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F2P Comes of Age: How to make money without being 'evil'

Digital Dragons in Kraków delivers the goods

There's an unwritten rule that, anyone talking about F2P at any event around the globe must spend at least the first 10 minutes of the presentation attempting to justify the monetisation model. Willingly or not, they'll touch on the controversies, they'll acknowledge the games that have given F2P a bad name and then, in whatever time they have left, they'll actually talk about whatever the title of their talk originally suggested they would.

The often understandable resistance across the industry to embrace F2P and the opportunities it presents is something that has dogged the monetisation model during its relatively short existence, perhaps felt most notably at conferences where F2P proponents and doubters come together in one physical space to air their thoughts. Digital Dragons in the Polish city of Kraków, however, was having none of it. The fourth iteration of the games conference was embellished with a certain air of confidence when it came to F2P, with a selection of the talks on offer making no attempt to defend its current existence, but instead looking just where things may lead in the future.

"When I started working in games, every game followed the same pattern. You'd come up with your game concept, you'd think about your mechanics, the design of the game, you'd put together your tutorial and then you'd do your marketing at the end - although as a dev we didn't care about that, as that would be left to the publisher," said 20 year game design veteran Pascal Luban, who previously worked on Alone in the Dark, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Wanted: Weapons of Fate, amongst numerous others.

"A few years ago I started to design mobile games and I quickly realised this model doesn't work any more. I'm not just talking about now having to think about monetisation - you also have to think about how to make a freemium game, and that means rather than taking all those concepts one at a time, you have to think about them almost all at the same time."

1

The effective development of a F2P game, Luban argued, has far fewer steps to it than a standard premium game, but each of them is packed full of various tasks to complete simultaneously rather than in succession. Step one, he suggested, is a case of defining your target market (Luban noting that it's completely foolhardy to try make a game for everyone - "it just doesn't work"), which is fairly standard practice for a developer of any kind. "Step two is where things get different, however" he continued. "Here you need to define your monetisation strategy, but this is not actually about what you sell - this is a common mistake. What it is actually about is how you convince people to buy stuff in a game that is free. If you want a free to play game to be successful, it has to be genuinely free - people have to be able to play forever without purchase. That's just a general design rule, but it's also completely contradictory. How can you make money from a game designed to be free?"

Luban's view is that, to date, most successful F2P games have relied on frustrating the player in order to get them to spend, noting that a "simple technique used by many devs - including Zynga - is to limit the number of actions you can do in a game", with CSR Racing by the now Zynga owned NaturalMotion forcing players to wait for fuel to replenish after a set number of races. "Or you can impose long delays before actions can be completed," he continued. "Some of the upgrades in Clash of Clans, for instance, can take 14 days to complete. Are frustration techniques like this mandatory, then? Not really, but to a certain extent they're present in almost all freemium games."

"Some of the upgrades in Clash of Clans, for instance, can take 14 days to complete. Are frustration techniques like this mandatory, then?"

Frustration isn't the only tool F2P games can use, however. It's almost always mixed with envy. "Envy means we feel like we can get the item we want if we play enough, whereas frustration is knowing that we can't." That means, Luban stated, a feeling of envy leads to people grinding, while frustration is the element that causes people to pay out. "All games have both, but the mixture in each game is unique, and when you're thinking about how to monetise your game, the goal is to define this mix. Envy also drives long term engagement, which is crucial, because the longer someone plays, the more chance they'll spend money."

The other way to engage, Luban concluded, is to build in game loops. The first loop - giving players a simple task that they can complete easily that highlights the main game mechanic and rewards them at the same time - should be relatively short, but from then on you can start to lengthen the loops and, once play builds, give players multiple loops to contend with at once to keep them coming back. "Casual games obviously do this well, but think about games like World of Tanks - they are also doing the same thing. What is important is the player understands that he can close the loop, he just needs to play. With open loops, you always give the player a chance to complete the loop just by playing, not with skill as is traditional in a paid game. People want to complete loops - it drives engagement."

Short term loops serve as an initial hook, Luban explained, medium term loops get players to keep coming back, and long term loops "make it part of the player's life." He concluded, "Long loops make the game an extension of what you do. The kind of game that causes people to lose their girlfriends."

