Sections

Fixing free-to-play's image problem

Free-to-play games, especially on mobile, are scorned by many gamers - but their image can be fixed

Free-to-play is a burgeoning business model that has taken over mobile games, is defining the MMO game sector, and is now popping up on consoles. The seemingly unstoppable advance of this business model has many longtime, hardcore gamers on edge - a look at the comments sections on consumer websites will show that quickly whenever a free-to-play game is mentioned.

The problem of free-to-play's image is even more important when you realize how widespread it's becoming. Many pay-up-front console games now have microtransactions in them - this isn't just buying a major piece of downloadable content (DLC) like a map pack, but items and improvements that may even be consumables. Those are mechanics directly imported from free-to-play games, grafted into premium games. Is it any wonder players get upset? Look what happened with Diablo III, where originally the game included an Auction House where you could buy and sell items for real money (with Blizzard taking a cut). It turned out this meant that item drops in the game weren't as much fun, and thus Blizzard eventually removed it, much to the delight of fans.

The problem hasn't escaped the notice of industry leaders. Nintendo's CEO Satoru Iwata took up the issue when discussing Nintendo's move into mobile games. "I do not like to use the term 'Free-to-play,'" Iwata said. "I have come to realize that there is a degree of insincerity to consumers with this terminology, since so-called 'Free-to-play' should be referred to more accurately as 'Free-to-start.'"

Peter Molyneux added some comments about free-to-play at a recent Game Connection. "We're taking a huge hammer and smashing [our customers] with it. 'You will pay, or you will not enjoy!' We're treating them like children. We're beating up our consumers, and saying, 'be patient, or pay more!'," said Molyneux.

"So where does the answer lie? Isn't this purely a product development issue, something the game designers should fix? Actually, no, the game designers need to hear this from marketing..."

Laralyn McWilliams, former creative director on Sony Online Entertainment's Free Realms, had this to say about free-to-play games: "Think about Candy Crush Saga, which I've played a lot and I really like, but it's a great example of this. The moment that you monetise in Candy Crush you're probably extremely frustrated. You want to get past this level you've failed to complete 40 or 50 times, and that's the moment you spend. But mixed into that moment where you spend is that frustration. It's building a bad connection. I'm not monetising at a positive moment. An example I've used before is the person leaving the Apple store with a new iPhone after having stood in line all day, and they're like, 'Yes!' Isn't that how we want people to feel when they spend money? They should feel awesome."

How did this image problem arise, and how can it be fixed? First of all, it's important to realize that not all free-to-play games suffer from a stigma. League of Legends is enormously successful, projected to bring in well over $1 billion this year - and it's free-to-play. Clearly players don't have a problem with how the game is monetized, and the free-to-play model has seemed to accelerate the growth of the game rather than hold it back in any way. World of Tanks is similarly successful, with over 100 million players worldwide. What do those games have in common? You are not limited in how much you can play, and you can earn anything important in the game completely through play without spending any money.

The games that people most often seem to complain about are ones that limit gameplay, usually by time-gating. A typical mechanic is that you only have so many lives, or so much energy, and when that's used up you must wait until it returns (which often takes several hours). In many games, you may start construction on something (an army, or a fortification, for instance) but it takes time to construct. So you can either wait until tomorrow when it's completed, or spend money to build it faster.

A particularly annoying game mechanic for some people is the ability to buy power in a game. You feel your pistol isn't killing zombies fast enough? Spend some money to get a flame thrower or an automatic weapon. That may be okay in a single player game, but when you're competing against other players it can be disheartening to realize you're losing because they spent more money than you did. (However, this is perfectly acceptable in China, and in fact is how most of the games work there. It's a cultural difference.)

So where does the answer lie? Isn't this purely a product development issue, something the game designers should fix? Actually, no, the game designers need to hear this from marketing... and marketers need to help craft a solution that's in keeping with the nature of the game. The best games at monetizing have that business model designed in from the start. Wargaming's CEO Victor Kislyi likes to call his games "free-to-win" rather than free-to-play, because you can win at the games without spending any money.

"Don't try to hide the fact that there are ways to spend money - you should be celebrating it. If you are embarrassed at that thought, that's a signal there's something wrong with how you're monetizing your game"

Waving the wand of PR over your free-to-play game isn't going to fix this. The reality is that there are and will continue to be free-to-play games, especially on mobile platforms, that are annoying and gouging consumers. Just like the plague of quick copies of games with similar names that show up around any hit mobile games, this is an annoying part of mobile gaming that no amount of wishing will make disappear. We have to deal with it, and that's by affirmatively making the free-to-play games we are directly involved with fun and not limited in annoying ways. If you're going to use free-to-play as a business model in some way, you have the potential to reach a huge audience - but they should be able to get a complete and fun game experience without spending money.

