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Hey Vlambeer: you CAN sell IAPS without selling your soul

By on March 26, 2013
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In this post, Deputy Editor Zoya Street shares an opinion on free-to-play in indie games.

I love Ridiculous Fishing. It’s a charismatic, unpretentious game with a beautiful aesthetic and a core loop that can’t fail to put a smile on your face.

Within five minutes of buying it, I was ready to spend more money. After receiving a prompt from the game’s messaging, I went into the shop to buy fishing line, and noticed other things were available too. I browsed through greyed-out guns and buffs, and decided I wanted to spend extra money to unlock a couple of them them so that I could see what they do. I tapped a greyed-out store item and prepared to enter my password.

Nothing happened.

Confused, I tapped the bit of the screen showing my available balance. Nothing happened. I scoured the mostly-empty lower portion of the screen for a ‘buy’ button. There is nothing there.

Vlambeer doesn’t want any more of my money.

This isn’t a case of a paid game theoretically having the right core loops to probably make it not terribly hard to adapt into a free-to-play or paymium format. Ridiculous Fishing is already designed just like a free-to-play game. The entire meta-game is about racking up money and spending that money on virtual goods. Ridiculous Fishing is not an artifact of pure spiritual insight, divorced from the mucky world of commerce. It’s a game about making money by shooting fish.

Vlambeer thinks that by refusing to take any more of my money after the first $3, they are occupying a moral high ground that F2P developers have, for the most part, abandoned in pursuit of profit. I think that this is nonsense. And I’ve just been to a GDC talk that demonstrates exactly why.


Shellrazer makes 30% of its revenue from IAPs. It normally costs $2.99 to buy, though it’s free this week on iOS. It’s no Ridiculous Fishing, but it shares the same adapted RPG meta-game in which coins take the place of exp for character upgrades. Unlike Fishing, in this game you can choose to buy coins instead of earning them through grind.

As far as Shane Neville of Ninja Robot Dinosaur Entertainment is concerned, that extra 30% of revenue has allowed him to quit his day job and become a full-time indie. He hasn’t used skinner boxes. He doesn’t baffle the user into buying IAPs accidentally. He doesn’t even ask the user to consider spending money until and unless they try to unlock an item that they don’t have enough virtual currency for. All he has done is create one screen where users can spend real money to get more virtual money. The same virtual money that they could either grind or play very skilfully to earn without spending a penny.

This is the exact kind of interface that is conspicuously absent from Ridiculous Fishing. And it’s allowed him to support himself full-time as an indie developer.

Neville sees his players in three different groups. One group is willing to give up a lot of their time, and will grind to make money to upgrade their items. Another has an abundance of skill, and will make a great deal of money quickly by playing the game well. The third group is willing to give up some of their money to upgrade without grinding and play the way they want to. Shellrazer is optimised for the first two kinds of play, but makes it possible to spend money if the player wants to. 8% of them choose to do so.

In his GDC talk, Neville underscored the importance of respecting your players. To me, ‘grind or get out’ is just as disrespectful of your players’ time as paywalls are disrespectful of players’ money. Both should be absent from good game design. There is nothing that needs to be added to Ridiculous Fishing‘s core mechanics or meta-game to successfully integrate IAPs. IAPs will not make the game suddenly more evil. Ethical free-to-play is far from impossible.

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at and The Borderhouse.
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  • Nicholas Nelson

    If people want to ruin their game through instant gratification, go for it. Just make sure they pay you for circumventing what you’ve created.

  • Nicholas Nelson

    To me, spending money is like paying for Cheat Codes. If you want the end game item and want to buy it in a single-player game, go for it. For some, it will ruin the fun. For others, it will enhance it.

    We’ve all screwed around with Action Replays before.

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  • It felt like grinding.

  • I never said F2P was inherently worse. And I’m aware you didn’t write the post, hence addressing the second part of my comment to you (in response to your comments erroneously describing Ridiculous Fishing’s progression as ‘grinding’, etc.).

    The game was not designed with F2P in mind. Why ascribe a ‘moral’ motivation to this when there are evident practical ones?

  • yes they are taking the moral high ground.

    “its almost impossible to do F2P in a non-evil way and without sacrificing the elegance of your game design”

    i see those as two separate statements: “It is almost impossible to do F2P in a non-evil way.” “It is almost impossible to do F2P without sacrificing the elegance of your game design”

    I’ve played the game. I didn’t enjoy it. They have got $3 of my money. Well done them.

    But don’t tell me that F2P is inherently worse than pay upfront.

    (PS I didn’t write this post, Zoya did)

  • Vlambeer aren’t “taking the moral high ground” by making Ridiculous Fishing paid. Stop putting words in their mouths. Rami is quoted as saying it’s DIFFICULT to make a non-exploitative F2P game, and you have to design your game around the model, which surely you must agree with.

    Vlambeer have chosen to make a discrete, balanced and paced ‘story’ experience that ends in a score game. Telling them they’re wrong for making the game they want to make comes off as arrogant. And please spare us the mock bewilderment that a game might dare to have an economy that isn’t a real money one.