2

Mastering open loops was a subject also covered by Grazyna Domanska, monetisation manager at Paris-based developer Kobojo. Loops, she claimed, enabled F2P games to live on. Unlike standard, linear premium games, you can never allow a player to complete a F2P game, because as soon as they do they'll stop playing. Building in open loops mean that the game can run without the developer having to create additional levels or bespoke challenges - "you don't need to care whether the player has levelled up to level 1 or level 500 - they'll still be consuming the same content."

"In a content driven game, your audience is like a marathon runner," Domanska clarified. "The people who are most engaged will consume your content quickest, and they'll get to the end first. For a F2P game, if a player completes your game, that's the end of your product, that's the end of your revenue, and you can't ever allow that to happen.

"So you need to gate gameplay and content, which people think is dirty and has a bad reputation, Designers don't like it as they think it's going to scare players away. Plus, energy systems or lives - these are both very crude ways of doing it." Crude, but popular, Domanska noted, going on to ask just why the likes of Zynga and other developers would continue to push energy systems if they are disliked by developers and many gamers alike. "It's about control. If you're running a live game, having a huge audience of people who run through this system at different speeds requires a huge level of control. An energy systems is much easier to manage, which is why it's used in F2P so much, despite it being seen as a bad thing."

"If you can give gamers something systemic - maybe procedurally driven content - to play while they're waiting for more content, then your drops in active users won't be so low."

The end goal is to keep your most loyal, most engaged players on board for as long as you can, as they're the most likely to spend in play. "If you can give gamers something systemic - maybe procedurally driven content - to play while they're waiting for more content, then your drops in active users won't be so low."

The big problem is, the desire to create something engaging using a monetisation model that, even now, we don't fully grasp means that, rather than taking a creative risk, many simple opt to mirror what has gone before. Game designer Pascal Luban is of the opinion that this is the biggest threat to the free games market long term. "Don't copy what others are doing - this is a trend right now in the industry," said Luban. "There are so many games that look like Clash of Clans. Even if you follow it by the book, you'll have a game that's exactly like theirs and in a couple of years - it might even be happening now - people will start to go away because everything looks and plays the same. You've got to be creative."

It's this practice of simply rehashing what's already successful that, along with this aforementioned focus on energy systems, that gives F2P a bad name. As such, attempting to drive interest in your game with the press can be especially difficult, given that - in the words of Fabio Lo Zito, PR manager at browser turned mobile developer InnoGames - "not many games journalists want to hear about browser or mobile based F2P." So, how do you overcome that?

"One of our PR agents - I won't name any names - once says Triple A PR is easy," offered Lo Zito. "Obviously it's still a lot of hard work, there's a lot to do, but when you're doing a Triple A game you're selling to a buyer's market. Everyone wants to hear about your game and all you have to do is sell them it." In a crowded market such as mobile, currently dominated by F2P releases, that's most definitely not the case, Lo Zito continued.

"F2P PR needs someone who knows what they're talking about to talk about it - there is so much bad feeling out there, that it's evil and so on," he said. "Games media is traditionally heavily opposed to F2P, so those people need to be able to talk to somebody from a F2P games company that gives them a bit of insight. It's really hard to get mobile media in the amounts you'd get games media or specialised media anyway, simply because there's not all that much mobile media in the first place, and there's even less if you take away the ones that expect you to pay."

"Games media is traditionally heavily opposed to F2P, so those people need to be able to talk to somebody from a F2P games company that gives them a bit of insight"

The other difficulty is, the F2P games that have drawn the attention of the mobile press - the Clash of Clans of this world - so dominate the headlines that it can be an intimidating to attempt to take them on. "Mobile is insanely fierce, but you don't have to make as much money as them. They are the gold standard as to what can be achieved, but there are lots and lots of small companies who make less money but are moderately successful.

