It’s nice to see a piece on Gamasutra about free-to-play business models that don’t demonize it. Sheldon Laframboise’s piece is lengthy, exhaustive and well thought out. It’s a very nice change from normal, when articles on Gamasutra about the topic tend to make my teeth grind. Every time the concept of Free-to-Play or Microtransactions comes up on Gamasutra, I can feel my teeth start to grind. Free-to-play has quickly positioned itself to be the predominant billing model in gaming for a variety of reasons good and bad, and yet it seems like it just never gets a fair shake on what is supposedly the home turf for game development in the United States. Instead, we get blatant scare tactics, junk science ), caricaturish descriptions of free-to-play games as “coercive” and bad for kids as well as frequent contributors openly cheering for the layoffs happening at these companies. The commenters on the site frequently are even more anti-free-to-play than the writers.
So this article is a nice breath of fresh air. I did note one thing in the comments section that I thought merited mention from a design perspective:
(The way Riot rotates their heroes) is actually the worst part of their model, IMO. Heroes are the core content of your game and arbitrarily gating off a vast majority of them leaves a bad taste for me personally. Compare that approach to something like Heroes of Newerth where all the characters are available for everyone from the start and I know which one I’d pick every time. Given that their userbase is so much larger you wouldn’t think it’d be a problem for them to get by exclusively on vanity items and account level modifications like HoN does.
HoN is not alone — The recently released Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2) also gives away all of their heroes for free. To quote Valve:
“We believe restricting player access to heroes could be destructive to game design, so it’s something we plan to avoid.”
It may be that this new way of doing things may become the new normal. Players tend to see ‘free-to-play’ games as naked attempts to nickel and dime them, but over time, the opposite tends to be true as competitive pressures reset player’s expectations of what is free vs. what is charged for in any given genre, pushing them downward as new entrants attempt to turn these sales pitches on price.
That being said, I disagree with the Valve quote pretty violently. At least in the case of LoL, Hero Rotation does very good things for their billing model and their game as a whole. To wit:
1) Choice Paralysis is a real thing. Studies have been done that show that, if you present too many choices to a consumer, they are actually more likely to NOT MAKE A CHOICE AT ALL. There is a very real and valid concern that you will make the ‘wrong’ choice, even in cases where the costs of making a wrong choice are very low. By limiting free hero options to just 10, Riot effectively removes the pressure of having to choose from 141 options, of which the new player knows nothing about.
2) Hero rotation encourages players to play new heroes on a regular basis, rather than choose one and stick with it forever and ever. Giving each one a spotlight also helps ensure all of the content gets focus, and helps guide community discussion towards the currently featured heroes.
3) Riot clearly uses the free heroes to both encourage a wide mix of roles (ranged vs. melee, support vs tank, etc) as well as to ensure there are always some easier heroes for you to easily reach for. As an example, it seems like Ashe is always freakin’ free - she is widely perceived as being a good noob-friendly character, and also popular enough she’s one of the faces of the game. Far better than hoping that players find something playable and resonant by serendipity.
This is not to say that there aren’t better ways to accomplish these goals. That being said, sometimes Microtransaction designers make these decisions for reasons other than making money.