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An indie perspective on the F2P vs. premium dilemma

By on February 1, 2013
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This is a guest post from Tim Wicksteed of Twice Circled. It was originally posted on the Ionage website

Should I go Free-to-Play (F2P)? It’s a simple question but the answer may be more complicated. I was chatting with Nicholas Lovell on Twitter to ask his opinion on it. We got onto the dilemma I was facing and he replied:

“If you can get comfortable with someone spending $1000 or more on your game, go F2P”… Hum.

He then asked whether I’d like to put my dilemma down on (electronic) paper as a guest post for Gamesbrief, so here I am.

I’m getting to the point with Ionage (a RTS about battling space platforms currently in development for Android) where I’m going to have to lock down the monetisation strategy soon.

You don’t have to look much further than the top grossing apps list on any of the app stores to see the benefits of F2P. Done well, it clearly can be lucrative, potentially offering that holy grail to indie developers – just that, allowing them to stay indie, be self-sufficient and free to the develop their craft.

However there are also potential pitfalls to F2P that give somewhat of a dilemma. I see them occurring on 3 levels of increasing depth:

Surface: F2P is hard. As easy as it is to see the success stories, you don’t have to look much further to find the not-so-successful ones. For example Monkey Drum and Punch Quest both made the mistake of being too generous so that noone ever made the In-App Purchases (IAPs). For a one-man-band there are a whole lot of extra skills you have to learn to do F2P right. For example data acquisition and analysis, or the much harder to learn art of persuading players to part with their money inside your game without pushing them out. Not to mention the continued support of the game (service?) over the months following launch. That’s a much bigger time-commitment than just design, build, launch and a single patch to remove the bugs.

Floating in the middle: F2P haters exist. Some gamers are instantly turned off by the inclusion of IAPs within a game. They say they would rather pay upfront knowing they had the full game to enjoy without all the ads and reminders that they could be having more fun if they just paid a little more. In fairness I can sympathise. F2P can seem a bit like paying for a pen and then realising you need to pay extra for ink… and then the ink runs out quicker than you thought it would. It’s a counter-intuitive idea for a very small percentage of your players to fund your entire game while the majority plays for free – somehow it doesn’t seem fair! I also get the feeling that a good proportion of F2P haters are traditional gamers – the same traditional gamers that are the target audience for Ionage. I sometimes worry that I’ll end up with a game that casual gamers won’t enjoy and hardcore gamers won’t touch out of principle.

Deeper still: The hidden cost of free. It’s argued that if users don’t pay upfront then they end up paying in some other way. This isn’t just about games of course – most of the internet is funded by advertising. Giving a product away for free means you have to build the business into the product. The question is: does letting the business into the game spoil it? An example of this in F2P could be deliberately building an annoying grind into the game to encourage players to spend to skip it.

As you can tell I’m concentrating on the negatives here. That’s because I’m actually a huge fan of the ideas behind F2P and I’m trying very hard to find flaws to stress test the idea and prepare myself for the potential pitfalls.

The thing is I don’t think any of these arguments can counter-balance the immense positives of F2P, briefly:

  • Zero barrier to entry for new users
  • No cap on spend (or at least a much higher cap)
  • Freeloaders promote your game even if they don’t pay for it
  • … to name a few. These are invaluable to an indie developer struggling to get noticed amongst the sea of alternative titles.

I’ve decided that I’m going to give F2P a go. My conclusion is an obvious one – the success will depend on the execution. Of course there are examples of horribly manipulative games designed to squeeze their users for every last pound but there are also wonderful examples of games that are great fun even when you haven’t paid a penny!

As I started out saying, F2P isn’t easy. It’s not a magic wand that’s going to automatically increase my game’s revenue. I have to design my game and monetisation so that I don’t give F2P haters ammunition. As Nicholas says in his F2P design rules I have to “be generous”. Instead of adding a grind and making people pay to remove it, why not make the premium content really worthy of that title? Equally I must not fall into the trap of Monkey Drum and Punch Quest and give too much away so there isn’t a reason to spend. Finally I need to make sure that the monetisation technique complements the gameplay and does not hinder it.

I’ll finish with one of my favourite sayings that I think sums up the art of F2P: “People hate spending money on what they need but love to spend money on what they want!”

About Tim Wicksteed

Tim Wicksteed is director of indie-development company Twice Circled, based in Bristol in the UK. As well as developing Ionage, Tim works as a freelance Android developer.
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  • Hi Andrea, thanks for your comment. I’m glad you like that mantra – I was delighted last week when I saw someone quote it on Twitter 😉 . I can’t remember where I heard it now but it doesn’t just apply to apps, I find it applies to nearly everything in life.

    That’s an interesting point about the vanity items. So far I had planned to include additional player colours as vanity items but I might consider adding a few more things.

  • I agree that vanity items make sense, but it is hard to make meaningful money with them. Vanity matters, but vanity items that have some impact on the game are even better at monetisation. Then you need to start working out out to maintain balance.

  • Interesting read and I agree in most with the points you made. However, even though I agree that many developers feel free to play is somehow “unfair” to the players, I think this is the biggest change in mentality that needs to happen. In my opinion free to play (done right) is the fairest business model. What could be fairer than letting anybody pay (or not pay) as much or as little as they want or their budget allows? If you really think about it the traditional packaged goods industry is much more unfair. If I have 50 bukcs then I am allowed to play the game, but if I don’t then I am left out. Also, I want to spend more than 50 bucks I am also not able to do that.

