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Fallout Shelter shatters the dogma of core gamers hating F2P

If the brand, the game and the business model are right, core F2P can be just as successful in the west as it has been in Japan

Core gamers don't do F2P. They think it's exploitative and underhanded, and they're real gamers who know what they want, so they're not about to get caught by the kind of cheap monetisation tactics that casual gamers fall for every time. They're above that. Well... Okay, there's League of Legends. But that's an exception. And sure, there's Hearthstone, but that's an exception too, because... reasons. Anyway, those are PC games, it's not like you're going to get core gamers playing F2P titles on mobile, are you? Well, okay, now there's Fallout Shelter, but... but...

As each of those games has been released and become immensely successful, the goalposts have been hurriedly shuffled across the field. The dislike of the F2P model and the inevitability of its failure among core gamers has become less a piece of common sense and more an article of faith, the core belief remaining intact even as the evidence shifts from underneath it.

Fallout Shelter is a cool little game. It's entertaining, endearing, very true to the franchise from which it springs, and quite reasonable in how it applies the F2P business model. It is, however, by no means entirely a "light touch" in its monetisation; it may lack the energy mechanisms which core gamers so often rail against, but so too do a great many modern F2P games (or at least, their constraints are so high that an ordinary player will never reach them in a day's play). Instead, the game pushes players to acquire good items and characters by buying "lunchboxes" which contain items that are extremely rare and difficult to acquire through ordinary play - effectively the "gacha" model of monetisation which core gamers find so repulsive when it's used in casual games.

"The article of faith, the dogma that mobile F2P doesn't work for the core, must be defended! Who cares about facts!"

This is not a criticism of Fallout Shelter; I think it applies the F2P model it has chosen extremely intelligently and fairly. It soared up the top-grossing charts, which means that its monetisation is working, and yet the game manages to achieve the balance all such titles desire; leaving players feeling like they want to spend money, not that they're being forced to do so in order to continue playing and enjoying the game.

Rather, it's a criticism of the double-think which scrambles frantically to explain Fallout Shelter as an anomaly, to find all the ways in which its F2P business model is very different to other games' use of the model (which it absolutely, categorically is not) in order to justify its success among core gamers. The article of faith, the dogma that mobile F2P doesn't work for the core, must be defended! Who cares about facts! You can prove any old thing with facts!

The facts, you see, are that Fallout Shelter isn't even the first good F2P game to engage the core. Hearthstone and League of Legends are up there, certainly, but you'll also find a pretty solid core audience engaged with plenty of other mobile F2P titles. I know plenty of PC and console gamers whose commuting time is filled with Marvel Puzzle Quest, for example, and lots of card battling games were holding core interest and attracting core money long before Hearthstone was even a twinkle in Blizzard's eye. Indeed, the same games lambasted as money-grabbing casual titles also enjoy plenty of core players - how many of the players standing around waiting for a bounty to spawn in Destiny do you think are fitting in a cheeky round of Candy Crush Saga? I've always argued that the division between core and casual is more to do with assumed online identity than actual consumption of media, and the arrival of "core-friendly" F2P games, with the right brands, the right themes and the right names behind them, has only emphasised how blurry the lines between different realms of gaming really are.


Look to the east, and you can see where this model leads us. There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth among soi-disant core gamers in the west over Japan's movement towards mobile gaming in recent years; and indeed, while console gaming is far from being on its deathbed in Japan, mobile games are absolutely the most vibrant and successful side of the market now. In part, that's a movement driven by casual players; but Japan's most successful mobile titles, the ones that pull in the really big bucks and have the kind of Average Revenue Per User figures that make western gaming executives' heads spin, those games are solidly in the core. They're deep, involved, stat-heavy games with lots of advanced tactics to master and vast collections of enemy and ally cards, creatures or units to learn. Games like Puzzle & Dragons, Monster Strike and Final Fantasy Record Keeper earn their keep by enthralling a devoted core audience for months if not years on end; sure, there are casual games alongside that as well, but it's the core titles that are uniformly at the top of the iOS charts in revenue terms.

