Free to Play ain’t free

6 Mar

Recently, GamesIndustry.biz ran an article by Kabam’s President, Andrew Sheppard, about the F2P biz model. (You can find it here: http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2014-03-05-f2p-the-most-democratic-form-of-development-kabam?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=us-daily.)

Basically, the story offered some good thoughts and some bad ones.

The good? There are some very smart comments about the desirability of having several workable business models – and the inevitability of multiple models – rather than one winner-take-all model. That was a breath of fresh air, let me tell you! Most F2P guys exhibit a zeal that can, at best, be described as unseemly. Multiple business models? I completely agree.

And I agree completely with the comments about licenses as well. There’s no reason why licensed games can’t rock. And it’s both good business and, often, good fun working with licenses. Developers need to get over not-invented-here syndrome.

But, on the flip side, Sheppard makes some comments about console and triple-A developers being “scared” of F2P, citing the disruption caused by the switch from arcades (25 cents, please… okay, how about another 25 cents?…) to consoles (deposit $60 in our bank accounts, thank you…).

I think the fear factor is non-existent. Sheppard is just wrong about that. And the arcade to console comparison is simply off-base.

I don’t know anyone who “fears” the new business model. I certainly don’t. I just think it’s evil AS IMPLEMENTED by most developers and publishers. And the incremental approach to revenue generation of the arcades is radically different than the approach most F2P folks take today.

Honestly, I think the arcade guys got it right and we could learn some valuable lessons from them. What lessons?

Well, that initial quarter was very easy to spend. You fed the machine a quarter and you got X minutes of play time. If you were having a good time and wanted more content, you fed more quarters into the machine to keep playing for X additional minutes.

That’s a great model – certainly better than overcharging for our product as we always do in the triple-A space. And it’s a model we can and should adopt.

Charge very little for the first hour of play – or give it away if you want. If I’m having fun, I pay a small fee for more of that experience. You like something, you buy more of it. You don’t like something, you walk away. Track what people do as they play and adjust play appropriately as you introduce new content? Fine. Awesome. I’m in.

But start charging me for power-ups and other things I need to succeed (or, worse, hats and cloaks and such with no game effect)? Take planning and skill out of the equation and charge me for things I need to continue making progress (or to dress myself up)? Nope. I’m not down with that at all. And that’s what most of the F2P folks seem to be doing.

It’d be like a television show giving you 25 minutes of entertainment and then charging for the last five minutes. Or giving you all the talking but charging extra for the action. (Okay, bad analogy but I couldn’t think of a better one.)

In other words, most F2P experiences are built on a model that might be described as “bad entertainment for free; good entertainment for cash.”

That’s what I object to. It’s not fear. It’s not that F2P HAS to be evil. It’s just that it IS evil, as usually implemented. That’s what has to change before you’ll make a convert of me. And just to put my money where my mouth is, here are some personal experiences:

I’m a huge fan of the Tell Tale games – and their business model. I like their free content (their “pilot episodes”) so I always buy subsequent episodes. I like the free stuff so I pay them for the not free stuff – just like the old arcades. They don’t charge for new clothes for Clementine or for shotguns that do double damage to zombies! Good on them!

I love Candy Crush Saga (there, I said it), but I’ve paid for exactly one power-up (and won’t ever pay for another) because I couldn’t make forward progress without said power-up. That’s evil. Sorry. No other word for it. On the other hand I’ve happily paid several times for new levels. Again, I like the free content so I’ll pay for more content. It’s my way of thanking and rewarding the developer for providing an inherently fun experience. Make the experience inherently un-fun (unless I pay) and I’m walking away.

There are similar good things going on elsewhere in the F2P or Cheap 2 Play world – Republique… Kentucky Route Zero… – which I’ll happily support.

Free to Play should really BE free to play (and cheap to play is okay, too – developers have to eat). The ages old model of offering value for money (rather than junk for money) is the right model.

