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Opinion: The magic of free-to-play
Opinion: The magic of free-to-play Exclusive
July 18, 2012 | By David Edery




In this reprinted article from Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, Spry Fox CEO David Edery (Triple Town, Realm Of The Mad God) addresses the criticisms facing modern free to play games, and argues his case for why this model is actually good for the industry.

The first successful free to play games -- aka "games whose primary revenue source were in-game purchases" -- hit the market over a decade ago. Now they're everywhere. They account for eight of the top 10 grossing games on iOS as I write this. Rumor has it that all the major consoles will support free to play games in the next generation. Even our industry's most prominent, respected developers (i.e. PopCap, Valve, etc) have begun to embrace the model.

And yet there are still many game developers in the West who have mixed feelings about free to play, worrying that it is "evil" or that it perverts gameplay. But free to play is just a tool, and like any other powerful tool it can be used to create beautiful things or it can be used to create ugly things.

Let me tell you what free to play represents to me: an opportunity to bring entertainment to billions of people without relying on advertising revenue or government subsidies. An opportunity to embrace players who want to play our games but can't (or won't) pay, instead of forcing them to become pirates.

An opportunity to stop making disposable entertainment experiences and instead create games that live forever, supported by devoted fans who happily spend money to keep their favorite hobby alive.

For the first time in the history of mass media, we can entertain huge audiences without first bombarding them with advertisements for sugar water and corn flakes and without making them pirates. How is it that some people don't see the beauty of this?

(Note: I'm not personally opposed to advertising in games. But I find it puzzling that so many developers accept advertising -- aka psychological manipulation of consumers – as a given while decrying in-app payments.)

Any good tool can be used for evil

Yes, you can build free to play games that resemble slot machines and are designed to prey on people with addictive personalities. This is also true of card games (i.e. Blackjack), but you don't hear people protesting against all card games (i.e. Dominion or Solitaire) as a result. So please, stop confusing the bad things you could do via free to play with everything that can be done via free to play!

Here's a challenge for every curmudgeon out there who hates free to play games: start thinking about them as a form of progressive taxation, and allow your mind to expand from there. That's right: a system that subsidizes the poor via the willing and gratefully-made payments of the relatively wealthy.

Think it can't be done? Check out Triple Town and Realm of the Mad God. Both heavily favor skilled play over "purchased" advantages; unskilled, wealthy players absolutely cannot purchase their way above skilled players on the leaderboard. Neither contain systems that encourage insane levels of spending, though large monthly expenditures are possible. Nothing beyond the level of what an enthusiast might spend on a favorite real-world hobby like RC cars, golf, gardening, etc.

RotMG as progressive taxation

Realm of the Mad God generates revenue primarily via the sale of "character slots," which allow you to play more than one character at a time, and "vaults," which allow your characters to squirrel away more loot. Neither of these things are required to play the game and both can essentially be acquired for free by creating additional free accounts, though that's obviously not as convenient. A large additional source of revenue comes from the sale of "keys," which are instant portals to dungeons that must otherwise be sought out in the game. Again, buying keys isn't a precondition to playing the game or even gaining access to dungeons; they are simply a convenience.

What's particularly interesting about the dungeon keys in Realm of the Mad God is that they are, in many ways, the purest incarnation of the idea of free to play as a progressive tax or social good. Players want to plunder dungeons because they contain good loot. But buying a key just gets you a chance to earn that loot; you still need skill to actually earn it. And because the most lucrative dungeons are also the most deadly, wealthy players who buy keys have an explicit incentive to invite along other players, lest they die alone and lootless in their own private dungeon.

Rose-tinted glasses

It always amuses me when people pine for the "good old days" of game development, when designers weren't concerned with base financial considerations. The arcade games that many of us grew up playing were explicitly and pain-stakingly designed to munch quarters every few minutes! But many of us still fell in love with Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Street Fighter, and were inspired by those games to become the developers we are today.

Even modern games have been impacted by their business model. Whether it's DRM in PC games or unnecessary "online-only" features in console games intended to deter their resale, developers are constantly struggling with business challenges imposed by consumer desire for a cheaper (or free) product. There's also the common player desire for online games to live forever, even when those games require servers and other expensive infrastructure. So why not embrace those desires?

Signing off

I'm not suggesting that free to play is for everyone. There are many amazing games that would be difficult and perhaps impossible to make as free to play games. So yes, if you love those games, keep making them. Just understand why the rest of us have chosen a different path. We've chosen the opportunity to entertain millions of people, for free, often without any forced advertising or government support, for years and years to come. It's an amazing thing when you stop to really think about it.


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Comments


Lars Doucet
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--Begin Nitpick--

I largely agree with this article that Free2Play doesn't have to be a bad thing, and that Spry Fox, et al, are definitely among the Good Guys (TM) but I have to take issue with this:

"It always amuses me when people pine for the "good old days" of game development, when designers weren't concerned with base financial considerations. The arcade games that many of us grew up playing were explicitly and pain-stakingly designed to munch quarters every few minutes! "

Many concerns people have with Free2Play is *PRECISELY BECAUSE* of its similarity to the days of the arcade. I have no illusions about the "good old days."

--End Nitpick--

GameViewPoint Developer
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Pretty much agree with all in this article, especially the rose tinted glasses bit. I'm a child of the 80s I remember seeing amazing visuals displayed through flashy adverts and thinking "wow that looks great I have to play it!" and then of course you got it home loaded it up and it's 2 squares fighting over a circle (this is before pixel art was "cool"), the games business is just that, a business it's always been about making money first and foremost, but hopefully that's done in a fashion that entertains and inspires us.

