Some Concerns About Free-To-Play

In case you hadn’t noticed – the industry we work and play in is changing at an alarming rate. Gamers are moving to mobile platforms in droves – and mobile platforms are dominated by the Free-To-Play business model. The model is quickly spreading to other platforms, and some are predicting it will be the dominant model in a few year’s time.

This disruption has caused a great amount of division among developers and gamers alike.

On one side of the fence, some of the “old school” folks are talking about the evils of F2P. Adam Saltsman wrote up a post awhile back calling out what he called “Contrivance and Extortion” of Microtransactions, and it caused quite a stir. Adam said the following, about games that offer you the ability to pay to skip past the grind:

“This is extortion in the worst way; this is extortion of the time we have left until we die, the sole resource of consequence for human life.  Developers who deliberately engage in this kind of design should be ashamed of their creations.”

On the other side of the fence, F2P proponents like David Edery talks about the “Magic of F2P” and compares it to a progressive taxation where wealthy players support the poor ones. David makes it sound like a utopia for gamers and developers alike.

From what I’ve seen, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground. Dan Cook (also of Spry Fox, which creates F2P games)  wrote recently that he’s giving up on the term “Free to Play” altogether because, as he put it:

“You end up with these strange fervent gangs of very angry internet people who pounce on any discussion that mentions F2P and then vomit up a series of pre-digested talking points.  There is no meaningful dialog nor is there any desire for such.” 

I think unfortunately,  the tendency on both sides of this war tend to overlook some of the very valid concerns of the other side, and to sometimes skew the perceived benefits of their chosen model.

And I think what’s unfortunate is that we seem to be mostly focused on discussing whether free-to-play is evil or not. Naturally, people will disagree on this, and so there’s little meaningful consensus.

Perhaps instead, we should look at the big picture: What does F2P mean to the core play experience? What does it mean to us as developers? What does it mean to the industry as a whole? What does it mean to the relationship between developer and player?

You may have guessed by now, or read in one of my previous posts – that we at Flippfly have decided that F2P isn’t for us.

Here are some of the reasons that lead to that decision.

Concern #1: There’s a money vacuum towards the “bad stuff”

F2P proponents are quick to point out the shining examples of ethical F2P games that players love: Team Fortress 2, League of Legends, Realm of the Mad God etc.
The issue I see is – if you look at the games that are actually making the most money, right now, they are most frequently the ones that are also associated with F2P implementation that players revile. CSR racing, for example, generated $12 million in its first month. But if you look beyond the app store user reviews for that game (which are solicited in exchange for in-app currency and an achievement) – reviewers and players alike generally seem to agree that the micro-transaction focus gets in the way of the experience. The game is constantly asking you to spend, and players who spend can skip the grind and generally have a lot more fun.

My concern is, despite our desire to be straight-arrow, there’s always going to be a line to cross towards exploitation or at least elements that are detrimental to the play experience, and this line is fuzzy. Now, don’t misinterpret what I’m saying to mean that I think constantly asking players for money is wrong. But you can’t convince me that this is something any player likes.

Concern #2: It dilutes the player experience

We play games for lots of reasons. Sometimes we just need an escape. Sometimes, we want to be immersed in another world. Sometimes we want a challenge. Sometimes we want to feel a sense of accomplishment.

But whatever our reasons for playing – I think I can say without controversy that inserting a micro-transaction loop in the middle of it, must take away from that experience to some degree.

Don’t misread me: this isn’t  evil. Anyone who’s ever created shareware or a “lite” version of an app will tell you that you need to get in front of the player and tell them why they should upgrade.

But my concern is – with a typical F2P game, this interruption never ends. Or perhaps it’s not an interruption, but rather a nagging feeling that if you just paid a bit more, you’d probably be having even more fun. In either case, by definition it’s taking the player’s focus off of the reasons they’re playing the game in the first place, even after they’ve decided your game was worth spending money on.

(Note: Some games give you the opportunity to just “unlock the full version” – and this article really isn’t about that class of “free to try.”  I’m talking more about games that are built on the premise that the most dedicated players will continually be paying.)

Concern #3: It’s devaluing our work as developers

The “race to the bottom” in the app store, followed by the subsequent F2P tidal wave, has created a situation where players expect their games to be free – if someone said 25 years ago that Super Mario Bros should be free or $1, he’d have gotten some funny looks.

In an effort to compete, talented developers feel the need to give away their hard work for free, often to disastrous results. For every F2P success story like Temple Run, there is a Gasketball or a Punch Quest or a Monkey Drum. The problem is –  these financial disasters are often great games that fail to utilize many of the elements that make F2P model work financially, and so players have come associate free games with fun, unobtrusive design.

When we recently put our in-development game Race The Sun up on Greenlight and a demo on Kongregate after several months of hard work, many players told us it should probably just be a free app, not a $5 purchase. Many players on Kong tell us they’re giving it 1 star because “you should keep your demo version to yourself!”