Creating inherently enjoyable experiences that don’t NEED to be enhanced by the purchase of power-ups or add-ons is the right answer. I’m convinced of that and not scared at all. Bring on the change, just make sure it’s a change for the better.

(Oh, yeah, I have to confess, I’ve never played a Kabam game so it’s entirely possible they do everything right. Take this post as a condemnation of the predominant F2P approach, not as a comment on any specific company or game.)

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11 Responses to “Free to Play ain’t free”

  1. Gard 3 (@gardthree) March 6, 2014 at 5:33 pm #

    A lot of it goes into how each gamer/consumer is trained. Our generation grew up on quarter-sized hits to our pockets. Then we slowly got used to 20/40/now $60 titles. But the next generation, our kids, is training to do their “game commerce” on phones, and they are just used to microtransactions. A lot of times, they don’t ever even see the bill (thanks ma and pa). So for an industry to mirror the purchase “patterns” is smart. And if it can train a generation that “you can’t play more levels unless you pay”, well, there’s profit there. I agree it’s wrong in that it’s not based on skill, but look to the Android and Apple stores to see how they can be coerced to spend.

  2. Paul Murphy March 6, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

    I think your position is reasonable, more or less. This is a new business model, and it’s likely that a bunch of different payment models will be tried and the market will determine which is best, and probably it will determine that roadblocks are odious.

    I would note that given the flexibility that the new business allows, not all games will fall under the same business model. To play poker, you buy chips. To play Candy Crush Saga, you buy levels. To play a farm game, you buy land. Or cows. To play a collectible card game, you’ll pay for cooler cards. Maybe you think that allowing players to pay for cooler cards is evil, but it’s certainly an accepted evil.

  3. Fredrik Liliegren March 6, 2014 at 6:26 pm #

    Great article and i agree with most of your comments, the only one i feel is still misplaced is the selling of purely cosmetic items (aka not game altering), which i believe is an acceptable way to monetize your game(s) and it would be great to hear from you why you think that is not the case.

    • Warren Spector March 6, 2014 at 7:25 pm #

      I don’t want to come down TOO hard on cosmetic items. That was probably just my own prejudices getting the better of me. I think it’s kind of a cheap and tawdry way to make money, but I’ll back off of that for the sake of all the players out there who genuinely LIKE customizing their characters and/or their game worlds. You got me on this one!

  4. Will Pitts March 6, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

    The games ecosystem nowadays feel like the old ticket system at Disneyland. You had the E-ticket rides that everyone wanted to ride, you traded and bartered so you could ride those rides more than once. You had the D and C ticket rides, which were still fun, but you ran out quickly because you bartered for E tickets. Then you had the B and A tickets, which were plentiful, since they were the most basic, but were not always the greatest experience.

  5. Ian Richard March 6, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

    While I fully agree with your post, I think you might be a little to hard on F2P as a whole.

    I’ve been playing MANY F2P games recently, and most of them resemble the arcade model. I am limited by “energy”/”Time delay”, but I need to put in a quarter if I want to keep playing.
    Mock me if you will, but this style game better fits my lifestyle. Instead of 8 hour gaming sessions… I get a few 5 minutes ones. This style isn’t for everyone… but no game is.

    Many F2P also give free “money” as a login bonus. While I don’t get items as fast as a paying player… nothing “requires” me to spend money. I didn’t have to spend X hours grinding for an item… I just had to wait a few days.
    This isn’t a problem because I can find better things to do than play games.

    – – –

    But it’s not a FEAR of a new model… but that the new model is foreign. Things are different than what most “Gamers” are used to so that they can appeal to a different crowd.

    It doesn’t match what WE see as “Good Design” but

    – Not everyone wants to marathon game for 8 hours.
    – Some people enjoy a game, but would rather pay $1 to skip a hard level to continue the story rather than spend hours improving their skills.
    – Some people are happy to pay to make their characters and stand out and support the company they love.

    The F2P model is just different than what we’re used to. Choices are made to satisfy a different audience… yet we keep looking at the “problem” from our own eyes and not the players.