The only issue with F2P I can see is that now is the time to use it, it's a way to make your app/game stand out from the crowd, but in 5 years time all games will be expected to be F2P. For me that's the more interesting debate, because then it really is about quality of the game and not price.

Ken Williamson
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The fact that you use taxation as a positive analogy for games says it all for me. Of course most things *can* be done in ethical ways. The point is it mostly won't be - and hasn't been so far.

If F2P made better games, I'd be all for it. But the design pressures of F2P to build systems that encourage spending compromises that outcome. Having worked on a title that changed to F2P mid-stream I've experienced the difference as a designer and it's night and day. I really think the rest is all just rhetoric from those who are thinking of money, not the games.

However I agree the model has potential, and opens opportunities for indies. This is perhaps the only positive argument for it. My prediction is it will become "one of" the ways games are funded, and by its nature will be applied to only particular types of games. *I* won't be playing those games because they don't interest me, but for those they do, it's a good thing. Just don't migrate the model over to the games I once loved and mess them up (as Blizzard did with WoW).

GameViewPoint Developer
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In it's current incarnation it definitely fits better with some games than others, but that basically comes down to how it's implemented, with say a in-game virtual currency or IAP's, virtual currency does allow for greater granulation than "whole" payments for items in a game and it also allows people to play for as long as they do well without paying, on the other hand IAP's is more straight forward.

For me it really is a non-argument for/against F2P, all it's doing is allowing people to play the game, get into the game before parting with money and what on earth is wrong with that?

E McNeill
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In an earlier Gamasutra thread, a commenter made the comparison to the wall between advertising and editorial control of a newspaper: they should not be allowed to mix, because it creates a conflict of interest. Similarly, I think it's best to keep monetization and game design separated; they *could* be handled ethically, but we'd rather not create the incentive to exploit your players.

Edit: Found it! Credit where credit is due. In this case, to David Marcum:
http://gamasutra.com/view/news/172258/Soon_all_games_will_be_free
toplay_says_Machine_Zones_CEO.php#comment154778

The Le
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The problem with "Free to play" is that it does indeed become a "pay to win" model. Tribes Ascend is a good example of a game where the most powerful and unbalanced weapons must be paid for.

And one would argue that Diablo 3 could become a "free to play" system if they really wanted to, where the entire game revolves around the Auction House where Blizzard makes money.

In both examples, game design suffers because the game itself is designed to make money off you in small increments.

E McNeill
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Worth noting: while pay-to-win imbalances *can* be avoided, freemium creates a strong financial incentive to maintain them. Admittedly, the battle for artistic integrity is always present, but freemium does a lot to bring it to the fore.

Joe McGinn
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You can't discount an entire business model because of the worst cases. Riot Games, anyone? It only takes one to prove it can be done well. If that doesn't do it for you, TF2?

Shea Rutsatz
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@ Joe

TF2 is my main idea of a functional Free to Play model. Anything purchased can also be earned in-game, and although some offer different abilities/mechanics, they are well balanced, so you can't really "pay to win", just "pay for an alternative".

And the rest are aesthetic items that don't change anything.

Works for me!

E McNeill
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I think the comparison to advertising is apt. In fact, we could imagine a world in which IAP have been used forever and advertising was just being discovered; the terms could be transposed in this article without losing much meaning.

If we were just discovering advertising, I think some people would (quite rightly) describe it as a useful new option to bring content to your audience for free, without having to use those nasty in-app purchases. But the correct reaction would not be to decide that advertising was, itself, a good thing. Instead, it's a clear negative, which we might be willing to put up with if its trade-offs are palatable. Like all monetization, really.

So yes, you're right on almost all points, but the curmudgeons are also mostly right. Freemium is a useful new tool, but it's ugliness should not be glossed over.

Tom Baird
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A major difference between IAP and In App Ads, is that it's harder for Ads to directly affect the game design. It will change the UI (to make room for the ad), but you don't have to grade your gameplay features based on if they will make your users click on ads. In App purchases are difficult because at some point, the business side needs to get involved and start asking designers "how will this new feature entice people to our store". You game designs are no longer evaluated as a whole (Is the packaged product all around enjoyable and engaging), but is evaluated piecemeal (is the development time for feature X less than the amount of users it would coerce into paying for IAP).

Both have their plusses and minusses, and there are some great examples of free to play games whose integrity is very much intact, but a large criticism with F2P that I have is that it no longer looks to make games that are simply fun, but instead incentivizes a game design where each feature is implemented and evaluated based on how it either attracts free users with early rewards, or coerces existing users into purchasing extra products.

Ryan Creighton
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> it's harder for Ads to directly affect the game design.

i disagree. It's very easy for ads to directly affect game design:

"Watch 7 more ads to unlock this Magical Sword of Crushening!"

"Wear this Kevin James in Zookeeper-branded hoodie around the game for one week to unlock the giraffe mount!"

Few games are really integrating it that tightly though. The closest thing currently is Tapjoy and the offer wall concept.

Jason VandenBerghe
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Thanks, David, for another clear, insightful presentation of the facts. SING IT!

Alexander Symington
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I haven't played Realm of the Mad God, but the system described in the article sounds as if it functions more like charity within a pure free market than progressive taxation, with the extent and recipients of any 'redistribution' arbitrarily decided by individual players, rather than evenly apportioned by the 'state' (game developer). Perhaps not quite as cuddly an image, depending on your politics.

