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Five key facts about free-to-play design
Five key facts about free-to-play design
August 13, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

August 13, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

"I'm convinced that free-to-play game design has a lot worse of an image than it actually deserves," says Jan Richter, head of design for free-to-play browser developer Bigpoint (Battlestar Galactica Online, pictured).

He titled his GDC Europe session "Why Free-to-Play Game Design is Fucking Awesome." He says that "free-to-play game design is really interesting simply because it's new," and that "the way you earn money, engage players, and have to build your games is not explored territory," which keeps things exciting.

To prove his point, he shared several significant bits of data he's gleaned from his two and a half years at Bigpoint, which he joined after working on the Command and Conquer series and other mainstream packaged games.

1. It's the logical next step for MMOs

You may not think of World of Warcraft as a free-to-play game, but "from a player perspective, it actually is," says Richter.

"You can buy gold [through third parties] and shortcut a lot of the progression system... I'd even say the majority of people are happily doing so."

"It is the superior business model to sell games in a defined market segment: online games that have huge playtimes and a prominent and deep progression system," says Richter. "I'm convinced it's going to be the dominant model for MMOs."

It is not a panacea for the entire business, however. A single player campaign like those you find in Call of Duty "will never monetize over free-to-play," he says. "It's applicable to only games that are extremely viral or have extremely long lifetimes, which excludes most of the console market."

2. The important thing is to engage players on first contact

First contact with your game is where you want to grab the player's attention -- you can't count on them sticking around. The really crucial distinction is that, just like with a regular game, you can't get to the depth super fast, so it's not necessarily about engaging them "when the game mechanics run."

"There's no excuse for teaching people something and not making it fun," says Richter. And free-to-play forces designers to do this, because people can so easily enter -- and exit -- the games. His job is to make sure people stay as long as they can.

"Make the first session as awesome as you can," he says. "From the first five minutes to the first hour, make sure how you provide fun right away -- and provide context and set goals."

3. Milestones are massively important

"Look at what critical milestones they have to pass to increase the performance of your game," says Richter.

As a hypothetical, he showed off a funnel that starts with 3 million potential players driven to the game's website in a month. At the bottom of the funnel are the players who stay -- and pay -- for a second month. Starting with 3 million, 3,000 is a realistic number.

"How you can use that" funnel, Richter says, "to make a better design, is to look at the points you want to get users across, and how you can improve that individual aspect of your game."

The milestones he looked at are registration, becoming an active player, paying for content, and then staying for a second month and paying once again.

To convince someone to register, he says, you might "give them a new giant spaceship just for registering their email address." This philosophy works across all of the choke points: "having critical rewards for people and providing new gameplay for people as they progress" is key to getting people to the bottom of the funnel.

4. There's no morality problem with free-to-play

There's a lot of talk around concepts like whales, and people who get addicted to free-to-play games, Richter admits.

"That leads to a suspicion of a moral problem of getting people ruined by free-to-play games," he says. But that's the wrong way to look at things.

"If you really think about it, it's actually not about ruining people who can't let go of games; it's that they have such high lifetimes you're actually providing people with a hobby more than a game experience. You need to build games that are so long, stretched, and have so much content and multiplayer aspects, that it's actually part of their everyday life," he says.

Compare it to hobbies like home theater or cycling, and you'll find those have their "whales," too. "Everybody has somebody like that in the people they know," Richter says.

For example, he was at a bicycle shop and noticed the most expensive wheel was 2000 euros. "There are people out there who are happy to spend 10 or 20k euros on a hobby, and you would be stupid if you were a bike shop owner, and you didn't sell people bikes for 10 grand if they ask for them," he says.

5. "You have to build games that people will enjoy for months and months and months"

The big issue is retaining users, not monetizing them, argues Richter.

Richter shared an equation -- User acquisition cost < Conversion x ARPPU x Lifetime x Virality. This equation represents the "magic line you have to cross for your game to really become huge," he says. (Note: ARPPU means "average revenue per paying user".)

