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Ethical Free-to-Play Game Design (And Why it Matters)

January 10, 2014 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Pay to Progress, Not Pay to Win

Not long ago, announced that they were removing "pay to win" elements from World of Tanks. This was almost certainly a smart move; the feeling that a game is pay-to-win is a key driver of rage-quit moments, when players decide to leave because the game is pissing them off; if you're a free player, or one on a budget, it feels hateful if people are beating you just because they have more money than sense.

Clash of Clans handles this in a clever way; as in many games, you can speed your progress through the game by paying to bypass timers, but when it comes time for a battle, you are always matched against a player of roughly equivalent power (based on town center level). If I have a level 6 town center, I will be matched against a player within a couple of levels of mine -- and it doesn't matter whether they got there by grinding or paying, it will still be a fair battle. Paying advances you quicker, but it doesn't give you an advantage when the battle begins.

Show the Value

A friend who played CityVille once told me "I paid $50 -- and it's gone." In other words, he liked the game, and was willing to pay -- but afterwards, regretted it. He didn't feel as though he'd gotten value for money. And soon afterward, he was gone, too; he quit the game.

Clash of Clans is one of the few games to have monetized me. It gates the number of buildings you can have under construction at one time with "builder huts." You start with one, and purchase another with hard currency (a forced purchase) in the first user experience. You see the value at once; more huts means a permanent, secular, continuing speed up in your ability to progress. Additional huts cost hard currency, and you can grind for hard currency by completing achievements; interestingly, the achievement rewards are rich enough that you can build a third and a fourth hut by grinding (though the fourth hut won't come in until the elder game, by which time you are more likely to be resource constrained than held up by too few builders). But for $10, you can buy a third hut immediately and have enough hard currency left over that a handful of days' grind will get you a fourth. That's pretty reasonable, by the standards of F2P. I liked the game, and was willing to do that. (Paying to bypass timers, not so much, but then, I'm no whale.)

I appreciated that I had the choice: That I could grind, if I preferred. It felt like an honest and reasonable transaction. Interestingly, Backyard Monsters: Unleashed, a similar game, makes your third builder a real-money transaction, and doesn't let you grind; I'd be interested in knowing whether this works better or less well. It's still an honest offer, but CoC's willingness to let me grind made me like the game more; Supercell knows how to monetize, but it pulls gently on the levers. (Well, at least until the elder game, when the slow production rate of dark elixir provides another strong temptation to spend.)

Similarly, League of Legends lets players play some champions for free each week, on a rotating basis. This exposes players to different champions and their advantages and disadvantages; players actively like the opportunity to experiment with them. This undoubtedly leads to additional sales, when a champion is no longer free to play; players who enjoyed that champion's play style will be motivated to purchase it. Try before you buy, in other words; but in a way that players find positive and unobjectionable.

Grind is Okay; Hard Barriers are Not

Many have decried the level of grind in F2P games, but this isn't a characteristic of the business model; rather, it follows from the fact that virtually all F2P games are "games neverending," like MMOs. That is, they do not come to an end and have no winners or losers. In a game neverending, you need to spin out gameplay as long as possible, because you have limited content, and even in the best case, your players will consume your content more rapidly than you expect. That's why timers lengthen in the mid-to-late game in games that have them; that's why leveling in WoW requires grinding through mob battles.

Grind is not ideal from a game design perspective; but it's pretty much a necessity for games neverending. (Which is a reason why I'd love to experiment with F2P games that do come to periodic conclusions, but that's another story.)

And it's acceptable to allow players to speed up or bypass the grind for purchase; what isn't acceptable is make progress either impossible or insanely difficult without paying. Some levels in Candy Crush, for instance, are (seemingly) purposefully designed to require dozens or even hundreds of attempts to get past unless you pay for additional moves or powerups.

Interestingly, King seems to have nerfed some of these levels over time; I have no doubt they responded to player complaints, but also that they A/B tested the change. So I think we can posit that, yes, pulling on the monetary levers more gently has been successful in increasing their long-term customer value; better to keep them playing with the hope of monetization in future than cause them to rage-quit.

Of course "insanely difficult" is a fuzzy phrase; but the point is that you've made a promise to players that they can play, and grind, without paying, if they so chose; you have to keep that promise, and that means more than just "you have a tiny chance of being able to progress."

No Bait and Switch

Marvel Avengers Alliance has monthly "spec ops" releases. A spec op is a series of linked battles (with a story arc attached); players who complete the series within a set period of time, usually a couple of weeks, get a new playable superhero for free.

However, each of the battles in the spec op requires expenditure of a currency available only for the duration of the spec op (called "unstable ISO"). Each time you initiate a battle in the series, you expend some of it. Players are seeded with a certain amount, but not nearly enough to complete the sequence.

Players can gift each other unstable ISO, but the amount a player can receive per day is strictly limited; and unstable ISO can also drop as a reward during a battle. In short, the developers can constrain the amount of unstable ISO a player can earn by adjusting the "receivable per day" parameter, and the drop rate in battles.

There are intermediate rewards over the course of the spec op; that is, at some point in the mission sequence, a player will be rewarded with a rare weapon, or a small quantity of hard currency, or something else of value. Players of the game actively like spec ops, because they provide new, periodic content, there's a tasty reward at the end of the sequence, and even if they are unable to complete it, they can receive the intermediate rewards.

Needless to say, unstable ISO can also be purchased for real money. And since the superheroes rewarded by a spec op are later put up for hard currency purchase, it is possible that, by purchasing a limited quantity of unstable ISO, you may be able to obtain the superhero for less than the outright purchase cost.

Is this system unethical? I would argue that it depends. If the game's parameters are tuned so that, with optimal play (maxing daily unstable ISO gift reception, losing few to no battles, spending the time to grind), a player can complete the series, then it strikes me as ethical: You're giving players more content, and non-payers can still succeed, though they have to work at it.

If, however, the parameters are tuned so that players literally cannot complete the sequence without paying, then it strikes me as unethical. It's a bait and switch; it's like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. You're holding out a reward and giving players the impression that they can get there by grinding, but denying them that opportunity. Players will wise up to this, eventually -- and you will lose some who do.

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Jim Thompson
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"one of the reasons for FarmVille's continued success is his team's work to continually add new content and features that surprise and delight its players"

Surprise and delight.

If you aren't committed to those 3 words with regards to your customer, regardless of what your business is, you will fail.

edwin zeng
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MVP for F2P games will still work for those with innovation, because they have a hook right at first launch, even if they are not feature complete.

I also see a possibility for combining shareware, F2P/IAP, alpha funding models into one that is suitable for mobile/tablet. Not only it will be in the blue ocean, it can be ethical at the same time too.

Interestingly, being ethical can possibly set a game apart from all those that looked like Nigerian scams, which we all know there are many out there.

Maximinus Romain
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I mostly agree with all you said. I'm working on a F2P game for PC, and I'm thinking hard before production about this very topic. I have a question that may sound like an implementation problem, but really is related to these ethical F2P game design issues.

How could we have both a tech tree to progress through (progress can be sped up with cash), and low fragmentation without dividing the units in tiers ?

I'd like to have two things that looks exclusive at first sight : low fragmentation no tiers, because I'll start with a small player base, and it may be too low at the start to afford tiering and fragmentation; and also a progress tree unlocking different vehicles over time : the main monetization scheme.

Maybe I could have a progress tree whose later items would be "different" rather than "better", with their own disadvantages?

Anyway, great article, keep up the good work, bye

David Paris
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You'll likely alienate many players if you go this path. Having a wide range of options is a strategic advantage, and recognizing that payment is the only way to get the full range will turn off many people. I think the player base is getting to be very suspicious of F2P games, so you need to convince them up front that they can actually play for free, and then after they are invested, will they be willing to pay (even though they could conceivably unlock the same features for free with enough time).

Maximinus Romain
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Thanks for the reply. I'm not sure I understand what you think would alienate players. Is it having to unlock the tech tree as the main monetization scheme? Is it having both a tech tree to unlock and un-tiered match-making?

Ben Sly
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There is no easier way to tempt a player via game mechanics than just giving them strictly better stuff than what they currently have, even though it leads to a host of negative issues in the long run. I just want to emphasize that it will always be a temptation for a designer to fit power creep into a design because it's so effective in the short term.

With that cautionary warning in mind, there are several alternatives to that. You can make sure that the progress tree is "different" rather than "better" by including a point cost system for your vehicles. You can put different parts on them (that are unlocked by the tech tree) but the most powerful ones are always going to be high on the point cost. Your options increase with tech tree advancement, but the total point cap doesn't. But I don't know if you're expecting players to control multiple vehicles at the same time or just one (this would be more effective with the former). In any case, the point costs of parts and the maximum point cost should be carefully picked to ensure that they remain important and yet still offer a large degree of freedom in vehicle construction.

You can also try calling point cost something else, like weight, and having that affect critical parts of the vehicles' performance. Like have high weight affect speed, the weight of a gun turret directly affect how quickly it can move, and perhaps have environmental barriers that hurt those of a high weight (bridges that collapse under the weight of heavy units, rivers that disproportionately slow heavy guys, or other things like that). That way, there isn't just a flat point maximum to cap at. You could apply penalties gradually (every point of weight is -1% speed), in classes (at X weight you're considered light, Y is medium, Z is heavy; apply penalties based on weight classes instead of weight), or offer unlockable chassis with preset speed, mobility, and weight caps to mount these components on.

The other major source for F2P monetization is appearance customization. The tech tree may also unlock skins for components as well as the components themselves. It would be unlikely to be as effective in motivating players, but it would have no effect on game balance.

Another idea that may give you a couple more options is a for few nodes in the tech tree to unlock disadvantages instead of advantages. These disadvantages should be optional once unlocked, significant in impact and substantially increase the challenge of the game in a unique way for each one; assuming that you have deep and balanced gameplay, experienced players who are looking for a challenge may find them to be very attractive and it may motivate unlocking more options on the tech tree to cope with the challenges. Achievements for beating stuff with those optional disadvantages may be useful here (but may also backfire due to the overjustification effect). Though, if your game is primarily team-based PVP and not PVE, this might not be a very good idea.