My big concern here is that we are catering our business towards an ultra-minority of players who will happily (or begrudgingly) pay, while the other 98% or so will go on believing that we should be giving them everything for free. What effect will this have long-term?

Concern #4: It’s creating mistrust between gamers and developers

I can’t count the number of people who’ve said : “I won’t even download an app if I see that it’s free.”

One way to see it is that the “bad ones” pollute the whole pool and ruin the good reputation of all F2P games.

But I think it goes deeper than that. I think that if people are realistic, they realize that F2P works because there are “whales” – or if you want to say it nicer, “lifetime hobbyists.” In any case – for a F2P game to make money, it needs a portion of players to make continual payments.

And I haven’t seen any example of a F2P game that was clearly forthright in telling players “I want you to spend hundreds of dollars on this game.”

No – the effective ones bring you in using tiny steps – perhaps a $0.99 purchase with clear benefits and at a 50% discount.

There’s nothing evil about this, it’s just good marketing, and again, people have a choice not to play/pay.

But – it creates a stress on the player, of sorts – they know the game is going to ask them to pay again, in some way, but it’s not always obvious how. Items will become more expensive as you level-up, or the time to complete a mission will be a little longer.

In Triple Town (one of the ones mentioned by Edery in his “magic of F2P” article as an example of an ethical one) the payment incentive is brilliantly subtle: As you become an expert at the game, your rounds will last longer and longer. And since the in-game store offers you the ability to prolong your game by buying the right item if the one randomly given to you doesn’t cut it, the perceived value of this pay-to-excel item will be higher and higher. Do you go ahead and finish the game you’ve been playing for days and be happy with your great score? Or do you pay $0.99 to get some currency and keep it going a little longer? I love Triple Town and I understand why they’ve taken this route – but I think this insertion of continual monetization pressure in the core game loop is a prime example of why people tend to lash out against F2P.

My concern is that this trend will breed a distrust between player and developer, and that this will hurt everyone in the long term.

Concern #5: It’s flooding our devices and dividing our attention as gamers

Quickly: look at your mobile device or your Steam library. How many games do you have? Do you have games that you grabbed because they were free, or perhaps downloaded during a 24-hour giveaway or a bundle sale? How many games do you have that you thought looked cool, but simply haven’t taken the time to play yet?

How much time have you spent on any one of these games?

Now think back to your gaming habits 10 years ago. How many games did you play in a given month?

I have a theory – and it’s a little hard to prove – but I think that with so many games, we tend to feel obligated to try them all, to give them at least a chance. We don’t do as much research ahead of time (because after all, it’s free) and we don’t spend as much time exploring the intricacies of each. Not only has the market become saturated, but we ourselves have become saturated. And as a result, these deeper game experiences are becoming less successful and more rare. We increasingly refuse to give any game more than a few minutes of undivided attention, just like we’re forgetting how to sit down and read a novel or an in-depth article – we’d rather consume things in bite-sized pieces.

I’m concerned that this is fundamentally changing our gaming experiences in a way that’s overall less satisfying. And then what?

It reminds me of another time in gaming history when the market was flooded with titles that players didn’t enjoy as much as they used to.

Concern #6: It brings our attention as developers away from the game itself

Lastly, I think a focus on in-game monetization is creating a situation where it’s not enough to create a great experience. Instead of just asking ourselves “What will give the player the most joy,” we have to ask ourselves: “What’s the optimum balance between player joy and player incentive to pay”?

There’s nothing wrong with this, per se – one could argue that the successful developers have always been the ones with a finger on the market.

But I’m concerned that our focus as designers is becoming increasingly skewed towards perfecting the intricacies of monetization, instead of perfecting the difficult art of creating incredible experiences. Perhaps I’m over-thinking this – but if this is where we’re putting our focus as developers, perhaps we’re going to create fewer artful masterpieces, and replace them with more brilliant monetization machines?

Further discussion

I think it’s important to come to grips with the changes in the industry – F2P isn’t going anywhere.
On the other hand – let’s not ignore the consequences, and let’s think long-term.

Here at Flippfly – we decided that F2P isn’t something we want to pursue – but we also decided that the “Packaged Goods” model isn’t a perfect fit either, for many of the reasons Dan Cook described here. People will continue to innovate and explore various methods, and I think we’ll find an equilibrium that works best for both developers and gamers.

The solution we’re trying at Flippfly is to offer a “Lifetime Subscription” to our company for a lump sum. The hope is that this will help bring some stability to our income, provide value to our most dedicated fans, and avoid many of the concerns I’ve cited here. I’ll report back in a few months and let you know how it’s going.

I’d love for this discussion to continue in the comments and beyond.

If you’re on Twitter, maybe you want to chime in with the #f2pconcern hashtag, or the #ftpbenefit if you’d like to point out some of the benefits.

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