However, my main issue with this analogy is that it's describing an attempt to solve a problem that shouldn't exist. It's great that Spry Fox is thinking of ways to minimise the impact of pay-to-win through redistribution systems. But if we agree that players being able to imbalance a game to their advantage through in-app purchases is a bad thing, shouldn't making the effects of microtransactions purely cosmetic be the way to go? Dota 2 is the only major example of this that I know of, though, and has yet to be released.

Or we have the retail-style upfront fee business model (as well as that of better arcade games such as Street Fighter 2, in which players pay to lease the cabinet, not for incremental gameplay advantages). Yes, games using this model are elitist in the sense that non-paying players are locked-out of the entire gameplay system, and can only deliver free entertainment in the form of very limited demos. But such games are also elitist in the sense that they will always be better balanced than FTP equivalents which offer in-game advantages for external payment, and almost certainly more immersive. While bringing gaming to greater numbers of players is a noble goal, it's debatable whether these quality trade-offs are a price worth paying.

Ole Berg Leren
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I haven't played Leauge of Legends in a few months, but when I stopped, it was mostly cosmetic and convenience items that you could buy. There's been a lot of grumbling that the heroes are imbalanced when introduced to incentivise buying them early, but there's bound to be some issues even after playtesting, so I dunno if this is conscious or not of the devs.

Alexander Symington
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To be fair, it seems players of asymmetric competitive games often believe their 'main' character/race/etc is more disadvantaged than it actually is, so possibly some players are seeing imbalances that aren't there. On the other hand, because of the complexity of this kind of balance, even with the best will in the world it's often impossible for a developer to determine whether the options they are offering are balanced. To me, that alone is a convincing argument that it is inappropriate to lock some of them behind microtransactions.

Ole Berg Leren
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Oh, no heroes are locked behind microtransactions. The whole weekly-rotation system slipped my mind entirely. League of Legends uses a weekly updated rooster of heroes that everyone has access to, and when a new hero is introduced, it is usually in the forthcoming rooster. Heroes are also unlockable through the in-game currency.

I'd say it takes roughly 68 games of play to afford the most expensive ones. That's assuming you earn 90 Influence Points (In-game currency) each game, and doesn't factor in the 150IP bonus for first win of the day. Games can last from 30-70 minutes, disregarding the new map-type.

I think LoL is a great example of well-integrated F2P.

Alexander Symington
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Thanks; I'll check it out.

Ken Williamson
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Straight from the horse's mouth:

Q: It seems that it is currently easier to make money designing games with an Energy mechanic at their core. Do you believe all games will be designed in this manner moving forward? Will we see these kind of mechanics creeping into console titles? How do you feel about that?

A: Designing a successful freemium game is if anything more difficult than designing a traditional game. You really have to understand the play patterns of your users and cater to them much more closely. You need to make something fun but also wind in many more motivations. You need to balance the game for free-forever players and those who are happy to spend a lot of money to rise above other players. That’s a tough challenge in terms of balancing.

From: http://www.hookshotinc.com/in-defense-of-energy-csr-racings-avent
-responds/

Robert Boyd
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As someone who is strongly against freemium, I was rather annoyed at how little insight this article gives.

Nobody is arguing that the old arcade model of monetization was good.
Nobody is arguing that advertisements are superior to freemium.
Nobody is arguing that freemium has to be evil - just that it encourages evil practices.

TC Weidner
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just that it encourages evil practices,

exactly.

Weston Wedding
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I hear you Robert. Unfortunately the only articles Gamasutra and GameDev seem to post about F2P business models are basically huge opinion pieces swatting down strawmen. Either everyone talks past eachother in this "discussion" or maybe the well of good F2P articles has run dry.

Kyle Redd
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I'm actually still waiting to read the F2P article that most interests me: "Is it possible to make a F2P game that also has an engrossing, well-paced storyline?"

That's my biggest concern regarding the model. Right now F2P are relegated almost entirely to multiplayer and social gaming. But inevitably people are going to start applying it to narrative-focused single-player games as well, and that's where I suspect (and hope, honestly) the process is going to fail miserably. I don't think it's possible to keep a player involved in a game's story if you're frequently interrupting the experience to ask them for cash.

Randy Angle
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The arcade business model was brilliant... I got to play tons of terrific games, and only invested in games I acually liked to play... until retail came along and games business changed.

Advertisement model is terrific, especially for kids that visit flash game portals... it is the TV model for games.

Free-to-play is an excellent way to reverse $60 retail business model with heavy marketing (I refuse to pay for a game that costs that much, especially if I can finish it in a weekend), back to people actually voting for games they like with their micro-transactions. I'd much rather play games that last longer, taking more of my personal investment, with other real players, for goals that I set myself.

Retail games make money off of casual players, F2P makes money off the actually core players that enjoy the game: http://www.gamesbrief.com/2011/03/why-core-gamers-hate-social-gam
es-because-their-selfish-exploitation-of-casual-gamers-is-coming-
to-an-end/

TC Weidner
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I have a problem with these types games because you basically build in inconveniences, and then charge to have these inconveniences removed. That doesnt quite sit right with me. If a dungeon finder is a good design choice, why make people pay for it? put it in your game. If leveling is such a grind that people will pay to speed it up and avoid it, then why is this grind in your game:

Call me old fashion, just allow me to pay a small fee, and allow me to just enjoy the game, and not have to worry about pulling out my credit card every time the designer has something in the game that annoys me. IT bothers me, because if the designer offers me the solution for the problem, he knows there is a problem there and chooses not to fix it.

