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Good vs Evil – how to make money from free-to-play and sleep soundly at night

By on February 12, 2013

This is a guest post from Patrick O’Luanaigh of nDreams.

You may be thinking, why should I care about “good and evil”? I just make games. I have enough to deal with without worrying about morals.

But the truth is that, if you publish your own free-to-play titles, your team are becoming salesmen. Your designer and your coder may be deciding right now how often to display messages to players telling them about your latest sale. Your copywriter might be deciding exactly how to describe the new gold vacuum cleaner virtual item in next week’s build. Your team may be discussing how hard to push players to increase monetisation without upsetting them.

Right now, a huge number of gamers are not making a spending decision in a GAME store or supermarket entertainment section. They’re making a spending decision in the middle of your game. They’re emotionally invested in your game. There are no publishers or shop staff to divest responsibility to. If you cheat, lie or trick your players, you’re the one the blame.

Salesmen have been around since the dawn of mankind. Some are honest and open, listen to the customer and react accordingly. Some aren’t. Take a look at TV shows like Watchdog, and it’s pretty clear how easy it is for salesman to cross the moral line, and start pressuring old ladies, lying about their products and using emotional and psychological trickery to push a sale on someone that doesn’t want it.

Since we’re now selling directly to customers from within our games, I believe we need to know where that line is.
I’m talking here about good and evil. Not in terms of game content (Manhunt versus My Little Pony), but in terms of business model and how fair the games are to consumers. Every game ever made lies somewhere on the axis between ‘complete exploitation’ and ‘an amazing game, completely free’. I’m going to try and identify my ‘line in the sand’ along this axis. I believe that falling on the right side of the line can help you make more money and have a happier more invested playing community.

Of course, if you want to try and rip people off to make a fast back, you should aim to be on the left hand side of the line. That decision is up to you.

So what does “exploiting players” look like? Well, exploitation has been around in the industry for a very long time. Let’s take one of many, many possible examples – Shrek: Swamp Kart Speedway. There is no doubt that this was a really bad game. It has been described as follows: “With almost no exception, it is the worst game ever to be reviewed. It’s simply the most cynically created, idly designed and unbelievably unenjoyable title. Superman on the N64 makes this game look good.” Yet 300,000 kids who loved Shrek picked this off the shelves and spent their hard-saved birthday money on this. I think that releasing a game this bad based on a popular kids license is exploitation.

Let’s move into free-to-play gaming. The good news is that the ‘Swamp Kart Speedway’ approach simply can’t work anymore. EA’s John Riccitiello said last October that, ‘with social games, consumers won’t pay for crap’. And he’s right. Since most people play a free-to-play game for at least an hour before they spend anything, a crap game simply won’t make money.

Sadly, there are lots of other ways of being exploitative. For example,

  • Removing currency signs from in-app purchases to make it appear that you’re not spending real money
  • Deliberately targeting players with weak impulse control
  • Tapping into OCD
  • Using emotional game moments to hard-sell to players (“your poor fluffy puppy has just died. Look at his little face! It’s only 99p to bring the poor fella back to life…. ”)
  • Using ‘Derren Brown’ style implanting and covert persuasion techniques
  • “Keep pushing until they hang up” style sales techniques
  • Exaggerating or lying about your game/purchasable content
  • Having ‘mentor’ characters in kids games become salesmen

There are many examples of games which I feel cross the line. And sadly for F2P, our first major success story, Zynga, fell on the wrong side of the line in my opinion. Why? For me, it’s because they appear to prioritise ARPU over player satisfaction and a rewarding gameplay experience. Money is #1, everything else is secondary. I believe this leads to many players regretting the money they have spent when they stop playing a Zynga game, rather than looking back on a positive experience.
This leads me to a really easy way of testing whether you’re on the right side of the ‘line in the sand’.


Does the player regret their purchases when they finish playing?
Or are they glad they played the game and spent the money?

If your game falls into the first category, I think you’re on the wrong side of the line. And I strongly believe that being on the ‘good’ side of the line helps you build a stronger community who love your company. Being generous to players improves retention, virality and makes more money in the long term.

And it can be done well. A great example is ‘Simpsons: Tapped Out’ by EA. It doesn’t push content down your throat. The prices are a little high, but the game doesn’t feel crippled unless you spend money. You can play it without spending money. But if you love The Simpsons and want to see extra characters/buildings, you can spend money to do so. And it works beautifully. It was the #1 grossing iOS game for several months, and I suspect it has become EA’s most successful F2P game.

So how can you do it right? Allow true fans to spend lots of money without tricking players into spending. Aim to delight gamers by making sure you don’t focus exclusively on metrics-led design. Metrics is really important, but so is gameplay design and gameplay testing. And make sure your team are fully committed when you create your first F2P game. Developing a F2P game is like dancing in public; if you do it half-heartedly, it isn’t going to work.

About Patrick O'Luanaigh

I'm CEO of nDreams Ltd, a production company/development studio based in Farnborough, UK. I wrote a book called Game Design Complete, used to be Creative Director of SCi/Eidos and have a wife, two girls and one cat.