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This is the future of free-to-play
This is the future of free-to-play Exclusive
October 11, 2012 | By Kris Graft

The free-to-play business model has seen its share of success, but what will the next generation of free-to-play bring?

At GDC Online in Austin, game developers told us how they expect free-to-play to evolve, how it will shape the way people make games, and how people will play them.

Gabe Leydon, CEO, Machine Zone

"Where free-to-play is going is massive, global games, made by very small groups of people that can get onto a billion phones and, essentially, make a lot of money. The video game industry has never seen this kind of leverage before.

"Most of the advancements right now [in free-to-play], I would say, are in community. Games have been largely about collision for the past 30 or so years -- collision-based games where you have to dodge something to survive, or pass the finish line before somebody else.

"Now they're getting a little more emotional, more psychological. The games are more conduits to interact with each other, rather than to tell them a story. They let the users tell each other the story. What you're going to see is major advancements on the community side."

Emily Greer, co-founder, Kongregate

"[I expect to see] more variety in terms of the type of game and monetization method. So far, it's been a lot of RPGs and strategy games. Now that a lot of people understand how to make free-to-play work in those contexts, [people will bring it] to other genres.

"I'd love to see more experimentation and drive in how to make free-to-play work in other situations. I think that's going on, and will continue to develop. People are also getting smarter, and learning the dynamics of free-to-play game design.

"There's been, initially, a lot of fast-following, where people are copying a mechanic that they saw in an Asian game and bringing that to Facebook, and taking things from other people without necessarily understanding what the underlying factors are that make people behave a certain way."

Caryl Shaw, independent consultant

"People are really starting to embed data in a much earlier place in their games. When you're building a game now, you don't even consider building it out without pulling in data. That certainly wasn't the case two or three years ago, when people were like, 'I put out a game! We'll see what it does!' That just doesn't happen anymore. People are using data.

"In the next half-a-year to year-and-a-half or so, people are going to understand data analysis better. I was in a talk this morning, and the guy was talking about ARPU (average revenue per user) being a really important stat. But to me, ARPU is not that important anymore. I don't look at the average revenue per user. I don't look at the sum total. I look at the average revenue per paying user, and how many of my users are paying. It's got to turn into the next generation of data analytics, and understanding data better."

John Smedley, CEO, SOE

"We used to do very standard stuff that's still what most MMO games use, which are things called win-backs. A player would buy a retail game, play it for 'X' amount of time, then they'd stop playing. Then you'd send them emails with incentives for them to log back in.

"It's different now. The difference is free-to-play gives people the opportunity to come back in on a weekly basis, or a monthly basis. You put out a new patch, and they just pop back in because there's no barrier to entry. That changes everything about how you market to your players, how you interact with your players. [Free-to-play] means you have a constant dialogue with your players, and that you're making sure they're aware of what's going on in your game. Now we reach out on other channels like Twitter and Reddit, places where players are, even though they're not playing our games."

Joost van Dreunen, CEO, SuperData Research

"As gamers get more comfortable with spending a dollar or five bucks or ten bucks at a time, that's just kind of a new environment where you have to design games that suit those customer needs.

"What that means is that [developers] will be looking more at games that focus on a niche, rather than large scale. There's going to be less of an emphasis on [player] acquisition, and a greater emphasis on retention.

"Previously, it's been all about, 'Hey, let's get a million people in the door, and convert a small percentage of them.' The next step will be, 'Let's get 50,000 people as our customer base, and try to keep them as long as possible.' Those are the makings of what will ultimately be much more of a fragmented market in terms of genres and game mechanics.

"There's a lot of opportunity for developers to find their way into the market. The new revenue models also offer new opportunity to design games. It's up to whoever is nimble enough to make the most of that."

Gamasutra is at GDC Online in Austin this week. Check out our event page for the latest on-site coverage.

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Matt Robb
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"But to me, ARPU is not that important anymore. I don't look at the average revenue per user. I don't look at the sum total. I look at the average revenue per paying user, and how many of my users are paying."

So how long until they go full circle and realize it's just a ratio of revenue and cost like it has always been. Sure, it can get nuanced, but these guys need to stop looking for the "single magic number" and truly understand their costs and revenues for various customer types.

TC Weidner
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so instead of just creating fun games and selling them for an honest price. Now game design is all about, how can I design in and trick some of the compulsive contingent of customers to pay and pay and pay some more.

Yeah sounds like a real hoot. Why not just design banking software that hides all sorts of over draft fees and so forth and just be done with it.

Call me old fashion but I just like my fees upfront and transparent.

Creating games that will prey upon a certain personality type....this ? this is gaming's future? really..