Its just more of the age old marketing scheme of the world. Find a problem, or even create a problem, then sell the solution. From religion to widgets and now games, little changes.

Steven An
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Can someone just explain this to me: What was wrong with the old demo/shareware model? I give you a part of the game for free, and you can pay me incrementally more for more parts. Angry Birds uses this, as does Cut the Rope. This is also like the episodic model. Essentially, just splitting the game up into parts and letting me pay for it in parts rather than everything at once. What's wrong with this?

E McNeill
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The simple answer is: nothing. But it's not a good fit for every game. How would you do it for Triple Town, or Canabalt?

Harlan Sumgui
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because there is a hard limit to how much a player can pay in that model. what freemium does is to remove that limit and have those with psychological problems pump an infinite number of 'quarters' into your videogame.

Cordero W
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" have those with psychological problems pump an infinite number of 'quarters' into your videogame."

Best quote ever. F2P is essentially the arcades again.

Daniel Cook
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I like to think of F2P as the simple difference between the developer making a product that is sold in a store (owned and controlled by some one else) and the developer owning their own store and deciding what to offer their customers.

Yes, it means that developers need to learn about scary skills like marketing and sales, but it also yields a much closer relationship between the developer and the player. You chop out the disinterested middleman. If you are a good, well intentioned developer (which you may not be), this should result in better games. It always weirds me out to hear developers arguing *against* developer empowerment.

The perverse incentives are a little overblown. The simple reality is that in the long term, players punish abusive F2P games by leaving or not spending money. The feedback cycle is quite tight and players tend to migrate to communities that are positive and responsible. (That's actually a huge benefit over retail models where a publisher can soak a player for $60 with a bad game and the player has zero meaningful response.) This is not some gulag country. Players have free choice and are growing into educated community members. In F2P, the developers are required by the business model to be obsessive about retention and community.

Some weak companies certainly think too short term, but the ones that will win in the end are those that take the long view. I want all my games to be around for 10 years. That shades everything and is a big reason why good F2P is radically different from arcade games of yore.

take care,
Danc.

Lars Doucet
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"I like to think of F2P as the simple difference between the developer making a product that is sold in a store (owned and controlled by some one else) and the developer owning their own store and deciding what to offer their customers. "

How would you characterize developers who sell games from their own storefronts with a free demo and a full game for a single payment?

Is that "Free2Play" in your book? (I would call it "shareware")

Just trying to nail down the semantics.

Daniel Cook
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@Lars 'In app purchases' or 'In game purchases' is probably an even better term than Free2Play since that really what all this boils down to once all the hyperbole is removed. Some games set an upfront fee and some don't, but none of that really matters once players are in the game and playing for the long term.

Developers selling games from their own storefronts with a demo? I personally call that shareware. However, there are now a *large* number of permutations, not all of which have good names:

- Shareware is very much about buying content, often by an external store model.
- Mobile DLC is about buying content using an in-game store model.
- Many MMOs are about creating a service and it isn't really about the content at all.
- Some games (Zynga titles) on the surface look like services but actually sell very cheap content.

F2P is actually several dozen different business models and development philosophies. Which is one reason why it gets frustrating when you are trying to build something positive and than some ignorant loon comes out of left field and starts making crazed, fear-based generalizations. Worth following the maxim: "Do. Then learn. Then speak." :-)

In the end, the names are less important than doing what works for your game and community so you don't starve. We deal with expressive instruments, not preordained patterns of behavior. :-)

E McNeill
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> "I like to think of F2P as the simple difference between the developer making a product that is sold in a store (owned and controlled by some one else) and the developer owning their own store and deciding what to offer their customers."

First I'd argue that the sale of IAP is not always similar to the sale of an entire game (see: all the arguments about conflict of interest etc.), so it's already not so "simple". Second, you still have to sell your "store" through someone else's store, no?

> "Yes, it means that developers need to learn about scary skills like marketing and sales, but it also yields a much closer relationship between the developer and the player. You chop out the disinterested middleman. If you are a good, well intentioned developer (which you may not be), this should result in better games. It always weirds me out to hear developers arguing *against* developer empowerment."

I'm not convinced that it really is empowerment. What can I do with F2P that I couldn't do before? In a non-F2P system, I'm still dependent on my players to spread the word about the game; aren't I still incentivized to respond to their desires?

> "The perverse incentives are a little overblown. The simple reality is that in the long term, players punish abusive F2P games by leaving or not spending money."

Just like, in the long term, readers will abandon newspapers that are biased due to financial conflicts of interest? I've seen more than one game reach the top grossing charts with (what I consider to be) exploitative IAP. I'm not sure you can rely on the long term to sort things out.

> "(That's actually a huge benefit over retail models where a publisher can soak a player for $60 with a bad game and the player has zero meaningful response.)"

Agreed; there are pitfalls in that model, too. Demos are a good (but not perfect) solution to this.

-----

I'm not against F2P. In fact, I'm releasing a F2P game tomorrow (using what you term "Mobile DLC" monetization). I'm also not against Spry Fox; I consider you to be one of the good guys.

But I do wish that we could collectively admit to the downsides of different monetization strategies. There is a trade-off for all of them, and for F2P that often takes the form of a conflict of interest in the game design. Can we not agree on this and then start the more productive discussion of which models suit which game types? The one-sided rhetorical boosting just inflames all sides.