It's no accident, I imagine, that Fallout Shelter (and games like Marvel Puzzle Quest) utilises broadly the same monetisation model that these games have hit upon. Core gamers don't like energy mechanisms - this much is true - so most of these games use a very lenient energy mechanism in order to place some control over player progression rather than trying to use it to generate revenue. Instead, they ask players to pay money for card packs, or their gacha equivalent; or, what I suspect to be the best money-spinner of all, they charge a small amount to expand the number of cards, monsters, characters or whatever you can store at once. Core gamers seem much happier paying lots of money for a bigger inventory or a pack of random cards than they are paying for a consumable item or an energy refill; it's still F2P, and not even an innovation on the F2P model (it's been around for years), but it certainly seems to be the style that fits the core best.

"A joy of today's world is that there is a business model to fit every style of game and type of audience, if the developer is only canny enough (and sufficiently open-minded) to figure it out and fit it adeptly to their game"

To be clear, I am not for a second arguing that abusive, cynical F2P games do not exist; they do, they're all over the App Store and Google Play, and the black-hearted worst of the bunch are those which ply their mucky trade by shoe-horning F2P mechanisms into children's games. However, there are some really good F2P games as well, both casual titles and, increasingly, core titles, and I object strongly to the religious rejection of F2P by those who claim to speak for the "core gamer"; who in a single phrase dismiss players of casual games as mindless sheep (who are you to judge the value someone else places on their entertainment?) and deny the increasingly obvious truth that core gamers are engaging with well-made, carefully targeted F2P games in greater and greater numbers.

Nor am I arguing, as some might, that all games in future will be F2P; that's ludicrous and blinkered. F2P is a good fit for some games; subscriptions fit better in other cases, paying up front often fits better, episodic business models work for some games, crowd-funding or Patreon funding works for more esoteric titles... A joy of today's world is that there is a business model to fit every style of game and type of audience, if the developer is only canny enough (and sufficiently open-minded) to figure it out and fit it adeptly to their game.

I simply believe that Fallout Shelter is another powerful argument for doing away with this article of faith, that F2P has no place with the core audience. If the brand and the game are right, if the monetisation fits people's expectations and value systems, then F2P can work perfectly well for a core audience. Getting that balance right is no mean feat, and Bethesda deserves enormous praise for being so successful on its very first outing in this realm; but their success confirms what we should already have known long ago - that F2P, and mobile platforms, are perfectly viable and realistic approaches for talented developers targeting core audiences.

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Latest comments (19)

Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany6 years ago
For me at least, The game feels "complete" instead of fractured between the free half and the paying half.
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Ron Dippold Software/Firmware Engineer 6 years ago
Your main point is right on. There's a persistent idea that the core won't play F2P, which is absolutely wrong. Besides Fallout Shelter hardcore gamers I know are also playing Neko Atsume or The Battle Cats on their mobile devices (or the cliche P&D or Monster Strike). Even Hardsteel McShootyFace needs some downtime, and will even send some money your way if s/he thinks it's fair.

On the other hand, it has to be a good game. This is the bit that might be hard to get through to management. You have to budget for it, and design a good game for the IP, not just crap out a shallow, derivative, abusive Zynga-type app using outsourced yak-herders with the design document of 'Candy Crush reskinned with our AAA console game art'. Core gamers can smell the stench of Final Fantasy: All the Bravest a mile away.

Neko Atusme's an interesting example here... by most measures there's zero game play so a shallow cash grab... but you can tell the people working on it really love cats, and you can 'play' it perfectly well for free, so it works. As a counterexample, there's the Assassin's Creed Unity app, which has an interesting and novel shape-finding core game, but manages to be so annoying and cynical (impeding your play on the main title!) that it completely buries any fun in that.

So basically, the core has no problem with a F2P game as long as it's a good game. But that's hard. You have to be willing to give away the store, then sell some tchotschkes.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ron Dippold on 2nd July 2015 9:52am

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Robert McLachlan Game Designer 6 years ago
Also worth considering that the F2P model of crates with nice things inside has been present in Team Fortress 2 since 2010. The presence of this (and the associated trading) in a non-casual core game has done a lot to normalise this monetisation technique amongst core gamers.