The issue isnít the equation itself as much as the four data points in it -- those are what you have to scrutinize to see where your game fails to hit its potential. "If you break it down in those four pieces, it really helps to identify which aspect of your game you really should work on," he says.

Since hardcore games have poor virality, you need to concentrate on other aspects, and you need a long lifetime to make the equation work -- "a hobby someone will play for the next six months, at least," says Richter.

The good news is that "once you cross that line, marketing spending gets profitable," he says. "And once you get there, they can spend hundreds of thousands, and bring in millions of users."

The solution, in other words, is building games players want to stick with. Monetizing users is not the challenge; retention is.

Gamasutra is in Cologne, Germany this week covering GDC Europe and Gamescom. For more coverage, visit our official event page. (UBM TechWeb is parent to both Gamasutra and GDC events.)

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Kellam Templeton-Smith
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"You may not think of World of Warcraft as a free-to-play game, but "from a player perspective, it actually is," says Richter.

"You can buy gold [through third parties] and shortcut a lot of the progression system... I'd even say the majority of people are happily doing so."

Uh, what? So in addition to paying a monthly sub, spending extra money on minor upgrades means the game is free to play? That's a new definition.

Matt Robb
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I'm pretty sure he meant it shares an aspect with many F2P games in that you can pay money to accelerate your progression.

Tom Baird
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But it's still a faulty analogy that misrepresents the goals of Blizzard and F2P developers.

Blizzard, unlike a F2P developer, doesn't benefit from you paying extra, and therefore isn't incentivized to make the user feel they need to pay extra. Blizzard's primary goal is a fun, long-lasting gameplay experience. The F2P developer on the other hand, has a very strong need to get as many users as possible to spend as much as they are willing to pay (and in some cases use specific techniques to go for more than they'd normally be willing to pay). Instead of saying "Will people pay $60 for this?", he's saying "How best can I get more players to spend more?"

When your primary source of income involves users paying to bypass hurdles within your game, there is a strong incentive to add more/larger hurdles. And when F2P companies start borrowing from the playbook of casinos, the entire business model begins to look morally toxic. That's not to say you can't make a F2P game that is not exploitative (you can and there are many examples), however the model itself promotes exploitation, and is strongest when targeting the same sort of people who become gambling addicts, which turns many people off, and leads many people (consumers and developers) to be very pessimistic of the model as a whole, since there are already some strong examples of mechanics targeting particular psychological weaknesses in order to increase revenue (see:
ysis/ for a good few examples).

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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As Tom said (quite ably, I might add), it doesn't really represent the mindset of how Blizzard operates, or the actual reality of the game; You can have hundreds of thousands of pieces of gold in WoW, and during any given tier it'll provide maybe a 10% overall gain in your damage/healing/tanking output.

It's like worrying more about what supplements you're taking than the weights you're lifting, and as a result, is a realllly facile comparison to make. It seems like this guy just wants to appear more observant of the industry than he actually is.

Maria Jayne
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I think the holy grail of free to play is giving the player the feeling that it's their idea to purchase something that will benefit them.

If you feel obligated or forced into spending money in a free to play game for whatever reason, then that would seem a knife edge between spending more money and being resentful you spent money and still need to spend more.

I keep wondering if there is a better way to encourage that first purchase in free to play games, I'm specificly thinking about how digital download, indie bundles offer a "pay what you want" option and somehow still seem to make a fair bit of cash.

I wonder how a free to play game offering a "pay what you want" initial transaction would benefit it's consumers. Potentialy showing them they're getting things that benefit and improve their experience whle also increasing that players familiarity with the games transaction system.

Steven Christian
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This was true for me and Edgeworld. I discovered a way to farm xp quickly, so I purchased the xp boosters and was easily top of a new server for a while there and in the top guild (whilst waiting for skyrim to be released).

The same was true of Evony and Army Attack.

I have never made purchases past the initial stage of the game.