Kyle Redd
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"If you are a good, well intentioned developer (which you may not be), this should result in better games."

By "well-intentioned," do you mean "has little interest in making money?"

Daniel Cook
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@E McNeill Yes, all business models have a deep impact on art. This is a given. For me personally, I can't make the games I want to make using the traditional retail channel. It is broken and has been for many years.

Why? I strive to make positive evergreen games that act as services and reach a huge number of people. I'm specifically not interested in making glorified puzzles mixed with pretty art. "Buy it. Beat it." The existing distribution machines (even the digital variants) are focused on shipping boxes that are chewed through so you can then buy the next sequel or bundle. This is the essential vision that the current business model drives into the heart of the majority of our current game forms.

And this is a big shock to a lot of smaller devs. They create their dream game and then realize they need to sell it to the Man because the Man is the only person who buys boxes in bulk. Surprise! Selling content in this industry is a B2B gig, a fact devs ignore at their own peril. By making "Buy it, Beat it" games, you've bought into this value system even if you've never consciously thought about it.

For my needs (which I admit are not your needs), free games with in game stores and deep connection with players is much preferable. This way I can evolve a single game over many years and turn it from a simple thing into a rich living culture. No sequels. No publisher BS. No Christmas deadlines. No middle men. Want to run an experiment? Go for it...you've got a persistent online world full of real people to play within. If I screw up, my customers tell me. Not some distant VP that only thinks of silly games as a gateway to dominating the TV (or Phone or Tech X) . :-)

What does it take for a developer to integrate vertically?

take care,
Danc.

E McNeill
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Dan: I think we broadly agree, then! I could quibble with many of your points (I appreciate games that definitively end, and I think many of your business arguments just point to indie development in general), but those are arguments for another time and thread. :)

I think that this whole debate stems from defensiveness in the face of hype. F2P is not "evil", but you can probably expect a backlash when it's called "amazing" or "magic". In the future, I hope that both sides will be able to conduct a more evenhanded and collaborative analysis, which takes into account both the opportunities and the conflicts of interest that come along with F2P.

Randy Angle
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AGREED! why do developers argue against a business model that cuts out the middlemen and values the relationship between players and developers???

Bob Johnson
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I fear it. Yes I understand that F2P is just the business model, but it seems like a business model will influence the game design in the long run. And that the temptation will be there more than ever to milk consumers and to inconvenience them unless they pay up.

The $60 game was and is often too much for me. But if I wait 6 months the cost might only be $30. And the whole time I kind of know what I am getting or at least know what my maximum out of pocket cost is. The cost is more murky with F2P.

I also fear that F2P means more work. More work figuring out whether I should pay or not every few minutes or day, more work making sure my kids are locked out from accidental purchases, more work giving them permission or not to make a transaction, more work playing the game because I decided not to pay, more work figuring out what my ultimate cost might be, ...

I know none of this is an absolute. Still I think we need to see some examples of great AAA F2P games in the West for fears to disappear.

Steven An
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Good point about the kids thing. I don't have kids yet, but I hope developers implement some kind of weekly allowance system. "Ok Bobby, every week you get $5 to spend in LOL. Knock yourself out."

David Edery
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So many of these comments seem to revolve around the idea that f2p "encourages evil practices." It's hard for me to sympathize with that. We are absolutely *surrounded* by tempting things that are bad for us. Cigarettes. Fast food. The temptation to lie. The temptation to cheat. If your rule of thumb for engaging in something is "cannot tempt me to evil" then you better not walk outside your home, turn on your TV, or use the Internet.

Spry Fox has been making F2P games for a couple years now and we haven't yet turned into the devil. (Though I keep checking my scalp for horns...) It *is* possible to do f2p and do it "right."

I have more appreciation for comments that F2P forces you to make tradeoffs in game design. This is *absolutely true.* And if you want to avoid this, you can absolutely keep making games that you sell for 15 bucks or whatever. Except those markets have their own tradeoffs and devils. Want to sell a game for $15? Well, there are precious few places you can do it, and that makes you a slave to those platforms and their particular requirements and challenges. If I want to distribute a f2p game, there are dozens of non-trivial distribution channels for me to choose from in the US alone, not least of which is *my own website.* (A very large percentage of RotMG's traffic was direct to the RotMG website, just as one tangible example.)

Want to sell a game for 99cents? Well, now you have a few more options (still nowhere near the options a simple f2p game has, but more.) And if you want to make a relatively simple game, that's fine. But if you want to make something substantially more expensive (either to develop or to maintain on an ongoing basis) that 99cents from the 10% of people who don't choose to pirate the game (even though it only cost 99 cents!!!) isn't going to get you very far. Well, unless you're Angry Birds. Good luck becoming that.

Life is all about how you tackle the tradeoffs and hard problems. This hard problem (f2p, that is) has some particularly amazing upsides if you're willing to set aside your fears and misconceptions for a moment. That's all I'm saying.

E McNeill
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> "So many of these comments seem to revolve around the idea that f2p "encourages evil practices." It's hard for me to sympathize with that. We are absolutely *surrounded* by tempting things that are bad for us. Cigarettes. Fast food. The temptation to lie. The temptation to cheat. If your rule of thumb for engaging in something is "cannot tempt me to evil" then you better not walk outside your home, turn on your TV, or use the Internet."