    – – –

    There are ABSOLUTELY cases of pure evil in the F2P world. But there are in all forms of business.

    (Horse armor? $15 DLC that hides the fact that it’s only an hour long? Literally skipping a chapter in the main game to sell it as DLC? At least F2P tells me what I’m paying for!)

    Branding ALL F2P evil is dangerous because there are MANY lessons to learn from what the decent developers are doing. If we seek to improve our industry we need to LEARN from things we don’t understand.

    • Warren Spector March 6, 2014 at 7:23 pm #

      Great points, but I want to take issue with two of them:

      First, I tried really hard NOT to brand all F2P as evil. Perhaps I failed, but I think it’s more than okay to pay to extend your play experience – whether that means buying additional levels or chapters or what have you OR paying your way past a hard level. The F2P games that get me are the ones that charge, as you say, for armor or lollipops (or for energy to continue playing while you’re in a particular level or chapter)!

      Second, I’m so with you on the idea that 8 hour play sessions no longer fit a lot of people’s lifestyles. Heck, I don’t much play games like that anymore. But you can get through an episode of Walking Dead in far less than that. You can play a lot of fully satisfying games (as I define “fully satisfying”) in 10-60 minute chunks. And there are F2P models that support that kind of play. That may not be the five minutes you talk about, but it’s the same idea.

      • Ian Richard March 6, 2014 at 8:29 pm #

        And I can fully accept that. There are plenty of bad examples in the free to play world.
        The Robocop game won’t even let you PLAY later levels without buying high level weapons and armor that takes weeks of grinding or real money.
        That was BS and well deserves “Evil”.

        I’m just on the defensive because of the insane number of comment’s I see of designers who refuse to play F2P games because they are “evil”.
        It’s terrifying to me to believe that there are designers who aren’t LEARNING from F2P. Good and bad… this is a gold mine for knowledge.

  6. Andrew March 6, 2014 at 9:22 pm #

    Some disjointed thoughts:

    #1) Why refer to the “arcade guys” in past tense? As if they’re not longer actively making money hand-over-fist? Don’t think “arcade”, think business to business (B2B) sales instead. They have moved from the less lucrative “entertainment” (aka Arcade) space into the *much* more lucrative “gambling” space. Insert small metal disks into the big electronic custom-built boxes for the purpose of obtaining a brief and fun experience. It’s not Gauntlet (/mourn) – it’s 5 Card Stud, Keno, or any one of a hundred other skill or chance-based games.

    Everything is the same as it ever was. The companies making these games (http://www.vgt.net) are immensely profitable. The only real difference is the shiny goes to 11 now…

    #2) Your description of Tell Tale Game’s business model (free first level, pay for rest) could have be about Commander Keen, with only a company name substitution. How is something from 1990 new?

    Perhaps I’m being overly pedantic, but haven’t we used the shareware model pretty much since the beginning of time?

    #3) “Free to Play should really BE free to play” is the sentence that really got me going. I hear you, but I don’t follow… Restated, here’s what I think you said: “If you require a player to spend money to play your game, at any point, and you brand your game as F2P, then you are being evil. Instead you should brand your game Cheap 2 Play (C2P) or some other way.”

    Is that about it?

    Because if that’s really the issue, marketing-speak specialists (i.e. Mr. Sheppard) are just not going to sign on to that. It’s so much more profitable to be less than Truthful with players. Apple and Google are enabling this behavior, by assuming a substantial cost burden, because it’s in their best interest for their customers to have access to millions of apps *without an initial purchase cost.* (Something different than both F2P and C2P, but in common with both.)

    #4) I don’t see how we make game development economics work out. The aggregate # of units for most games (not breakout hits like MineCraft) are small and, when facing the high probability of a fractional decrease for a follow-on, what’s a producer/funder to do? How are we to keep going?

    The answer to that question leads to the real change that the modern F2P business model brought about. For all intents, we have removed the upper limit for how much one could spend. Once you take that course, it’s becomes about putting sufficient pressure on the players. Instead of Commander Keen’s or Tell Tale’s fixed purchase price, the sky’s the limit, so they bring every psychological tool to bear.