Generally the more you allow free associations between in game money and possessions, and external money - giving players control over how they convert between them within a closed economy - the happier your player base is. Eve Online has far fewer problems with Real Money Trading since they introduced the PLEX system, which allows those with real world cash to buy ingame money and hence items. Real world cash-poor players cannot convert ingame money back into real world cash - but they can use the proceeds to fund their subscription to Eve. Similarly, trading stuff in TF2 puts your money into the Steam Wallet, allowing players to fund the purchase of new games with the profits from their gameplay and trading activities.

Core gamers aren't opposed to spending money in games which they play for free - you just have to be open, logical and fair about it - and ensure that those who can't or won't pay still have the ability to compete, just by playing the game more.

Scorn for bad F2P techniques is universal amongst core games no matter how good the game is - Eve was the same game when the disastrous Incarna expansion was released, just as Oblivion was very well received until the Horse Armour DLC was released.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Robert McLachlan on 2nd July 2015 11:45am

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Show all comments (19)
Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext6 years ago
After being in the F2P game business for a decade, I am surprised to hear that anyone in the industry thought that core gamers hated F2P games/business models. Sure, there is always the general forum hate, and wild rants about how F2P is evil and such... but when you talk with the actual gamers, you realize that this is just a vocal fringe element (this is the internet after all). I was genuinely surprised to see an article here that indicated that someone actually believed that this was true.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd6 years ago
Great stuff.

Games like Puzzle & Dragons and Marvel Puzzle Quest have been quietly eroding the perceived barrier for a while now, but Fallout Shelter is the highest profile example to date.

It's been amusing watching F2P commentators do their "what have the Romans ever done for us?" act trying to dismiss Fallout Shelter as a blip. Apparently its strategy was a terrible mistake and won't work for anyone else, because it's slipping out of the top 10 of the grossing chart. Never mind that the chart is dominated by aggressively monetising casino games whose publishers sink millions of dollars a month into user acquisition.

Making games that typical players care about is always a better long term strategy than making games that exploit a tiny fringe of players with poor impulse control. But that's not what you want to hear when you're selling the dream of being the next Supercell.
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Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop6 years ago
Fallout Shelter is the highest profile example to date.
Of a F2P game that appeals to core gamers? It's not even the highest profile example on mobile.
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Good to see this idea championed & discussed publicly in GI.BIZ, Robs examples of long-successful hardcore F2P games on PC should be telling for anyone. Equally there are many F2P mobile games that all gamers love including console/PC gamers.

I think traditionally, 'Core' gamers haven't got upset about mobile F2P gaming so much as they got upset about feeling pressured to like stuff which seems like basic or even bad games to them. People throw a wall of very simple (and very similar) mobile games at core gamers and expect them to smile and nod along that these are fabulous examples of the medium because they've made Eleventy Twelve Kabillion dollars.

While 'rejectionist' core gamers can be dismissed as ignorant about mobile, we forget they remain very educated in the possibilities of the medium as a whole and while some enjoy playing any kind of game, others remain entranced by the scale and immersion and endless choice of console and PC games. When they look at even a really good mobile game, they're not comparing it with its mobile neighbour but with a universe of games that exist outside the vision of the majority of the mobile industry. It's natural then they don't automatically agree with our industry's simplistic rule that if a mobile game make huge sums of money it follows that it must be a huge creative work. Many look at even the best and most well made mobile games as fun, well crafted but limited when compared to what else is available.

Yet to some mobile developers' brains this view causes a kind of dissonance. "You deny eleventy twelve kabillion dollars? There can't be a rational reason for it, so it's got to be about hating. You must hate something. Probably F2P, yes, they all hate free games."

It's more likely to me that they just hate seeing limited games dressed up as The Best Ever. Add in an obnoxious focus on extracting money from players and you've got something eminently dislikeable to a well schooled videogamer. They don't have to be disagreeable to be turned off by this, simple taste is enough. In response our industry seems congenitally unable to hold two opposing ideas in its collective head: that a game can be great and successful in its own right but at the same time be a limited or even bad example of what's possible in the wider medium.

Obstinate core gamers may believe mobile gaming is a sea of exploitative rubbish but they're only marginally less ignorant and irrational than a mobile industry that insists that billions of mobile gamers want the same simple games, with the same ripped off systems and mechanics, over and over again, forever. If our own industry is incapable of seeing reality critically, nay sayers and non-believers can become a useful resource. Given the excess and myopia in the mobile gaming industry it's not crazy to see core gamers as a kind Greek chorus, warning us from smoking our own dope about creativity, monetisation and the breadth of what's possible.