Maximinus Romain
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Thanks for some great feedback. Indeed the point cost, or weight cost could be elegant (and complex) solutions.

My plan is for a team PVP game, where you control one vehicle at a time.

Jeffrey Robbins
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In my mind avoid anything that could be pay to win. Maybe it's just me but I am working on a mobile action puzzle game and my team all agreed that we hate this form of monopolization with a passion.

Any content you pay for should allow the user to have a more diverse experience but should not allow them to gain any kind of actual advantage over any other players.

Best to try and balance the bought tiers in a way that possibly restricts their range of options but changes the way in which they can use their new items/powers/etc.

Alex Janes
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This title has had the best monetization path I have seen on any title. People have paid $1000 a pop to design unique items, $12000 to create their on monster type. The sold 250 unique item designs just in their closed beta phase last year.

alot could be learned from Grinding Gear Games, they are the leading edge of F2P monetization.

Wylie Garvin
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No matter how hard I squint, I can't see that as anything but exploitative.

I like games with a fixed, up-front cost that is the same for every player. I refuse to play F2P games, that suck the blood of 1% of their playerbase in order to let the rest play for free. No matter how clever and non-exploitative your monetization strategy seems, it just seems unfair to me to expect a small fraction of the players to subsidize all of the others.

...although I guess the same thing happens with paid games, due to piracy...(/devils-advocate)

Jeff Hamilton
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I think if you frame it as "a small portion of your playerbase has an extreme love for your game, and therefore it's worth substantially more to them than it is to the rest of your playerbase", it doesn't seem exploitative. The reality of offering any given product for sale is that consumers will value it at all points along its utility curve.

If I wait for a game to go 80% off on a Steam Sale because playing it *now* doesn't matter to me, but playing it eventually does - have I exploited all the players who bought it at launch? Of course not. If a player loves Path of Exile soooo much that they want to spend $1000 to put their character's name on an item other players get as a drop, is that exploitative? I don't see it as such - the transaction was "worth" it to them, or they wouldn't have made it.

Saul Gonzalez
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As for "setting a limit", this is a platform feature in the major gaming social networks of Japan (GREE and Mobage). Users can set a spending limit per month across all games in the network, and most do just that.

BTW, this leads to players being cash-rich at the start of the month and cash-poor towards the end, so revenue is highly skewed towards the first day of the month.

David Verney
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I refuse to play F2P's. They are inethical and the very name is misleading. From what I have read from others, anybody who knows anything will not touch F2P's with a bargepole. I don't mind paying a subscription to World of Warcraft, Dark Age of Camelot or any other worthwhile subscription paying game because I know how much I am expected to pay and when. F2P's are essentially a con!

David Verney
Game Design Student

Kevin Bender
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I think you are going to miss out on a lot of positive experiences you could be having with this narrow view of what a F2P title is.

Not to bring out a tired example, League of Legends is a F2P it also was one of my favorite games for about 2 years... I got a little tired of it now, so i only occasionally jump on with friends.

But getting that much enjoyment out of something for 0$. how did i get con'd? how did i get scammed?

Sure people abuse the model, but people abuse anything. People abuse alcohol, should we not touch it "with a bargepole." People abuse their spouses.. should we never get married? Sure i'm getting a little absurd here, but you get the point...

don't dismiss something just because you think you can label it and pass it off.

Ian Richard
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I agree. Even if some F2P devs abuse the system there is too much too learn for you to ignore an entire market.

I play many F2P game and there are many that don't mislead or force the players to pay. I've played hundreds of hours and experienced all sorts of unique designs without ever spending a penny.

There have been other times where I've willingly paid for content. Just like DLC on AAA titles, I've decided that I wanted to support the developers and get more content. They never conned me, they just gave me a game that I was willing to pay for.

As a game design student I highly recommend you start to play them sometimes. They are full of brilliant lessons in design, with some especially neat tricks for player retention. You don't need to pay for them... you just need to learn from them.

Theresa Catalano
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Sorry, but I think you're vastly overstating the value of F2P games. Sure, there's a lot of lessons to learn... but it's mostly what NOT to do. Game design in most F2P games tends to be very lazy and insipid. I'm sure there are exceptions, but they are not the norm.

And yes, I agree with the original poster... the concept of "F2P" itself is essentially a scam, and I consider it unethical.

Ben Sly
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You're cutting yourself out of what is now a very large group of games. Being F2P is no guarantor of a game's quality in much the same way that asking $60 for a retail game isn't one either. Indeed, in some ways it is more ethical than the standard payment model: you can decide what the game is worth to you after you experience it and spend that much money.

The issue with F2P is that it encourages game designers to put in bad game mechanics: things like hidden costs, exploitative payment schemes, and constant advertisement. But the payment model of the $60-up-front games also encourage bad game mechanics: graphics-over-gameplay, deceptive advertising, and other things that stem from not getting payment after they get you to buy the game. The only difference is that F2P is new whereas the old retail model is old news. As such, a bad retail game is just another bad game, but a bad F2P game reflects upon the whole model.

That being said, I'm no fan of the vast majority of F2P games either and hearing that a game is F2P also tends to turn me off. They tend to be cheap, quickly made games that are intended to exploit casual players who aren't familiar enough with games to realize it. That is an issue of game quality, *not* the funding model. Give it a few years; we may start to see quality long-running F2P games that *couldn't* be made by the fire-and-forget standard model and wouldn't have survived under the subscription model.

Amir Barak
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"Indeed, in some ways it is more ethical than the standard payment model:"

And indeed in some ways eating a handful of rusty nails is healthier than an egg in the morning because they're full of iron...

Jeff Leigh
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If you like buying a printer for next-to-nothing, then buying 10 cent ink cartridges at $20... Free-to-play is for you.

If you like buying a movie ticket for $10 and a $0.05 box of popcorn for $5... Free-to-play is for you.

If you like buying $0.001 worth of tap water in a plastic bottle for $1.50... Free-to-play is for you.

The concepts behind free-to-play are neither new, nor original. Same old scam, new industry.

If you don't like the things I listed above - Free to play games will never be for you. They'll never be for me. I don't care how great that used car is - as soon as I get a wiff that you're hiding something and don't want to talk about the cost of ownership, I know I'm not going to win in this transaction. "Yeah! Drive it off the lot today for free! We'll talk about money later!" No thanks.

Be honest, tell me a fair price for your game so I can make an informed decision if I want to purchase or not. The old "the first one is free (but we'll get you later)" concept is sneaky, dishonest, and unethical. If you can't level with me and be honest, then my answer is and always will be a resounding "no". There are plenty of awesome games out there - missing out on a "good one" made by developers primarily focused on tuning their sneaky monitization efforts is not missing out on anything.

Amir Barak
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"I play many F2P game and there are many that don't mislead or force the players to pay. I've played hundreds of hours and experienced all sorts of unique designs without ever spending a penny. "

I would love some examples of unique designs which you've experienced while playing F2P games?

Nick Martin
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The problem with your analogies is that you're assuming that what games offer has some sort of fixed value, one that would be there if you just "did it yourself"... ignoring of course the fact that you're using hyperbole by grossly understating the prices in your examples. A movie has a cost associated with it, as does popcorn, and labor, and bottles. It's up to the consumer to judge the value and if it's worth it for them.

A better analogy would be in a television show. You can watch it for free (over the air), paying nothing but watching commercials to support it. You can pay a subscription to get the same free content as well, or get hardware to skip the ads. You can pay to purchase the shows to watch later, or buy discs with them. Yet at the base, it's "free," with costs added on.

It's fine to say that they're not for you, but I'm pretty sure that what you're using here is the same logic that people use for piracy (why would I pay $60 for a game when I don't even know if I'll like it). And there are some developers that can apply the F2P model to make a decent product without making it all monetization (and in the end, all games are about monetization, it's just about where it is).

Josh Foreman
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If I understand the concept of ethical F2P correctly... the idea is that when implemented properly the money you spend on the game is opt-in. You are essentially buying only the content you value. Unethical F2P is where the illusion of a full product is presented as free, but it's just a shell, and in order to get a full game's worth of value you have to spend more than you otherwise would have if you had known.

I don't think the 'ethical' version is inherently sneaky or dishonest. But it there is certainly a gray area between the two models I described.

Brian Peterson
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As an avid DOTA 2 player who has been playing since the beta, I still have to remind myself that the game is F2P.

Kevin mentioned League of Legends as the tired counterpoint to this argument. I prefer using DOTA 2 as the best example of ethical F2P, simply because nothing you can purchase in the game has any impact on gameplay at all - it's all cosmetic. I can't speak for everyone, but my decision to spend money in that game has never been made due to discomfort or frustration.

Wein Chang
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I have no quarrel with what some people believe F2P is or isn't, but isn't stereotyping a game based on its business model somewhat extreme? Regardless of whether people feels like they are getting tricked into paying, good games still have good design or mechanics that I would find useful in applying to my own work.

Although I do harbor the feeling that many F2P games on market are, more or less, getting people to pay for something that have little value, there are certainly outliers as well. As many other commentators and the original article as mentioned:

- League of Legend: hard currency purchases contents (Champions with new gameplay experiences) and aesthetic customization.
- Team Fortress 2: originally a paid game that have since gone F2P, where real currency purchases new weapons/equipments that offers both advantages and disadvantages.
- Dungeon & Dragons Online: hard currency (Which can be collected through in-game actions) used to purchase additional dungeons and areas.

Ben Sly
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"'Indeed, in some ways it is more ethical than the standard payment model:'

And indeed in some ways eating a handful of rusty nails is healthier than an egg in the morning because they're full of iron..."