    That is where the evil is.

    Not the truthfulness, or lack there of, in the marketing copy: “Free 2 Play.”

    The evil is being baked right into the game mechanics.

    The thing is it’s damn difficult to get this right. Your example: “They don’t charge for new clothes for Clementine or for shotguns that do double damage to zombies!” Not selling Clementine clothes is leaving money on the table. For example, the latest Tomb Raider (http://tombraiders.net/stella/walks/TR9walk/dlc.html) does this with their “single-player outfits.” Totally reasonable use of development time because, those who wish to, can spend more money what they value.

    There’s no “evil” there. That’s good. (Assuming your engine supports it and your player-base is big enough for the economics to make sense.)

    The “double damage” shotgun gets really messy. There is a Tomb Raider analogue in the “Headshot Reticle” which is both purchasable as DLC and also earn-able in the game.

    The question then becomes, if you can earn it, does that make it OK? Or is that still evil?

    I think it’s a gray… dark gray… area. (How much time/effort/luck/skill is required relative to purchase cost? Subjective…)

    I want Tell Tale Games to continue to make Seasons. For that to happen, they really can’t leave money on the table…

    Are they?

  7. Andrew March 6, 2014 at 9:22 pm #

    Reblogged this on Go Phoenix Go and commented:
    Some disjointed thoughts:

    #1) Why refer to the “arcade guys” in past tense? As if they’re not longer actively making money hand-over-fist? Don’t think “arcade”, think business to business (B2B) sales instead. They have moved from the less lucrative “entertainment” (aka Arcade) space into the *much* more lucrative “gambling” space. Insert small metal disks into the big electronic custom-built boxes for the purpose of obtaining a brief and fun experience. It’s not Gauntlet (/mourn) – it’s 5 Card Stud, Keno, or any one of a hundred other skill or chance-based games.

    Everything is the same as it ever was. The companies making these games (http://www.vgt.net) are immensely profitable. The only real difference is the shiny goes to 11 now…

    #2) Your description of Tell Tale Game’s business model (free first level, pay for rest) could have be about Commander Keen, with only a company name substitution. How is something from 1990 new?

    Perhaps I’m being overly pedantic, but haven’t we used the shareware model pretty much since the beginning of time?

    #3) “Free to Play should really BE free to play” is the sentence that really got me going. I hear you, but I don’t follow… Restated, here’s what I think you said: “If you require a player to spend money to play your game, at any point, and you brand your game as F2P, then you are being evil. Instead you should brand your game Cheap 2 Play (C2P) or some other way.”

    Is that about it?

    Because if that’s really the issue, marketing-speak specialists (i.e. Mr. Sheppard) are just not going to sign on to that. It’s so much more profitable to be less than Truthful with players. Apple and Google are enabling this behavior, by assuming a substantial cost burden, because it’s in their best interest for their customers to have access to millions of apps *without an initial purchase cost.* (Something different than both F2P and C2P, but in common with both.)

    #4) I don’t see how we make game development economics work out. The aggregate # of units for most games (not breakout hits like MineCraft) are small and, when facing the high probability of a fractional decrease for a follow-on, what’s a producer/funder to do? How are we to keep going?

    The answer to that question leads to the real change that the modern F2P business model brought about. For all intents, we have removed the upper limit for how much one could spend. Once you take that course, it’s becomes about putting sufficient pressure on the players. Instead of Commander Keen’s or Tell Tale’s fixed purchase price, the sky’s the limit, so they bring every psychological tool to bear.

    That is where the evil is.

    Not the truthfulness, or lack there of, in the marketing copy: “Free 2 Play.”

    The evil is being baked right into the game mechanics.

    The thing is it’s damn difficult to get this right. Your example: “They don’t charge for new clothes for Clementine or for shotguns that do double damage to zombies!” Not selling Clementine clothes is leaving money on the table. For example, the latest Tomb Raider (http://tombraiders.net/stella/walks/TR9walk/dlc.html) does this with their “single-player outfits.” Totally reasonable use of development time because, those who wish to, can spend more money what they value.