"Identify what would entail successful PR for your game and how you can measure it - look at the raw numbers, how many articles you want published, market share or articles in specific regions, or you might just want a flashy properly produced trailer commissioned which PR will take care of, or maybe your goal is to visit at least one trade show in each of the most important companies," summarised Lo Zito. "And when you do, meet as many people as you can - try to book appointments with journalists. But if you don't have the money to go, the most important thing you can do is engage on social media. You should be interacting with people, not spamming, but creating content and answering questions."

The long and short of all the presentations at Digital Dragons was, it almost seems premature to brand F2P as inherently good or bad for the games industry. As games designer Pascal Luban stressed in what was suitably the final talk of the two day event, everything right now is up in the air. "To the F2P doubters out there, I say think twice. F2P is a flexible system," he concluded. "You can combine techniques, you can use alternative techniques - it's like sugar, in that you can put as much as you like in your tea or coffee. Just be open minded."

Latest comments (23)

Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrendA year ago
All very good and all... But everyone knows that if you are a horrible bastard you will go far in business, that's just the way of the world and it is no different for the games industry. Just ask the Zynga/King execs, they will tell you from their yacht made of diamonds....

We were "kind and reasonable" with our F2P game and for that we got screwed over by people who would buy all the top purchases and then refund it once used. This is why I sometimes wonder whether I would have been better off being a bastard from the outset as people just take being nice for weakness.
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'The big F2P vs. Premium debate' ... is this still a thing? It seems old news now. Publishers and financiers no longer agonise over whether to back F2P games. If they agonise over anything it's how quickly to end the pitch meetings for paid games. Premium games (now termed 'risky' games or 'it won't-make-me-$1bn' games) lost 95% of the industry support and money, years ago.

I'd love to see a site pick up on what that major move has meant for us all. Instead of constantly giving the false impression that behind the scenes our industry is genuinely torn over this.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Barry Meade on 27th May 2015 3:38pm

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Keith Andrew Freelance Journalist, Keith Andrew MediaA year ago
@Barry

Publishers and financiers may no longer agonise over F2P, but I assure you the little guy - the indies setting out, especially on mobile, to make a name for themselves - are still very much torn between which path to take. If you think that the debate over what F2P has to offer for the games industry and what that means for developers is done and dusted, then I think we're on very different pages.
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Show all comments (23)
Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon DevelopmentA year ago
I only read the opening paragraph, but just for the record:

I don't feel bad about how I monetise our F2P game AT ALL. I certainly don't feel the need to apologise for it, explain it, or anything else. I'm actually quite proud of it.

The population have spoken, the votes have been counted and verified. The result is us putting our last remaining premium project (Epic Little War Game) on the back-burner until we figure out how to get our money back from it. Being a paid title sure ain't it.
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James Berg Games User Researcher, EA CanadaA year ago
The best recent example of good F2P User Experience for me is 'Heroes Charge' - it uses an energy mechanic, but they also give out free energy 3 times a day (sign in within 2 hours of 12, 6, and 9pm). There's also just a metric tonne of content available at any given time (see below), and they're not afraid to kick your ass with it. . They're also -very- generous with their ingame currency, and have daily events that reward you for doing something. One thing they did that I love is have a $4 monthly subscription that gets a fixed amount of currency each day, and then reward you with a VIP system that provides additional bonuses for those that become payers. It's genuinely F2P, but I've had zero regrets about spending a pile of money on it. I never felt pressured or that I had to, and we've all played tons of those games.

Content, for those curious:
Standard campaign (earn equipment), elite campaign (earn/upgrade heroes+equipment), gold mine raids, Crusade mode, Outland portal, 2 different PvP arenas, 2 different types of daily challenges, guild raids, and time-limited Temples. Laden on top of that is upgrading skills, creating equipment, buying from time-refreshed shops. I can play for hours upon hours if I want to, or I can jump in and quickly do some useful stuff. It's genuinely got better and deeper reward loops than most AAA games.
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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNextA year ago
Perhaps I am just showing my age/experience. Almost none of the issues with modern F2P have anything to do with the business model. They are simply extensions of exploitive practices that were used in the past, and only appear 'new' if you are not aware these historical abuses.

