With the release of Grand Theft Auto Online, Rockstar has taken its blockbuster franchise in an ambitious new direction. The multiplayer world, complete with in-game economy, certainly has many of the hallmarks of a Free-2-Play title, but could GTA Online actually make it as a standalone F2P game?
Given the seismic shift the games industry has already made towards F2P, no one would be surprised if Rockstar made this next step. However, there is a lot a stake and creating a successful F2P isn't simply a case of throwing in some in-app purchases and giving a £40 game away for free.
F2P is already established as the dominant business model for mobile and PC games. Reasons for this include the prevalence of micro-transactions and because these platforms make it relatively easy for publishers and developers to integrate analytics and use that data to make informed real-time game design changes to keep players engaged and increase retention. The transition onto console has been a slower burn - designing successful F2P games requires an understanding and skill set which isn't necessarily native to publishers with a long heritage in designing games to ship in a box.
"Many F2P console games have come up short, offering a poor tutorial and on boarding process, plus a monetisation structure that is much closer to a used car sales man than an enjoyable experience that puts the control in the users' hands"
As a result, many F2P console games have come up short, offering a poor tutorial and on boarding process, plus a monetisation structure that is much closer to a used car sales man than an enjoyable experience that puts the control in the users' hands. However, the data capabilities of the Xbox One and PS4 means that F2P on console finally looks set to take off, with an impressive list of F2P titles already set for release including Little Big Planet, Planetside 2 and War Thunder.
To better understand the potential of console transition we thought we'd take a theoretical look at GTA Online as a standalone F2P title.
Our in-house design team applied GamesAnalytics' proprietary evidenced based research methodology to benchmark key aspects of its game design against best practice F2P game design from over 80 titles.
Focusing on six main categories including Monetisation, Retention, Engagement and Virality and analysing 50 key criteria the team found unsurprisingly that GTA Online surpassed the best in genre score for Retention, Game Mechanics, Engagement and Game Overview, clearly reflecting the high quality of the game. However, if GTA Online was going F2P it would need to look at mechanics around Monetisation and Virality.
Based on these data findings, here are five recommendations to improve the F2P potential of GTA Online:
1. Improve the currency structure
Currently GTA Online has a single currency, this is fine when the game is not relying on this currency as a part of the monetisation, but for a true F2P game you would want to extend this to provide greater flexibility. Adding in a premium currency is generally the way of giving games more flexibility in delivering the F2P mechanic. Making the currency a part of the world so it feels natural is vital in making sure the monetisation doesn't jar with the game surrounding.
There are a number of ways that people are encouraged to spend money both in the real and the virtual world. Especially for a game like GTA, it is vital that it feels natural and intuitive. Discounts and bundles are obvious incentives for getting people to invest in in-game economies, but rental and test drives are also a good way of letting players get a taste for the high life and incentivising them to keep grinding or splash the cash.
These 'try before you buy' mechanics are good ways of easing players onto the paying path while keeping the barrier low and the incentive high.
Giving players the ability to buy luxury vanity items using a premium currency is exactly the way you would expect Rockstar to monetise its players. The game has always been about getting rich quick and showing off the proceeds of your crimes. This is not about honest hard slog, so it's fitting that players should be given a quick route to the high life through whatever means at their disposal. A successfully free-to-play GTA Online should also include consumables: things that the player will spend money on that give them a short term advantage or simply let them show off.
2. Introduce a VIP structure to fast track progress and reward members
"This is not about honest hard slog, so it's fitting that players should be given a quick route to the high life through whatever means at their disposal"
There is no game that is more about being king of the hill than GTA, so a full VIP structure is essential. Imagine the retention value of being the only player that can drive around the hills of Los Santos in a purple Ferrari with gold trim.
VIP membership could offer:
- Rank Point/Job Point boosts
- Monthly $/Gold allowance
- Special apartment
- Access to premium clothes, vehicle paint jobs and vanity items
- Special members store accessible through the iFruit with daily/weekly member offers
3. Utilise no lose gambling
We've already touched on the repetition which exists within GTA Online - completing mission after mission to build up your cash and accessory stockpiles. One alternative to a life of hard graft and long hours is gambling, an easy to implement F2P mechanic which fits with Rockstar's vision and GTA's 'feel'. Mechanics such as magic boxes offer players a no lose gamble: spending some money guarantees something cool. There can be no better way of taking the easy route than making sure the odds are stacked.
4. Introduce a trading mechanism to help increase community aspects
If gambling isn't your thing then a bit of business on the side can help you make it to the top. Trading in F2P games inevitably encourages a black market, but unlike other F2P games where there is a clear split between grind currency and premium currency, GTA Online F2P should allow this secondary market to exist.
Letting players trade whatever they want will encourage a free-form economy that will favour the adventurous, the ruthless and the downright corrupt. The mechanic will drive the economy and build player loyalty.
Players will buy and sell from each other, and using rare items it is also possible to use data analytics to monitor the price elasticity of items as players bid for certain items. Items can trade for 100x their original value in F2P games and can be useful to define pricing as well as delivering value and incentivising players.
5. Build in reward mechanics for better social sharing
GTA is such a well-known franchise, it pretty much sells itself. However, giving players rewards for inviting other players to join is a well-structured mechanism and can help to double your player base for little or no cost.
Giving players an incentive to invite is key, there would be nothing better than being able to pimp your friends by taking a cut of the money they spend as their due deserves for getting them in to the game in the first place.
These recommendations are part of a free special Benchmark report published today from predictive analytics specialist GamesAnalytics, which can be downloaded here.