The challenge for marketers is to work with game designers to find positive ways to spend money in the game that make players happy, not just relieve the annoyance you've built into the game. Games are, at their core, about having fun - and spending money should get you more fun, not remove barriers to having fun at all.

Marketers then need to communicate to players (and potential players) that the game has a complete fun experience without spending. Don't try to hide the fact that there are ways to spend money - you should be celebrating it. If you are embarrassed at that thought, that's a signal there's something wrong with how you're monetizing your game.

Properly done free-to-play games, when given enough time, do an excellent job of marketing themselves through the community of players who are enjoying the heck out of the game. Those players become (unpaid) evangelists, and they are very effective at getting friends to sign up. Enlisting their help starts with a great game with the right monetization - and that's something you get when marketers and game designers work together.

Fixing the image problem of free-to-play games requires more than just a coat of shiny marketing - the game has to be constructed properly from the ground up. It's a team effort, and everyone needs to know that from the beginning. Marketers, it's up to you to start by convincing game designers and programmers that you are an essential part of this, not someone they call in at the end of the project to make some money for them.

Republished from the [a]list daily. For more, read the [a]list daily and subscribe to the newsletter to get the latest in game and entertainment marketing news, cool videos, incisive opinions, exclusive interviews and industry data.

Latest comments (12)

Dan Wood Visual Effects Artist 2 years ago
It seems rather obvious to me. The worst cases are always games where the business model has been made the core of the game design, which can't help but make a game feel like it's rationing out and ransoming your fun.
The best cases are games where the core game design was clearly considered independantly of "monetization", and whatever monetization there is seeks to sell you an expanded experience for a game that is already fun.

It's always seemed clear to me that this practice of working monetization into the central design of a game, while it may mind-trick people for a while, is ultimately a doomed practice that would only result in eventual consumer backlash. The gold rush is coming to a close... maybe mobile devs can finally start to feel at ease with putting creativity front-and-center again, and start leaving the business model out of the creative process.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dan Wood on 6th April 2015 9:54pm

3Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Jeremiah Moss Software Developer 2 years ago
Here's my opinions on the issue:
Many pay-up-front console games now have microtransactions in them - this isn't just buying a major piece of downloadable content (DLC) like a map pack, but items and improvements that may even be consumables.
Yeah - don't do that. Paying full price just to find out it's laden with microtransactions? Feels like a major ripoff. If you're going to go the microtransaction route, don't make it a full price game. Embrace the model and make the game cheap / free. Using dual business models doesn't sit well with players.

. . . and frankly, I don't think it's lying to say it's a ripoff.
The games that people most often seem to complain about are ones that limit gameplay, usually by time-gating.
Yeah, I never liked that mechanic, even in free to play games. I realize the importance of allowing short play sessions, but there's a difference between allowing them and enforcing them. I don't think it is ever a good idea to enforce short play sessions.
. . . and saying, 'be patient, or pay more!',"
I'd love to avoid that dichotomy. I've bought plenty of older games that don't enforce such a dichotomy, and frankly they're a lot more fun than modern games that enforce it. It seems as if games are increasingly making themselves more grindy and less fun, and frankly I think that's a negative direction. I'd like to see that turned around.
Properly done free-to-play games, when given enough time, do an excellent job of marketing themselves through the community of players who are enjoying the heck out of the game.
Agreed. Whether it's free to play or not, your biggest marketing is your community and your reputation.
5Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief2 years ago
Dan, I think your conclusion is right, but your thinking is wrong. Monetisation design needs to be designed in from the get-go, whether you are a time-gated make-work game or a game that you can play as much as you like without spending like Hearthstone or League of Legends.

I think you are more focusing on what type of monetisation you prefer, rather than on when in the process it should be considered.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (12)
Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief2 years ago
Steve, thanks for this post, and I agree completely.

The era of "fun pain", ushered in by Zynga, is over. It is fun for some people, and persuades some people to part with their money. It has proven to be unsustainable, which is not surprising to many F2P professionals. I think we all accept that F2P is in its infancy, and we are still experimenting to find the best, sustainable, enjoyable, profitable balance between providing awesome entertainment and being paid for a living.

Marketers are absolutely at the heart of that. And I like forward to seeing all the many new ideas that emerge.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Fredrik Liljegren Director, System Software, NVIDIA2 years ago
Is it really an image problem? Is not the success seen using this business model vs paid upfront showing where the public is voting? If it was such a problem would we not see more full price apps ranked higher? I think this is simply an industry people issue, not a consumer issue.
3Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext2 years ago
I believe it is contradictory to state that F2P has an image problem... but here are some examples of F2P that are considered good. If it were a F2P image problem, they would be considered bad, regardless of the actual performance.