I quite agree that we should be analyzing a wide set of tradeoffs, rather than demonizing one model or another. However, I think you're not recognizing the nature of F2P's tradeoffs.

First, let's narrow the "evil" stuff down to just the things that harm other people (so, not cigarettes or fast food, at least primarily). It's true that those temptations exist no matter what. But they exist in different degrees. Shouldn't we try to minimize them? If something makes me *more* tempted to lie or *more* tempted to cheat or *more* tempted to exploit others, I'm happy to call that a bad thing. That's the point.

David Edery
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>> "If something makes me *more* tempted to lie or *more* tempted to cheat or *more* tempted to exploit others, I'm happy to call that a bad thing. That's the point."

This is fuzzy. So let's make it not-fuzzy: I am confident enough in my willpower. in my sense of right and wrong, and in my abilities as a game developer to be confident that I am *not* going to exploit people. This is partially why I run my own company instead of working for another company -- so no one can force me to do things I don't believe are right.

If you fear that you will fall prey to such temptations, yeah, maybe you shouldn't be making f2p games. But the irony is, given your very comments on this post, you (and all the other people on this thread who keep talking about "evil temptations") probably wouldn't be tempted all that much! So who exactly are we talking about here? Evil bastards who are likely to rob their own grandmothers? Those guys don't need f2p to be evil...

Robert Boyd
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My main problem with the article was that it didn't really address the major concerns that people against F2P have.

League of Legends is frequently cited as a paragon of F2P design. And yet even that game still has the whole "Pay us money to skip grinding" (i.e. you can spend weeks playing to earn enough IP to unlock the hero you want at which point you don't have IP for rune purchases or you could just pay them a few dollars and unlock the hero that way) and encourages the formation of addictive habits (particularly in their daily IP bonus system).

But to hit closer to home, let's take a look at Triple Town. You can buy two things with IAP - unlimited turns & coins. We can say that unlimited turns is just like buying the full version of a game that you've played the demo of, but with coins, the waters get murkier. Triple Town is a high score game with leaderboards. Buying coins essentially lets you cheat by purchasing items to help your game and your score. The developer argues that skilled play will beat out poor play supplemented with coins but by the same measure doesn't that mean that skilled play plus purchases beat out skilled play without purchases? It's preying on people's pride (gotta get higher up on the leaderboards!) which is not the kind of design I want to be encouraging.

But you know what? The very name "Free to Play" is dishonest. It's a bait and switch. I think it's ridiculous that people use that term to describe games that are sort of free but usually not really if you want to get the most out of them. Either make your game really free or charge a decent price for it but don't do one while pretending to do the other.

Kyle Redd
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@David

"Evil bastards who are likely to rob their own grandmothers? Those guys don't need f2p to be evil"

I'm pretty sure most of the folks here are using "evil" as a means of emphasis, not to be taken literally.

There's a pretty major difference between someone who steals from someone outright (which helps that person and no one else) and someone who deliberately exploits their F2P customers with greedy pricing schemes. The latter individual can rationalize to himself and others that he is "selling a service people want," thus not feeling evil at all, merely opportunistic at worst.

Kyle Redd
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@Robert

"The very name "Free to Play" is dishonest. It's a bait and switch. I think it's ridiculous that people use that term to describe games that are sort of free but usually not really if you want to get the most out of them."

Oh god yes, THIS. This is my biggest issue with the way the press covers F2P games. A far, far, more honest term would be "Pay as you go," or even "Variable Pricing," except that just wouldn't sound as tempting to potential players, would it?

Daniel Cook
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@Robert Boyd
"but with coins, the waters get murkier. Triple Town is a high score game with leaderboards. Buying coins essentially lets you cheat by purchasing items to help your game and your score."

Not actually true. This is the sort of statement that drives me bonkers. The game is balanced so that decent players earn enough coins that they can buy stuff in the store without paying cash. Also, the items in the store a limited so it is impossible to 'buy infinite stuff and win'. Using the store well is a strategy you learn if you are an expert player. It is a design thing called an internal economy. Lots of games have them and it is possible to design them without being abusive even when real money is involved.

But we can't even have that conversation...which is a *great* conversation to have. Instead we get uninformed knee jerk chatter about 'cheating'. "Shit there is a store! This game must be play2win!" Self respecting professional developers should look deeper before jumping on bandwagons.

The irony in this specific case is immense.

E McNeill
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> "This is fuzzy. So let's make it not-fuzzy: I am confident enough in my willpower. in my sense of right and wrong, and in my abilities as a game developer to be confident that I am *not* going to exploit people. This is partially why I run my own company instead of working for another company -- so no one can force me to do things I don't believe are right."

With all due respect to you and your willpower, I don't think that you can conclude that a conflict of interest is okay in a general case. If it is increasing temptation to do wrong, and assuming that not everyone has an iron will, it will have bad effects. If a judge or a newspaper editor has a conflict of interest, we expect them to remove the conflict or recuse themselves, no matter how confident they personally are in their ability to be objective. The added negative force of the temptation is a problem no matter what.

It's not like exploitative designers actually consciously decide to exploit their players. The real world, this issue included, is full of fuzzy lines and vague continua. The balance is one of ill-defined ideals on one side and cold hard cash on the other; it's much easier to corrupt a design than you seem to think. Then consider the psychological research that suggests that willpower is an expendable resource and that the people most successful at self-control do so by limiting their temptations (rather than brute force exercise of willpower).