The player has the option of trying out the game (indeed, in many cases you can access the vast majority of the game) before you give the developers any money. As such, the player has much more information about what they believe the game to be worth before they decide what they want to spend.

Consumers liked the idea of try-before-you-buy back when it was called shareware and it gave you 1/4 of the game for free. That is an integral part of the F2P model, and - given that the developer is forced to provide at least 1/4 of an enjoyable game before you'll pay them - I'd consider it an ethical one that promotes good game design.

Are there other substantial problems with F2P? Plenty. But to claim that the model has no ethical upsides is not a defensible position.

Paul Taegel
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Did you even bother reading this article, or are your opinions simply so rigid that not even new data can penetrate?

Kristian Roberts
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@ Various Haters: I challenge you to tell me how Path of Exile represents a dishonest business model. After sinking a weekend into the darn thing, I've gotten some pretty good value out of my $0 purchase (+$0.50 for the download bandwidth used). There are no convenience/pay-to-win purchases, apart from organizing and expanding your inventory (though you can always sell items) -- and no badgering me to buy more points. Please point out the scam.

Now, I'm not at all suggesting that all (or even many) F2P titles are ethically modelled, but I don't think that uncritically dismissing a title based a very cursory understanding of its business model is a good idea (assuming one's goal it to play the best games possible).

Greg Costikyan
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I have some sympathy with your viewpoint... but the harsh fact is that F2P is a successful business model, and the fastest growing one in a variety of areas. I don't view it as unethical in se; I view F2P more like television. That is, you can pay 10 or 12 bucks to see a movie in a theater, without commercial interruption; or you can watch TV, and have to sit through the damn ads. In F2P, you get your play experience for free, but we'll always be whining at you to pay or send virals; if we're honest about it (which we should be), you can still progress, but you have to put up with the crap. That's the basic transaction you make, in both cases; you get your content free, but you have to put up with some bullshit.

And yes, there is a value hierarchy here: legitimate theater is better than film which is better than TV, in most cases. Paid games are better than free to play ones, in most cases. But that isn't to say that TV is always bad, or that free to play games have to be always bad, either. Even if the fundamental business model does pull in that direction.

Paul Johnson
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Jesus it's so refreshing to hear that. We're in the majority, but it doesn't seem that way to crusaders as we're all just getting on with enjoying it.

EDIT: Some bizarro indenting going on here. This was addressed to the single person on the internet who likes F2P.

Jayce Stock
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It sounds to me like the main issue you take with F2P games exists in the uncertainty of when/how much the game is going to attempt to get you to give it money, rather than the idea that the game is offering the option of optional microtransactions throughout the game instead of a pay upfront model.

If this is the case, it seems to me that you would be opposed to playing WoW without a subscription and optional microtransactions, regardless of if the game stayed exactly the same otherwise, and you would likely enjoy F2P games with micros if they instead had a steady subscription option. This is completely valid, and I can agree that I too would rather pay a steady amount at predictable intervals to a game rather than hit random pay walls. But a whole lote of F2P games, such as Hawken, League of Legends, Team Fortress 2, Warframe, etc. have no paywalls or unexpected micros, and instead give the player an experience that is essentially identical to playing a fully paid game, while still allowing players to buy goodies for themselves to pay the company that made the game. By simply discounting all F2P games altogether, you are eliminating this incredibly informative, valuable, and insanely fun group on nothing but principle, which is a shame.

Discounting an entire field of games based around a single subset of them is not a good practice to get into, especially as a student and aspiring designer, especially when doing so limits your own personal design possibilities or horizons. You may not yet believe F2P could ever be an acceptable form of monetization, but I promise you, it isn't going away, and I think you would benefit greatly from digging deeper into the logistics of how to make an F2P game that doesn't bother you. Who knows? You might pioneer a new form of monetization none of us have seen before!

Jayce Stock
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It sounds to me like the main issue you take with F2P games exists in the uncertainty of when/how much the game is going to attempt to get you to give it money, rather than the idea that the game is offering the option of optional microtransactions throughout the game instead of a pay upfront model.

If this is the case, it seems to me that you would be opposed to playing WoW without a subscription and optional microtransactions, regardless of if the game stayed exactly the same otherwise, and you would likely enjoy F2P games with micros if they instead had a steady subscription option. This is completely valid, and I can agree that I too would rather pay a steady amount at predictable intervals to a game rather than hit random pay walls. But a whole lote of F2P games, such as Hawken, League of Legends, Team Fortress 2, Warframe, etc. have no paywalls or unexpected micros, and instead give the player an experience that is essentially identical to playing a fully paid game, while still allowing players to buy goodies for themselves to pay the company that made the game. By simply discounting all F2P games altogether, you are eliminating this incredibly informative, valuable, and insanely fun group on nothing but principle, which is a shame.

Discounting an entire field of games based around a single subset of them is not a good practice to get into, especially as a student and aspiring designer, especially when doing so limits your own personal design possibilities or horizons. You may not yet believe F2P could ever be an acceptable form of monetization, but I promise you, it isn't going away, and I think you would benefit greatly from digging deeper into the logistics of how to make an F2P game that doesn't bother you. Who knows? You might pioneer a new form of monetization none of us have seen before!

Amir Barak
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Ethical F2P:

1. No IAP.
2. No subscription.
3. No Time-out mechanics.
4. No hidden costs.
5. No way to pay whatsoever in the game even if I wanted to...

See, not that hard.

Jeff Alexander
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(comment withdrawn)

Theresa Catalano
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You're missing the point. The idea of "ethical F2P" that somehow lets you earn money off the game is a contradiction. A truly ethical F2P would actually be *free.* If a game is free to download but is saddled with some sort of hidden costs, it's not actually free. Hidden costs are never ethical.

Wein Chang
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But isn't that a separate issue from what the author is stating? Regardless of what you call games with micro-transaction and in-app purchases, there should be ethical ways to go about selling things in your games.

Is the objection of "ethical Free to Play" based on false-advertisement of the term, or that you believe it is impossible to sell things in game without somehow involving under-handedness?

Ramin Shokrizade
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I parted ways with Nexon in 2001 largely due to disagreements over new business model ethics. In 2009, after four years, I had finally written my first "consumer friendly" F2P business models. For the next two years I was confronted with "We just want it done Zynga style" and I ended up penniless and on food stamps for those two years, since I refused to do it "Zynga style".

I allowed Wargaming to hire me last year, not as a consultant but as a full employee, in large part because of their stated desire to abandon "Pay to Win" as you mention in this article. Since we seemed to be in philosophical alignment, I agreed to fully deploy my models into their products. WG does not seek to make products with lifespans of under one year so my high conversion and low-whale models are a natural fit.

I'm still not allowed to say what product I deployed models to from 2012 to 2013, and for whom (this game is in beta and has been announced, I am the only person on the team still under NDA). Just the two products that I know of that will deploy this year with my models (the other one being a WG product) are high budget games that will be played by between 100M and 250M gamers combined.

I'm hoping these will set an example for what comes after "Zynga style" in F2P. I think F2P is the future and it saddens me that enthusiastic gamers such as David Verney above have been so discouraged by this period that it will be hard to get them back. In my models I actually advise the development team to *explain* the F2P model used to consumers, for maximum transparency. Purchases should not be a trap for the unwary consumer. Respect them and they will respect you.

While not being on food stamps anymore is certainly a welcome improvement, I really just want to get back to playing multiplayer online games that are actually fun. The last few years have really been a dark period for me as a gamer.

Ian Griffiths
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I find this stance a bit peculiar but I have very different opinions to you on player agency.

The thing I don't understand is why Wargaming would move away from the models that served them so well and deliver much loved games like World of Tanks.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Are you saying that you are opposed to Wargaming's desire to make their games even more fair and transparent, or are you just adverse to change in general?

Chris Clogg
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"I really just want to get back to playing multiplayer online games that are actually fun. The last few years have really been a dark period for me as a gamer. "

As a PC gamer, I feel you on that one. After quitting WoW (around 2007) I've basically bounced around between HL2 and its various mods, and going back to Warcraft 3. I finally tried League recently and have gotten quite into it lol... you enjoying anything particular lately Ramin?

Jeff Leigh
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From what I've heard, League is one of the most toxic communities in gaming to date.

Free to play == Free to Troll. You can't fix a community that is infinitely easy to re-enter.

Minecraft (pay to play), Terraria (pay to play), and the new hit Starbound (pay to play) on the other hand... Not free-to-play. Worth every cent and more.

Ian Richard
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I played League and it wasn't nearly as bad as many game's I've played(paid or F2P). I had a few moments of frustration with people... but far more decent experiences.

Besides, comparing LoL to Minecraft isn't really a good match-up for comparison. The audience for games like LoL or CoD tend to be hyper-competitive. Competition leads to much more... emotional... responses and overall dickishness.

Free-roaming builder players tend to be far more casual. There is far less focus on winning and losing and therefor far less rage and attempts at smack talk.

I rarely play online games for long because I have a low tolerance for jerks... but in LoL I actually spent more time giving honor medals than negative ones. There were still trolls... but less than most online games I've played.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Chris: I've been getting into Ways of History, a very good MMO Civilization game from a small (4 man) studio in Russia. The monetization is pay to win, but at least it is capped so the most the whales can do is match each other. This prevents an ante game from developing.

I'm the top ranked player on the new English server :) (#3). They have managed to find some clever solutions to some difficult design problems so I'm learning a few tricks from them also.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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You have my respect, Ramin. I hope it works out for you, and I hope more in our industry view players as human beings to bond with instead of wallets to empty.

Greg Costikyan
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I very much like your writings on the topic, btw.

Anton Temba
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"Grind is okay"

No, its not okay. Thats pretty bad game design if your game intentionally features grind.

