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The mechanics and ethics of free-to-play in Path of Exile Exclusive
The mechanics and ethics of free-to-play in  Path of Exile
March 3, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

Over 5 million people have signed up to Path of Exile. "Roughly" 1.2 million people are expected to play its next expansion during the month of its release, Chris Wilson, managing director of Grinding Gear Games, its developer, tells Gamasutra.

The game -- a Diablo-esque dungeon crawler -- is completely free-to-play. Its microtransactions are entirely cosmetic and have no effect on the gameplay -- and its gameplay is tuned like a premium game, with no stopgaps or gates. Yet its developers are wildly successful.

How does that work?

Building a Community, Building Hype

Path of Exile was in development for seven years before it was released -- and for four of those, Grinding Gear Games did no press at all. Even when it began to reach out to journalists, the New Zealand-based team had little budget for promotion and few connections, and the game flew in under the radar.

That didn't stop Wilson from pushing forward with his own community efforts -- which he is still directly hands-on with. "I like to handle it myself, to make sure the message is consistent with our company values and also because I really enjoy talking to our community," he says. He posts on the game's forums, its blog, and also on Reddit.

PoE.jpgOver the years, he has published "constant news updates" to the game's website, and made sure to publicize any and all announcements the team would make about the game. "We incrementally built the size of the community over time by essentially just keeping at it," Wilson says.

It's not the case that the game has ever had a spike in signups, he says, but a slow constant upward trajectory -- "building on what had come before," says Wilson.

From Crowdfunding to "Supporter Packs"

What has driven Path of Exile's success is its monetization model -- which is quite different than many other free-to-play games. It evolved naturally over time, Wilson explains.

There are no gates or delay mechanisms, and no pay-to-win mechanics. All microtransaction items are purely cosmetic -- a style that's often said not to play well with Western gamers despite its popularity in Asia.

It's the "supporter packs" that the company sells which have driven player interest in that, says Wilson.

When the game went into its first closed beta, the community had been building for some time. The studio had decided to give out a very limited number of beta keys: no more than 100 per day, when the community already had hundreds of thousands of registered users.

Prospective players started to "beg" the team to sell access to the game, Wilson says.

"We didn't like the idea at first," he says, so the team did a crowdfunding campaign through the Path of Exile site. The $10 tier allowed players to access the beta -- and the campaign ended up netting the company over $2.5 million.

That campaign has metamorphosed into a permanent rewards-based structure for monetization: "it's more our business model than crowdfunding" at this point, says Wilson.

"We've been careful when designing the game so there's no paying for game content or advantage in the game. We've purposefully divorced any game mechanics from the monetization."
Players can buy time-limited supporter packs that contain credit for microtransaction purchases as well special perks. For example, the Warrior Pack (on sale now for $120 on the game's site) includes exclusive cosmetic in-game items as well as a digital soundtrack and a special title on the game's forums. It also comes with 1100 points -- the equivalent of $110 in in-game currency -- which can be used for microtransaction purchases.

Currently, the cheapest supporter pack the developer offers is $50, and the most expensive goes for $900. Players can also buy credits in increments as low as $5.

This mix of rewards and currency has proven instrumental in monetizing the game with its player base. "People are inclined to buy supporter packs and then buy microtransactions with the credit they get from those packs," says Wilson.

While microtransactions already offer "enough money to run the company on," the supporter packs mean that "fans are more inclined to donate larger amounts of money to the project," Wilson says. "There's a sense of urgency... with the supporter packs."

He also maintains that players want to "support" the game because its free-to-play model was designed to have no detrimental effects on gameplay.

"We've been careful when designing the game so there's no paying for game content or advantage in the game," he says. "We've purposefully divorced any game mechanics from the monetization."

His conclusion? "They give us money because they like what we're doing." Wilson says he agrees with a lot of other game developers who are free-to-play skeptics, and that his studio's "philosophy was that if you were going to the shop and buying a retail game using the old model, you'd expect a lot of value form that box," and that's how it approached Path of Exile's development.

Where Things Get Weird

The expense of the high-tier packs is notable, however. Still, says Wilson, the company has been careful to monitor the spending of its whales.

He speaks of a time-limited kiwi pet that cost $1,000 and "became such a status symbol" that it sold out quickly. But he also says that his players estimate their likely microtransaction spend over a long period of time and go for the supporter pack that will enable them to play over that period after making that careful consideration.

Players have even approached Grinding Gear about putting more expensive supporter packs on payment plans, an idea that the studio does entertain. When that happens, "we look at the situation behind it," says Wilson.