Again, I'm not saying that IAP are inherently evil or anything of that sort. I'm saying that it comes with baggage, and that baggage includes a conflict of interest that *will* cause marginally more exploitative game design. That may be a price worth paying in exchange for all the advantages you list in the article. But we shouldn't gloss over the costs, and we can't just say that it's only the bad people who will ever do wrong.

Daniel Cook
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We've had sporting clubs for many years. I remember a rock climbing club I went to a few times. They often sell things inside of them that make the experience better. Some devotees spend thousands of dollars on equipment. That is the space we are in when we make hobby-based services.

From one perspective, this isn't some crazy new frontier of business. The way games-as-services work is remarkably similar to how a lot of services work. The moral issues are the same. The opportunity for exploitation is the same. And there are lot of natural benefits.

I think a lot of the fear is the fear of the unfamiliar. This is new to some game developers. And it is new for some game players. That couching of the problem clarifies the issue: We need to focus on education. When people scream 'immoral!' we should sit down and talk about how the systems actually work and how they can work well.

TC Weidner
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@Daniel

your analogy of rock climbing equipment and marketing isnt a very good one.

First of all, for it to ring true, the company would have to market itself as FREE Rock Climbing to get people in, then as they get in, tell people, well if you actually want to climb the whole wall in an easy and fun manner, you have to purchase this, this, and that. But hey have fun climbing that small section of wall over there for free, someday you can climb the whole wall it just may take you all your free time for the next 2 weeks..yay fun

It is bait and switch.

Defenders of F2P continually say, skill and invested time etc can level the playing field for those who decide not to pay. That again is a bogus comparison. All things being equal, those that pay have an advantage, thats simply the truth. As commenters have pointed out equally skilled players are no longer equal if one pulls out a credit card and the other doesnt. AS a player I want and need a level playing field, to me it is an essential requirement. The rich have every advantage in real society, I dont want it nor need it to spread into my digital environments as well.

But hey maybe thats just me as time plays out we will see.

Alexander Symington
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I think this realist argument - that with retail in decline, and upfront fee games suffering from ingrained piracy online, there may be no business alternative to FTP for many interesting game concepts - is much stronger than those made in the original article. I'd love to be able to buy a version of Triple Town for, say, 3DS with a fixed, designer-mandated number of coins to spend on items in each level. But if the financials for that don't add up, of course I'm grateful to be able to play it on Facebook, even with a cash shop that, for me, is the only negative in an otherwise brilliant game. It's just difficult for me to think of this kind of situation as 'magical'.

Regarding the rock-climbing analogy, it's absolutely true that real-world sports and hobbies have always had 'pay-to-win' aspects, with wealthy participants able to enhance their performances by purchasing top-of-the-line equipment. While that's a bit of a shame, economic scarcity is a fact of life, right? Sure, but one of the great things about the imagined worlds of videogames is that they don't need to be bound by this depressing fact. We can invent sports that are almost perfectly meritocratic, or create places in which for a few moments players can forget about their real-world finances...and we've been doing it for decades! That's why although making the player's wealth a central part of his experience is nothing new for a hobby, it feels like a step back for videogames.

Kevin Fishburne
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Good discussion. What I'd really like to see is the "Ten Commandments of Free to Play", dissecting what are largely considered "good" and "evil" mechanisms for earning money using the business model. I'm struggling with this myself, as I'm absolutely against allowing it to imbalance gameplay or take advantage of people.

One idea I had is paying to have extra party members (which was mentioned in one of the comments). When one of them dies you have to pay again to create a new one. So a particularly unfortunate run-in could result in you having to pay $1 per casualty to repopulate the party. This could be avoided simply by joining up with real people and would encourage socialization rather than buying a large party and griefing the shit out of people with them.

I realize that F2P mechanisms would vary by game type and the whole "good" "evil" aspect is subjective, but it would be nice if someone took a stab at it for us white hats.

Victor Perez
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Just:

F2P = Marketing Tool.....

Jeffery Wilson
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As the Saying goes: You Get what you pay for!

That is my option of "free-to-play" games. Ive play about every free-to-play game online, to evaluate the features you get. And a single playsession of Skyrim is more enjoyable that all of them.

Robert Boyd
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Free-to-play obviously has some potential benefits for the developer:

1 - By removing the initial barrier to entry, you can get a lot more people playing your game.
2 - Ideally, people end up paying you an amount of money equal to the amount of enjoyment they get out of the game.

I'd love to read an article that talked about how developers could use the model in an honest way without resorting to the typical cheap tactics employed by most FTP games (like pay-to-win & pay-to-skip-grind). Surely there is a way to use the model in such a way that it doesn't harm the integrity of the game and it doesn't prey on the potential audience. Unfortunately, most articles on FTP ignore these issues.

TC Weidner
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I think there may be a way, although a little out of the box.

Why not rely on ..Tipping. Set up any easy way for those who enjoy your game to "tip" the developer. Huge chunks of our service industry rely on such a revenue stream.

Sorta Kickstarter is reverse. At certain tip levels you can even send out trinkets and t-shirts ( its all advertising after all). If players enjoy the game and experience you simply ask for a tip in order for them to show their appreciation, and to make sure the developer and games continue to be made..
In this way there is no initial barrier, pirating becomes a non issue, and people do indeed pay you the amount based on their enjoyment and financial ability.

No one takes advantage of anyone, Developers are free to create rich games without worry about building in inconveniences, and players are able to play and pay as warranted by their circumstances. Everyone wins.

