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[Gamesbriefers] Do people understand the free-to-play model?

By on June 26, 2014
FlickrCC image by Pavel P
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Is the free-to-play model well understood now, or are the big changes yet to come?

pecorellaAnthony Pecorella Director of production for virtual goods games at Kongregate

I’m now on my third draft of this response, having convinced myself I was wrong a few times in the previous ones. My initial reaction was to start up a debate and say that I thought we had a good understanding of free to play and that most changes would be more evolutionary than revolutionary in the foreseeable future. I pointed out that strict energy systems are starting to be replaced by flexible timer gates, explicit item purchases are transitioning to gacha mechanics, and viral sharing is making way for great long term retention, but that these are all just refinements and optimizations. As an industry we’re understanding metrics and behavior better and now have comps and data to base decisions on.

Then I was going to close by saying “I’m betting against seeing a game jump out and completely shake up free to play in the way Farmville, League of Legends, or Clash of Clans did any time soon.” But those games were released in 2009, 2009, and 2012 respectively. Really not that long ago, and I see no reason to assume that there won’t be more coming. On top of that, e-sports are really taking off (marked by Google’s $1B acquisition of and DotA 2’s crowd-funded record-breaking $10M prize pool), retail games are experimenting with F2P and expanded digital content (Bravely Default, Call of Duty: Ghosts) and Facebook’s Rift has the potential to substantially change our interactions with computers (Hello Wall-e / Ready Player One!).

So while I have no idea what’s next, it seems likely that we’re going to see some pretty interesting new developments coming up before long. The industry is moving at a rapid rate, technology continues to evolve, and we’re going to find new and interesting ways to entertain people while also supporting our thriving industry.


Oscar ClarkOscar Clark Evangelist for Applifier

I don’t think most designers ‘really’ understand Free-To-Play. I talk to lots of teams and part of my role at Everyplay/Unity as well as separately as a design/discovery/monetisation consultant on the side. Typically there are some deep misconceptions.

First is the ‘its a phase’ designer who think F2P is a passing fad that they have to do, but usually resent. Usually they want to avoid ‘exploitative mechanics’ so much that they remove any value the audience might have expected… desperately clinging to the idea that anything else is pay to win.

The next type are determined to leverage the ‘successful’ methods from other games; but they usually make the mistake of just copying the model; rather than trying to understand why those models work and adapting those levers to be appropriate their game. They often fail to take into account what led to the original designers making the choices they did.

Then there are the guys who mistake ‘Trial’ or ‘Paymium’ models with Freemium without paying attention to the impact of ‘buyer remorse’ or what drives player purchase expectations. For me the key is the paper by Park & Lee which demonstrated people don’t spend money in games because they are happy but instead they do because they expect future value.

The biggest problem is that too many designers (and dare I say consultants) spend too much time debating ‘Free-To-Play’ or ‘Paid’ – which is the wrong question. Instead we have to look at the kinds of value (or utility) we are offering and how we can offer the best proposition that delivers audience anticipation. If we have a ‘service’ approach then life-time network value through in-ap-purchases and advertising will usually make the most sense. However, if you really decide to create a product (some kind of self-contained nugget of joy) which has no replay value then maybe paid will be more suitable; but that’s typically a creative not commercial decision.

Successful games acquire, retain and monetise by definition. They don’t do that by copying the business models which are successful; but by perfectly attuning the economic model thats most appropriate to what your audience will both desire and pay for.


tadhg kellyTadhg Kelly Developer relations at Ouya

Brenda Romero asked a question on Facebook the other day that strongly correlated to the latest Gamesbrief question for me. She asked “Are there any examples of successful free to play / micro transaction models that don’t violate the magic circle?” which I think is the most succinct way of voicing what the core qualms around F2P actually are.

F2P as we understand it today could mostly be described as the economics of paid exploits. The game is either selling the player advantages that help them skip the grind, or advantages that help them get ahead (whether through boosting or unlocking). There’s no grand mystery to how those kinds of transactions are set up and work, and they replicate from game to game. Often they work at one remove (buy the game currency and then in turn buy the advantage you need) because we feel that players shouldn’t be asked to buy with cash too often, but that’s all.

The problem is that paid exploits are essentially forms of sanctioned cheating, and so they break the magic circle. Play many an army building F2P game and what you’ll see is them selling ways to skip ahead/shorten time to build or recover. Players know this and know that other players are doing this, and it takes some of the sense of engagement out of the game. Or play many an F2P roleplaying game and the economy boils down to taxing players to bypass degenerate loops and pinch points. The math of the game inherently leads to a negative spiral (a recent example for me is New Star Soccer, a great game in many ways but too negatively balanced the further I go into it, leading to that pinching feeling) and the only way out of the spiral is to do tedious things or essentially pay to fix the math.

I’m not saying these are good or evil etc etc, but they do weaken that sense of circle. Where F2P is not well understood is in games where the economic activity from outside the game feels legitimate to the game, a part of the circle rather than an exploit or a tax. There are some games that seem to manage it (MOBAs are one, Poker is another) but the formula for how they do it is far from easy to express. It certainly isn’t easily replicated from game to game, unlike the prior methods, and so to me at least that is the undiscovered country of F2P.


eric seufertEric Seufert Mentor at Gamefounders

Consumers seem to understand freemium / free-to-play — at least, they’re spending more of their money on freemium apps than they are on paid apps. For as long as that’s true, I’m reluctant to try to claim that “game devs” as a whole don’t understand it (although obviously some individual devs have failed with the model).


Mark SorrellMark Sorrell Game design consultant

I’m very much with Anthony/Oscar here – the now ‘established’ techniques are actually very new and the diminishing returns of copying (at least of copying blindly) are clear to see. A big mashed up bag of stolen parts is never an effective monetisation strategy.

F2P is, after-all a marketing technique at its core. And I know less than bugger-all about marketing, so I don’t feel comfortable talking about that. However the IAP and in-game economy elements of F2P games I do know, and they are definitely ripe for innovation. The success o hearthstone’s monetisation, despite it’s theoretical imperfections is proof enough that completely different techniques can work. And, indeed, I’d suggest it does its work without breaking the magic circle. If magic circle means what I think it means.

Behavioural science tells us that generally, people like to imagine that their lives are pretty static, that they hold the same opinions and remain far more similar than they actually do. I’d say that applies here as much as anywhere. It seems likely that we have further to go than we’ve been.

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