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Why Frozen Synapse costs money

By on May 17, 2013
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The inimitable Nicholas Lovell has cast Frozen Synapse front-and-centre in the interminable debate between paid and F2P.

Check out his “Why I haven’t bought Frozen Synapse on the iPad for £4.99 yet”.

I think this pretty much sums it up:

I had to put more “risk” into the decision to download a paid game than a free game. I will feel more stupid if I don’t enjoy it than if the only cost to me was some all-you-can-eat bandwidth on my wifi.

Basically, his point is that it’s harder (for him) to make the choice to try a paid game than it is to try a free game.

Now, everyone loves bullet points, so here are some:

  • It’s a personal article about someone’s own preference and how that relates to a wider theme; it’s hyperbolic…because it’s written by Nicholas Lovell!   I’ll be responding in a similar way
  • This isn’t really about Frozen Synapse, as Nicholas told me.
  • We get on well and I’ve written for Gamesbrief before: this isn’t personal, so be nice if you comment or respond to him

Let’s talk about me now:

I find it harder to try a free-to-play game than I do to buy a paid one. Here’s why:

1. Most free-to-play games are still terrible

I constantly see free-to-play proponents claiming this isn’t the case (Nicholas is doing it on Twitter right now!)  but it’s still true for a certain audience.  And it’s not just the stereotypical “core” or “indie” audience who feel this way.

“No!” they will say.  ”Have you tried [terrible core game]?”  It’s always an embarrassing conversation.

This is changing, but very very slowly: the prejudices are still valid.

Back to me again.  I like:

  • Immersion which isn’t broken by payment prompts
  • Thoughtful narrative (in single player)
  • Exceptional aesthetics
  • Skill-based gameplay and a complex multi-player meta-game (in multiplayer)

Many, many free-to-play games are designed for people who don’t give two hoots about all of that stuff and like putting things in lines, flicking little men inside buggies, or buying the shiniest gun with the best numbers next to it.  I still expect most free-to-play games I try to be terrible and I’m not often wrong.

Of course, it’s fine for things to be terrible, and such things often do well commerically.  Here’s Pitbull and Christina Aguilera to explain further:

Is this a snobby, elitist, smug opinion? Definitely.  Show me a single person who isn’t smug, snobby and elitist about their own taste.  I’m sure there are people who love that song, and that’s fine.  I…kind of love it.  Because it is terrible.


2.  The ones that are not terrible make me dread their monetisation, fear for their future or write them off as an anomaly

I think this is a more interesting point.

I’ve played some League of Legends: it’s definitely a fun game with a rich multiplayer meta-game, although it’s not really my thing.  I don’t want to get to the point where I feel compelled to buy champions…that just doesn’t appeal to me.  I want to pay and forget that I’ve paid, not keep reaching for my wallet from time to time.  That, coupled with the crazy impenetrable maximalism of the rune system, and the fact that I don’t enjoy watching it streamed made me stop playing.

Obviously aesthetic-only microtransactions avoid this problem.

However, I don’t really think that small indie developers can take many meaningful lessons from either DOTA2 or Team Fortress 2…aside from “people actually do like aesthetic microtransactions in big communities”.  I believe free-to-play in core games works at a massive scale with a well known franchise; if you’re at the stage where you can viably consider it you’re probably doing pretty well for yourself anyway.  If we considered doing a free-to-play game in future, it’d probably be aesthetic-only and we’d be aiming for a huge audience.

So, I have “wallet dread”: I know that there will be some reason to keep me paying regularly while I’m playing and I just don’t want that.  It makes me concerned about the design of the game and often not even bother to try it.

When a free-to-play game doesn’t induce that feeling in me, I have concerns about its future.  There’s very little data available from devs about this still at the moment, so it’s hard to know whether that instinct is right or not.

By the way, if you’re a smaller developer making core F2P games, please release some data.  You’ll get a massive amount of press and it will help a lot of us to understand these things more.

