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Why free-to-play is not the answer to everything

By on July 12, 2011
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This is a guest post from Paul Taylor of Mode 7, an indie development studio based in Oxford. Their current project is Frozen Synapse, a critically acclaimed multiplayer and single player squad-based tactical game for PC and Mac.  Check it out at

The post originally appeared on the Mode 7 blog, and is reproduced with permission.

Paul Taylor

I read this post on Gamesbrief this morning.

It’s Mr Lovell’s usual evangelical pro-F2P…I was going to say “trolling” but that’s unfair.  As he himself will freely admit, his writing tends towards the hyperbolic in order to draw people in and start a conversation in which all sides of the argument are welcome.

Indeed, I’ve written for Gamesbrief myself in the past, which was great.

My main problem with this post is that it boldly asserts that F2P will inevitably slaughter all of the other business models and emerge triumphant, brandishing their expressionless, sorrowfully hatless heads with furious gusto…

“…on a ten year view, I don’t believe it will be possible to charge for basic access to content at all. We will all expect to have access to all the music, all the books, all the television and all the games that we could ever want. Sure, someone could invest in content and tell me that I can’t have it unless I pay. But there will be so many alternatives, both legal and illegal, that the model of paying access will be close to impossible to sustain. “

There’s some noticeable hedging here: we go from “I don’t believe it will be possible” to “close to impossible” in the blink of a paragraph.

However, I’m going to take this at face value.

Then I’m going to say, respectfully, “Bollocks.”

Free-to-play is a juggernaut

Free-to-play is a juggernaut: we’ve just seen Valve take a very popular “core” game and convert it fully to F2P; we’re hearing rumbles about other platform holders bringing in F2P support; we’re all aware of the world-changing sales figures that titles like Moshi Monsters and developers like Zynga generate.

Fantastic!  It’s great that the games industry has produced an exciting new payment model that can be used in all kinds of different ways by all kinds of different titles.

But what these trends don’t mean is that every game should be F2P, and they certainly don’t mean that every game will be F2P.

F2P titles rely on generating a very large audience of players, a percentage of whom are willing to pay for specific in-game experiences or status.   Let’s say that percentage is roughly 10% of your total audience.

In order to make a free-to-play game in the traditional sense, a developer therefore needs to design an experience that lends itself to purchasing opportunities.  Obviously, Farmville is designed around pushing players into paying money to maintain a pleasurable state.  Valve have very cleverly identified that TF2 is now a large-scale social system in which people will pay money to express themselves.

But what if the experience you want to design does not lend itself to purchasing prompts?  What if it can’t be supported by adverts?  What if it’s targeted at an extremely small audience who want to forget about money for a period of time?

Then you can’t make that game F2P, and you shouldn’t try.

Say I’m creating a competitive game like Starcraft 2, or a deeply affecting experience like Amnesia…I don’t want to be badgering my customers for money every ten seconds.  I do not want to display, “It looks like you’re doing a 2 barracks pressure build!  Would you like to spend £2 to cut your bunker build time by half?”

It’s my belief that a significant number of people who play games do not want to buy hats, pretend money, carrots or magical ears: they want to buy a game once, as a product, and then leave it at that.

I think, actually, that’s one reason Steam is such a success.  Steam itself is like a giant F2P game, and the “virtual items” are the individual experiences on sale in the catalogue.  That’s the theme apparent here, proving that even Gamesbrief accepts there’s many different kinds of “high lifetime-value customers”…

Once you start thinking in this way, it might be possible to justify all kinds of hideously untrendy thinking, like setting a reasonably high price for an indie title, for example.  If you’re offering a desirable niche experience that can’t be found elsewhere, a product that will make users stand out, then why not aim higher?

What I believe about free-to-play games

Let me now clarify a couple of things I do believe about free-to-play games:

1.)  Free-to-play games will consistently make more money than “pay once” games

If you are an investor, and you are about to chose between a hypothetical brilliant “pay once” game developer and a hypothetical equally-brilliant “free-to-play” developer, you invest in F2P.  Although, you’re probably too late now, but that’s a different story.

F2P games are for large audiences and they are designed around maximal money extraction.

While I think more “niche” F2P games will emerge as F2P development matures creatively, I still believe that the overall target audience required is larger than for a pay once title.

2.) Free-to-play games have lessons for all game developers

I think the key lesson that indie devs in particular need to learn from F2P is this: “Your fans want to pay for additional content that is meaningful to them.

Many, many people have told me, for example, that they are happy to pay for certain additions to Frozen Synapse.  So, naturally, we’re going to look into ways in which we can develop those additions, and release them for a sensible price.

Low-cost MEANINGFUL DLC for your fans is not used enough by many, many indie devs.  They are missing out on a lot of revenue; gamers are missing out on cool stuff.  This should be corrected.

3.)  A lot of F2P games are rubbish because F2P is immature: that does not have to be the case.

I think the crude, anti-player nature of many F2P games will largely diminish as talented designers become more familiar with its constraints.

I believe new audiences will come to F2P and it will grow significantly in the next few years.

The place for "pay once" games

I don’t think “pay once” games will ever be stamped out completely, though. Here are three examples of niches that are not going away any time soon that I believe require “pay once”…

  • Titles that require discreet, uninterrupted narrative; “rollercoaster” games
  • Competitive multiplayer titles for small audiences
  • Experimental games that focus on a small subset of mechanics

Am I saying that those games can’t have large, innovative free demos, sell DLC or be marketed via the use of free products made by their creators? No.  I’m saying that I don’t think they can be supported by advertising or microtransactions, and that audiences will always want them.

I have said rude things about free-to-play games in the past.  I felt frustrated about being told that Frozen Synapse should be a free-to-play browser-based game so many times, so I vented my spleen.