    Nicholas, you can unlock everything in the game in a couple of evenings already. Adding a real cash economy would require artificially slowing progression. This isn’t a subjective statement. You’re accusing other people of seeing the worst in IAP while seemingly taking an incredibly shallow and inaccurate reading of the game. It may look like Ninja Fishing, but it doesn’t play like it.

    If you want to give Vlambeer more money they’ve made about 12 excellent games now.

  • I wonder if this is more a case of conditioning:

    “I tapped a greyed-out store item and prepared to enter my password. Nothing happened. Confused, I tapped the bit of the screen showing my available balance. Nothing happened. I scoured the mostly-empty lower portion of the screen for a ‘buy’ button. There is nothing there.”

    Your behavior has been altered. You have been conditioned by other games to expect the same results in a different environment. I myself started to wonder where the IAPs were until I took a step back and saw that I am behaving the way other games have “taught” me. Once I became aware of my own conditioning I was taken a back. I would throw money at Vlambeer if I could but these guys are basically saying, NO and not because they’re allergic to money and success. Once you get a F2P hit you are on that treadmill for a LONG TIME. As a small studio you have to wonder if it is your goal to work on a single game or keep generating new ones. I have a feeling that Vlambeer are the kind of team that wants to keep working on new things.

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  • psnev

    I don’t have a dog in this fight, but one interesting objection I’ve heard to the 3-pronged parallel progression model of skill-or-grind-or-pay is that the mere presence of one of those can degrade the feeling of achievement experienced by some (not all!) players who strongly engage with one of those other means of progression.

    For example, some players feel a far greater sense of achievement if it is possible only through use of skill, and if grinding time is available as an alternate means of achievement in the same game, then the feeling of achievement and overall “fun” of the game is lessened. High-twitch games are an example I’ve heard.

    I’ve heard the same is true if advancement can be purchased, even in single player games: that it is (to some people) the same as buying an achievement in life vs. earning it, and it cheapens the feeling of “winning” if a purchase is even an option at all. This is fascinating human psychology (to me, at least) that isn’t dismissible merely because it doesn’t apply to your or me.

    This is aside from player skepticism about whether a game’s design really is balanced in terms of payments, or whether a game designer really can market balanced design effectively in the early going, etc., and has nothing to do with any kind of moral high ground either way.

    So I understand Vlambeer touched a nerve with f2p advocates and may have been less than fair with vitriolic comments about the model in general, but it could be that Vlambeer also deliberately wanted the game never to enable pay to advance regardless of revenue for such game design reasons (even if you are not the sort of player attracted to those reasons) for those players — however niche or however costly in terms of lost revenue — who would feel a much greater sense of achievement and “fun” than they could with a model such as Shellrazer’s. It’s an opinion — not a morally better one, and not necessarily yours, but still a valid and useful one to consider in terms of what engages and retains some players and what is intended by some game designers.

  • st33d

    I accept that IAP can be fun because I work in an office where everyone enjoys Jetpack Joyride (I don’t really get it myself – but you don’t have to like everything).

    The issue at stake is whether the system you’ve created is open-ended. By allowing payments you need to alter the design to support your income goals and to allow enough room for payments to be made.

    Vlambeer wanted to make a closed system. Their motives may have been inflated by “keeping it real” but it’s a very different type of game from one where extra money spent on the game can affect gameplay. It’s tuned differently. It’s more a game for game designers, than game players. That’s simply what they wanted to make.

  • Your assumption is flawed. I might enjoy because I like choice. I might enjoy it because I like agency. I might enjoy it because I prefer the developer to earn my money by giving me a good experience rather than demanding the money up front in the hope I have a good experience.

    It strikes me that you assume that because there is only one reason that you can think of why you might pay for a F2P game, the same must be true for everyone else.

  • Why would you enjoy it more if it was f2p? I can only assume because like a lot of people you don’t have the time to play their game properly, and need to artificially accelerate your way through it to feel like you’ve sufficiently experienced enough of it.

    There’s no other actual benefit to making those shop items real IAPs.

  • Hello Mike,

    We publish a lot of stuff. The stuff that you read and remember is the three (and there are only three) posts that show how some paid games would work as a F2P titles. It’s not my fault that’s how your memory works 🙂

    On your other point, we have a series planned deconstructing a bunch of games for strong and weak points. Your comments have moved it up the priority list.

  • rupazero

    We do have guest posts about why people’s F2P titles have underperformed, as well as posts arguing that not all games should be F2P. We also have posts praising exemplary Free to Play titles.

    There are two points to critiquing Ridiculous Fishing from a Free to Play standpoint. First, Vlambeer publicly stated that ethical free-to-play is ‘nearly impossible’, and this is a response to that claim. Secondly, this is design criticism. I honestly think that Ridiculous Fishing is a great game that could be even better. Sharing opinions like that is part of a legit critical discourse about game design.

  • mikebithell

    yeah, I overstated the ethical element, apologies for that.

    But.. again.. the ‘should’. Why? The guys at Vlambeer, and their collaborators, have an awesome game, they’re making enough money to keep making stuff, and the game has an insanely massive following of devoted fans.