E McNeill
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I'm no fan of black hat game design, but it's simplistic to lump all F2P games together as predatory trickery. We need more nuance, not more diatribes.

Marc Wilhelm
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I'm confident that the F2P model can be done ethically and transparently. The fact of the matter is, audience preference is changing.

E Zachary Knight
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To me, free to play is just another way to create a pay what you want system. If you create a free to play game with microtransactions, you are giving the player the ability to try out as much of the game as they want and then decide if they want to pay to support the developer. They can decide how much to pay, how often to pay etc. Some with pay what you want. However, with pay what you want, you don't necessarily get to try out the game for free and you only pay once.

The big difference is that with free to play, you give the player the ability to come back and pay more later.

TC Weidner
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hell, even the moniker is deceiving " Free to play". I'm pretty sure this industry is not a non profit charity.

But to each their own, but for me, I dont want to play a game in which I have to worry about small print, or " whats the catch". I sure wouldnt want to have to create a game with such design constraints either.
But hey, ethics is why I left wall street many moons ago to. Its just ironic how that "approach" to business has permeated so many american industries. Its definitely not for the better.

To each their own.

E Zachary Knight
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I agree that Free to Play developers should avoid deceptive or abusive monetization models. But it is completely possible to create a free to play game that is not deceptive or abusive and will still make money.

TC Weidner
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@E But it is completely possible to create a free to play game that is not deceptive or abusive and will still make money.
I agree, the question I have is, will this honest approach be the majority or just the exception?
Knowing american business as I do, I fear deception will prove more profitable as it has in many industries, and thus we will have a part of this industry sliding into that arena of ethical morass.
I hope I am wrong, I just doubt I will be.

Kevin Alexander
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Or maybe it's always been that way, but we just called it "trying to make a fun game" before.

Lex Allen
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I think that there will always be a place for traditional retail games, but lower prices are something that we're going to have to live with.

Phil Xie
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I agree, the question I have is, will this honest approach be the majority or just the exception?

This is pure optimistic conjecture on my part, but I imagine players are smarter than the black hats think. There is a limit to the amount of times one can fall for the ol' 3 card monte scam. Granted, current game design can be much more complicated than the most elaborate con, but I think players are intuitively drifting away from the games(and publishers) that see games as a product to be sold by whatever means necessary and towards those who see games as a service, one that can not exist without an honest and transparent back and forth between creator and end user.

Although, I must admit, there is a certain sociopathic logic to just building an elaborate skinner box, using to suck as much revenue as possible from one user group, then simply moving on to the next group of suckers.

Hakim Boukellif
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@Phil Xie
Entire cities have been built on "games" that only have a "Spend money" button.

Curtiss Murphy
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"Previously, it's been all about, 'Hey, let's get a million people in the door, and convert a small percentage of them.' The next step will be, 'Let's get 50,000 people as our customer base, and try to keep them as long as possible.' Those are the makings of what will ultimately be much more of a fragmented market in terms of genres and game mechanics."

-- That's a neat shift in the market. Hope it continues.

Steve Fulton
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"Free To Start" might be a better name.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I think Emily has it right.

In response to various comments on the dark side of monetization, yes most free to play models are deceptive and coercive. This has had a negative effect on ALL of us as it has made consumers very cynical about our products at a time when we should be making record profits and revenues. The blame here of course must be put on both investors and management. I hope these groups become more educated about the possibilities in the space so that we can get back to making innovative products instead of "playing it safe". In an industry where our consumers crave innovation, playing it safe never is for long.

Carlo Delallana
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Never put the cart before the horse as they say. Let me design a game that people can fall madly in love with that they can't help but spend money on it.

We all pur money on things we are passionate about. Same goes for games that we connect with on a deeper level.

Michael Joseph
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I think there was an initial fear that all games would be forced to go F2P to compete but what is clear now is that F2P is the new home for derivative games. There are exceptions of course, but as a rule, F2P land is for unambitious, low aspiration games with calculated, mechanical game design.

Premier games will not be competing on the value menu any time soon. They don't have to. And by premier games i don't necessarily mean a game that has the best audio and visuals. A premier game is the type of game a user wants to own and will still play or replay years later. They are made by the developers who innovate, who push technology, and aren't afraid to take risks. They are the games that define or redefine a genre by setting new standards in gameplay. And those are the games that a developer can truely be proud of. How many F2P games you think people will still want to play 10, 15, 20 years later?

F2P developers need to be wary of developing a sense of entitlement to their user's money. I think that's a dangerous attitude that can creep in under the radar. Afterall, if they release something they know isn't particularly special (eg a clone) and they make money off it, they may be inclined to believe that quality and innovation are not that important. But that sort of cavalier attitude eventually comes back to bite you.