All that really needs to happen is a small cultural shift which allows it to become the norm to tip your mobile game developer as you would any bartender or waitress. Surely if you dont think twice about tiping a person who does little more than pour a beverage for you, a few bucks to a team that created your entertainment is not much to ask.

E McNeill
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I haven't put much thought into this yet, but perhaps here's a start.

Okay to sell:
- Higher difficulty
- New content
- Cosmetic changes
- Access to gameplay in whole (?)

More dangerous:
- Anything that helps reach a comparatively higher score/status more quickly or more easily
- Anything expendable or temporary
- Anything randomized (mystery boxes)

Of course, any one of these bullets can be an argument in itself...

E McNeill
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TC: I've thought about doing a donation-based game like you describe. I think it's a good idea, though there are two big obstacles:

1) As you point out, there needs to be a cultural shift, but I think it's much bigger than you imagine. You might get people to tip in exceptional cases or when the donation model still has people's attention, but most people will just take for free, and enthusiasm will die down over time. Perhaps a reputation-based system could be attached, where I can somehow display how much I have supported the developers? More like patronage than charity or tips.

2) Even this model comes with some effects on the artistic process. You'll still have some artists who "sell out" to the masses in order to strike it rich. The effect is weakest in this model, and it's certainly better than any alternative, but it's not perfect.

Robert Boyd
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The tipping idea is a good one although it's anyone's guess how many people would actually take advantage of it. And E McNeill, I agree with your okay/dangerous lists.

E Zachary Knight
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If it is okay to buy a higher difficulty, would it not also be okay to sell a lower difficulty? That might be something someone who likes a game but has difficulty completing it would be interested in buying?

Daniel Cook
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Tipping has been tried (many times). Makes about 1/10th to 1/100th of what selling goods makes. Usually that is enough of a disparity to kill the game. Chris Benjaminsen has a good talk he gives on his experiences with Everybody Edits (http://blog.everybodyedits.com/) if you want a case study.

An observation from having implemented both tipping and paid in-game items. Players don't respect tipping. It isn't a positive for the vast majority of players. I was surprised however to find that player starting having a sense of ownership and appreciation for the game when they buy items. Which makes sense because they are investing in a hobby they love.

The other surprise is that most players that play these games are perfectly okay with buying items in the game. 'Buy stuff that is useful or valuable' is a rather well established behavior in our capitalist society. There isn't this huge barrier that you might expect. It only ends up being a surprise to a group of players that have pre-existing expectations of how games traditional sell and bundle value.

This is just info from the trenches. I went into it with many of the assumptions talked about in this thread. Heck, I used to give away games for free due in part to fear of these issues. But the reality of how players react to reasonable payments is very different (and a lot more positive) than the assumptions. Like many things in games there is a vast different between talking about it and getting your hand dirty. My takeaway? I'm going to get my hands even dirtier because there is so much exciting stuff to learn here.

Danc.

Robert Boyd
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Just because some players are fine with it doesn't make it right. Lots of players are fine with paying Zynga large sums of money to play Farmville but that doesn't change the game from being filled with psychological manipulation.

Keith Carpentier
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The key thing any game needs to do in order to be "good" is give players interesting choices to make. Most F2P games fail terribly in this regard, but because they have been tremendously successful in terms of getting money out of people regardless, the same uninteresting choices continue to be developed over and over again. This revenue stream is going to dry up as players begin to expect more from F2P games, as players learn to demand interesting decision making over more ClickVille clones. There are interesting decisions to be made in F2P game design and Triple Town is a fantastic testament to this.

David and Daniel: kudos on your work to elevate the platform. As a F2P game designer myself, it is encouraging to see games like Triple Town sprouting up.

Raymond Holmes
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I think sometimes there is a knee jerk reaction to the idea of F2P, not the reality. There is the recent hoopla over CSR Racing. I played pretty much the whole game, in a week, and didn't spend a dime. I could have finished sooner if it didn't have an energy mechanic, but I probably would have gotten bored with the game sooner if the game play wasn't measured out to me. The energy mechanic made it feel good for me to pickup and put down the game, playing only when my energy was full for 10 minutes, and then getting back to work.

I could see all the mechanics with their hands out asking for money, but I ignored them, in the same way I don't run out and buy the newest gizmo because I saw an ad on TV. I didn't miss any part of this game, and although I could have spent money to speed things up, or improve my chances, I didn't have to, it's not required. It's almost never required in any F2P, and when it is, I can just decide not to play that game if it bugs me. I'm struggling to see the problem here, except that the developer didn't get any money from me, although CSR has been at the top of the iOS grossing chart for more than a week, so someone is paying. Looks like win/win to me.

Jeremy Alessi
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Unfortunately, the BIG game at hand (life) forces us to manipulate each other for the perception of value.

There was a great story I heard on NPR about a year and a half ago about a society that traded rocks as currency. The most fascinating part of the talk was how a large rock (worth a lot) actually fell off of a ship into the ocean and yet people still traded it amongst themselves without the rock actually being physically retrievable.

The right thing to do is be nice and help each achieve our dreams. The unfortunate truth however is somehow we must determine the order in which that happens. Capitalism, the perception of value, and manipulation in general seem to cause a single file line to the dream factory.

Some people are better than others at this game ... and they are probably on a top grossing list somewhere.

As for me, I'm still struggling to figure out how to simultaneously sleep at night and make money ... which could all probably just be reduced to sleep at night ;)


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