Matt Robb
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From Blizzard's perspective, sure, it's faulty. From the user's perspective, it's not really different. Look at what Blizzard did with Diablo 3. They recognized this fact and decided to monetize it themselves instead of having outside companies reap that particular benefit.

That said, I agree that a great many of the F2P models out there are exploitative, and even amongst those that aren't, there are many that are pay-to-win, which I also find distasteful. I'm not a big fan in that I'm fine with paying for variety (unlock a class) or paying for content (new levels, new stories, new cards), but few of the F2P models seem to follow my preferences.

Edit: Oops, meant for this to be a reply to Tom, above.

Richard Perrin
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Maybe I have a different moral code to Richter but even telling myself "I've provided someone a hobby" would not make me feel any better about taking 10 grand off a single player. Especially in the knowledge that their money is essentially just buying them through layers of artificial scarcity I've coded into the game with a few simple variables. Morality is certainly subjective but I don't think the blanket view that there's no moral issue there is reasonable.

I'm not totally opposed to free to play but I think like many I've found so many such games I've tried gross and tactless in their attempts to get at my wallet. Very much feels like being in a seedy casino. I would say that Richter's game BSG Online didn't make me feel like I was being harassed however to be slightly harsh it did feel like an awful space sim, especially compared to what I could get on Steam for a reasonable one off price.

The best experience of free to play I've had was League of Legends. The game was really solid and I felt like I could continue to play it reasonably well without investing money and that most of the money only stuff was entirely cosmetic. Sadly the majority of free to play is not like this, not in my experience anyway.

GameViewPoint Developer
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To use the authors example, let's say you were a bike wheel maker,and you spent 100s of man hours creating this amazing hand crafted bike wheel, that someone wanted to pay $10k for, would you refuse to sell it to them? no? then explain to me the difference between that and someone buying something for a similar amount in a game which is a virtual rare item? You might argue well ones taken actual blood/sweat and a large amount of time to create, where as the other, the virtual item is just pixels and code, so one has value and is worth the money and the other is not....but there's a problem with that argument, and that's even though the intrinsic value of the virtual item may well not be the same as the bike wheel, the purchase of the virtual item goes towards the developers needs in general, covering business costs, hosting, employee costs, tech costs and on and on.

I think the hobby analogy is a really good one in regards to games which are supported by developers over many months or years. People pay out lots of money for all kinds of hobbies, and I see no problem with some people doing the same in games, at the end of the day if they didn't get enjoyment out of what they would doing, they wouldn't pay out a penny.

Richard Perrin
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Well your whole first paragraph is refuted simply by the fact that the $10k bike wheel is probably actually worth $10k and has resale value. After you've dumped $10k into an addictive game, or casino slot machine you're left with nothing. Perfecting virtual narcotics is not the same as producing products of actual value.

Anyway that wasn't what I was talking about anyway in my comment anyway. I can understand making a quality product and it selling it for a reasonable value to make your production costs back. I'm not that averse to money or blind to the needs of running a business.

My point was that I don't think the hobby analogy refutes the moral implication of the "whales" situation with Free 2 Play. You're trying to get a huge amount of money from a small percentage of players most prone to addictive behaviours. Im not comfortable with that. It feels much more like we're trying to learn lessons from the gambling and illegal drug industries. This is not the video games industry I signed up for.

GameViewPoint Developer
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It's a rare item, couldn't you re-sell it on a 2nd hand virtual goods market? just like the bike?

If it's not the video games industry you signed up for than, release a F2P game that doesn't apply the practices that you dislike, do it the way you think is moral, and is fair.

Bob Charone
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'I see no problem with some people doing the same in games, at the end of the day if they didn't get enjoyment out of what they would doing, they wouldn't pay out a penny. '

pay-to-win (iphone games), pay-to-play (arcades, zynga) random-drop/slot-machine (rpgs, mmos, casinos) are designed SPECIFICALLY to exploit weak-willed people. there are plenty of articles about all of these aspects on this site alone!

except for high-end audio perhaps, hobbies activities are not designed to take advantage of people. someone spending much money on bicycles or dlc wants to for fun, not because they are compelled too.