F2P was termed decades ago as a marketing term to imply the difference between the retail approach (buy a product) and the service approach (pay for a service). Both approaches have been abused over the years. Some abuses have even driven litigation, or new laws to protect the consumer. However, the ability to use a payment method to extract money from customers in unethical, or immoral ways has never been tied to the model used, but rather to the people/companies making the money.
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Hugo Trepanier Senior UI Designer, HibernumA year ago
@James

Heroes Charge's level of diversity and content is indeed impressive, and in part a good way to implement a solid F2P model (albeit aimed at a mid-to-hardcore market). My only problem with it is how this game, and many others of its kind, still eventually force the player behind an ever-growing wall that seems increasingly insurmountable.

With about 2-3 weeks into the game now, sometimes for hours in a day, I leveled up my 5 main heroes to level 47. While initially I'd gain several levels a day now I need several days of intense grinding for each new upgrade. I can no longer progress in my campaign since my crew is not strong enough to beat the current challenge, so all I have to do left is replay easier levels just to acquire the required XP to move on to 48, until I hit the next wall. The fun is wearing out quickly and I cannot foresee a change in this pattern.

This next wall will inevitably be even more difficult to surmount. It becomes repetitive and tedious, once new content stops pouring in and you're only left with the never-ending grinding to attain the next elusive level. I suppose this is where you're happy to have the 2% extra spenders still hooked but it is especially unrewarding for all other players.

I stopped playing Content of Champions for more or less the same reason. My take is that we focus too much on pleasing the so-called "whales" that we forget about making the game interesting long enough for everyone else. There's still a lot of work to be done here.
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James Berg Games User Researcher, EA CanadaA year ago
Hugo, I can see that, but one aspect that I like that HC does to (potentially) alleviate that is to incentivize having a broader team. Outland portals, for example, require a very specific strategy that you'll need different heroes built up for. Grand Arena requires 15 heroes. Different campaign opponents are far easier to beat with some abilities from some types of heroes, so it benefits the player to spread out and try to keep different team formations viable. I think that fails the gamer that wants to advance as fast as possible with a core team, but I found when I took a step back and just focused on leveling up a few other heroes I liked, by the time that was done I could advance further with my main heroes thanks to new gear, an extra level or two, etc.

My HC "main" team has shifted a bunch of times throughout my leveling curve - adding a new hero to the mix can dramatically shift your strategy. For ages, I used Brute (tank), Commando (speed boost + Agility buff), Shadowleaf or Death Mage (dps/silence), and then my combo was Vengeance Spirit (petrify) and Phoenix (huge team-wide damage). Adding in Fallen Dominion changed that up, as did Cloud Walker, Disease Bringer/Deathknight changed my Crusade strategy, etc etc.

Now, whether the game -surfaces- that strategy/playstyle to most players, or whether that's broadly enjoyable, I'm not sure. I ran into it after hitting a wall in Campaign, and unlocking Grand Arena was the next big kicker to broaden my team.
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Benjamin Crause Supervisor Central Support, Nintendo of EuropeA year ago
This is just another talk about F2P. It has by far not yet coming of age.
The industry has done almost nothing yet to re-encourage customers to trust this model and to appreciate the options it can offer.
This will only change if the industry makes these changes in their games real. I strongly believe there is a good middle-ground possible between customer needs and monetization. If you can offer something with a value which is not based on a mechanic to annoy the player into buying it then this value will sell.
Alas there are still too many evil F2P games out there and a new good and brave breed of F2P games needs to win customers trust and faith first.
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Keldon Alleyne Handheld Developer, Avasopht LtdA year ago
Truth is if you're a skilled musician and need to make money, like it or not the money is on pop (including the cheesy variant).

If you are a skilled script writer, like it or not the money is on soap operas and reality television.

If you are a skilled artist, like it or not Van Gough died broke and penniless.

And if you are a skilled journalist, like it or not the money is on click bait, gossip and biased journalism.

Always remember these truths and then you'll see that when it comes to the games industry that it's just business as usual. The market speaks and we are powerless against its influence and should we aim to survive we must do so on the market's terms.

That being said, you can still create jazz, write deep poetry, produce fine art and report impartially on what is really happening for the love of it and maybe even find some middle ground whereby you can do so at a profit. Every once in a while the market adopts works of substance, but it is far more prudent to exercise a shrewd acknowledgement of the reality of the environment.