The studio has turned away players who have attempted to live beyond their means, he says. Path of Exile's second set of supporter packs included one that sold for $12,500 but also generated a lot of interest from players who couldn't afford it. "We had to make a few judgment calls. If you can't spend $12,500 at one time... several of those offers, we had to turn down," says Wilson. Grinding Gear ended up "encouraging people to buy cheaper packs they can afford now."

The company has not since sold such an expensive pack, he says.

When it comes to his player base, says Wilson, "I don't think they're generally spending more than they can afford. We just make sure we're not accepting any offers that make it seem like that's the case."

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Ron Dippold
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This is really nice to hear - I played this a lot more than Diablo III, and was pleasantly surprised at how little it abused the player. It was very generous, so I sent a bit of money their way, but was worried about whether a non-abusive model could generate enough revenue to make it worth their while. Apparently it can!

This is well timed with Sacrifice of Vaal, of course, but it's hard to begrudge standard non-exploitative publicity tactics either. I may even reinstall it.

David Paris
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I haven't played in a while, but doesn't PoE also sell paid-only quality of life upgrades? (inventory slots and the like)

Simon Ludgate
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Well, yes, but the argument can be made that the inventory slot upgrades don't really improve the "quality of life" so much as expand the options for the true pack-rats out there.

The way the game works, you basically never have to stash gear for your own current character. The stash is used mainly to transfer gear to alts. If you're simply handing something to an alt, you really only need a small bit of temporary space. The real value of a lot of storage is for the speculative player: "I found something that's cool and someday I might make an alt to use it."

You start with 4 pages of inventory in your shared stash, which is already plenty even for a moderately speculative player. For $5 you can get 6 more pages, which are also customizable - set a colour and name to remind you what's in the tab - to organize even more stuff.

So while I suppose one could suggest that expanding the shared stash affects gameplay in a way a purely cosmetic upgrade doesn't, I'd count-argue that the base stash is sufficiently generous that the stash expansion doesn't infringe on the quality of game available to purely free players.

brandon habiger
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Stash tabs are definitely in the grey area, and cosmetics are not off the hook either. Stash tabs really make a difference during 1 week races, and the cosmetics obviously become prevalent when GGG does the dress up contests for cash shop currency. Not to mention their recipe game mechanic for in game currencies indirectly pushes stash tabs by requiring players to hold onto equipment drops.

However, as a former player I still feel both of these are fairly acceptable ways to monetize their game.

Wes Chung
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Specifically they do not allow you to purchase inventory slots, as those would be considered Pay to Win in that you'd be able to carry more loot on the fly than others. Simon's more than adequately expanded on the grey area of the stash tab issue. :)

Maria Jayne
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"He speaks of a time-limited kiwi pet that cost $1,000 and "became such a status symbol" that it sold out quickly."

There are all kinds of wrong with this sentence. How do you sell out of something digitally generated? How do you value a temporary digital item at $1,000? Who buys a $1,000 digital item that disappears after a set time?

Ian Stitzlein
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There is a market for it, thus it exists. The fact that anyone can get 100% of the game experience without a dime (and no time/money gates) speaks volumes about the business model.

Alpan Yildirim
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There are some issues with the part you quoted, partly factual ones with the article.

That $1,000 pack did not and could not sell out -- it was not a limited quantity offer, but a limited-time one.

The item it offered was not temporary, either. In addition, that was not the sole thing offered -- it included $1,000 worth of store credit and an opportunity to contribute to the game's design, in the form of a unique piece of equipment that can be found and used by all players of the game, for which the supporter received in game credit. Such items are crucial components of Action RPG games.

Christian Nutt
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Not disappears from existence, but disappears from sale.

Maria Jayne
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@ Alpan/Christian - Ok that makes more sense, thanks for the clarification.

Wes Chung
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While it is true that the Diamond Supporter pack did not 'sell out', the backup for item designs (probably the real draw of the pack) is such that it might as well have. GGG have since taken down the option to pay $1000 directly to create a unique item.

The Diamond Pack was just insanely good value if you overlooked the high price tag. I've seen 1k kickstarter pledges with less offered than the chance to design a unique item, a custom artwork for the forum avatar, plenty of swag (much of which was signed by basically anyone you wanted at GGG), and virtual currency to the full value of the purchase.

The diamond kiwi itself didn't seem that much of a big deal during Closed Beta; you saw them in town all the time. Now they're extremely rare.

In hindsight, GGG really should have put a limit on the Diamond packs (just as there is a limit on KS pledges at certain tiers) but they had no idea how popular it'd be. I bought one thinking it'd be a handful of us, and suddenly there's over 70 of us...

Curt Sampson
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"How do you sell out of something digitally generated? How do you value a temporary digital item at $1,000?"

You sell out by restricting the supply. You value it at $1000 by simply saying it's worth $1000.

