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5 reasons why XCom is the perfect F2P game

By on November 9, 2012

Game designer Adam Russell posted a short piece on a his personal blog entitled XCOM Should Have Been Free to Play.


The howls of protest reverberating across my Twitter stream were deafening. Some of the milder ones:

  • You can basically determine whether someone loves games or money by their reaction to this article (Lewie Proctor of Savy Gamer)
  • I feel bad about giving this any traffic, but here is the most awful thing on the internet, ever (Alec Meer of Rock Paper Shotgun)
  • STOP TRYING TO RUIN NICE THINGS – @danthat (Dan Marshall of Size Five Games)

The weird thing is this: XCom’s gameplay is almost perfectly structured for F2P mechanics. Adam’s post pointed this out. I think it’s worth considering.

(Note that I haven’t played the current X-Com. My comments are based on the X-Com universe, of which I am a huge fan. I even replayed the original last year.)

1. XCom is naturally time-based

Many things in X-Com either do take time or logically could:

  • Researching new technology
  • Manufacturing new equipment
  • Upgrading your bases
  • Training your squad members
  • Searching for aliens
  • Scouting missions

Any game which has time-based mechanics is a shoe-in for an F2P mechanic. It allows you to trade time for money. It allows you to make tactical choices on where and how to spend your grind currency. It allows you to set up research or upgrade processes depending on when you next expect to be able to play. Almost all of its gameplay rhythms match those of successful F2P games.

2. X-Com is naturally upgrade-based

There are so many things that you upgrade in X-Com. Your soldiers, your equipment, your vehicles, your bases, your knowledge and so on. This provides flexibility in strategy, in gameplay, in monetisation. It provides so many angles of choice for a skilled designer.

3. X-Com naturally builds emotional resonance

I don’t know if it’s true in this game, but previous X-Com games make you care about your squad members. It’s not brilliant at it (nothing like the emotional resonance of the characters in Jagged Alliance 2, Baldur’s Gate or Planescape Toment – and yes, I know I’m old), but it does have characters you care about. Characters you want to equip, to train, to specialise, to help. All of these are strong motivations to keep playing, to keep progressing and keep spending.

4. X-Com never has to end

The game needs to have peaks of engagement, but fighting the aliens is a very, very, very long storyline

5. X-com needs a new audience

The game is doing great, selling lots of units. But it also needs to reach new audiences, on new devices, and free is a great marketing tool for that.


The strange things is the responses. They have all the fervour of a religious mania. It is not hard to hear overtones of “heretic” or “blasphemer” in the furious tirade unleashed against Adam’s post for what was just an interesting thought experiment.

For all those complaining that F2P is evil, cynical or manipulative, I have this to say to you: F2P lets 90% of players experience and enjoy and entire game for free. It lets those who love what the creators do spend lots of money on things they truly value. Sure, there are bad examples, but those are dying, being replaced by better, more enjoyable, more entertaining experiences. Let’s lose the kneejerk hatred.

I do accept Dan Marshall’s argument. It seems to me that he is saying “I don’t want to play X-Com F2P because I like it how it is”. Which is totally fair enough.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: