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5 reasons why XCom is the perfect F2P game

By on November 9, 2012
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Game designer Adam Russell posted a short piece on a his personal blog entitled XCOM Should Have Been Free to Play.


The howls of protest reverberating across my Twitter stream were deafening. Some of the milder ones:

  • You can basically determine whether someone loves games or money by their reaction to this article (Lewie Proctor of Savy Gamer)
  • I feel bad about giving this any traffic, but here is the most awful thing on the internet, ever (Alec Meer of Rock Paper Shotgun)
  • STOP TRYING TO RUIN NICE THINGS – @danthat (Dan Marshall of Size Five Games)

The weird thing is this: XCom’s gameplay is almost perfectly structured for F2P mechanics. Adam’s post pointed this out. I think it’s worth considering.

(Note that I haven’t played the current X-Com. My comments are based on the X-Com universe, of which I am a huge fan. I even replayed the original last year.)

1. XCom is naturally time-based

Many things in X-Com either do take time or logically could:

  • Researching new technology
  • Manufacturing new equipment
  • Upgrading your bases
  • Training your squad members
  • Searching for aliens
  • Scouting missions

Any game which has time-based mechanics is a shoe-in for an F2P mechanic. It allows you to trade time for money. It allows you to make tactical choices on where and how to spend your grind currency. It allows you to set up research or upgrade processes depending on when you next expect to be able to play. Almost all of its gameplay rhythms match those of successful F2P games.

2. X-Com is naturally upgrade-based

There are so many things that you upgrade in X-Com. Your soldiers, your equipment, your vehicles, your bases, your knowledge and so on. This provides flexibility in strategy, in gameplay, in monetisation. It provides so many angles of choice for a skilled designer.

3. X-Com naturally builds emotional resonance

I don’t know if it’s true in this game, but previous X-Com games make you care about your squad members. It’s not brilliant at it (nothing like the emotional resonance of the characters in Jagged Alliance 2, Baldur’s Gate or Planescape Toment – and yes, I know I’m old), but it does have characters you care about. Characters you want to equip, to train, to specialise, to help. All of these are strong motivations to keep playing, to keep progressing and keep spending.

4. X-Com never has to end

The game needs to have peaks of engagement, but fighting the aliens is a very, very, very long storyline

5. X-com needs a new audience

The game is doing great, selling lots of units. But it also needs to reach new audiences, on new devices, and free is a great marketing tool for that.


The strange things is the responses. They have all the fervour of a religious mania. It is not hard to hear overtones of “heretic” or “blasphemer” in the furious tirade unleashed against Adam’s post for what was just an interesting thought experiment.

For all those complaining that F2P is evil, cynical or manipulative, I have this to say to you: F2P lets 90% of players experience and enjoy and entire game for free. It lets those who love what the creators do spend lots of money on things they truly value. Sure, there are bad examples, but those are dying, being replaced by better, more enjoyable, more entertaining experiences. Let’s lose the kneejerk hatred.

I do accept Dan Marshall’s argument. It seems to me that he is saying “I don’t want to play X-Com F2P because I like it how it is”. Which is totally fair enough.

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:
  • If making XCOM F2P meant that the bugs got fixed more quickly, then yes, XCOM should be a F2P title. Corrupting saves, teleporting aliens in a title where careful plannnig is needed, etc.

  • Nope. XCom should not be F2P. At least not with any of the suggested mechanisms.

    Just because a game has an in-game economy, you should not automatically be able to buy in game currency.

    XComs “time based” research, isn’t real-time based: Its based on the in-game time, and basically represents strategic player choices: Should I research this advance or that advance first ? Changing the timing, changes the strategic choice (takes it away basically).

    Reviving dead soldiers messes with the permadeath aspect of XCom, which is one of the fun things about XCOM.

    I am a gret fan of F2P, both as a consumer, and as a game developer. I think many games work just fine with F2P, but it is not a business model that fits all sizes.

    I pretty much agree with the 15 rules of F2P, as long as they are taken as guidelines, but the rules can also be taken as a sort of measuring stick to your game design, to evaluate whether your game SHOULD be F2P or not.

    In the case of XCom, lets have a look:

    Make it fun: Yup. Fits the bill. this rule though, isn’t especially exclusive to f2p

    Starbucks test: Nope. This is a game that requires some depth and focus. Besides, I think this rule is more of a rule suited for mobile and facebook games, than it is a rule for f2p games. I mean, LoL doesn’t really pass this rule….

    Come for a minute, stay for an hour: Sort of…. When I sit down with XCom, I KNOW this will take some time, and I’m OK with that, because it is an engaging game. On the other hand, there are some elements of “stay for way longer than expected” in the game: Always one little brief action more I can do, before I go to bed…. so maybe.. yeah OK,

    Complexity in layers: Check

    Evergreen: nope. XCom has a story, that needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end in this case, is kicking ET’s ass off earth, or getting your own ass kicked. However, the game is replayable, very much so, so maybe this one passes anyway

    Generous: Nope. XCom is all about being under enormous pressure due to lack of ressources, feeling that every thing you buy, is expensive, and means you cant buy this other critical thing. the game is all about making these choices.

    Free forever/$1 nobrainer and 100$ fans: By definition only applies to F2P, so not really useful as a gauge on whether or not to choose F2P.

    Pizzazz: HELL no. Goes against the mood, feel, look and art style of the game.

    No tutorial: Well…. as that rule is stated, it is in my opinion not a rule about f2p design: Its a rule about smart game design in general. XCom fits, but the rule IMO isn’t f2p specific.

    I must not fail: Is, IMO, the weakest rule anyway. It fits some f2p games, but not all f2p games. it certainly doesn’t fit XCom. That game is all about getting your ass kicked.

    Emotion, not content. hmm. well. I guess you could sell custom characters. meh

    Experiment and don’t stop developing: Both of these fall in the category of smart game design, regardless of f2p.

    1-0-100; Nope. XCom is story based: There needs to be the epic conclusion, and ultimate success at the end of the storyline. Since XCom has an end, you can’t play it endlessly.

    XCom is NOT suited for F2P

  • No, because in the single player PvE experience, you grind to earn those specials (while also honing your fighting skills for use in the PvP environment) so you never need to stop playing.

    We try to post every day. Guest post on Tuesday, GAMESbriefers Friday, a rule on Wednesday. So that’s only 2 posts a week from me.

    And occasionally I break that.

  • Sik

    If the player likes to use specials a lot though that may fall under the paywall warning, wouldn’t it? (by discouraging the player from playing until the specials recharge) Though probably a soft one since technically the player can keep going, just without specials.

    Also jeez, how often are you posting these days? Was looking in the RSS feed and the paywall article was 13th in the list. It wasn’t even two weeks ago!

  • I think we’ve already addressed those. There are definitely ways to do F2P without that issue. e.g in a fighting game, everyone can use 2 special powers during the 2 minute PvP fight. After the fight, the powers take time to recharge. You can wait, grind or pay to get them recharged. F2P in a head-to-head game with no impact on who wins the battles, just how often they play.

  • Sik

    I think the problem here is #1 and #2, since they affect the gameplay outcome: put a paying player against a non-playing player and the former is bound to have an advantage unless he/she really sucks at the game.

    In this kind of game really only two types of unbalance are tolerated: that caused by the difference between player skill (which is what should matter most) and, optionally, any extra handicaps agreed upon both players (in which case they’re skewing the rules because both want it, thereby being fair or not doesn’t matter as they know what they’re doing).

    I suppose the only way those points could even remotely work would be if they come with drawbacks (e.g. you could get units faster but they wouldn’t be as useful due to being rushed, or upgrades could also double as downgrades by increasing not just the advantages but also the disadvantages, leaving the trade-off identical). And even then you would still need to fight against the perception it would change game balance.

    This is why cosmetic microtransactions are much easier to do, they don’t really affect the game balance so nobody cares (other than nitpickers).

  • The responses to the article (mostly) aren’t kneejerk “F2P is evil” responses. They’re annoyed at the laziness and thoughtlessness. The author has taken the most ‘route one’ ideas possible and applied them without considering whether they’re appropriate to the game (they aren’t) or if they’d benefit the player.

    The argument for putting the game in front of new audiences is weak in this case – the game is commercially and critically doing very well, and clearly isn’t just selling to fans of the original PC/Amiga games.

    The thought experiment of how F2P can be applied to X-Com’s genre is an interesting one, but it’s one that is actually being tackled in the field by games like Splash Damage’s RAD Soldiers. The answer “well, rip the game out and turn it into Tap Zoo” isn’t constructive, any more than adapting Fight Club as a one-on-one fighting game was. A thorough exploration of how to do something badly isn’t very valuable, apart from as a warning to others.

  • Ross

    I think the problem is that the original article is almost a caricature of everything that could be said to be wrong with f2p gaming and the advocacy there of in that the implementation in this case actively makes the game worse by either destroying the sense of tension the game thrives on or requiring a re-balancing which would make the game too hard if the user does not pay.

    There’s certainly no compelling reason from a gameplay perspective why it would improve things and given how well XCOM has sold (and the number given in the article appears to be very inaccurate) I can’t see a compelling financial reason.

    The idea that every game should be free to play (and to be fair Adam didn’t really bring that up but it is out there) is one that will grate with a lot of people and will do I suspect until free to play advocates/designers manage to come up with a way of implementing it in more forms of traditional gaming which does not include as a first step making the game worse.

  • As a few people have mentioned in the twitter debates you quote, for most it isn’t just an anguished cry of “F2P is Evil”, but rather that the way in which Adam’s suggestions for the implementation of F2P mechanics to the new XCOM are uniformly awful, and primarily ones which would completely undermine core aspects of the game (specifically: the desperate balancing of the books and careful maintenance of your best troops that forms the core of the strategy layer).