Let's also not forget this is a group of deeply committed gamers that were largely abandoned by the mobile industry in 2009. If we've been unable to come up with mobile games that appeal to them since, well, we're not really wired that way any more. Even if we were, money is certainly not funnelled that way. As we celebrate a few high earning games, cannier, bitchier core gamers can remind us that it might glitter, it might even be gold, but there's more gold them thar hills if only we'd look for it. Our constant regurgitating of the same ideas on mobile is not a reason to despair, it's a reason to believe that even today Mobile remains an untapped medium for games and has yet to reach its potential. If we're incapable of seeing it, core gamers are not and neither, clearly, are devs like Blizzard and Bethesda.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd6 years ago
By "highest profile" I mean "the specialist press has paid attention to". I'm only talking about mobile here, to clarify.
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Steve Peterson Marketing Consultant 6 years ago
If anyone says "The core won't play F2P games" just say "League of Legends" and you can walk away. It doesn't get any more core than that, and they don't seem to be hurting for players.
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Patrick Frost QA Project Monitor 6 years ago
I'll just start my comment with the following disclaimer: The below is entirely my own account and opinion and does not represent any other gamer apart from myself.

As very regular game player that invests a lot of money in my hobby, I still hesitate and very rarely delve into mobile. I have a capable phone and plenty of interest in design but I don't feel I can access that market. I know so little about it and starting down that path of finding out what is worth playing puts me off even starting. Very people I know play mobile games, some of them play PC based FTP but it's really the WoW people enjoying Hearthstone. And it's not like I've not enjoyed mobile games... Monument Valley,Swords and Sworcery have been a great experience and I've also had a blast on the odd F2P game like Shadowgun. Have I dropped any money on it though? No.

I think it comes down to something John Owens mentioned above. Trust. As a console and PC gamer, I know the developers and publishers pretty well and get a good idea of what to expect from them. Mobile on the other hand? It's like going to a new school and everyone feels alien. But "what about console publishers that do mobile?" I hear you cry/mumble. Let's look at a few in groups (again my perspective).

1) EA and Ubisoft: Companies with a ton of collateral to invest in extending their franchises. My cynical brain thinks about the games as having been funded by the marketing budget and I'm so disinclined to consider them that I don't even research their quality, expecting them to be classic EA/Ubisoft advertising, all FMV and no game. I expect these to be bad games, or at worst exploitative and an expression of those publishers' worst colours concerning being anti-consumer and ruthless. The Minions presentation at E3 did nothing to help that.
2) SEGA and Capcom: Companies trying to rekindle their old IP. Many of their offerings are straight ports and experiments into mobile as a platform in it's own right or new IP so far feels too conservative. I've played a lot of these games and if I didn't then I'm not going to play them on mobile either.
3) S-E: A company that will happily stick their franchise labels on a game that has almost nothing to do with it, claiming that this broadens a franchise that doesn't feel like a franchise. It's hard to know/trust that these games will have merit and essentially fall into the noise of other mobile only publishers.

(Side note: Nintendo could easily fall into any of these pitfalls but are hopefully smart enough to take the pros of each of those groups)

Now for me, where Fallout Shelter comes in is that I know these guys. They're smart and capable developers from a publishers that really supports and loves it's fanbase. They have nurtured that relationship and built up enough trust not only to get people to take a punt on FS but to be actively excited about it. People are talking about this being a blip? That's mental... it's an established franchise by a fairly trusted publisher and well trusted developers that was presented directly to the target audience, who will actively and vocally share their experience with like-minded people. It also was presented that you could enjoy the actual main crux of this game without having to even consider spending if you didn't want to. That (and the fact that the game to all accounts is engaging and fun) is a recipe for success and one that I find strange isn't replicated more often. Nintendo are certainly in the position to do so...