Richard Perrin
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"It's a rare item, couldn't you re-sell it on a 2nd hand virtual goods market? just like the bike?"

Who was talking about a rare item? In f2p it's not about buying one rare items it's about constantly feeding the money slot. You can't resell the "energy" you've bought and spent on the game. If you want drop out of a hobby you're gonna take a loss ditching all your gear at bargain prices. After you've dumped a fortune into farmville, what you have is not something you can resell to anyone.

"If it's not the video games industry you signed up for than, release a F2P game that doesn't apply the practices that you dislike, do it the way you think is moral, and is fair."

o_O That's an utterly astonishing piece of advice. I don't need to lead by example in the F2P market, it makes much more sense for me to stick to my own convictions and release through a business model I'm more comfortable with. Besides in my opening comment I even named a game whose f2p model didn't offend me. My main point all along has been there is definite moral issues with f2p and a lot of developers (not all) exploit their players in a way I personally couldn't stomach.

Danny Bernal
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edit: moved to its own post

Michael Joseph
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F2P games are largely a result of trying to compete in the saturated market of patronizing, ez2play formulaic MMOs.

I think it's important to understand just why F2P has come to be so popular. Who are these games competing for and what does that say or suggest about their design & design processes.

Rik Spruitenburg
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Oh, they are competing for a market of people who don't pay for apps. This is a larger market than people who will pay normally. "I don't want to pay for stuff, there is enough free stuff I don't have to. So as a rule I don't buy entertainment, just food and clothes and a place to live."

Then they lure people past their barriers slowly. That's his "Point Three" up above. It's just your email, and we will give you candy. ...[later] It's just a one-time purchase and it will save you 6 hours of grinding. Come on, just this one time. All your friends are doing it."

Rik Spruitenburg
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"You can buy gold [through third parties] and shortcut a lot of the progression system... I'd even say the majority of people are happily doing so."

Majority? I've never known anyone in World of Warcraft to use these third parties services. I did know someone who traded in-game gold for a trading card with a code to use in-game. And I did meet two gold farmers. But anyone who thinks i's the majority is either projecting or drinking the kool aid.

"That leads to a suspicion of a moral problem of getting people ruined by free-to-play games," he says. But that's the wrong way to look at things.

Because it doesn't lead to the conclusions that you've already made.

"Compare it to hobbies like home theater or cycling, and you'll find those have their "whales," too. "Everybody has somebody like that in the people they know," Richter says. "

Someone that paid a lot of money on a hobby they love? Sure. But normally it's a slow progression of used bikes to new bikes at Wal-Mart to bikes at the bike shop to high-end bikes at the shop, spread out over decades. Is it because no external business was trying to manage his experience to make sure he had fun every time he was with his bike? Nor did someone tell him he couldn't bike up certain hills unless he upgrades his bike right now?

""There are people out there who are happy to spend 10 or 20k euros on a hobby, and you would be stupid if you were a bike shop owner, and you didn't sell people bikes for 10 grand if they ask for them," he says."

This hypothetical bike owner is responsible for his own morality choices however it's easy to picture him saying "Wow, I wish I could afford a bike like that." and them having a brief discussion on the topic. Further, if customer was to come back a week later and say " I can't afford this bike" but it's still in good shape, I'd expect the owner to take it back, perhaps minus a restocking fee for his trouble. The reason he can take it back is that just like that Home Theater system the other gentleman purchased both these items have a real world value. Yes, a used bike isn't worth what a new one is. A virtual healing pack once used is gone. But the rush was so good. (That said, I do think it is possible to have amazing experiences in games. I'm just saying they should be reasonably priced. )

Robert Green
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Absolutely. The very same logic would suggest that it'd be silly of a casino NOT to offer the ability to lose $100,000 in a night, if that's what someone is looking for.
And indeed it would, but that isn't exactly a refutation of the moral problems involved.