Theresa Catalano
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No, that's not true. Pretty much any game with stat building automatically features "grind." (Especially with how loosely the word "grind" is used nowadays.) Stat building is inherently fun, so there's always an element of "grinding" that will be fun, even when you're engaged in repetitious activity. Everyone has their own tolerance level for repetition... if a game pushes you past that point, that's when grinding ceases to be fun.

However, with most F2P games, they purposefully make it grindy to the point of being un-fun as a motivator to extract money out of the customer. That certainly is bad game design, and I would call it unethical. In fact, even if they don't make the game really grindy and repetitive, if there's a way to "pay to win," that's always unethical game design in my book. There's just no place for that in ethical game design, period.

Anton Temba
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Stat building is inherently fun? What kind of fun is that supposed to be? You regard the act of watching numbers go up with a false sense that something is happening is supposed to be fun?

Is it okay for you that the act of grinding and stat building is pretty much the same thing as living constantly in the future, putting your focus on "its a chore, but someday it will pay off" instead of enjoying what is today, like you know, moment-to-moment gameplay interactions, which is the real source of fun?

Robert Green
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Unfortunately Theresa is right. Stat building is, if not fun, at very least rewarding. You can (and please continue to) argue that it shouldn't be, and that game developers should aspire to greater heights, but the idea that people will continue to play something purely to keep advancing shouldn't even be controversial at this point. Witness the reception last year to Cookie Clicker, a game whose 'gameplay' consists entirely of clicking on a cookie and buying upgrades, and otherwise plays itself.

Anton Temba
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No its not right.

Theres this thing called Power of Encouragement. Any creative work, including video games, can shape the behaviour of its players by putting them in an environment that encourages a certain proposed behaviour where comfort is maximized, while discouraging the opposite of that proposed behaviour, leading to discomfort if it is pursued.

This happens regardless of whether the author is aware of it or not. If the author created a game which puts the player in an environment where clicking a cookie brings comfort through acknowledgement, then of course it will feel rewarding.

The problem with this is thing is that it encourages the player to accept whatever is given to one as the norm, leading to situations like "2 million flies like shit. Surely they can't be wrong." and this further propagates the normality of this behaviour like a chain-reaction.

Don't underestimate the power of encouragement and the associated comfort/discomfort it uses to shape player behaviour.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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Anton, have you (or anyone else interested in answering) ever played Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and if so, do you feel its leveling mechanic was poorly designed? You can replace this question with many RPGs and roguelikes and Metroidvanias.

I feel SotN is one of the best games I've ever played, largely *because* of the sense of avatar growth. I want to contrast this with predatroy F2P design that tries to make a game as boring as it can so the player will pay money to progress (but not so boring that they quit). The problem is that "grind" can be applied generously to many games. If "grind" means "having to do something multiple times to progress", then I don't think it is inherently bad (how many games can have a new verb every two seconds? And what kind of a nightmare would it be to teach this new verb to the player?). If "grind" means "having to do something repeatedly such that it is boring", then of course I am against it by definition.

Regarding this:

"You regard the act of watching numbers go up with a false sense that something is happening is supposed to be fun? "

Reductionism can make anything sound absurd. For example, don't tell me you think video games are fun? All you're doing is watching pixels on a screen change their light emission with a false sense of being in another world, how can that be fun?

Ian Richard
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I have a low tolerance for repetition and I see where you are coming from. I struggle to even play an FPS because of it. Game's that force me to grind are a bane to my gaming.

But if the player's who play cookie clicker come out feeling entertained... was it a bad thing?

I can name dozen's of people that are actually ENJOY with the following:
- Leveling up in an MMOs
- Slot machine loot farming (Diablo style)
- Gathering materials to craft
- Unlocking new powers or items after working towards it.
- Personally, I enjoy the mutli-hour cooldown or Action limits in mobile games because they limit my play and better fit my life.

The line between "giving people what works" and "psychological manipulation" is thin... but those tricks CAN be used enhance an experience. The implementation and the intent are what separates the two.

If a player believes that he is having fun and feels satisfied... isn't that what matters?

Anton Temba
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@ Jeffrey Crenshaw:
Generally, arbitrary number based leveling systems are bad design.

There can be no consistency, player focus is shifted towards aquiring numbers rather than enjoying the act of moment to moment gameplay, is forced to do repetitive labor for the sake of progression, which ultimately is just an arbitrary difference in a number value rather than something tangible, like acquiring new specialized tools suited to deal with a situation, making the player live in the future rather than now, artificially holding the player back... the problems just keep piling up. So yes, it is poor design.

When I say grind, I mean the act of intentionally putting a player into a situation where one has to fulfill some meaningless arbitrary goals to get access to the real, tangible fun of the game. Its something that forcibly gets in the way of fun, which has the same effect as stat-building where you're encouraged to live in the future, rather than being in the moment right now.

Hence was my reason when I said:

"You regard the act of watching numbers go up with a false sense that something is happening is supposed to be fun?"

Stat building and number raising is not real fun. The real fun is when you do something cool ingame, like perform a skillful act, create something with your imagination or learn something new that makes you grow as a person, not watch a bloody number value increase.

Anton Temba
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@ Ian Richard:

I don't believe those people you think of actually enjoy the things you mentioned. The game may reward you for doing an action by offering comfort in the form of compliments, validation and acknowledgement, but your enjoyment does not come from any of those actions themselves. Its false satisfaction, which usually comes back to you to bite you in the ass and have unpleasant feelings about it, like guilt or depression from pointlessness.

A game that relies on tricks to give a sense of comfort instead from actual fun, like having awesome moments, learning something new, expressing yourself, creating something with your imagination or anything else that gives you a real feeling of satisfaction from having such real fun, then that game is pointless and will be ridiculed as such, along with the players that play it.

Feeling false and real satisfaction is very different.

Ian Richard
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But all game's rely on psychological tricks to engage the player.

Whether it's the COD set pieces to make the player feel excitement... the writing tricks used in the Walking Dead to make people think their choices mattered... or the combination of immediate respawn and death montage in Super Meat Boy that make losing a life acceptable.

Everything a game developer does involves a trick with the human brain. Most of the time, we don't know that we are doing it... because we just replicate what we have seen and enjoyed.

There is nothing wrong with using these tricks... there is only a problem when they are abused.

Besides, I'd never claim to know another players feelings better than they do. Sometimes, people just have different ideas of fun that I can't wrap my head around.

Anton Temba
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"But all game's rely on psychological tricks to engage the player."

Not all games. Those that do, provide only false excitement, which usually followed by a feeling of emptiness and thoughts like "what am I doing with my life" when they analyze their activity of playing video games as a hobby.

The longer a player has been a gamer, the more likely these feelings are to hit them eventually. Its not even a question of will it happen, but when will it happen.

While a video game itself is indeed an elaborate illusion of pictures and sound to represent something, the important thing to realize is that its not a passive activity unless you design it so. The player has controls to interact and effect the simulation, which is not something you can ignore as an aspect of video games.

The player is actually doing something and receives feedback that can trigger emotions just like any other activity in real life can. Its not just a psychological trick as you claim. It also has the potential to engage the player beyond the means of psychological tricks just by providing pure fun, without having to force it upon the player like COD set pieces or like the scripted moments in Walking Dead do.

Think about it, isn't it fun when you yourself pull off a lucky shot in an FPS game, instead of the game showing you do one as a cutscene? Thats the difference between pure fun and a psychological trick. One gives you real satisfaction of doing something yourself, while the other just turns you into a dumb potato.

Kristian Roberts
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@ Anton

Perhaps it's just me, but I do enjoy some grinds. Not the eventual rewards (i.e. leveling) but the repetition itself. For my tiny little brain, (sometimes) when I go out to smash small pixelated enemons, it is precisely to "do something meaningless with my life," as I've had enough meaning for one day and want to turn my brain off with some good, mindless smashing. I don't need emotional reactions, I need escapism (or 'smashism', if you will) -- pure and simple.

There are other times (many of them), sure, where I want more from my games. Still, I think there's some room for well-constructed monotony (i.e. a fun grind). It is bad game design? I don't know, but it's a game and I'm getting what I want out of it, so it seems to be working for me.

Anton Temba
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Repetition is not grinding. They're not one and the same thing.

Repetition means performing a similar task over and over. It happens everywhere and is unavoidable in nearly every video game.

Grinding means using an arbitrary goal as a means to slow you down or gate your progress by using a repetitive task. When you're grinding, you're not doing it for the repetitive task itself, but the goal behind that task. This is bad design.

There a huge difference what both words mean.

Greg Costikyan
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I agree that grind is sub-optimal game design. I do think it's somewhat necessary for some styles of games. MMOs, CRPGs, and many other styles thrive despite it. I'd like to get away from it, myself, but I suspect it will be requisite in, well, my current project.

Anton Temba
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Why do you think its necessary?

I disagree that the game types you mentioned require grind to work. Those games thrive due to everything else but the grind. Story, Art, Music, Visual Effects, Communication, Choices, Mystery and Strategy are the things that make an MMO thrive, while grind is the very thing that holds it all back.

John Flush
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@Anton - By chance do you play any blizzard games? This is my go-to question for anyone that hates grind. if they do like them, they don't actually hate grind. With that said, the power of Blizzard games is proof that grind motivates some gamers.

I will have to say I enjoyed grind a lot more when I had more free time on my hands. Now that I have very pressing time constraints on my gaming, grind is pretty much an annoyance... and the game mechanics have to be pretty amazing for me to ever want to touch games like them. Thinking of two of them, Fire Emblem and XCOM - for some reason I don't mind grinding up my guys in these kinds of TBS games. But I think I wouldn't mind a good Advance Wars that had a lot less grind, but they don't seem to be in production right now.

Ian Griffiths
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Coming from Playfish I worked on many free-to-play games from Who Has the Biggest Brain (one of the earliest 'high-quality' social games) through to FIFA Superstars and my biggest title; The Sims Social. I worked as a Senior Product Manager - the person who designs and balances features and virtual goods and promotions and looks at the data to help inform changes and new features. I have a LOT of experience in this area.

