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."
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."
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."