Jeremy Reaban
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The difference between gaming and other hobbies is that gaming often deliberately targets children.

Do kids run out and buy a $2000 bike just because they see ads?

But say they download a "free" game like Smurf Village, and they will get constantly pressured into buying cash shop items.

Robert Green
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My concern about this type of thinking is that it relies on huge numbers of players and extensive retention. Nothing necessarily wrong with that of course, if you're the one making that game. But one of the things we saw with WoW, is that anyone who plays a single game, hours a day for months isn't going to be playing many other games during that time. Essentially, gaming, and spending on gaming, transitioned from a number of titles to a single ongoing one. And if that one doesn't even require payment, then perhaps the system as a whole will take in a lot less money.

Jeremy Reaban
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I disagree strongly with #4.

I've seen people spend $100s on games a month, only to receive nothing (thanks to random chance boxes or random based gear upgrades where you only have a chance to succeed in improving your stuff). I've seen kids spend all their allowance. I've seen kids steal their parents credit card.

That's not to say all F2P games are immoral, but gambling boxes are become more and more common, as well as pure pay to win.

If the industry doesn't come up with some ethics or morals, I think it's only a matter of time before the government steps in (and I don't think anyone wants that). The only reason they haven't meddled, I think, is because they tend to be clueless in the West. But Japan has taken some steps about the gambling boxes, I believe.

That's not to say exploitation wasn't going on before, I agree, all MMORPGs have been pay to win to a degree. Gold sellers, selling items, even simply allowing multiboxing lets people with more money be better at the game. But I don't think gaming companies should be the exploiter.

Nuttachai Tipprasert
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Actually in some country, Japan for one, their government already stepped in.

tony oakden
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What is clear to me is that in order to work F2P has to have a major influence on the design, scope and production values a game has. the game has to be designed to work with F2P and that means that games made to be successful with this model won't be the same as those designed to work with the more traditional models. That may or may not be a problem. I'm not sure yet.

Jed Hubic
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I would like free to play to go away.

It's just an evil middleman between players who want a good experience and developers who rightfully want to charge for that experience.

I feel it's taking the mmo/online f2p space too long to realize that original and fun games will ultimately be what sells. Then again, the safer route does keep people employed in the industry which is legitimately awesome but I don't see this model lasting.

Hendrik Ruhe
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I think the genius principle of mmos is, that people play those games in order to be something special. The "magic circle theory" tells, that people like to step into a world with different rules and possibilities.
Suddenly it is not important anymore if you are fat and don't have money and if you are stupid and stuff. When you invest some money you are suddenly ahead of your friends or school mates. You become someone special. The player gets a feeling of acceptance and achievement - maybe even social respect.
Players often don't pay only for the entertainment or the fun - they play for those feelings which give them the confidence they always wished for. But because they don't trust in themselves, because they get bullied around or maybe even because they are just too lazy, they rather search for this feeling in digital worlds.

David Lucier
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As a player of a Pay to Play game in all honesty, the F2P model scares me.
As a life lesson, EVERYONE, should have learned by now. Nothing is free.
Having a set cost assures me that I'm not spending above a set (by my family) gaming budget. Being "free" to purchase items, levels, objectives, money...and the list goes on could be potentially harmful to an average person IMO. I have done my best to avoid the F2P model and stick with the games I pay for, either once or monthly and I would like to think that once this model becomes mainstream that I, sadly, will have to leave the gaming community behind in search of another time waster.....hopefully not reality TV (I'd rather shoot myself in the foot than watch that crap!)
I would suggest that developers realize that there are other options than releasing a game based on F2P or P2W. Personally I have no objection to Pay to Play and I would happily try a 30 day trial of one of these games....IF..... the subscription was less than the one I currently pay.....AND....the game was interesting enough to stick around. Just putting that out there.
To me F2P could be beaten by a lower subscription cost....just me and I know I don't matter but, everyone has their opinion.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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Also, (since I got caught up over the Blizzard/WoW thing), I'd say that basing this advice around MMOs is odd, given his inability to cite ones that have really caught on fire since going F2P (rather than all the ones that they announce are now "profitable" once they transition). I know stuff like DCUO and Conan have done decently, but I'm not hearing reports about them suddenly raking in hundreds of millions.