Jeremy Reaban
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The trouble, at least from a consumer point of view, is that premier games will adopt F2P style monetization, but still cost $60. We've already seen that, with some games going beyond regular DLC (aka content removed from the game then added back in), offering things like random boxes (Mass Effect 3's Reinforcement Packs)

Michael Joseph
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F2P definetly needs more diversity though.

F2P business model has practically become a genre unto itself and that's BAD.

John Flush
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What limits free to play though is at the core of the gameplay functionality it really is "free to grind or pay to get to the point." - can you have a story driven RPG that is free to play? No, but you can have a free to play stat boosting game that requires countless playthroughs to level up or a .99 for 20 levels, or .99 get armor so you can actually play the harder bosses.

Now, to see it from the other side though. The market does want this in some regard. A long game that can waste a teenagers summer, or a long game quickly circumvented for a player on a time budget more than a money budget.

Another good example are all the free to play app store games. Sure I could grind forever to unlock everything - or .99 gets me 20 hours of time wasting shortened up. That genre just won't stick in my opinion.

GameViewPoint Developer
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F2P has come about due to advancements in technology primarily, and not because it's some fool proof methodology to get money from people. The advancements I'm referring too being social integration into games, persistant online player data (whether that be in a world or just player accounts) and platforms that offer huge numbers of games (mobile, xbox live etc) quickly to the player. An environment where people can just instantly play/try/experience without paying first to me seems a natural evolution from this situation.

Someone above said "Call me old fashion but I just like my fees upfront and transparent. " ok, but were the items you paid for in that fashion also upfront and transparent in the sense of what they were? or what they were purporting to offer ? Was every game you bought exactly what you thought it would be? To me games have always been a bit of a lottery, you pay your money and then find out whether you like it or not afterwards.

I'm finding it amusing when people argue against something being given to them for free. And complain that some people actually pay because they are having a good time playing! the horror!

The new means of payment are a natural extension of how games have evolved, and where they are today.

TC Weidner
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The new means of payment are a natural extension of how games have evolved, and where they are today.
Not an natural extension of games, its a natural extension of this society and it fascination of not doing anything above board any more. Its all slight of hand, fine print, trickery. From banking, to mortgages, to food products and everything in between. Its all about FOOLING and tricking the customer. I am not saying this didnt sometimes happen in the past with the regular purchase model due to some shoddy products, I m saying I am sad to see this trickery now becoming a main stay in the industry and a part of game design itself.
Ive seen this shady business practice permeate so many industries during my business career, Im just sad to see it take hold of gaming as well.

Karl E
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Agree about technological advancements being the reason for F2P, but in a more straightforward manner: new technologies have made it much cheaper to create games, creating a glut and thus making free the only way to reach the audience.

Also agree about the "upfront and transparent" comment. As a schoolboy I sometimes used a whole month's allowance to buy genesis games only based on the screenshots on the back. I didn't have gamer friends or access to magazines. So obviously you got ripped off sometimes.

In F2P games there is perhaps more transparency than anywhere else about what players actually get. Often players have already seen other players use the items they are buying.

Thom Q
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Free to Play is nothing more then glorified Shareware -> You Pay after playing a while.

The triple-A market just screwed itself with all those soulless clones they've been putting out. People are done with them, and their ridiculously high pricing. If you manage to f up franchises like Final Fantasy & Resident Evil, you really have to be trying ;)

Hakim Boukellif
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With shareware, the game at least stops nagging for money after you make the one payment.

GameViewPoint Developer
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@Hakim, you can actually stop playing the game if you don't like it nagging you, you realise this yes? :)

Kevin Bender
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Anyone play League of Legends? I think that is a really effective use of the f2p model. I think maybe most of the comments are coming from people play mobile games, because IMO LoL doesn't fall into any of the traps that commenters have been talking about.

GameViewPoint Developer
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From what I can see LoL works because they actually offer good value for money, that's the key, whether it's pay up front of F2P.

Anthony Giallourakis
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There was a time when free-to-play meant junk. Think of the early evolution of flash games as an example. Now, thanks to in game monetization and the advent of social networks like Facebook, everyone is becoming accustomed to no-upfront-cost games. This shift in the public perception has especially benefited how players now look at brand sponsored games, namely advergames. Unlike game development that is driven by investment, advergames are sponsored out of huge advertising budgets. The combination of a change in perception by players and increasing online advertising budgets will drive advergaming to new heights of interest and effectiveness. Native content development is going to take off, and advergames are going to be a major benefactor of this expansion.

Bob Satori
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What not to do with F2P: sell massive amounts of virtual items to users in the course of a few months and then just shut down the service.

NCSoft, I'm looking at you.