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An Indie Perspective: Implementing and Evolving the F2P Design Pattern

By on March 14, 2013

This is the second post in a series by Tim Wicksteed of Ionage. His first post was about whether or not he should go free-to-play.

In my last blog post on this topic I gave An Indie Perspective on the F2P vs Premium Dilemma. I decided that Ionage (an upcoming space RTS for Android devices) would be Free-to-Play (F2P).

So the question of if is answered but the question of how remains. In this post I’ll try to tackle the core of Ionage’s F2P implementation, answering questions such as:

  • How to offer good value to the player?
  • … without giving the game away for free?

It’s worth mentioning right at the beginning of this article that I’m not a fan of energy bars or other ‘negative’ mechanics where a player pays to remove an arbitrary barrier to playing the game. I have no doubt that these are effective techniques for improving monetisation but as a gamer, as well as a developer, I find them a huge turnoff whenever I encounter them. Therefore I won’t be considering them in Ionage.

My monetisation ‘mechanic’ (if you can even call it that) is simply to offer such amazing value to the player that they cannot resist the tempting In App Purchases (IAP)! We’ll see if I’m successful in due course.

The Difficulties of Offering Value

One of the difficulties of offering good value-for-money to players in F2P games is balancing how much the player can earn without spending real money. It’s common to include a way of earning in-game currency simply by playing the game. The advantage of this is that it introduces the player to the sort of valuable content that is available if they do choose to pay. It also helps retention for non-paying players which gives them a better chance of converting at a later date. The disadvantage is of course that players may unlock everything they could ever want in the game without ever paying.

Developers have tried to combat this in a number of ways. You can include a premium currency which you can’t earn in game so that some things can never be purchased without paying. Alternatively you can simply increase the prices of all of your unlockable content to make it prohibitively time-consuming to unlock it without paying. I’ve seen this backfire though as players simply don’t find the game fun anymore due to the ‘grind’ and subsequently stop playing.

Another side of this balancing act is deciding how much content a player can unlock when they do spend real money. I noticed that in CSR Racing (undoubtedly a very successful F2P title in terms of revenue) that you needed to spend around £5 of real money to unlock one of the very first cars. This seems like rather a lot to me when you consider there are many cars to unlock and countless pieces of equipment to purchase to maximise their stats. My analysis concluded that this is probably a result of a calculation similar to this:

  • We need to ensure there is sufficient content to maximise the user’s potential spend.
  • % of content user will unlock with currency earned in-game = 80% (guess)
  • Maximum potential spend of a high value user = £100
  • Need cost of remaining content (20%) to equal £100
  • Hence cost of all content = £500
  • If we have 100 cars available then we need to sell each one for £5.

What I think the above illustrates is that the more content that players are able to unlock with currency earned in-game, the more you have to charge for the remaining content.

The Solution?

So I’m going to try something a little bit different with Ionage. Ionage will have a Finite Currency System. Imagine every level of the game allows you to earn a maximum of 2000 Galactic Ordinance Logistical Divisions (or GOLD for short), there are 50 levels and the total cost of all the unlockables in the game is 200000 gold. Now the maximum a non-paying player can unlock is half of the modules.

If we repeat the calculation I did for CSR Racing above with 50% instead of 20% then what you get is a cost per car of £2.

What I like about this system is I can be fairly generous with how much the player can unlock using IAP as I know that they’ll need to purchase at least 100000 gold via IAP to unlock absolutely everything. In addition, I can allow my non-paying users to unlock content at a reasonable speed – improving retention – safe in the knowledge that they can’t unlock everything.

But wait, there’s a problem… the player doesn’t know any of this!

As far as they are concerned they are progressing through the game at a nice pace and they are unlocking awesome content along the way. Here’s my solution: the unlockables aren’t in your standard item shop or tech tree separate to the game; they are discovered as the player progresses. Specifically, Ionage will feature a branching star map which the player traverses by completing levels. The unlockables will be dotted around the map and therefore will only be unlockable after the player progresses to a certain level.

My strategy is to ensure that the player will always encounter twice as many unlockables than they can afford to unlock using the finite currency earned in-game. This will happen naturally, as there is twice the amount of unlockable content as there is money available to unlock it. As they try to earn more by completing levels they will keep uncovering more unlockable content. They’ll be left with a decision to make: choose only one of the items available or pay to get both.

Of course, all of the numbers I’ve included in the proposal above are only there for the purposes of example. It may turn out that the optimum ratio between the finite currency earnable in game and the price of all the unlockable content is different to 50%, maybe 30%? I plan to tweak this over the months following launch as I can continue to add content and levels to adjust it.

The key ‘take-home’ message is that this system allows you to make your calculations based on fixed numbers. You don’t have to estimate your player’s tolerance to grinding as no matter how much they play the game you’ll know exactly how much currency they’ll have based on the number of levels they have completed. This allows you a degree of control with your pricing etc. that just isn’t possible with an infinite currency system.

So that’s the core of my intended implementation of F2P. I’ve deliberately kept it top-level and unspecific because I think this could be applied to many types of games and not just Ionage. I plan to do another article prior to launch where I’ll describe some more specifics including the viral mechanic that I have planned.

This is my first outing into the world of F2P and I’d love to hear what you think about my strategy. At the moment it’s of course all theoretical and will be proved right or wrong based on the revenue the game makes post-launch. It might be a huge flop but I think it’s important that as developers we continue to push the boundaries of F2P so we can make it all it can be!

Leave a comment or get a hold of me at tim@twicecircled@twicecircled or check out

About Tim Wicksteed

Tim Wicksteed is director of indie-development company Twice Circled, based in Bristol in the UK. As well as developing Ionage, Tim works as a freelance Android developer.