Instead, Team Fortress 2 would be an amazing case study, as Valve has managed to take the GunBound/MapleStory style real money for aesthetics, and applied it to a game that was already intricately crafted and genuinely fun to play. They've continued to build and expand on the actual game content as well, giving us the impression that they still want the actual player -experience- to be enjoyable, rather than a vapid excuse to showcase silly hats.

I don't know if that directly translates to, "Make a good game, and then layer a paid option on top", but I think it's definitely a much smarter avenue than a lot of freemium games, "make gameplay turn into a painful grind unless you splash out the cash".

Diablo 3 would be another interesting one (that's only $60 removed from the kind of F2P games mentioned in point 1) to study six months to a year after launch, provided that the earnings call gives us some solid numbers as to how much revenue the RMAH generates.

And yeah, it still amuses me that six years after the huge debacle, Horse Armour is now looked to as a driving force in generating revenue.

Tim Mancusi
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Sorry, I have to say I disagree with many things here Mr. Richter said.

First: Just because "Call of Duty" has a bigger budget than any of the games at his company, does not mean those big budget games do not have a huge viral effect. As a matter of fact Call of Duty has one of the biggest viral success stories ever.

Secondly: Single player campaings are in most cases (at least right now) still more successful than most MMO games and with higher average lifetime values. Keep in mind that sequals are part of the lifetime value. Just looking at the top MMO games does not mean this applies to all MMO games. If you are building a whole business model on MMO games, thinking you can replicate it all the time is wishful thinking. You will find that when you take a look at all numbers the average lifetime value is lower. And, by the way, Mr. Richter has to create a game design for a successful game yet, so far no game had virality...or success for that matter.

Third: For games and companies to make money, the most important thing is to monetize, not to retain. The question is how, if the startegy is to get a little money every month and to keep the player as long as possible, then retention is in this particular case a part of a monetization strategy, but retention is just one out of many ways to do it, but not the only one. What matters is for that company to make money, not to have users using up server space.

Danny Bernal
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Look at the Game world + Items as part of a monopoly. The developer controls both the world and the items. there is always going to be incentive to manipulate the world to create artificial value for the items sold in order to create revenue. anyone not doing that is a very honorable developer.
Lets face it, Those who think this way and are in charge are not the majority of the human population.

In the logic behind the bike (from a posted reply way above), you control the item (wheel), not the road (world). your only incentive is to provide an actual better value than your competitors. profit flows to the product with the most value to the customer. Customer wins, and so does developer.
If I created a hypothetical super duper biking track full of challenges and traps and where only my bikes worked on, whats to stop me from inflating the value of the bikes that avoid more traps by adding more traps?

bottom line is, All customers are willing to invest and risk in order to attain value. This comes in the form of time or money or both. Customers will lose interest when they perceive (and they will) that there is a sneaky way to extract more from them in order to maintain the same level of value. many will try to work around it, but if they find the effort too great or that the rules are unfair they will leave.

reminds me of a time I went mini-golfing. Hole number 4 was a "trap hole" where you lost the ball. had to buy a second play to finish the course and keep my date happy. needless to say I checked every hole before I played after that. Hole number 12 was also a trap. I never went back.

Additionally, I've also played a few free to play games I enjoyed greatly. many times some high powered paying player will kick my ass or out perform me. If i have no way to match this power without paying or within some reasonable amount of work, I lose interest. It's just not fair to me. Anything else uses casino tactics as described by others here.

I'm just not interested in funding someones monopolized scheme no matter what it is. There is no perception that they have my best interest in mind. therefore I cannot trust them. and If I cannot trust them, I will not associate.
That is the problem I see here.