I don’t think I’m alone with my wallet dread: a lot of people value their time more than they value money.  They want to pay to experience an unusual, unique game design that won’t harass them with tiny charges later on.  The game is up now: people understand that “free” doesn’t really exist.

Here’s another thing: sometimes I don’t want to be “retained”.  Designing for retention isn’t the Holy Grail: sometimes something is really fun for a short period of time, then not fun any more. I found this with Chivalry: I’m still glad I paid for it, but I probably won’t play it again.  That sort  of game is valid, both creatively and commercially: it can’t be free-to-play.

Frozen Synapse

Frozen Synapse is doing well on the App Store: it’s hit the benchmark that we wanted it to hit.

Nicholas said this wasn’t about Frozen Synapse but, of course, it sort of is.   I’ve said this many times before: if there was a way of making Frozen Synapse F2P in a way which wouldn’t compromise its design, we would think seriously about doing it.

There genuinely isn’t: it’s not possible.  It wouldn’t be Frozen Synapse if you started to do any of the things to it which would make for a successful free-to-play game.

For that reason, I’m glad Nicholas hasn’t bought it.  If the relationship you want with creators is that of being gently cajoled into paying while maintaining the illusion that you’re getting something for free, we’re not going to do that for you.  We’re going to say: “Look, here is something which we spent four years making that has a massive scope.  You can read what people say about it, watch videos of it, read user reviews, talk to members of the community and make one decision about its worth to you.”

We are being straight-up with you; that allows us to be straight-up in our design.  Frozen Synapse was supposed to be a clear, simple tactical game which allowed the user to do anything they wanted: that wasn’t perfectly achieved but that was the original motivation.

You don’t have to puzzle out just how we’re going to extract the next $2 from you: we made a deal and we’ll stick to it.  This isn’t the way to make the most money possible from a game, but it’s what we wanted to do.

In addition, once you’ve bought the game, if you like it and you want to spend more money on it, you can!  There’s a whole Red expansion pack to buy (coming soon to iPad by the way!).  This is completely optional: there is a huge amount to enjoy in the game without it.  I have no problem with games allowing their audience to pay more to get more stuff, by the way: I do think indies should take this into consideration more as well.

Finally, FS is a niche game, so it’s more expensive than some other games on the App Store: that’s how niches work, you often pay a little bit more for something that appeals more directly to you personally.

I’m sick of people telling me it “should” be free-to-play: I feel like this opinion is as daft as telling me to put a banging donk on it.

Where am I going with this? 

We will never, ever make a game where the payment model constrains the design.  If a design fits into free-to-play then we would definitely consider using it, but it’s not ever going to be an a priori creative limitation for us.  There will be no donks.

Every payment model has its disadvantages: pay-once can put some people off.  It’s hard to get the price right, and sometimes people aren’t able to try a game in a low-pressure way.

Design comes first for us: that’s why Frozen Synapse costs money.

About Paul Taylor

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

    The price of freemium is eternal vigilance.

  • I haven’t played FS, so can’t comment on whether it *can’t* be done F2P. I believe few games that could not have a F2P business model. Chess, for example, could be F2P. 90% of people would get a free chess game. The remaining 10% would participate in a metagame with elements of persistence or competition for example.

    It’s been a helpful thread. Thank you.

  • TychoCelchuuu

    He did – he said “Demos don’t cut it either; a demo is time wasted not playing the game – more in another post.” If I had to guess I would assume that, because in this comment section he has shown a preference for persistence in games, he thinks of demos as a waste of time because you can’t earn unlocks/build up your power for the ‘real’ game. That is, of course, the wrong way to think about it for a game like Frozen Synapse (or chess) where matches are one-off affairs, so a demo isn’t really wasted time, but whatever. Maybe he meant something else.

  • Online Magic The Gathering might not be like chess, but it is more or less F2P. I think emulating real world table-top strategy game monetization (buying units) is a good way to embed F2P into a strategy game.

    In those strategy games you basically pay for unit diversity. For armies there is a point cap, so a well balanced game should treat the high spender and the low spender equal.