I also believe that it is contradictory to state that is bad to sell X, Y, Z... yet the references that you gave for good implementations sell those items. What is unique about LoL and WoT isn't what they sell, but the price/margins at which they sell them. Both of these games are volume based, rather than margin based. This is really what has made them more acceptable.

F2P has gotten a bad rep for a lot of good reasons. There are many implementations that have been terrible. However, that has not stopped these bad ideas from carrying over to P2P implementation as well. This is where things get mixed up. The only real difference between P2P and F2P is when the money is asked for (before or after the product is delivered). The same (often bad) methods are being used to extract this money, and clearly show that the problem is not P2P or F2P, but aggressive sales strategies.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 years ago
P2P has a very predictable upper spending cap per user, even with DLC and season passes. F2p abandoned the concept of a product on which you cannot spend more money. You can always buy more in an f2p game.

I doubt any f2p publisher will settle for a business model which sells the product piecemeal with an upper spending cap per user in place. There will no such thing. No matter how the details of any f2p offer may evolve in the future, it is this core idea that will put f2p games under fire from gamers and consumer groups.

Sure it is nice to start a game for free, but we do not need f2p games for that, demo version existed long before. There is also something to be said about owning a game and not a having to be suspicious about strings being attached to gameplay loops. Money has to be earned in any f2p game and when you spend money as a consumer, you notice that, whether it bothers you or not. In my opinion, this f2p experience does not stand up to P2P where I know for the entirety of the game that everything is for my entertainment without any ulterior motives whatsoever.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
I think we all accept that F2P is in its infancy,
not really, some of us see it as just a MBA monetization fad. Just the latest way beancounters ruin games and development by having the focus be money extraction and not fun and quality. I think it will play itself out.
The cash cow in software has always been reoccurring revenue, business software has always known this, its why microsoft is so freakin rich, perhaps someday game software will catch on.
4Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 2 years ago
In the UK and US, F2P is definitely seen as one of the bad guys, especially the concept of "Pay to Win". But in France, or Russia, or China, pay to win is pretty widely accepted. If you want to compete in the top-tiers, you pay your share.

It's an interesting dichotomy. Research has shown that most people who complain about free to play and/or pay to win monetization aren't spending money on the game anyway. BUT free-to-play players playing for free are, in fact, one of the assets of the game. Any multiplayer game needs players to maintain competition - they are your content. So whether they are forking out cash or not, they are still providing you with something - namely the chance to continue to make money from those who aren't complaining, along with promoting the game to their friends, some of whom might be whales.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 years ago
@Bonnie
I wonder whether that is due to the fact that in western Europe and the U.S. there is the ideal of a meritocracy , while in other parts of the world that idea does not exists to the same extend. Cynically speaking, people in Russia and China might perceive their world as utterly corrupt, so for the five minutes they buy something in a f2p game they buy the feeling of being on the powerful side of corruption for once. The product is not the achievement in the game that follows, but a distorted economic power-fantasy.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters2 years ago
I think what F2P games are missing is an option to say "look, I'm never going to buy into any of your microtransactions, so here's a few quid for you to leave me alone to play the game and never ask me again."
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 2 years ago
@Klaus

It could well be.

Made me think about France - France is apparently a pretty good market for microtransactions, but each buyer has a similar sort of shopping list there. They seem to be OK with a couple of "necessary" pay items, and each person wants a potentially unique look for their avatar for which they are also willing to pay.

And France's general economic/political model (someone correct me if I'm wrong, I'm a bit outside my field) is that everyone contributes a basic amount and everyone can receive a similar set of benefits, so they buy in quite willingly at that basic level and receive their basic shopping list, but don't tend to go into great long lists of extra purchases.

So it does seem to mirror out-of-game economics there, at least to me.

And of course in English-speaking countries, our signature is the hyper-expensive vanity item purchase. I don't know if everyone knows the Tale of the Nine-Yin Scrolls Ferret? It was a vanity pet that granted a very small boost to health regen or something (third-hand information, forgive me), and it cost A MINT. Over $1000. Very few people bought it, and they did so for the privilege of owning an item very few people would have - it was basically a tool for showing off, having something utterly unique.

When they later re-released the ferret at a much, much lower but still high $50-$60 dollars-ish price, they got more complaints about unfairly expensive items, lost the original high-end buyers' support and didn't make as much money selling them as they did the first time around.

I find it all absolutely fascinating.

Me, I'm a sucker for pets. If they let you have more than one pet on display in TSW, my poor little avatar would be invisible under the mountain of cats.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bonnie Patterson on 9th April 2015 12:18pm

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.