    Many traditional game developers have this feeling of free to play being “unfair” or “a rip-off” ingrained in their DNA so I can definitely see how it would be hard to start thinking differently, but the fact is that the games industry is going free. The quality of free games and the competition is only growing and for the new gaming generation free games are the norm and going into a store to buy a game will be a thing of the past.

  • “People hate spending money on what they need but love to spend money on what they want!” sounds like a great “mantra”, I’ll remember that!

    An advice from me (Game Designer as well) would be to include a lot of vanity items – if you don’t have much of them already. I think vanity items are premium items that are hated the least. Because they have by definition no impact on the game mechanics. On the other hand, players are sooooooooooo vain!

    Look at Team Fortress and it’s hat shop…

  • Hi Chris, thanks for the feedback. Like Nicholas I really agree with your last comment. Ionage is currently going through Alpha playtesting at the moment and I specifically ask for feedback on the monetisation strategy that players are most attracted to with a game like Ionage. I’m yet to receive any specific feedback on the subject but it’s early days and I’ll be pressing my playtesters for more feedback over the coming months.

    In terms of your earlier comments, these are exactly the thoughts that were going through my head as I wrote the article. Since writing the article it’s interesting that I’ve had lots of positive feedback from players that I would consider to be ‘casual’. Therefore I’m becoming less worried about the nicheness of the game. In addition I’m trying to go with a monetisation strategy that somewhat follows the example made by DLC in console/PC markets. As I mention in my reply to James’ comment, I’m trying to offer ‘pay to experience different play styles’ as well as the more standard ‘pay to skip ahead’, ‘pay to customise’ etc. which will hopefully appeal more to dedicated gamers.

    I’d like to write an article about the specific monetisation mechanics I have planned for Ionage. If Gamesbrief were kind enough to publish that also, I would love the additional feedback.

    Thanks again for your comment and the wishes of success!

  • Hi James, this is Tim (author of the article). Thanks for the feedback, I think you make some great points. I especially agree with your point about “pay to experience different play styles” is a really wonderful way to go with F2P. I’m in the process of designing my meta-game around that exact idea.

    I’m a purest when it comes to RTS and love balanced games that work in competitive multiplayer. With Ionage I’m trying to create a system whereby paying unlocks weapons/upgrades that allow you to adapt your play style but do not give you any statistical advantage against the AI/another player who doesn’t have access to the same upgrades etc. It’s always good to hear when other’s beliefs re-enforce your own, so thanks for that!

    In terms of my team, well that’s just me. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated by the broad set of skills I’ll have to demonstrate to deliver the game successfully on my own. Although I’ve been designing games for years this is my first commercial offering. Part of me is excited at the prospect of doing everything myself as a learning opportunity. Equally, I know my major skillset is as a designer and not a publicist and I would hate to waste a promising game by mismanaging the monetisation, marketing etc. We’ll see how the story develops over the coming months 🙂

  • As I currently work on a F2P desktop game, I can appreciate the concern of running into the possible perils and pitfalls of F2P game design.

    I think, however, that the moral questions of F2P games are answered by the design rules laid out by Lovell & Fahey, along with the deeper need satisfactions described by Rigby and Ryan in “Glued to Games.”

    Games – even F2P games – can be a net benefit to people, as long as the games themselves are truly engaging. And charging people for that enjoyment isn’t a dark, evil thing, so long as they can look back on their time (and money) spent and feel satisfaction, not frustration.

    Some basic rules I think should be followed for just about all games:

    – Don’t completely halt someone’s ability to play if they refuse to pay more money.

    – Accelerators are okay, as long as they aren’t so significant as to completely game breaking (particularly in MMOPVP type games)

    – Pay to Win is generally something to avoid; Pay to Experience Different Play Styles, however, is fantastic.

    I think an RTS game is perfect for the F2P model – it’s skill based, so you can make purchases more about adding unique or slightly different skills. New units, weapons, etc. don’t have to rely entirely on numbers to be interesting to use – so you can avoid excessive power creep.

    I hope you’ve got a good monetization expert, marketing guy, community manager, etc. – or you’re looking to become a serious jack of all trades – as any good F2P game *service* needs to be able to help players all along the funnel, while still keeping the community as a whole engaged and satisfied.

  • Thanks for the comment, Chris, and I particularly agree with the last sentence. Your first sentence is not accurate though. F2P is not about the mass market. In fact, I believe that F2P is the best chance for niche games to thrive in the 21st century.

    A niche game has dedicated, committed players prepared to spend lots of money on their hobby. A mass-market game is basically lowest common denominator. It just so happens that many F2P games (particularly the Zynga ones) did go mass-market and lowest-common-denominator. That is not fundamental to the model.

    The secret to F2P is not volume. It is allowing people who love what you do to spend lots of money on things they truly value. It’s a very common misconception that it is about volume.

  • Chris Floyd

    If your game is made for dedicated gamers, I think FTP becomes much harder to recommend. FTP requires bringing in a LOT of free players, to capitalize on a small percentage of spenders. The “nichier” your game is, the harder that is to accomplish. It’s why I think Mr. Lovell’s recommendations about FTL are interesting, but probably misguided. FTL, in its Kickstarter and its Steam sales, found its audience. That’s a great thing, and it’s been very successful. But that doesn’t mean there’s an audience out there orders of magnitude larger who would give it a try for free. And substantial chunks of the audience it did find are FTP haters, reasonably or not. They are used to paying for someone to give them the gaming experience they want. And that experience does NOT include shortcuts for cash.

    Regardless, while I’m a professional game designer, I’m not an expert on FTP, so I certainly might be wrong. I hope your attempt at FTP is very successful for you. My advice would be to get in touch and stay in touch with your audience and let them inform the decisions you make.