    There’s no “evil” there. That’s good. (Assuming your engine supports it and your player-base is big enough for the economics to make sense.)

    The “double damage” shotgun gets really messy. There is a Tomb Raider analogue in the “Headshot Reticle” which is both purchasable as DLC and also earn-able in the game.

    The question then becomes, if you can earn it, does that make it OK? Or is that still evil?

    I think it’s a gray… dark gray… area.

    I want Tell Tale Games to continue to make Seasons. For that to happen, they really can’t leave money on the table…

    Are they?

  8. Mohamed Al Saadoon (@burning_phoneix) March 10, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

    I agree with all your points except one, perhaps the most critical: What makes a good or bad F2P game.

    You state you like the old arcade model, put in small amounts of cash to continue playing but the “new” model, which you state is evil, has you paying for cosmetics and power ups.

    Granted, power ups that are REQUIRED to get you past a certain stage is evil but how is that different from the arcade model? “Oh you got this far? Sorry, no more till you pay 99 cents”. It’s literally EXACTLY the same as the power-up but even lazier. It’s exactly the same as the arcade.

    If we look at the two models, I’d vastly prefer paying for cosmetics or items that don’t effect the gameplay directly.

    A good example is the two games: Spiral Knights and World of Tanks. Spiral Knights has an “energy” system that gives you about 100 energy per day for free. This energy is expended during the exploration part of the game (ie, pay 10 energy to access a dungeon. Pay energy to open this gate). There are only two ways to get more energy: Wait for your energy to recharge (22 hours for full recharge) or pay in game money (expensive) or bust out your credit card and pay real money to keep playing.

    The 100 energy you get every day is enough for about 1-2 hours of gameplay before you need to recharge and that’s not even mentioning the fact you need to pay energy to upgrade your weapons and access the lower levels.

    You are literally locked out of the game until you pay money. It’s the exact same as the arcade model.

    Overall, you would end up spending more money feeding quarters into the machine than paying 50-60 bucks for the home console version.

    Now let’s look at World of Tanks: There is no artificial cap on game time. Play for as long as you want. Up until Tier 7 or 8 of the game, you are given more credits (in game currency) than you would spend repairing/rearming your tank, even if you lose or play poorly. (The reasons higher tiers require exceptional play to earn credits is to prevent the battle matchmaker from being top heavy, as tanks can only face tanks one tier above and one tier below them. Tier 6 is generally seen to be the most profitable tier). There is really no incentive to playing Tier 10 tanks over any other tank in the game. Crowd favourites such as the German Panzer IV, American M4 Sherman and Russian T-34 are placed comfortably in Tier 5 and will only see tanks up to Tier 7 in battle.

    What does cash buy you in this game? Premium accounts that increase Experience and credits gain by 50% (easing the grind but not giving you any competitive advantage), premium tanks (Tanks that are not acquired via the in game tech tree but generate nearly 100% more credits than equivalent tanks in game, they are designed to be weaker than tanks of similar tiering), cosmetics (camo paint/emblems on tanks), Better crew retraining (basically, restating a crew member causes him to lose 10% of his XP in the free version, using about 99 cents allows him to keep his full XP while restating).

    In general, World of Tanks cash only serves to help players advance through the game quicker. You can truly play for free.

    Spiral Knights? It requires you to pay money to keep playing or wait for energy to recharge. It actively keeps you from playing! It’s the same as the new mobile dungeon keeper, it’s “free” but it restricts you so much you have no option BUT to pay to get anywhere in a decent amount of time.

    There’s a reason arcades died out. You can blow a lot of money in a short amount of time since a quarter got you no more than 10 minutes of gameplay. Especially when arcades started charging 1$ or more for a single credit.

    Sorry if my words are rambling incoherently or I misunderstood your point. It’s late where I am and I’m still scarred by the times I had no lunch money because I spent it all trying to be good at Street Fighter II

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