I find it interesting that people talk of the notion of how balancing in free to play games will tend to hurt retention. The will almost never provide any credible data to that effect, not only because it is hard to provide but they have simply never seen it - they rely on anecdote and personal feeling. Of course, it's difficult to understand churn because it's almost impossible to know what turns a player away from a game, even the user themselves may not truly know and definitely struggle in succinctly defining the reasons.

I did look into the issue of how this type of balancing affects the retention of users - obviously I can't give any details about which games and the specific numbers. On the games I worked on designers were frequently of the opinion that making things easier for all, but particularly 'non-spenders', would improve retention in the long run, an example of what this might be is removing the designer-maligned . This was almost never the case. The cases where balancing throws up these fuzzy 'hard-gates' where effectively one needs to spend to complete a challenge or spend an age of grind don't hurt retention at all - the improve it. Whenever I gave in to a designer and balancing down the difficulty I saw two things:

1) Less spend on the virtual goods and boosts that helps spenders get through the level (a point that is so obvious as to be trite);

2) The surprising result of lower retention - all of the people who were casual enough would just wait or ignore the content, particularly timed-content; those who engage in the normal manner felt less pressure so didn't play as much; the super engaged found it too easy and just blitzed through the content without paying; the 'whales' or high-spenders just spent less money. It was a loss in all regards.

Now you might argue that in 2 that those people left the game sooner than they would have, all of the data that I looked at did not imply this, in fact the short term retention dip from less-'difficult' content resulted in more pain in the long term because once someone drops their short term play schedule they are less likely to come back and get into it again.

You see Product Managers, me in particular, are not just business minds who don't care about the game. In fact we probably care more about the game more than anyone else. We don't look at the player-base as "idiots; or worse, as sheep to be fleeced" we care about delivering quality content to the most engaged, and yes, trying to deliver that little something extra for people spenders because we rely on them to keep going. Now we would tend to focus on features with monetization elements because ultimately, we are responsible for hitting revenue targets but that doesn't mean we push out junk without thinking about it.

The mistake so many commentators make is that they don't understand who the gaming audience truly is. They assume that everyone is like them - able to put in hours upon hours into a game, getting deep into the flow. For people like me, I don't have time to prestige on every version of Call of Duty, I'd happily pay to play with the kit I want because my game-time is precious and I want the good stuff without the grind. Now of course, free-to-play games do offer a massive amount of content to players completely for free - and we were always fine with that. We put in awesome offers and things like first-spend bundles to try and give the wary a taste of how cool it can be to get premium content.

Personally, I donít understand how you view these mechanics as unethical. They are not lying to or hurting people, they are not manipulating or exploiting them. It is very clear what we are selling and we like to think that our customers aren't ďidiotsĒ, that they are intelligent enough to decide whether they want to spend money to enhance their experience.

Fundamentally if you want to be successful in free-to-play you need someone who understand what Iím talking about above. Someone who is willing to truly understand their audience and how they play the game. Keeping in mind that the paid-for items should be cool and valuable to them, not just the minimal value that wonít upset non-spenders.

The argument in the article above is thrown around a lot but fundamentally, it isn't about ethics. Ethics are just a cover used by people who donít really like the notion or free-to-play but want to vocalise their distaste. Their view of the hand-wringing business-dressed villain pulling levers behind the scene is not accurate. Instead itís people like me, who want to deliver a great experience, with a little bit extra for the spenders which goes towards keeping the core-game free for all.

Brian Devins
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An insightful counterpoint to a thought-provoking article.

Obviously a lot of thought and research continues to be invested in this model but I'm guessing it all amounts to "something is worth whatever people are willing to pay for it." Thus 3-hour movies are $15, 1-hour albums are $10, and a neverending game is worth however much we are willing to pay.

I can live with this.

I've bought $60 games I shelved after an hour because I hated them. I've paid full price for Call of Duty with no intention to play anything but the single player campaign. I welcome the opportunity to pay as much as I want for precisely the features I want.

Wein Chang
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It is great to have someone approach topic from another angle and shed some light from the product manager's point of view.

"I find it interesting that people talk of the notion of how balancing in free to play games will tend to hurt retention. The will almost never provide any credible data to that effect, not only because it is hard to provide but they have simply never seen it - they rely on anecdote and personal feeling. Of course, it's difficult to understand churn because it's almost impossible to know what turns a player away from a game, even the user themselves may not truly know and definitely struggle in succinctly defining the reasons."

I do find this topic very curious as well, although from a different aspect. I think most of the argument that hold this position from a simple personal feeling that "If I don't enjoy this mechanic (in this case, the fuzzy hard-gate), then it is making me less likely to continue play this game." Seems reasonable, but, like you said, very hard to prove, and almost no possible data to back it up.

What I believe the article is proposing is that while these removal of hard-gates have none or even negative retention result, it has value that is only visible in the long-term, such as good reputation and brand loyalty. If the player knows that you won't nickle-and-dime them every corner, they might be more likely to reciprocate and support you. There are some companies that enjoys success (not entirely, but partly) due to how they treat their fans and players, such as Valve, so I believe this is a somewhat valid position to take.

However, on the other hand, not all businesses are the same. It is entirely possible that in F2P games, this factor has very little impact over the life of a game or a game company. In which case, I believe it is up to player perception; if your monetization measure is not perceived as "under-handed", then your audiences will be happy to pay you for the value you offer.

Diana Hsu
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This has been my experience as a product manager as well. Many of the articles discussing free-to-play have come from those who aren't necessarily close to the player data that is used to make the decisions resulting in the successful games you see in the market today. Instead, many of the opinions on free-to-play games come from assumptions justified as "common sense," without any real proof to back up their findings.

Nooh Ha
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Thank you for providing this practical insight into F2P design, far more valuable than most of the anti F2P brigade's largely theoretical guidance. Speak to experienced F2P practicioners and you will repeatedly hear these sorts of evidence-based counterpoints. Unfortunately, people like Ian are few and far between on Gamasutra as they tend to get shouted down and even ridiculed so readily.

Greg Costikyan
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Ian, to be completely clear, I am very keen on product managers who do understand that we're trying to make players happy, and are willing to look beyond easy interpretations of the metrics to try to understand what's actually happening with the player base. A good collaboration with a smart product manager is really useful, even, or particularly, when it challenges my own prejudices. But I do think things change as the market matures; in particular, my feeling is that games like Clash of Clans and League of Legends purposefully are smarter, and gently, about pulling at the monetization levers than previous FTP games. I think there's a lesson in that.

Adrian Lopez
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"... designers were frequently of the opinion that making things easier for all, but particularly 'non-spenders', would improve retention in the long run ... This was almost never the case."

Perhaps you ended up making things too easy for players, both spenders and non-spenders? Between "I could play this with my eyes closed" and "there's no way to beat this stage without paying" lies a huge spectrum of difficulty. Both extremes are examples of bad design, with the latter all the worse for being intentionally so. If all you care about is making money in the short term, breaking a game's balance by making things insanely difficult is OK. If you care about balance and player experiences first, you'd never think of making things so difficult just to make a buck. Unbalanced is unbalanced, whatever your motives, and, if Greg is right, it will hurt you in the long run.

You'll never hear a player say "I wish this game were so difficult that the only way to beat it would be by paying." Offering that to players while disguising it as some kind of perk, while perhaps effective, is fundamentally unethical (and not to be dismissed as the concern of "people who don't really like the notion or free-to-play but want to vocalise their distaste"). A more honest approach to monetization might lead to both a finely balanced game and the kinds of retention patterns you failed to see when you removed the hard gates in those specific instances.

Monetize content and features, not difficulty.

Josh Waters
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I just wanted to say that I really liked your article. I'm not much of an online gamer, as I tend to prefer single-player games, but it's good to know that people are thinking about game design in this way. I know that I would be much more interested in a game when I can tell that the developers are deeply interested in my experience rather than simply trying to wring more money out of me, that applies to ALL games, not just F2P.

Judy Tyrer
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So, according to one of the comments, the only way for F2P to be ethical is to not have any income derived from the game. Therefore I assume this poster prefers advertising. Because developers have to be paid one way or another. We keep forgetting that little fact.

F2P needs to be designed into the game in a way that it is an extension of the design, not a block "you can't go further, pay up". When it become something that makes it faster or easier or more fun, then it's a viable model. The problem is that we don't know how to do that well and too few games are making it work. One FB game I contributed to do did it well. I didn't NEED to purchase anything, they made me WANT to because I could so cool fun things with the purchase. But I could play the game forever without that. It was just more fun.

Amir Barak
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"the only way for F2P to be ethical is to not have any income derived from the game"

"Therefore I assume this poster prefers advertising. "

"Because developers have to be paid one way or another."
You do know people make money without making F2P games, right?

"We keep forgetting that little fact."
Cute. You seem to have forgotten that the F2P model is slightly newer than the vast sum of all video games and developers have made games that made money without that particular cancer of a scheme.

"F2P needs to be designed into the game in a way that it is an extension of the design,"
Eh, no, fail.. do not pass go, do not collect 200$.

I stand by what I said, you want to make a free game? release it for free, allow me to experience the whole of it for free, no money, free... look it up in the dictionary if you want.

If the game involves any form of payment designed into it then it isn't free and saying otherwise is lying to both yourself and your customers.

Jeff Alexander
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(comment withdrawn)

Amir Barak
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Wait wait wait. So the real issue isn't that I sold you a sandwich full of s**t but that I called it "beef stroganoff"? You could have been clearer about that.

My my my, what a quaint view you have there Mr. Alexander. If we don't call a scam a scam but free to pay then I'm sure you wouldn't mind labeling all alcoholic beverages as "Candy Water" or cigarettes as "Happy Sticks"... I mean after all how important is it that we use the correct terms to describe the content of our products...? (obviously, for you, not that important).

