free to play games can make money

I know we’ve talked a lot about Free2Play in the last year but as it becomes clearer and clearer that it’s going to be one of the predominant ways that we pay for games in the next decade, it becomes increasingly important that we, both as designers and as consumers, explore the ins and outs of this model. Unfortunately, something like 85% of the Free2Play games we see out there are just doing it wrong. Now 85% may sound hyperbolic, a wildly high estimate, but anyone who’s seen our other episodes on Free2Play games knows that we fundamentally believe in the model. Done right, we think it’s better for everyone, developers and consumers alike. We have no desire to throw the Free2Play industry under the bus here but after looking at all the Free2Play games he’d played or worked on in the last year, James concluded that the vast majority were approaching Free2Play in a way that is detrimental for the player and the company alike. It all stems from one place; a complete lack of underlying design philosophy.

You see, too many Free2Play companies still conceptualize paying for a game and experiencing the game as 2 fundamentally different things when instead they should see monetizing as part of the experience. So often, very little high-level thought is devoted to how the monetization experience feels to the player. It may sound silly, it made sound simple, but very often one of the first things James has to do when working with Free2Play companies is have them set an underlying design philosophy that’ll help them guide all decisions around monetization. The philosophy he goes with is this. The player has to enjoy spending money on your game. This seems so basic and yet the vast majority of Free2Play games currently on the market fall rather into one of 2 completely opposed camps. They are either a) games were it’s actually far more enjoyable not to spend the money on the game or b) games that try to force the player to pay money rather than giving them a reason to want to.

“For most of our history, human technology consisted of our brains, fire, and sharp sticks.”
Let’s talk a little about each of those. First, games where it’s actually way more interesting to not spend money on the game. You’ve all probably played one. You know, games where the most interesting challenge is to see how far you can get without paying money. Games where it’s way more compelling to figure out all the ways you can get the fancy gear or compete with the paying players without spending a cent. Games where all the challenge disappears when you pay, where a system that was before a crafty puzzle that you felt clever for solving just becomes dull and routine because you bought a fast track to the finish line. These types of games fail not because they aren’t good for the player but because the player, by definition, won’t enjoy spending money on the game. Why would they want to? Working around the pay system is often actually a more engaging challenge than the core game plan of these games and so the player never has a reason to monetize. In fact, it’s in their best interest not to.

While this may be a lot of fun for the player, at least for a little while, it fails completely as a monetizing strategy and that failure actually ends up having negative consequences for the players too. Without a high conversion rate or a substantial revenue from their users, most of these games tend to fade away or simply stop being supported by the company that built them. Because the game isn’t earning enough to justify the investment, the developers slow down the number of updates or simply cease adding new content all together, just letting the game continue to shuffle on and provide the last few drops of revenue it can until it does. That sucks for developers and players alike and yet it’s the inevitable result of that underlying design philosophy because while many such games are just the result of careless monetization design, many others were designed that way out of fear of being seen as the other type of Free2Play game; the game that feels like it’s extorting you.

We’ve all played that second type too. These are the pay to win games or the games that let you invest 20 hours and then hit you with a pay wall that essentially requires that you pay up to continue. These games stem from a design philosophy that doesn’t really consider you to be a player so much as a source of revenue. It’s game design done by accountants rather than designers and it’s inevitably destructive. It’s the complete divorce of play from pay and the worst thing is at first this type of monetization appears to work. Many of us have, at some point, grit our teeth and paid for some stupid thing we felt like a game was forcing us to pay for and we resented it and that niggling resentment stuck somewhere in the back of our minds and made the whole experience worse until at some point we hit yet another monetization squeeze and just threw up our hands and said screw you guys, I’m done.

This is the worst possible experience but because it forces monetization so hard it will get a comparatively sizable number of players to convert early on and so it will appear to be very successful until a year down the line when it becomes clear how many players it’s forced out of the game and how much it’s segmented its own community. This is the method that zynga went with in many of it’s games and this arc can very clearly be seen in many of its products. Unfortunately, because this method appears at first to work if you’re simply looking at raw numbers and because from a design perspective this doesn’t require a great deal of effort or skill from the team, the extorted version of Free2Play is something that much of the industry decided to emulate and this is what led to the bad reputation that Free2Play has gotten which in turn now drives many customers away from the Free2Play model entirely. That’s bad for everyone.

We have got to find a way past this manipulative strategy as it leaves us with nothing to build on from a business perspective and it’s becoming less and less effective anyway as consumers are getting savvier. How do we avoid the pitfall of making it more engaging for the player to game the Free2Play system than to pay money while at the same time not falling into the trap of making your player feel like the game is extorting money from them at every turn? Well, it’s different for every game but it all comes back to the central philosophy of creating an environment where the player’s happy to spend money on your game. Think about when you back something cool on Kickstarter or even buy something at a regular game store. You’re excited. You’re happy to spend that money for something that you’re just glad exists. Sure you might rather it be free, I mean that’s probably true about everything, but you don’t mind paying for it. In fact, you’re often very happy just to be able to buy that thing.

That’s what a player should feel in a good Free2Play experience. The best of these experiences feel like buying a toy or a model or something to treasure. Something that you want to own just for the sake of owning it and every time you look at it it makes you smile. For any of you who have played Warhammer or maybe even HeroClix, you know how that feels. Games like League of Legends really capitalize on this well. But things to own aren’t the only things we treasure, so are experiences. Sometimes the experiences games can sell us are big things like a new [inaudible 00:05:38] mystery in the Secret World, which I would eagerly buy and then lose myself in like getting a new season of my favorite TV show, but as a developer you can’t always provide that new large-scale adventure or episode so what else can we do?

Well, just as an example that I particularly love, there was an item I saw once in a Korean MMO called the money bomb and it was this item where when you used it it exploded into goodies like a popping pinata. Now, the buyer of the money bomb couldn’t pick up any of the goodies that popped out but everyone else around you could and people loved buying these things because someone would walk into town and throw one of these babies down and it would just turn into a party. The person who bought the money bomb would get tons of love from everyone around them and often other people would announce that they were going to go buy one too. Soon the town square just turned into an impromptu online festival. People loved buying these things. They enjoyed buying them. They didn’t resent the money spent or feel like they had to spend that money and it wasn’t actively more fun to not buy them. Fantastic design.

When building a Free2Play game, don’t think about the money first but build a good game and the money will come. Don’t base your design around fear of being perceived as extorting players either. Instead, build your game around finding joy for the human beings playing your game. What will make each purchase something the players happy to do? What’ll make each dollar spent feel completely worth it? What will make finally spending your money feel like buying that thing you saw in that store window and longed for every day for a year until you finally saved up enough to buy it? That’s where you should root your Free2Play design. That’s what’ll make Free2Play a great model for everyone involved.