This sort of thing is not currently common in the digital world, but has been common for centuries, probably millenia, in the real good world. There are plenty of luxury and status goods out there (and even works of art) that derive a good part of their value from being made in limited quantities though there's no technical reason why more couldn't be made. And there are also plenty of items that cost a lot more than ostensibly similar items; just have a look at the T-shirt market for plenty of examples. (Changing a logo can turn a $10 shirt in to a $40 shirt.)

Matt Jahns
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While I think Path of Exile is a terrific example of ethical F2P overall, its supporter packs really bother me. Few people can afford to spend a thousand dollars on a video game in a single go.

It's no secret that video game addiction is a real issue, and that addicts flock to online games like PoE. Yet these packs turn a blind eye towards addiction. I think payment-plans need to be implemented as soon as possible.

Simon Pole
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The developer actually responds to this possible problem in the interview.

He says they have actually turned people away from the more expenses packs when they thought they couldn't afford it.

Maria Jayne
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I'm curious how they determined who couldn't afford it.

Matt Jahns
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"He says they have actually turned people away from the more expenses packs when they thought they couldn't afford it."

That was in reference to the $12.5k packs, not packs in general.

Matthew Pon
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I don't see how the completely optional option to spend a thousand dollars of your own money on a game has anything to do with addiction.

There is no incentive to get "your money's worth" as there would be in a typical subscription model, and there is no incentive gameplay-wise because all microtransactions are supposedly cosmetic. The only reason someone would spend that kind of money is for social status (as was mentioned in the article) which seems pretty normal. "Normal non-addicted" humans spend money for social status as well.

Ardney Carter
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If you're coming to someone asking about a payment plan for a pack, then you can't afford it.

Nicholas Lovell
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"Few people can afford to spend a thousand dollars on a video game in a single go"

Do you have any data to back that up, or is that an assertion based on assumptions and anecdotes?

Vos Normandy
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Based on common sense

Kristian Roberts
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Ok, I'm all for ethical sales practices, but simply offering a single, non-iterative product (like supporter packs) at a relatively high cost just seems like commerce to me (keeping in mind that those supporter packs only have cosmetic features and the ability to have a larger inventory).

I don't see where this practice is any different than selling expensive cars or designer clothes (i.e. other status symbols which a statistical minority of folks can afford).

Wes Chung
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GGG are still indie enough that if you want to arrange a payment plan with them, you can. One of the Rulers of Wraeclast (the $12.5k pack) did just that and received his title and goodies only after completing the full payment.

I know plenty of people who have worked out deals with GGG in this manner. They want our money, after all.

But it is generally accepted in the PoE community that Chris Wilson is the sort of guy who would be upset if a player went beyond their means in supporting and hurt themselves, so to speak.

Curt Sampson
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"Few people can afford to spend a thousand dollars on a video game in a single go."

Even if this is true, it's not a problem. If someone really likes a game that much, and has the money to spend on it, it's perfectly reasonable for the game-maker to let them spend that money. In fact, it's a social good, since the big spenders are in fact subsidising the game for those not as well off financially.

I've put well over a thousand dollars in to World of Tanks over the last year and a bit. For some people this would be a crippling amount of money; for me it's not at all unreasoanble. (It's about half my yearly gaming budget.) Ten thousand would be out of my reach, but I know people for whom that's not even two weeks' rent on their apartments.

The ability to spend what to some people are large amounts of money is a separate issue from addiction. You seem to imply that payment plans would help with that; to me it seems quite the opposite, since payment plans help people spend money that they can't really afford.

Mario Kummer
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I was really surprised by Path of Exile. Best execution of F2P that I have seen so far, because the money grasps don't interfere with the game design in any way (which is my main concern with most f2ps). Good to hear that it works and that they make money.

Kali Sharp
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Sorry so late to this thread, but i have a few questions: Is anyone else using a funding model like this? It seems innovative. Online research hasn't brought me much info about how they compare to other companies in the F2P space, except that most of what i am finding does have to do with monetizing the f2p game by giving players an advantage or additional access for spending hard cash. GGG refuses to do that (stash tabs aside). Given some of the F2P that are really P2W games (kabam for example), this model seems very ethical, yet im not finding much chatter? Is anyone else using a model like GGG where you can't get an in-game advantage, and if so, who? Perhaps it is more common than it seems? I'm also impressed with how they pump out content, some expansions are better than others, but there aren't long waits. Players get updated content at least a few times a year, so it seems very different than the more conventional publishing models. I'd like to see more coverage on this. And is it as innovative as it seems? Perhaps there are some different search terms I should be using to find more info? Thanks. Sorry if this is an inappropriate place to put these questions, this is just the most recent and on-topic article my google search delivered. Cheers.