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My F2P Journey: Fallen London

By on September 20, 2012

As I mentioned in my recent post about joining GAMESbrief, my roots are in traditional PC and console gaming – pay your money up front, get your disc in a box, and play it till your heart’s content (or until the next shiny thing takes your attention). As such, like many of you, I’m on a bit of a journey with free-to-play. After writing about the business case for F2P for many years, I’ve now reached a point where F2P games are actually a major part of my own gaming diet, and that’s making me consider the model from a whole new angle.

Over the next while, I’m going to write regular pieces looking at the F2P (or Paymium, or whatever – anything that uses these business mechanics is fair game) titles I’m playing. I’m not writing reviews. I’m looking at the systems these games use to build a funnel – how they acquire players, hold on to them, and eventually convince them to open up their wallets. I’m most interested in looking at the games which I enjoy playing, and asking what it was that compelled me to spend money on them – or, perhaps more importantly, why I didn’t spend any money.

These are personal views based on personal experiences with the games I’m playing. Perhaps there’ll be some insights in here that are useful to you; or perhaps something with which you disagree vehemently. That’s always fun (and interesting) too. In either case, where better to start than with a game that’s often my first post-email port of call in the mornings? 

Fallen London login imageFallen London

For the uninitated, Fallen London is a web-based, narrative driven free to play game created by a London-based studio (appropriately enough) called Failbetter Games. It’s ended up being something of a prototype project for a platform called StoryNexus, which is designed to allow creators to build their own “storygames” – F2P narrative experiences where the player’s agency focuses on building a character through making choices as the story progresses.

This is right up my street. I am an unashamed lover of narrative and believer in the untapped potential of games to be an exceptionally powerful and flexible narrative medium. Fallen London sets out its stall very clearly on that front – it’s a story full of branching choices and events triggered by a combination of factors including the choices the player made in previous story vignettes and the nature of the character the player has created (both deliberately and otherwise). It’s set in a Lovecraftian version of Victorian London that has been dragged underground and is now populated with everything from devils and golems through to streetwise urchins.

The core F2P mechanism behind Fallen London is the energy system. You have a limited number of “Actions”, depleted each time you perform an action, which gradually fill up over time – you get one every ten minutes. Once you’ve got ten stored up, you need to use some before they start topping up again. You can’t really do anything without Actions, so this is a hard limit on how much you can play the game in each session without spending money on buying more Actions.

I’ve never done this, because Actions are hugely expensive. It costs 10 units of Fallen London’s in-game currency, Nex, to refill ten actions. Even buying in reasonable bulk, that costs around £1.20. Each Action takes a single click of the mouse, and especially as you progress through the game, a large majority of them simply result in the filling up of a progress bar towards an objective – no new snatches of narrative or any other reward is offered. It would be perfectly possible, a few weeks in, to spend £1.20 on buying Actions only to repeat the same Action over and over, exhausting your spend in a matter of moments.

Besides, your 10 Actions will refill in less than two hours. As such, despite being the lifeblood of the game, Actions have a low value to the player (they often provide minimal reward and refill quickly) and cost quite a lot of money. I’ve never bought Actions with Nex. But perhaps I’m not meant to.

I say that, because Fallen London has another system in place which allows me to gain extra Actions for a much smaller outlay. By “subscribing” for a month, which costs 20 Nex (about £2.40), you gain the ability to access a new zone in the game, but more importantly, you double the number of Actions you can accumulate. Now, when you return to the game once or twice a day (as most players probably do), you have 20 actions to perform rather than 10. Over the course of a month, that’s a pretty dramatic increase in the amount of time you can spend playing.

There are other ways to spend Nex in the game, although I suspect that some of them are a legacy of earlier experimentation with payment models on the part of the Failbetter team. Certain quests require expenditure of Nex to open them up, but this is a model which hails from an earlier phase in the game’s development, when Nex (then called Fate) was available in small quantities from some in-game actions. Some quests could also be opened up by inviting friends to join you in the game, so the trinity of F2P mechanisms (wait, pay or invite your friends) was in place. Yet compared to this, the ability to subscribe and double your Action pile is much more compelling and less intrusive to the play experience.

Why does it work? Well, Nicholas often uses the analogy of the restaurant wine list when talking about this kind of mechanism. Wine lists conventionally have a very expensive bottle at the top of the scale, which establishes an upper price boundary. Few customers are expected to pay that price – but it makes the next bottle down the list seem much more reasonable. Similarly, if Fallen London asked me for a £2.40 monthly subscription up front, it’s unlikely I’d pay. However, after investigating the price of buying Actions (expensive!), the realisation that I could get far more Actions by buying a subscription did two things. First, it looked like a bargain; and second, it made me feel clever because I’d figured out how to get that bargain. Making your users feel clever is a good move. People who feel like they’ve ferreted out a deal will pat themselves on the back even as they open their wallets.

Moreover, because it’s cheaper to buy Nex in bulk, I actually ended up buying almost £15 worth. The game is compelling and I’m pretty sure I’ll want to keep playing for a long while, so it made economic sense to me to buy more Nex. As a consequence, I’ve effectively subscribed to Fallen London for around six months. Not knowing what the range of spends by Fallen London consumers is, I don’t know if that makes me a Whale, or a Dolphin, or any other form of aquatic mammal, but it’s not a bad catch for the game nonetheless.

Speaking of whales, the Failbetter team have also come up with a very interesting way of harnessing theirs – by getting them to contribute to the development of the next major title in the Fallen London saga. Crowdfunding may be something of a bandwagon at the moment, but Failbetter jumped on it for all the right reasons. With an established and loyal fanbase, they set a very modest Kickstarter target ($10,000) and outlined a new game which would appeal directly to their most dedicated fans. In the end, they raised $45,000 – an interesting confluence of the Kickstarter phenomenon and the F2P Whale concept. Not every developer could take advantage of that, of course, but it’s an intriguing option for those who can.

About Rob Fahey

I’ve been writing about the business of games for 17 years, and have worked on, Eurogamer, VG247 and British newspaper The Times, as well as making appearances on BBC News, CNN, Sky News and others to discuss the industry. I'm the co-author, with Nicholas Lovell, of two of GAMESbrief's books: Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games and The F2P Toolbox. I'm also involved in product development for GAMESbrief - books, Surgeries, Masterclasses and other ways for us to help you make the most from your game and your business.