    I think this post (along with the similar XCOM and FTL stuff) weaken your arguments for F2P. Gamesbrief seems to consistently choose examples of games made outside of F2P, with design aiming in completely different directions. These examples are also all massively successful, they got that success without IAP, so why bother? I fear the aim is to inspire controversy.

    How about posts about why games with IAPs have failed? Improve the discourse about the games within the field, rather than using bad examples from other spheres and riling indies who don’t care for your business model.

    Vlambeer are doing fine without IAP.. they should keep doing that which is successful, while expanding into areas they and their audience find interesting.

  • There are so many subjective words in that comment. “Compelling”. “Artificially”. “Reasonable”. “Better”.

    I am totally convinced that I would enjoy Ridiculous Fishing more if it were free-to-play. I am reasonably convinced that I would end up spending more than $3 on it, particularly if the game earns my trust.

    I respect that Vlambeer as a company decided not to make it F2P,. That is their choice. To argue that it is morally superior is nonsense, to argue that it is design-superior is a matter of personal opinion,

    And I disagree with theirs.

  • “There is no grind”? Nonsense. In Ridiculous Rishing, there is nothing but grind.

    The fact that grinding is enjoyable in this title doesn’t stop it from being grind.

  • Dez

    What a ridiculous idea. If a game is of high enough quality, it shouldn’t feel like a grind. If it is then drop it. All an IAP would do is create false enjoyment through the feeling of progress by paying more for it. A truly good game should make you want to play and not pay to get further to get it out of the way. Totally irrational and creating additional rewards for developers that aren’t offering additional value to the player in return.

  • In which case it’s “pay not to play”. The user is paying so they don’t have to grind. In order to make that a compelling purchase (and have a profitable game) you need to artificially extend the grind beyond reasonable gameplay.

    Maybe not the “moral” high ground, but he’s taking the “design” high ground and he has a better game for it.

  • Make a game. Go on. Make one. We’ll wait.

  • rupazero

    I don’t think it’s true that progression would break. Progression would be self-directed and more freeform. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Or it would be accelerated at the player’s own choice. I don’t think that’s a bad thing either.

  • rupazero

    There are some games that are “pay to win” in the sense that you can’t win without paying. Those games suck. But there are other games that are pay, grind, or be skilled to win. That gives players more freedom to choose how they want to play. I think games are about making a choice and seeing how it plays out.

  • rupazero

    I don’t think that’s the argument I made. It’s ethically neutral not to. I’m arguing that it wouldn’t change the moral integrity of the game itself to make it possible to buy more coins. I’m criticising Vlambeer’s stance that avoiding IAPs is ethically superior.

    Nobody is saying that *you must* use IAPs in every game. If you were to say that Thomas Was Alone shouldn’t have IAPs I would probably agree with you. But Ridiculous Fishing should.

  • There’s no “imagine if” here. The game is about fishing to make money. Money that is only relevant for upgrading your gear. There’s no “grinding” involved because the gameplay is enjoyable at each level of upgrade, and each level is enjoyable for a finite amount of time, including the fully upgraded level.

    Buying gear in Ridiculous Fishing with real money would actually reduce the amount of enjoyment you’d get for your total investment in the game vs just playing it and unlocking things over time.

  • mikebithell

    this game should be f2p because it’s unethical not to?


    You bought a game, you said you loved it. That is brilliant. Now go play it some more. If a dev choses not to make their game about IAPs, that’s their choice, and yours in purchasing. To claim Vlambeer (not a person, a company, thought I’d mention, as you call it a ‘he’) is letting you down by not letting you buy is.. it reads like satire.

    I can understand that there’s an argument to be made for ways to include IAPs.. I personally don’t want them, but I see that an argument could be made. But the weird implication that the developer owes you them is insane.

  • I disagree with your statement. Every time I hear someone saying that IAPs would unbalance game design, they always immediately say “Imagine if…” and describe a terrible implementation that *would* unbalance game design.

    It’s like opponents of IAPs always choose the worst possible way to think of them. Internet commenters from the game industry having tribal opinions? Who’d have thought it.

    In particular, it would be very easy to have real money that allowed you to progress through the game faster while still having elements that gate your progress based on time spent or, if you must, skill.

  • st33d

    That’s not really how game design works. “Pay to Win” isn’t selling your soul, it’s just making a game where you pay to win instead of winning purely within the constraints the designer chose. Certainly you can make a fun pay to win game, but they didn’t want to. Good for them, that’s the sort of game they enjoy.

  • It’s clear to me the author of this article has never actually developed a game in their life. It’s not about if Vlambeer COULD have sold you IAPs. Of course they could have – but it would have utterly unbalanced the game progression. By allowing you to buy whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted to do so, you negate the point of the game itself – progress becomes pointless, using different weapons for different types of sea becomes pointless, the entire upgrade mechanic breaks and so does the way in which you steadily get better at the game over time, taking it further and learning more about it.

    This isn’t about a moral high ground. It’s about good game design.