Calling something free when there's some sort of payment involved is a lie. So yes, that means calling any of your favorite online games "free to play" is a lie. You may be comfortable with that because for some of them its a little lie and doesn't matter that much, great for you, here's a cookie.

"That figure may be up to 95% right now."
Woopdifuckindoo... Since when is popularity a measure of something that I should care about? Miley Cyrus is quite popular last time I've checked, Michael Bay makes money hand-over-fist and Smurfs-in-space, eh, Avatar, was considered a good movie by most. So excuse me if I go right a head and disregard that as a serious argument in favor of the free-to-play model.

Also, I'm done, no more f2p arguments for me, I'm putting it on the same pile as religion. Stupid, wasteful and utterly unnecessary in the world but kept afloat by people who'd rather make a quick buck than do the right thing. (or until I feel like arguing about it some more :P).

Eric Salmon
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The analogy should be closer to "I sold you a 'free dinner' and you got pissed because it was a burger and fries instead of filet mignon--and the dessert, sides, and salad weren't free!"

Calling them "free-to-play" games is only a deception if you can't play them for free. The term itself has no real connection to completing, enjoying, acquiring all content, etc. You can play for free. I don't think I've ever seen a f2p game where I couldn't play at least a bit for free, and there are quite a few where you can play the whole game and enjoy most of the content for free if you're so inclined. Quite a few only offer cosmetic stuff for paid users, which I have no interest in whatsoever--so I get an entire game experience for free. There's little more I could ask for as a consumer.

Now, definitely, there are some shady business practices that need to be rooted out, but there's nothing wrong with the term itself.

Kristian Roberts
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@ Eric - I agree with your reasoning, though I might amend the analogy to getting a "Free Dinner" with an option to leave a tip. If done right (as you say), F2P should *actually* be F2P, but pay only if you feel like it.

As I've mentioned above, there are some decent example of how this can be done without introducing any timers, hidden barriers, etc.

Greg Costikyan
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TV is "free to watch," but you get the damn ads. F2P is "free to play," but of course you are always tempted to pay. For me, the ethic is ensuring that you can always progress without paying, even if it takes longer -- and it's unethical to block you if you don't.

Nejc Eber
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@Amir: If I offered you a free pizza, but you had the option to pay for a different colored box, would the pizza still be free? What you fail to realize is that the whole gaming experience in a game like Dota 2 is free. You can even earn store money by playing it and selling items you get every time you lvl up. You can spend your money on cosmetic clothes, but you can engage, be competitive and even earn money by going pro or stream games on without paying a dime.

Eric Carter
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First, this is a well written and thought provoking article. I agree with the theme! Games can be monetized in ethical ways that don't exploit player compulsions and kill the game's long term survival.

I do take issue with the way you described the Minimum Viable Product: "throwing shit against the wall and A/B testing it until it doesn't stink." I know there are games that do this. However, if the MVP isn't fun and doesn't amaze or delight the player, then the MVP wasn't truly "viable."

I think that the concept of the MVP and A/B testing can be valuable production tools when used correctly and ethically, and they've been unfairly demonized here.

Greg Costikyan
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A/B testing is useful and essential. But it's also useful to instruct entrepreneurs (and upper management) that what constitutes a "minimum viable proposition" is, actually, a good game, and not whatever your team has been able to come up with against an insane deadline.

Gaute Rasmussen
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Nice article. It's encouraging to see F2P be addressed more and more as a problem, rather than the best thing ever to happen to game design.

My favorite part was where you said "Any good live team should contain both a game designer as an advocate for the player, and a product manager as an advocate for monetization." I think this is part is crucial.

So much of current F2P design is mostly focused on the monetization bit and only with a slight veneer of game design on top of it. And that's simply not sustainable, regardless of whether it is ethical or not. If you give players a bad gameplay with some fancy psychological trickery attached to it, you can probably make a quick buck, but you'll never get a lasting loyal customer unless you provide them with a proper positive gameplay experience.

In the end though I think the F2P model is in some level fundamentally flawed. You talk about the maturity of the market and how the expectations change what the games need to do. Maybe when the mobile / social market matures further the F2P model disappears entirely. Maybe it evolves into something more bearable. For me it simply doesn't work though, because it's a system that makes reminding the player about real-world concerns a key part of the experience, which obviously degrades the escapism of it. How am I supposed to live into the fantasy of being a mighty warrior on an epic quest to slay the evil whatever high atop the thing when the game keeps tapping me on the shoulder and asking for my hard earned money? I'd feel much more comfortable if the game could demonstrate value up front (gameplay videos, trailers, demos, established studio with good reputation), I pay the agreed upon price and then I get to sit back and enjoy the game. Even paying in installments for episodic content is a step down from that ideal, but I think it's an acceptable one.

If I was reading a book and suddenly found I needed to pay money to read the adjectives, I'd be outraged. If I was listening to a song and the audio player asked me if I wanted to upgrade the singer from Justin Beiber to anyone with talent for $3 I'd rage-quit. If I was watching The Hobbit and was asked to invite 12 of my friends to complete the set of dwarves I would laugh in their faces and leave.

I don't know why we accept this sort of thing in games.

Mathieu Halley
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I would say that the key "evil" in the current generation of F2P games is the pay gate - a point in the game where the player is somehow restricted from proceeding until they've either paid to win or simply, paid to proceed. It would be nice to see some data that compares the point where the player ceases playing to the points where they encounter pay gates. I suspect there would be a strong correlation between the player encountering pay gates and the player ceasing to play. As they are quite literally, a barrier to the player's continued play.

Conversely, as there is no gate, I can easily see why Pay to Customize is more readily tolerated. Not to mention, P2C offers the player the opportunity to play the game _their_ way. Apart from the developmental overhead, I can't actually see a downside to offering it.

One pay mechanic that I wouldn't mind seeing is pay to capitalize - after successful completion of a task or achievement, the player is given the opportunity to pay for a bonus of some description. The key components being "_after_ successful completion" and "_opportunity_ to pay". So, not quite pay to win and definitely not a pay gate. As a simple example, in a RTS, the player recruits 10 soldiers at a barracks. After the 10th soldier is completed, the player gets the opportunity to pay $x to be refunded the resource cost of the barracks.

I like to think of F2P in terms of generations or paradigms. The current, oft. looked down upon, generation is heavily influenced by Skinner and gambling. Personally, I don't feel that these influences are a necessary evil of F2P. I see no reason why future generations of F2P cannot follow entirely different paradigms.

Bruno Mikus
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Great article! Although I am a bit sceptical about the "Let them set a limit" point... Has anyone tried that one out? Besides feeling a bit better and perhaps saving someone some money, are there any other benefits/results?

Greg Costikyan
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Well, perhaps. That was the least confident thing I felt about saying, but also addresses something about F2P games that makes me acutely uncomfortable.

Ian Griffiths
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"Let Them Set a Limit[...]
Why not be super-ethical?
The third time within a month that someone makes a real money purchase, pop a dialog saying, "We appreciate your business, and are very glad you want to spend more on our game. But you've already spend $XXX this month. Are you sure you want to spend another $XX?""

I don't view this as "super-ethical", I don't even view it as "ethical" - it's unwarranted nannying, a game developer is not your mother, doling out pocket money and telling you when they think you've had enough. It's a patronising and condescending. I would even see this it's somewhat of an invasion of privacy - who is a game developer to question my financial circumstances? Moreover, who are they to judge me? And are they saying their content isn't worth it, that I'm just a silly person who has spent too much?

I would say that this point of view is endemic in people who lack the ability to understand what value is to people other than themselves. Not everyone sees the same value in the same things, even money itself has different perceived value to different people.

I would say at most there could be an option to limit spending put it should only be on a 'pull' basis and it shouldn't make any suggestions or comments and it shouldn't even have and limits itself.

Christian Nutt
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According to commenter Saul Gonzales, above, GREE and Mobage have monthly spending limits you can set in Japan.

Nejc Eber
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@Ian: A lot of people are psychologically wired for addiction. Bars that are ethical aren't selling alcohol to people over the limit. Companies that are aware of health risks, don't push their employees over the limit. We sometimes don't know our own limits. Even people who are not pushed by their bosses, like some artists, tend to go over their limit and get an tennis elbow or carpal tunnel. It happened in quite a few studios. Same thing with sports. Coaches has to have a say, that is enough, and if more of the coaches actually cared about health and not only money, we might have less problems with increasing problems of concussions in NFL. People who care about you will ask you if you really wan't this, are you sure you want to do this dangerous thing, they will say that they think something you do is stupid, people who don't won't say anything. Its not condescending, it's caring. Like Windows ask you if you really wan't to delete your files. Systems like this build trust.
I don't see the problem with offering players a monthly limit, I don't see a problem with informing them how much they spend etc. If people would be able to control themselves, we wouldn't have services like monthly spending limits with Gree and Mabage.
I don't think it should be on by default or be set at a certain limit, but app should inform users that they can set their own limit. So yeah, I agree on your last part, that it should be on a "pull" basis.

Ian Griffiths
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How many people are wired for addiction? How prevalent is it, and what are its affects? You mention alcohol and overworking that have been shown to cause physical harm. The practice of spending disposable income has not been shown to cause harm, unless you can show me otherwise.

I mean, we're talking about people with enough money to spend on consumer electronic devices. If you're poor, you tend not to do that. And if someone chooses to spend their money on an in-app purchase rather than a movie ticket, how is that a problem? In fact, the group that everyone complains about being affected the most, 'whales', spend hundreds of dollars a month - they must have this level of disposable income to be able to spend it. Who are we to tell them that how they spend their money is wrong, or even any of our concern?