So in a nutshell:
I like games.
Do I dislike mobile games? No
Am I interested in mobile games? It's too difficult to tell
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Benjamin Crause Supervisor Central Support, Nintendo of Europe6 years ago
Dogma is maybe the wrong word.
Gamers got no problem with F2P games. They simply detest the often abusive monetisation schemes coming with it. And because so many companies and games employed these mechanics F2P got such a bad reputation now.
There are many enjoyable F2P games and some I saw do a really great job at offering a free game with purchasable incentives without forcing you to go for it or slapping it in your face. They offer you added value if you want to spend money. That is to me the right way.
More games need to follow such "good practices" and I believe F2P can rise even further to new heights including your beloved core games. :)
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Paul Shirley Programmers 6 years ago
The significant difference between 'core' and other players is that 'core' players have a voice and plenty of press and industry willing to repeat what they say when they aren't pretending to speak for them. Pissed off core gamers complain online and have it echoed loud and often, so called casual players complain to their payment provider in private about the bill and maybe email Watchdog for a 5min piece the industry will just ignore.

F2P is a bag of tools and like all tools can be used for good or evil. It really shouldn't be a story that a few manage to use it in ways the customers find 'good'. Even the ones with a voice. That so many still get it wrong and so many try to justify that is the story.
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Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop6 years ago
When you're talking about "trusted developers" is Behaviour Interactive (Fallout Shelter's developer, according to the credits) really trusted? I mean, I know they're big but they're not exactly high profile.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 6 years ago

I'd call that high profile just for the output alone.
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Oscar Escamilla Perez Game Designer 6 years ago
@ Barrie No, the content is random. The lunchboxes will give you resources and maybe 1 or 2 gear and character cards. You may find a couple of great gear/character cards in a free lunchbox earned in-game and find cheap weapons and resource cards on bought lunchboxes. From my experience the game has been quite generous, but it may be different for each player

Of course, in-game tangible cards (characters and good gear) beat intangible cards (energy/water/food). I stopped spending when I found I didn't really need more special characters or gear to maximize the game. It really needs some kind of curve ball event to spice up the end-game. Still feels fun to check your shelter from time to time, though.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Oscar Escamilla Perez on 3rd July 2015 9:57am

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Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop6 years ago
@Greg quantity doesn't equal a high profile, or trusted. Do you really think if you said to a room full of gamers "hey who's looking forward to Behaviour Interactive's next game?" you'll get a reply of "totally, I trust those guys"?

I think you'd get "who?"
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Andy Payne Chair/founder, AppyNation6 years ago
Barry nails it.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
If core gamers appear salty towards new business models, then maybe it has to do with them still feeling burned by years of on-disc dlc, season passes and other schemes to extract more money per game from them. From the NES to the PS2 era, games seemingly tried harder every year and developers were competing harder for roughly the same box price. Then horse armor came along and things changed. We entered an era where a box price with good value was complemented by tiny upgrades featuring a hefty price tag in comparison to the main game. If that had you worried, then you probably are rather reluctant of a future where the base price is dropped entirely for a slurry of microtransactions adding up to more money than ever before. Let's face it, business models are chosen for their revenue potential not the degree of fairness towards customers. To make matters worse, we all know those customers who start making up excuses of their own like a bunch of addicts defending the merits of crack cocaine. WoW players were legendary in how they defended their monthly payments by imagining server costs, while Activision Blizzard quarterly reports raked in the billions.

Then there is the small detail that we are living in a society where you spend most of your money on things you then own in their entirety. Sure, you buy a car and that car needs fuel in the same way f2p games sell resources. You may fool some, but not everybody. People know how to distinguish a physical necessity from an artificial restriction. Car fuel - yes, f2p car game fuel - no.

The more I think about it, the less I like this distinction between classic core player and new age f2p player. This is another divide which only serves the PR gospel. Let's call mobile and f2p gaming for what it is: the current goldrush. The goldrush before was monthly pay MMOs, the goldrush before that was going Playstation. Somewhere in between a lot of people wiggled their hands in front of the TV and companies thought that was a thing. If somebody finds a way to re-programm a cell phone flashlight to induce orgasms instead of epilepsy, everybody will sell that app, it is the way of the industry.

I do not want to be called a core gamer, a casual gamer, or a f2p gamer and I get the feeling it is the same for most people. What they actually do not want to end up is being an idiot consumer who is taken for way more money than was necessary. As such, this type of human is at odds with publishers who very much want to take him for all his money. Sadly enough, humans develop Stockholm syndrome and as a result, we have the current mess that is f2p.
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If the source is true and good, it does not really matter how you monetize it.
So just make a game
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