That is not because I am anti-F2P; it is because I am anti-Evangelical F2P.  I can imagine making an F2P game in the future, but I cannot imagine telling everyone else that they are stupid for not doing so.

Finally, creatively and commercially, sometimes it’s not sensible to aim at The Biggest Possible Amount of Money.  That leads to exploitative, derivative, artistically-impoverished products that nobody wants.  Equally, aiming for artistic brilliance can lead to self-important, inadequate drivel, so there is a balance to be struck here.

The rabidly pro-F2P camp and rabidly anti-F2P camp both come across as a bit silly.  I think it’s time to be intelligent about F2P, with all its strengths and weaknesses.

If you want to aim at selling a singular experience, aim for “pay once”, because it’s not going anywhere.

Digital distribution is the MMO, your game is the Heroic Purple Moustache of Peacockhood.

About Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor is managing director of indie studio Mode 7 games. Tweet him at @mode7games
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  • Bamfdyna

    as an avid gamer of mmorpgs for about 17 years i completely disagree the volume of money a player such as a core player would pay in a f2p would be exponentially higher then a fair rate, when the things they would pay for ie items stats quests, which should be part of the developed product not some bare bones product that you backfill with purchased stuff later at an inflated fee. I dont know about you guys but sinking tons of money into that stuff will drum out the people who have spent a long time playing games like ever quest 1 and 2 swg, UO Daoc, rift, aion etc I know there are tons more but I know I wont play a game that is continuously dipping into my wallet to sustain the playable content.

  • The problem I have with that suggestion is that the players who play the most, and use up the most developer resources, don’t pay proportionately to their usage: they are being subsidised by casual players.
    Free-to-play is a much fairer way of spreading the cost amongst the biggest fans, and I believe that this works just as well for core players in the long run.

  •  If a game begins as Pay to Play, and then changes to Free to Play you will have a new problem: Game balance changes. As players start buying the extra items to enhance their stats, other players who were around for years become upset. Usually a “free to play” game will retain an element of a pay to play via premium features (Such as the Gold account in Everquest, or the Hidden Village pass in Rappelz) so players will find themselves paying not only a subscription like they were, but now also just to keep up with other players. This can be really dangerous when you factor in Player vs. Player where a broken item that everyone has to buy (Like Everquest’s new double your hit points and mana mount) will completely change the player vs. player experience.

    In reality, the movement towards free to play is just an abandonment of core players for the casual players. My prediction is that as more games do this there will be a growing demand for a game that satisfied the core players. Companies would do better to embrace BOTH business models. Have some servers “pay to play” and other servers “free to play”. Treat them as completely different games. Then the core players will have their place to be.

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  • Paul

    And if you are Blizzard you can charge people for the game, then a subscription, then also for a shiny flying mount

    key point is “Your fans want to pay for additional content that is meaningful to them.” understand your fans then you understand what is meaningful to them

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  • Mark Cerny has also been fairly vocal about ways of making money with games. He has asked game developers and business people if we can come up with any new and better ways. He likened a lot of the currently popular methods of making money to the coin-op days in arcades. I think it would be brilliant to figure better things out.

    Personally I’ve learned that you need to plan your marketing/money/business around the game when it’s being pitched. People often tack them on later or change mid-stream and that’s difficult. TF2 made the conversion, but I still don’t know what that has cost Valve. My guess is it’s a rare situation where the risk/reward paid in their favor, but they did it gradually and made sure that fans were cool with it by using microtransactions. I like the idea of making a game free after it’s been out for a while. I tossed around that idea a while back when I was anxiously awaiting games like vagrant story to be re-released. It just makes too much sense if you are getting limited revenue from it after it’s shelf-life has died to keep the rights on lock and legal copies expensive.

    Paul – I respect your decision and hope that you are doing well money-wise without giving in to demands. I got a copy of Frozen Synapse gifted to me and have enjoyed it so far, I just have to spend more time learning it. Adding microtransactions is a good idea, and perhaps another thing to help you would be offering some sort of demo. There’s really no reason why a good demo that represents a solid chunk of your game’s best gameplay should not be available these days.

    My company is planning a free app that has the first episode of our game Saturday Morning RPG and the users purchase each additional episode as they want to after that with in-app purchases. It’s not quite F2P, but I think it’s going to be great for what it is. We also have microtransactions for items and things people can optionally buy. Check us out at: and be sure to click “like” if you think our game is cool.

  • Well said, sir! As a pioneer of f2p games I often think seriously about making non-f2p games or hybrids, like CCP’s ‘cover charge’ for Dust. Especially as the market transitions. I mostly agree with Nicholas that long-term f2p will be the dominant model, but it’s unlikely to ever be the *only* model. I disagree, though, that f2p games have to target large audiences; this is quite demonstrably untrue for us with Puzzle Pirates, which does very well, seven years after launch, with a pretty modest audience.

  • Great piece sir.

    F2P is an incredibly immature business model. We’re just at the start, and those chasing the current models are going to suffer in the long term. What’s needed is great design that encourages everyone to have a good time, but allows those who want status, or additional varnish on their experience, to pay a little more.

    What’s core in this, or any other business model related to games, is a satisfying and entertaining game experience. TF2 is a great example of a beautifully made, expertly balanced game. As a result, the audience are there to spend the cash on whichever add-ons they feel worthwhile. Sure it’s niche, but that niche audience is engaged like few others.

    In the social games space, we’re still waiting for our first ‘classic’ game. A game people play not because of boring, outdated Skinner theory, but because they love it. In that situation, F2P will pay dividends.

    Also, the description of Steam as a metagame is spot on. I log on every day to browse and search for an illusive bargain.