--

F2P works on a particular mechanic which in itself is neither good nor bad. It just so happens that the play mechanics that result in generating the highest amount of income tend to favour mechanics and styles of play that do not always owe well to the creative desires of passionate games developers with a taste for a certain standard and class of play.

This article makes salient points and it is down to games designers to find the necessary balance to maintain integrity with both the accountants and the community.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Keldon Alleyne on 27th May 2015 8:47pm

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Rogier Voet IT Consultant A year ago
When you read about F2P-design I just read it with a mix of fascination on the one hand but also absolute horror. Gaming should be about selling FUN, not exploiting/manipulating your audience.

And yes I know the market has spoken and there are lot of 'Good' F2P-games out there. To me a good F2P game is the same as a healthy salad from McDonalds. It's better than fries but if you wan't something healthy you really should go somewhere else.

In my opinion F2P does massive damage to the market because It sends a powerful messages (especially to the younger audience) that
A - games should not cost money to purchase
B - Game design is sacrified to maximize monetization (frustrate rather than enjoy)

F2P-evangelists forget that a free game has absolutely no value to the costumer unless he's deeply engaged in it

But limiting choice is not a bad thing (mobile games are dead to me for a while know and I do not miss them). I just find it sad that in a era where technology and opportunity are still moving ahead, that the industry takes a path to a business model which is very similar to the world of banking, insurance and other service providers - where the constant extraction of money is the key goal.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! A year ago
@Keldon:

If you are a skilled artist, like it or not Van Gough died broke and penniless.

True. But try and buy a Van Gogh now. Got a few billion dollars? Neither do I.

His work and the work of many other artists long dead (unless you're Banksy or some other modern hotshot making bank off the rubes) are worth more than they were when they were created. Meanwhile, ALL F2P games will be worth nothing once their shelf lives expires and people move onto others. I find that quite sad because game history suffers when stuff just vanishes without much of a trace.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft GermanyA year ago
However, the ability to use a payment method to extract money from customers in unethical, or immoral ways has never been tied to the model used, but rather to the people/companies making the money.
I see as bad a company aggressively pressing people to burn their money, and I see another selling their retail game using footage that is no longer in the game.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon DevelopmentA year ago
You guys need to get with the program. All of these conspiracy theories about greed and opportunism wouldn't have a playground if it wasn't for the fact that armloads of people prefer playing (and yes, paying) this way.

If you want to make an "old school" payment method game then fine, go do that, but please stop moaning at how other people react to their audiences. Else I'll start moaning about how premium games try to get the money up front before people realise the screenshots are fake, the trailer is fake, the adverts are fake, the review quotes are hand-picked, and the content only lasts a week.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 28th May 2015 8:35am

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing A year ago
There are those for whom software as a service means building a fiefdom from their customers. Even if companies decide they want to live in the middle ages, society does not, so expect society to push back when employing 9th century social engineering techniques.

As Paul example shows, this has nothing to do with games of a specific business model. Waging psychological warfare on their customers undetected is a way of life for companies of all business models. Meaning the discussion has to take place without the business model taking center stage, because it is mere a distraction from the real point at hand and gives carde blanche to way too many people who should be facing the same tough questions some abusive f2p producers do.
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Kieren Bloomfield Software Engineer, EA SportsA year ago
@Hugo, after spending more time on that game than your average person would put into a AAA game and pay $60+ up front for, don't you think it's time you coughed up a little? Has it not been worth anything at all to you? I don't think this said game is an example of whale hunting at all.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon DevelopmentA year ago
@Kieren, here here. Have a +1
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Hugo Trepanier Senior UI Designer, HibernumA year ago
@Kieren Don't get me wrong, I do make in-app purchases when I see the added value. I also buy premium games, DLC and whatnot. However, as a gamer, I refuse to pay just to skip ahead when I'm stuck in natural progression, especially when it can reasonably be expected to hit another wall soon after in a never-ending loop. Besides, in the case of Heroes Charge I've got over a million coins in the bank with nothing to spend them on as I really just want my current heroes to be stronger (all maxed out at their current level).

