on spending, and significantly reduced friction at the top of the acquisition funnel.

A few years ago, the novelty of "free" was sufficient to get eye-balls on a game - but not so much today. In today's highly competitive F2P landscape, titles face exactly the same go-to-market requirements as retail titles, to build awareness, secure distribution and acquire players.

In addition, the F2P model also has the critical requirement to be able to convert, re-acquire and monetize players; via data collection (who is playing, how, and what do they do?), a sophisticated ecommerce platform (to customize offers based on individual user preferences), and tools to communicate with the player base (to bring those offers in front of them) via a variety of different media.

The organization and infrastructure needed to successfully deliver and operate an online business from acquisition to monetization mainly resides with publishers (some are better than others at it), just as we thought the age of publishers was over.