Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

More F2P Fisking

There sure is a whole lot of wrong going on over in this debate.

We both know that someone, somewhere has to pay for the game’s development, and for that idea to work out, you either need to hook some ‘whales’ who pay out a fortune and subsidise everyone else, or you have to constantly nag all of the players to pay for in-game items.

If I can give the gift of great gameplay to three times the number of customers because a handful of heavy users love my game so much they beg me for more opportunities to spend – is that really a bad thing?  And how is this really different from Golf shops that are subsidized by high rollers buying $10000 clubs, magic players buying Black Lotuses, or knitting stores who sell balls of yarn from rare endangered alpacas for $1000 per ball?  Why is this the one industry where people actually feel pity for the hardcore fan who wants to spend?

And is he really that different from other gamers?  Other gamers likely spent $1000 a year on their hobby as well, once you factor in the cost of their console, the cost of the console games they’ve bought, the money they dropped in the Steam summer sale, expansions, DLC, licensed action figures, etc, etc.  The difference is that guy probably used whatever he bought in his F2P whale experience, whereas a Steam Summer Sale leaves me with a backlog of games that I’m never gonna get to.

We wouldn’t tolerate free-plus-microtransactions in other media, why should we tolerate it in gaming?

Um, other media have already been moving heavily to a microtransactions world.  See iTunes, and compare how people now buy one track for .99 cents instead of buying a CD with one hit and 14 terrible songs for $15 bucks.  Or, you can listen to it for free, and even watch the video, if you’re willing to go to Youtube, Spotify, or any number of other services.  If you want concert tickets, T-shirts, posters and the other stuff that denote true music fandom, you’re going to pay more.  This is literally no different.

The other problem is that the game is no longer a shared experience or level playing field. I can now be shot by someone with a gun I didn’t buy, or outrun by a car with engines I haven’t bought.

You’re not complaining about Free 2 Play, you’re complaining about Pay 2 Win.  These are two different concepts, and in North America, for the most part, Pay 2 Win is rejected in many (most?) titles.  A game can be free 2 play without being pay 2 win – see League of Legends, Candy Crush and SWTOR, for example.

The F2P model seems to rely on interrupting the player mid-game to constantly pester them for a few pennies.

Television and Spotify seem to rely on interrupting the viewer/listener occasionally to constantly pester them to buy some shit.  In the case of Spotify, you can pay a subscription to bypass this hassling – this option is also available in many free-to-play titles.

I could just about get by with a thousand true fans by selling them $30 games, and many people do exactly this, like spiderweb software and the guys making hex-based WW2 strategy games. There are many people out there happy to pay $20-40 for a game that they really like. It’s a myth that gamers will only pay $0.99 for a game, it’s just that those gamers are a very loud, shouty minority.

Having seen the numbers, I can tell you that the loud, shouty minority are those who knee-jerkedly reject the notion that any game with a free to play model can have a free to play model that is inviting, non-imposing, fair and fun.  These people are wrong, and its not at all hard to point to examples in this day and age.

Just because some games are doing it poorly doesn’t mean it can’t be done.  And competitive pressures means that the games that do it poorly are going to fail.  And should.


  1. One quibble; your examples conflate after market, where the developer makes no (direct) profit (Black Lotuses / Magic the Gathering) with sales from distributors who purchase direct from the developer (golf clubs, alpacas). The monetization benefits of whales are very different for those two different models.

  2. Speaking from the perspective of the consumer, I can tell you that it feels like a LOT of F2P games are doing it wrong. They are ad-ridden and constantly haranguing you to pay for their overpriced gee-gaws. Many of them may technically be winnable without paying, but in actual practice will be far too annoying to complete without shelling out some actual money. At least in the mobile sector, it is my experience that this describes the overwhelming majority of F2P games. I can’t say for sure whether these games are failing, but their number only seems to grow, so somebody must be making money.

    It’s also important not to underestimate just how disruptive it is, from the player’s perspective, to have their game constantly interrupted by pleas to buy tokens or whatever. These days, games where you can pay up front, sit down, and have an uninterrupted game experience are starting to feel like a breath of fresh air.

  3. Damion Schubert

    August 28, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    Magic does do high value direct sale items as well (see Modern Masters and the From the Vault series). However, they usually let the card shops mark these up and keep that markup, since Magic is mostly concerned about helping those shopowners stay in business.

  4. As a mobile developer making F2P games for EA, what I love about it is that I feel like is that holding on and entertaining the player is all in my hands. I can’t blame the press, the poorly-timed marketing, the lack of buy for end-cap at retail. Several million people are going to grab my game and it’s up to me and my team to keep as many of them entertained and coming back for as long as possible.

    It’s incredibly democratic and incredibly scary. I feel like I’m busking on a street corner with just me and my guitar case and I’ve got a few seconds to make an impression. It’s been more of a design challenge for me than console, PC, or board games.

    Oh, and by the by, I dig the blog. Keep up the good work.

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