Now, I know you're thinking that there are people who spend so much money that they struggle with household bills or otherwise impoverished. This would be problematic but unfortunately, it's not something that a developer could check for. If anything the responsibility would be on a bank, an institution that has a lot more information on a player's spending habits. The problem is already somewhat resolved by the fact most payments require credit cards, which typically require people to have an income and any reckless lending is more the bank and borrow's fault than the recipient of any of that money. I don't see shops saying, hang on, are you sure you can afford this camera/iPhone/designer jeans - what's so special about games that they should be the special case? I mean, for all you talk about gaming addiction, what about shopping addiction? There's nothing unique to games that can't be levelled at any other seller of goods or services.

Companies like GREE offer these services either because they think they are beneficial for players, or to placate people with similar opinions to you. We know that some people need help with money sometimes, this is why we have social services, charities etc. but it is not the norm. I just see it as borderline offensive for a developer to comment on how I or other people choose to spend our money just because some people might be bad at managing theirs. It's just nannying and it's unwelcome.

It's not that I'm against offering someone information on how much they've spent or even set monthly limits, I just don't think we should be as presumptuous as to say 'Hey, you've spent a lot haven't you! That was silly, why not set a monthly limit to curb your financial incompetence'. I am fine with something in the options, 'Spending Limit'. I just think it's not required to be considered ethical and that it should be done in an inoffensive 'pull', not a prying 'push' basis.

Christy Marx
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Excellent article, Greg.

Nick Martin
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Free to play, like all development, is subject to dark patterns to try and drive user behavior, and as a model, it makes implementing those patterns easier for short-term payoff. But being easier does not make it any more or less ethical to use them.

You can go see one of those patterns at work on this site, just go into your profile and take a look at the marketing email box that you have to uncheck every time you want to make a change to keep from getting your information sold or spammed away.

But a developer can work within the model of free to play and still deliver a game for a wide audience. Marvel Heroes is a great example, a game you can play start-to-finish with your main character without spending a dime. You can pay more to expand your selection of characters, but the core of the game is basically the same for everyone that pays or not. Plants vs. Zombies is another example, where they delivered the core of what made the original successful, added to it, and still fit in a F2P and monetization model. Or take Star Trek Online, which reinvented itself as a F2P, and makes the same overall game to paying and free customers (with the main differences in ships and inventory slots, as well as cosmetic changes).

On the flip side are games that live by the dark pattern, and make the game unplayable. Anything by Mobage follows that particular path, as they've picked the "burn the market" route after forcing a bunch of payoffs. Marvel War of Heroes is a great example, where to do much in their frequent events requires investing hundreds of dollars to do much of anything (and the basic stuff being so useless after a little bit of time in the game). Or pretty much everything Zynga does (or did, before getting blocked by a whole lot of people on Facebook). There are probably more bad examples than good, but that's not far off from how many bad examples we can come up with in standard play games.

Matthew Schwartz
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I thought this was a fantastic article and well worth the read. I'd like to go back and read the comments, but until then, I will add my own: one issue the writer fails to address is the shifting expectations of the player base, particularly on mobile. Audiences who are perhaps not as well-versed in the subtleties of F2P design do not fully understand the proposition that "free" games offer. In many cases, some players (especially younger ones) have come to expect a "complete" experience from a free game, and resent the idea of having to pay for anything at all. This could be a product of the "everything is free on the Internet" generation, or the natural result of monetizing only 1-2% of your customers, but whatever the reason, over the last few years players have definitely come to expect a lot more for a lot less. Developers are certainly partially to blame here; with the amount of competition in the stores and the need to climb the charts for visibility, the "race to the bottom" has made it pretty easy for players to find lots of quality entertainment without having to spend a dime. Perhaps those of us in the development community need to ask ourselves why we are so quick to give away the store for a few notches on the charts.

scott stevens
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"Perhaps those of us in the development community need to ask ourselves why we are so quick to give away the store for a few notches on the charts. "

Because only those games that are in the top places on the charts get played. If you look at the app data, it is very alarming. Even the #10 top game might only make a few thousand dollars. If this happens to you, then you will be laying people off or possibly closing your studio. If you like games, and want to make more, then your game must make money. People's jobs depend on it. Your company's future depends on it. There's a lot of pressure, and taking risks (in the form of knowingly and drastically reducing the size of your audience by a magnitude of over 1000 - which you will do if you charge even $.99 for your game) with everyone's job is a very, very tough sell.

scott stevens
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This, x1000. I love this article. I'm going to be spending the next few days absorbing this and summarizing, then I will be presenting the thoughts herein to the designers and PMs at the company I work for. I hope I can help engender the kind of change you are suggesting here. Thank you for such a well presented set of ideas - many things which I have noticed and have been fighting against as a designer in a large company. You have shown me a way to present this information to those uncomfortable with recognizing that something is off if it can't be presented to them in the form of a graph or spreadsheet!

Alex Greenwood
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I don't know if I am too stubborn but I really have a hard time putting virtual currency into my game. I despise the idea that you have to pay to advance in a game myself so why should I put it into my own games. Why not just stick with the formula of offering vanity items with real money, and player-customisations. Hopefully it won't be my downfall but I want to stick to my principles for a while.

Arthur Williams
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Currently playing Marvel: Avengers Alliance. Good grief, he's spot on. I'm stuck behind several pay walls, not being willing to buy gold. They definitely change item drop rates. An item was added...maybe early...I was getting two per battle. Day of the of the op and after I was lucky to get one on the whole chapter mission. Now they've cut the battle drops and gone with a chance of getting an item on the fewer in number deploy missions.

George Stugard
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Please forgive my english =)

Free2Play = Pay2Win = scam.

I was a faithful Battlefield veteran since 2006. Bought my first console in decades just to play Battlefield 2 Modern Combat multiplayer online! and it was awesome.

Bought every release because they where really improving the game and it was really fun to play online.

Then in Bf3 they came up with the bright idea of a little in game surprise: Pay2Win 'Premium' users = Scam.

Basically without any warning you pay $60 for a game but the truth is that you have to begin the online multiplayer grinding your way up fighting with stick and stones against fully equiped 'Premium' players.

So you pay $60 to became cannon fodder for those who payed $120 = scam.

Also you performance is worse than the previous games and you are slower, weaker, your gun sights are ridiculously shakier!, and every single feature in the game is deliberately and grossly degraded.

The game was awfully unbalanced sadly not to give premium users some edge but to degrade non premium users game experience to the point of paying again to achieve balance.
Wich of course on the ethics basis I refused to do so.
And instead resorted to guerrilla tactics to overcome the artifical flaws imposed by such scam.

I played the game until they released the flawed Bf4 with the same Pay2Win scam.

Solution: I made the decision to sell my xbox with the Bf series, buy a pc and play Arma 3 or something.

And on a side note while reading this comments thread went to try The Ways of History, and I'm sorry but the premise of having to spend 25 minutes buildin 3 shaks for my villagers to shelter it's nonsense.

I'm no one to say so but it seem to me that no one realizes that games can be anything you want, can be seriously unlimited but then it seems that everybody is taping the box around the users head and shaking it as hard as they can just to scratch some coins out of it.

I don't know if this makes sense to any of those 1st world developers but those games only work because the vast amount of people who is willing to waste money on that.

Games are to have fun not to be inducted in addiction to squeeze your money out.

I think that most of those who bear the flag of the 'numbers' and the psycodata are correct in a sense that you can exploit the human weaknesses to make money.

But in the long run they are being sideblinded by the scarcity mentality that prevails in those pay2win scams.

Once you are in a game like the one mentioned before, why not just start with gazillion gold? millions of villagers?
Full tech. Full features.

The pleasure of the game (or some games at least IMHO), is in the balance between players.

Using P2W in the games is sad because it brings the economical attrition to a place who once was devoted to bond through challenges and fun.

I don't want to spend 2 hours waiting for stuff to happen just because some psycoteam has numbers saying that people who invest 3 days is likely to pay $20 not because it want to advance the game but because is incapable of accepting the sad fact that he has wasted the last 3 days into a P2W scam.

As long as is only a simple money operation there's no chance for real fun beacause everything is basically a lie constructed to get money the hard way, sloppy game, psyco technics, false advertising, and pure and simple BS.

Just my somehow frustrated opinion on this.

Hope you would understand and forgive any mistakes and unpoliteness.

Let's play Atari again.

Vadim Yeremeychuk
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Very interesting article and also interesting comments. I believe that everything can become medicine or poison depending on a doze. It works for F2P monetization as well. When monetization gets higher priority than the game itself, perhaps, your game won't be too good. The fun should be the basis and monetization the superstructure, not vice verse. This is the key.

Also, F2P monetization should follow real-life ethics as well as game loops are based on real-life psychological patterns. Different types of users are ready to pay for different types of emotions. E.g. even if a user invests 1000USD into the F2P game to feed his ego, he will not feel cheated, if he received so much attention he could not receive in real life ever... or more envy than new Ferrari would bring to him. It's a fair deal if you're looking for that kind of 'expensive' emotion, which is expensive in real life too. Of course, it is difficult to monetize game's progress even in 100USD. Even whales may see this offer as a scam, because you're asking more than a hi-budget x-box game with a lot of content.

F2P haters just can't accept the fact that F2P exist and dominates the mobile market, so their arguments look more like sophism practice. Game producers are good in this, indeed. When you compare F2P games to other non-interactive art, I believe you look like a dinosaur and talk to people who don't know what sophism is.

paul paul
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Thought I would share a hackernews style news site solely focusing on game design. Ive shared a few posts from this blog Deconstructor of Fun. Check it out and please help contribute to it!

Apologies in advanced for the shameless plug ;)

Jayce Stock
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Excellent article, Greg! I couldn't agree more with your analysis. I sincerely believe that if players wouldn't pay you upfront to play your game, you aren't going to retain them when they aren't paying for it either.