  • Guest


  • Well, there you go! I’m sure Frozen Synapse IS benefiting from these options. I’m actually surprised Nicholas didn’t mention the demo in his argument…

  • TychoCelchuuu

    Frozen Synapse does have a demo, though. And it’s very easy to upgrade the game, too – there is a link to the store in the game where you can buy the expansion.

  • TychoCelchuuu

    Yes, I know, you can give examples of free to play games that are nothing like Frozen Synapse to demonstrate a point that Paul did not contest in the article (namely, that some kinds of games can be F2P and do fine). But Paul and I asked for examples of F2P games that can do strategy like Frozen Synapse – you replied with Stronghold Kingdoms, which I pointed out isn’t very good because it’s pay to win, and then your reply is to point out other games where you can’t win. So? Of course those games aren’t pay to win. But they aren’t anything like Frozen Synapse, which can’t do F2P right, which is the entire thrust of Paul’s article.

  • I was glad to see this posting in response to Nicholas’s piece, because I think there’s plenty of room in the gaming industry for both models.

    I think about it like the difference between cinema and television. The modern multiplex moviegoing experience is precisely engineered to ensure that people are likely to have a better time than they might sitting at home on a couch. The screen is larger than life. The sound system is incredible. The seating is comfortable. The refreshments are primarily made up of junk food served in large portions. And there’s even a social component to the experience where you get to enjoy the film with other human beings who you’ll probably never know outside of that experience.

    F2P is a lot more like television. It’s quick, it’s disposable, it’s meant to provide temporary entertainment instead of a longer experience. You get out of it what you put into it. For many people, that’s a minimal amount of effort, but for those who become dedicated fans, the best games can be quite rewarding.

    Where I think F2P has some opportunities is in offering both experiences — the weekly TV show and the made for TV movie, if you will. What I resent about F2P games is either having to grind or hit a paywall at some point in the experience and then to be told, “you can make this so much easier or more fun if you’ll just chip in a few bucks!” I know that’s the sort of thing Nicholas preaches against, but it’s the reality of the experience in many games. It’d be nice if F2P developers could offer a two-tiered approach — a F2P set of tiers for a la carte purchases and then a reasonably-priced bundle that offers the entire experience plus a generous amount of customization items.

    Outside of mobile, the only F2P experiences that have really gained a lot of traction with large audiences are browser-based games, arena combat games and MMOs. All of these designs lend themselves well to the concept. I agree wholeheartedly that Frozen Synapse (a top-notch strategy game I’ve enjoyed on the PC!) wouldn’t function as a F2P game.

    But shareware and game demos are a far older concept than F2P, and I think Frozen Synapse (and other games like it!) could benefit from having those sorts of free options, especially if they made it easy to purchase and upgrade the game. And in the end, that’s the heart of what I think Nicholas is saying — make it easy for gamers to test-drive and you’ll be rewarded in the end.

  • I’m not sure I know what winning looks like in Candy Crush. Or Hay Day. Or Temple Run. Or Pocket Planes. Or Tiny Tower.

  • TychoCelchuuu

    Well, you like persistence AND you like free to play. Can you describe any games that meet both categories that aren’t pay to win? The temptation to charge for useful (read: persistent) stuff is huge, and the fact that the stuff is useful means that it helps you win.

  • We have such a nice discussion until you said I like pay-to-win. I like persistence. Very different.

  • TychoCelchuuu

    I think we’ve gotten to the root of why you haven’t bought Frozen Synapse, really: you enjoy games with persistence but not games that value competitiveness and fairness over persistence. Games like that (which include chess, Frozen Synapse, Starcraft, etc.) basically cannot be free to play unless they got the Dota 2 route, which as Paul points out really only works for massively popular games by huge companies.

