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Be Generous: Free-to-play Design, rule 6

By on September 12, 2012
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F2P-design-rules-thumbBeing generous is ideological with me. I believe that if you are generous to your players, they will be generous to you.

Call it Karma. Call it goodwill. Call it what you will, I believe that there is logic and evidence in favour of being generous.

  • You are making work that you are proud of. Get as many people as possible to play it.
  • If you are generous, people will be more likely to tell their friends about your game. If you slam down a paywall early, they are more likely just to click away or uninstall.
  • People buy more from people they like. Being generous makes people like you more.
  • People buy more from people they feel they owe. That’s why expensive delicatessens will cut up small pieces of Italian cheese or French salami and put it on the counter on small wooden cocktail sticks. Taste one of those and BOOM, you owe them.
  • Being generous with premium currency encourages players to spend the currency, not hoard it. If a premium currency becomes, in the player’s mind, an endless rising score, they will be reluctant to spend it. This is not good for your monetisation.
  • Zynga is not generous. It uses psychological techniques (often derogatorily called Skinner boxes) to drive player behaviour. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that – although like all things it can be done with more or less concern for ethics – it does mean that players tend to play more for the behavioural triggers and less for all the other reasons a game could make you want to play. In the long term, Zynga will need to break free of its reliance on behavioural psychology, which is just one part of a free-to-play designer’s toolkit, and make players like them. By being generous.

I fully accept that the evidence for generosity is not yet conclusive. There are plenty of free-to-play games in the top grossing charts on the App Store which appear to fail the Generosity test.

That’s fair enough. There are many ways of making money from free-to-play games. In the end, I want games I work on to have good word-of-mouth; to succeed because players like the game, not simply because it is psychologically manipulative; to encourage players to spend money because they love what I and my clients do, not because they have no choice.

To me, that is all best satisfied by being generous.

Expanding on the theme of generosity, the next post in this series will argue that your game should be free forever, with no paywalls

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve:
  • Ouch That Hurts

    “I have grown weary of having to pay hidden fees to add key features to a game.”

    I would say that’s a free-to-play game that’s gone wrong (and appears to be disobeying rule 7 from this series). If you look at some of the best examples of F2P, such as World of Tanks, you get access to everything important for free and you can play forever for free and have a very enjoyable experience. Spending money gets you a little bit more, but not really all that much more when you step back and look at it.

  • Pingback: Be Free-to-Play forever: Free-to-play Design, rule 7 - Games Brief()

  • Hi Nicholas, great read as usual, thats why I subscribe. Let me put in my 2cents on this issue, as I run a studio myself. I believe the issue here is free to play games with energy bars.
    Currently these games make the most amount of money because free to play model has not been around for long. Before people used to make money off premium games (yes some did have trial versions). Now, some companies have made their games completely free with energy bars. What will happen next is obvious. Some companies will make their games free without energy bars and make iaps more optional. Who will win? Free games with wait or pay or free games without wait or pay. In the end, only companies who provide value or addictive substance to customers survive. History repeats itself, and since you cant eat, smoke nor drink a game, companies pulling the wait or pay will have to pivot or go out of business. I am personally committed in bringing forth this change in the gaming market. Here’s one of our games.

  • Mark Barney

    I think one point Nicholas missed out on: Generosity is also a great way to showcase and drive DESIRE for the goods that you are offering for sale.

    Let’s take the deli example: The deli offering cheese samples isn’t trying to make you feel like you “owe” them, but rather to get you to simply try the cheese. If you know that you like it, you are much more likely to buy it. You need to show a player what you have to offer and how it can enrich their enjoyment of the game.

    By giving away small quantities of your purchasable in game goods you should be trying to show the player the value of these goods and call their attention to their availability. This is what will be the catalyst for a player who had previously never purchased anything to begin making purchases.

  • My team and I just released our first game “Harvest Lands” world wide today (Sep 12th).

    Harvest Lands is a freemium game with IAP. We were inspired greatly by Nimblebit and their approach to freemium. Their games Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes are definitely generous and many players have returned the favor by investing in their IAPs.

    We hope that Harvest Lands finds some level of success from being generous. The hard currency of “Acorns” can be found just by playing the game and harvesting. We’d like to think that the frequency that the player can earn this hard currency is equivalent to the Tower Bux in Tiny Tower and maybe a bit more generous than that even!

    Time will tell soon if our approach works or not for our game. But I strongly agree that early paywalls in a freemium game will be the death of you unless you’re a large studio with a deep war chest who just constantly pays to acquire users.


  • I am very generous in life. I feel it is inherently important to the way I live my life, and it is just part of my nature. I also enjoy seeing reactions to my kindness.

    That being said, I’ve worked in many different fields throughout my life, from my own personal experience, I feel that the majority of people do not respond favorably because someone was generous. I have personally seen many, many people who feel as If they have somehow won a jackpot of sorts, or are just lucky when they are blessed with some form of kindness. Few people actually look deeper into the whys or hows of things, and simply move on with a smile on their face. To embrace being generous, at most times, is simply just a means to feel better about yourself and it will go unnoticed or unacknowledged.

    Having worked as a waiter for many years, you can see it first hand. Try buying a couple drinks or an appetizer just to be generous. You will find that most of the time, people will be very thankful, but will not spend any more money or leave you a better tip. They may come back to your restaurant because they appreciated the gesture, but most likely because they feel like they might get something for free again. On the other hand, to offer an outstanding product for a fair price, will also cause more customers to return to your restaurant (or games in this case) because they feel that they are getting a great value in exchange for their hard earned money.

    Now, I’m really not trying to be pessimistic here, and I know there a lot of exceptions to any rule. I am in no way discouraging this practice, but I think if you take the principle too far, you will be very happy although very hungry as well. 😉
    And let me just say, from a gamer’s perspective, I have developed a very negative view of free to play, as well as many of my fellow gamers. I have grown weary of having to pay hidden fees to add key features to a game. On paper it sounds great, let people pay for what they want in a game. However, I feel the repercussions of this type of business model are slowly coming to a boil in player’s heads and sooner or later, free to play is going to be universally loathed by any self respecting gamer. Sooner or later, people will realize that the “old way” was the right way. Pay for a finished product, and get a entire game. I’m not bashing monetization by any means, simply the current methods. From a business standpoint, you will always have loud crying voices of unappreciative “gamers” who can’t possibly fathom why they would have to pay at the very least, a whole dollar for something you labored for a year or more on while they sip 5.00 lattes that taste rather bad. 😉

    Monetizing with in game currency is the anti-generous. Period.

    How about having in game currency be received in game mechanics, and monetizing by selling a complete game, and the follwing up by continuing to create great new content for your game via pay per download expansion packs? Not trying to start a Freemium flame war here 😉 After all, it’s your game, do what you want.

    I kind of strayed of topic there, and I guess I’m just venting a bit, but it really is all related isn’t it?
    Bottom line, be generous and treat people with all the love in the world, but don’t EXPECT a gold star for doing it. 😉

    And Nicholas- I love what you do and respect your views! 😉

  • Tomek Mleko

    Karma is crucial. Being data-driven is important but we should remember games are played by communities, not numbers.
    For me being generous relates not only to in-game currency or game design. Some time ago in one of the games we did a small experiment. Using usage and spending data we selected and thanked the most frequently playing (and engaged) users for creating the community.
    The message was delivered through in-game comms feature. The results were surprising, we got a lot of emails saying that simple “thank you” was a fantastic idea and players felt appreciated.
    Last but not least, engagement in that group increased even more.