That said, I sometimes wonder if the most ethical model possible was one that allowed the player to choose which pay model they most desired to use, almost in the same way players choose whether to play on easy or hard. For example-

a. Buy the game outright for $25, get every bit of content there is in the game from moment 1. No adverts. No further fees. Nothing but play.

b. Subscribe to the game for $5 a month, get every bit of content there is in the game so long as the subscription is paid. Once the game has been paid for for 6 months, the game is considered purchased, and the player no longer needs to pay a subscription fee to have access to every bit of the game's content.

c. The player pays nothing, but gets hit with optional paywalls that limit the amount of content they can access without paying after a certain point in the game (say 1/4 of the way into the game). The player has to agree that they are aware that these paywalls will be coming when they select this payment option to ensure things remain ethical

d. The player pays nothing, and encounters no paywalls, but encounters short, unskippable video advertisements at regular intervals throughout the game. The player is given a running countdown in their pause menu of when the next advert is coming, and in the last 30 seconds before it starts, a counter appears in the top right corner of the screen alerting the player it is coming. The player, again, must go through an extra prompt at the beginning to affirm they they are completely aware of and okay with these adverts interrupting their game flow.

Additionally, if you give the player the option to change between the 4 funding options at will in their options, complete with purchase forms for players subscribing or buying outright integrated directly into the payment mode selection menu, the player can dovetail their entire paying experience however they like at any point.

This seems to me to be the best of all possible worlds, at least when it comes to funding. It essentially guarantees the developer makes money, but also makes the monetization of the game a feature of the game that is flexible, player friendly, and non-mandatory.

Matt Keast
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There is a big disconnect here among many commenters between what F2P has been, and what it is heading toward.

PlanetSide 2 is a AAA F2P MMOFPS which absolutely does not fit into the mold of a "scam". There is nothing exploitative about it. You can be a competitive player without spending a dime, and play for thousands of hours without feeling like you have to spend money. Nothing is gated behind timers you have to pay to pass, or anything of the sort.

That is the future of F2P. Totally non-exploitative, try-before-you-buy, AAA production values.

Dismissing all of F2P ignores the future of where it is going.

Bokshik Kim
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Great Article!

I understand that you guys had bad experience with some F2P games. But I think we should differ poor design and F2P. Shitty game is always shitty whether it's fixed-priced or F2P. You had bad experience because the game was shitty. It was not well-designed, especially for F2P. Every innovation starts with some mistakes and flaws which can be fixed later with experience. If we had rejected them because they had flaws, we couldn't be able to have iron bridge, telephone or smartphone.

The most important thing about F2P game is that nobody pays not to be unhappy. If the game is not good enough, players just leave. Providing an option to pay to be happier and squeezing money with shitty game is totally different. A lot of games fail at that point - Dungeon Keeper Mobile is a good example. Whether it's F2P or not, the game should be enjoyable. They play the game because they're happy with that game. And they pays to be even more happier.

Time is more precious than money. Somebody might be rich enough to spend $5000 in a month for a F2P game and somebody might so poor that he can't afford dinner tonight. But everybody has 24 hours a day. Nobody pays any single penny to a game he doesn't keep playing. Before we think how we can get money with F2P scheme, we have to think how we can entertain players first.

And it pulls another question. I love a game but I'm too busy to play it more than 1 hour in a day while my friends are spending 8 hours. Then, is it so wrong and unethical to allow him to level up faster and to keep playing with his friends?

Of course Pay-2-Win approach is not good. Not because it's unethical but because it can destroy the whole game. Advantage from Pay-2-Win is relative. In pay-2-play model, paying players have some advantage against non-paying ones. If they give too much advantage, the non-paying players feel so unhappy that they just leave the game. Then, they must compete with other paying players and they'll be also unhappy.

Some people complain that Free-To-Play is a scam because it's not fully free. But in my point of view, the conventional fixed-price games are worse scam. In F2P games, players don't need to pay until they play it. They pay when they know what the game is like and what they can get with spending money. But we have to pay first to play the fixed-priced game. You have to pay before to play it. Of course you can play demo but demos are usually very small portion of the whole or they're often even exaggerated. I purchased Warhammer 40K Space Marine because I enjoyed the demo. But I didn't expect that there's no further gameplay than demo. I don't want to blame the fixed-priced games. But I'd like to mention that F2P is can be more favorable to players than fixed-price in some point of view.

Alan Boody
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F2P, as a whole, has proven to be a highly unethical business model. Not all, but most F2P games are 'shady'. For every example of a great game that features an ethical F2P business model you have 10+ others that don't.

Honestly, though, F2P itself is a more of a marketing term than anything else. It's based upon the psychology surrounding impact terms like free. It's not necessarily the wrong term to describe the games, but it's also a misleading term that disguises the true intentions of those games to various degrees. It's within these various degrees that determines if the game's monetization model is unethical.

There's various elements of marketing that heavily play on psychology. A lot of F2P games take advantage of both impulse buyers and -the more unethical- addicted players that have lower self-control or willpower. LoL is an example of a game that does, for the most part, target impulse buyers. However, there's no pressure to make those purchases and you're able to try the content before you buy (besides skins and boosts). Nearly everyone considers LoL an ethical F2P since the actual game itself requires no purchase to not only play and enjoy, but to be competitive in and explore to the 'fullest' extent. You can come back a month, two months, or a year later and your champs & skins, along with many other purchased items, are still there.

Clash of Clans, on the other hand, is an example of a game that preys heavily on the addicted player with low levels or no self-control. It's a highly abuse game that not only seeks to make money, but wants to dip endlessly into the player's pocket and pull out as much cash from that player that has no self-control.

Supercell is an example of a company that designs games around monetization mechanics, with zero regard for their players: they're whale hunters with no problem taking advantage of a person's lack of self-control. They're praised so heavily by the game developer industry, because their numbers are mind boggling, but don't receive enough scorn for their shameless monetization model.

I'd never hire anyone at a managerial level or design position in a company like Supercell. Furthermore, I'd think twice in hiring anyone at a lower level that had worked at Supercell or any other company that employed unethical business models. That, IMHO, should be a black eye on anyone that willingly took part in the development and continued expansion of a monetization model that thrives on bleeding people dry.

Ujn Hunter
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"Ethical Free-to-Play Game" is an oxymoron.

Ian Welsh
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Ah, Costikyan. I don't have anything useful to say about this article, but I did want to say how glad I am to see one of the best designers of my childhood (at SPI, among others), still in the business and still giving excellent advice. (The original Star Wars RPG was my favorite Costikyan design, the way it mirrored the game world was genius - like armor decreasing aim.)

Hicsy Australia
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My favourite example of a "modern F2P" disaster: reVolt
Basically just a textbook example of EVERY bad UA / revenue funnel / churn and burn practice out there!

Emilia Ciardi
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I don't think that F2P is inherently unethical and I definitely share the author's point of view and metaphore: just like with TV shows, you can enjoy them for free AND put up with the discomfort of having commercials, interruptions etc. or you can pay to remove these hassles.
Sometimes you can pay for additional contents or features, and that's totally ok too.
As long as the user is clearly told what he is paying for and he can decide to opt in or otherwise, I don't see any ethical issue.

BUT the trouble is that the shift to this business model is kind of spoiling the market and the users' attitude to pay for games.
Let's see it in the mobile sphere: the vast majority of the devs is doing F2P games for peer-pressure, because they cannot hope to stay afloat in the charts with paid game against thousands of games that are free to download and try.
In fact the largest part of F2P players on mobile are casual gamers and often new to this odd thing that is "buying games actually paying for them" - they often come from Flash games on the web or facebook. Not only they are mostly unaccustomed to pay for games (and will never be, in virtue of the tons of F2P titles they have access to), but we're also spoiling those who were potentially keen to shell out a few bucks for a good game.
As another commenter pointed out, the new generation of players is born to "free to play" and "free to download" games and has definitely come to expect a lot more for... nothing.

We developers are actively teaching our prospective customers that our creations shouldn't be paid for - just some boring commercials to endure here and there and the occasional tip to somewhat enhance the experience is enough.
We're incentivizing the industry to live on a few whales to sustain it (the other ugly consequence is that we need whales to possibly milk them), while the great majority of the gamers shifts from an F2P title to another, just trying out what they see on top of the charts.
As the people are more and more expecting to access games for free, the industry is relying more and more on in-app advertisement to monetize.

We're preparing ourselves a bitter future, with casual games (why bother producing something deep and bold if it is mostly destined to be a container for ADS?) cluttered with commercials and flocks of users shifting recurringly to the next top F2P title.
A future with small devs with small marketing budgets fighting a lost battle for users acquisition, because everyone is gone F2P so there is no more advantage in removing the upfront cost - in truth we're already there...
The only certain result here is the dumping of the perception of the game value per se.

So in summary I think that the real issue with F2P isn't about ethics, but its adoption is not doing a good job for the industry and is triggering a run toward an unsustainable future.

Ian Griffiths
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Argh! You F2P developers with your competition and whatnot!

Nejc Eber
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You could say the same for TV shows, but Netflix and HBO Go are getting bigger and bigger. I haven't watched free cable tv in years and I prefer to pay for the shows and movies I want to watch and watch them when I like.
For some people f2p games will be enough, but with more users, there will be more people willing to pay for premium experience.

david vink
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I'm getting a bit tired of this 'free-to-play is unethical' talk. If taken at face value there is nothing unethical about it. It's stupidly easy to see how 'free to play' can (and in fact does) benefit consumers because you can try out games first and spend money only on those you really like and play a lot. There are lots of great games out there using variations of this payment model with huge communities of happy players. Saying that this way of earning money from a game is unethical (as opposed to other ways) is nonsense.

There may be terrible stories about smurf berries and pictures of dying animals that have to be saved with real money but that is the fault of those companies. Call them unethical, not the entire rest of the companies in the 'free to play' business.

If it's just the moniker 'free to play' that people are upset about then fine, call it something else. I believe there is even a case in the European court to try to ban the term because it is supposedly misleading to consumers.
Personally I don't really see the problem. Even if a game is only playable for five minutes before asking me for money, in plain English it was still free to play. But English is not my first language, and if someone can come up with a better and 'more ethical' name for this payment model then by all means..