    There is, of course, nothing wrong with enjoying certain kinds of games and not enjoying other kinds of games, but I think it’s helpful to get a more accurate picture of why it is that you haven’t bought Frozen Synapse. From your point of view, it’s because you don’t want to put down money up front (and also you don’t want to play a demo?). But the reason you’re being asked to put down money up front is because that’s the only way to make this kind of game work. So what sets Frozen Synapse apart isn’t that it’s asking for your money up front – it’s that it’s a competitive strategy game where victory is determined solely by how good you are at playing it, and because of this it must charge up front.

    People who enjoy these kinds of games aren’t stuck dropping money sight unseen, of course: there are demos and videos to watch and reviews to read and so on. Maybe you could borrow a friend’s iPad for 10 minutes. But we ARE stuck paying for the game up front, because that’s how the game has to work. That’s a tiny price to pay for the sake of having a genuine strategic game rather than something I can win or lose based on the relative strength of my credit card versus my opponent’s credit card, I would say, but if you prefer the kind of game where paying to win is a viable strategy then these sorts of considerations likely won’t be very relevant.

  • Two answers:
    – I prefer games with persistence. Not to gain advantage, but because that’s one of the things I enjoy in games.
    – I think F2P game design will improve in how it balances skill against time and money. There is an opportunity for all to work.

  • TychoCelchuuu

    I suppose we may just diverge on what we enjoy (Stronghold Kingdoms is not what I would call a great game) but even granting that it’s fun, that’s a very different kind of “strategy” than traditional strategy games.

    Stronghold Kingdoms isn’t like chess or something – the best “strategy” is to get a bunch of your fellow players together to pick on people. It’s strength in numbers, not in tactics, and I imagine one of the reasons it is like this is because a mob mentality sort of game, where the goal is to get people together, is exactly the kind of game that can drive microtransactions – you have the incentive to get your friends to play, you have the drive to get back at the person who sacked your town, you have the vast importance of persistent resources (which you can replenish with a quick credit card infusion…).

    Frozen Synapse (and chess and Go and Starcraft so on) is interesting as a one-off strategic match against another player. The one-off nature is important because it provides a level playing field and lets you fight things out on equal terms. Persistent games like Kingdoms, especially ones with a base of microtransactions, are a permanent non-level field, where you never know if you won because you’re better or because the other player didn’t buy something yesterday that would’ve let them win.

  • Stronghold Kingdoms is a deeply strategic F2P game (PC client). I love Hay Day more than Clash of Clans because I’m not heavily driven by competition.

    More than that, you have reminded me that I need to build that list of excellent games. Will get to it shortly.

  • TychoCelchuuu

    Then I would just reiterate Paul’s point from the article: point me to the games! I’m sure you can make a simple F2P game where the microtransactions don’t ruin the experience (and I’ve played games like this). But as Paul points out, can you make a game as good as Frozen Synapse? Especially in this specific genre (tactical turn based strategy games) or even the broader genre (strategy games in general). I’d love good examples because I doubt it’s possible.

  • Without arguing about FS, I contend that if a game is designed in such a way that “ruins the entire experience”, as you’ve described it, that would be very poor design. That’s about bad F2P, not F2P.

  • TychoCelchuuu

    I couldn’t agree more. Of the many things I appreciate about Frozen Synapse, its “wholeness” (for lack of a better word) is one of them. It has never bugged me for anything or made me feel like a second rate player. Everything about the tactical turn based genre goes against the idea of paying for more or being gated by how much XP I’ve managed to rack up (which I could of course bypass by paying extra money).

    Games like Frozen Synapse should be about challenging the player and outsmarting the opponent, and if every challenge is just an opportunity for the developer to sell me a shortcut and every matchup is just a chance for me to get into a situation where I could’ve purchased a unit that would let me win, it ruins the entire experience.

    As someone who, off the cuff, made a few Frozen Synapse videos on YouTube and has seen them get more views than any of my other videos, it’s clear to me that Frozen Synapse is a niche title that people are investigating and picking up when it seems like something they would like. There’s a demo and there’s plenty of information: I don’t need a free to play version to get me over the hump and I’m doubtful that a free to play version could be fun.