You have to know that part of the reason I play some games so much is to study them and better understand their principles, what works and what doesn't, both from a game developer and player perspective. I also make F2P games for a living and to be honest I've got nothing against them when they're well done and fun.

The main difference with paying $60 for a AAA game is you know exactly what you're going to get. In most F2P games, you never know how far $60 is going to get you until the game wants you to fork some more. Take gacha for instance, this is complete gambling and involves no skill, and there's usually no way to predict your chances of actually getting something you need/want. I know these things work well in some markets and I've even implemented them in some of my designs, but as a player they do not appeal to me at all.
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Brook Davidson Artist / 3D design A year ago
The main difference with paying $60 for a AAA game is you know exactly what you're going to get.
Wait ... what? Isn't it the opposite? You wouldn't know what was in a $60 game until after you purchased it, or went on youtube to spoil the whole thing. You will not know it's crap until then.

F2P games, tend to always be pretty upfront about what you have to pay for and what you get for free, at least the ones I have played. Your gacha example isn't good because I don't know any F2P game that requires you to buy them.

You can usually play a F2P game a bit and know exactly what it is you are getting into before you put any money toward it.
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James Berg Games User Researcher, EA CanadaA year ago
The main difference with paying $60 for a AAA game is you know exactly what you're going to get. In most F2P games, you never know how far $60 is going to get you until the game wants you to fork some more.
This is quite true - Clash of Clans is a good example of this, where you can spend $60 pretty easily early, and then realize they you're just going to have to wait even longer for the next loop to finish, unless you fork over more money.

Hugo, fyi, if you want to keep playing Heroe's Charge, you're going to want to level up more than 5 heroes :p My 'main' group is about 14, with another 3 or 4 rotating in for specific things. Adding more heroes also makes combat a lot more interesting, as you get new combos and such going on
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Hugo Trepanier Senior UI Designer, HibernumA year ago
@Brook By that I meant that for a fixed price you get a complete package with finite content, not that you know every bit of story dialogue and other minute details before making the purchase.

The gacha example is there because it's one of the few ways to get a complete hero in Heroes Charge. If I want to make my team better with a stronger hero, I need to open up gold chests (the gacha system) and hope to get lucky. There's one free every two days but most of the time it does not contain a hero, or I can buy more gold chests (10x purchases guarantees a hero but not necessarily the one you want).

The difference with classic AAA games is that the heroes will typically be included in the initial price and will be obtainable through regular gameplay, without additional sums involved (DLC excluded, of course). Gacha itself is not wrong -- what bothers me is the fact that you never know how much you'll have to pay to finally get that one thing you're after. That's gambling. For instance, if Heroes Charge offered me the possibility to get a specific powerful character for a reasonable fixed sum, I would be much more interested in that.

@James Thanks for the tip, and also for the CoC reference (a very good example of the point I was trying to make).
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James Coote Independent Game Developer A year ago
Sounds just like the whole MMO grind mechanics debate rehashed. A bunch of stuff is being conflated here and it's not helping anyone.

Take a game like counterstrike and modify it slightly so now only Valve run the servers and the base game is free. You can play on public servers paid for by others, but want your own server to play custom maps or for your clan to practice on, you need to pay. It's not microtransactions, but it's still "free to play" and it's most definitely games as a service. (I'm sure there are games that do exactly this, but I know more about cs)

The point about procedural content is also worth picking up on. Early access games as services are often about filling in the feature list that then allow players to make the game's content. Now say you charge per-feature. Yes you eventually run out of features to sell to your most dedicated fans, but unlike trying to endlessly feed players with content (to buy), they're going to remain engaged, or at least not run out of game / content to play and wander off between you being able to release new features you can sell them

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Coote on 29th May 2015 12:51am

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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation LtdA year ago
In my opinion F2P does massive damage to the market because It sends a powerful messages (especially to the younger audience) that
A - games should not cost money to purchase
I think any 'damage' is massively offset by expanding the market. The convention of TV programmes being 'free' (at least, not being funded by directly charging the viewer at the moment of access) doesn't seem to have hurt that medium too much.
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