Why “Free to Play” is bad for Indie Game Developers

On January 9, 2014, in idevblogaday, by Steffen Itterheim

The “Free to Play” business model is bad for us independent game developers. If we try to implement it, that is.

Let me first explain what a typical (casual, mobile) free to play game works like. The type of game that works so well on mobile, revenue-wise, that it’s all the rave and even Indies are tempted or have tried to follow down that path.

A typical, casual free to play mobile game

As you launch the app you’re presented with colorful, charming visual imagery and characters with unnaturally large eyes. This is visual appeal 101 if you’re aware of the composition of an art style that provokes a heartfelt, warming charm. Like a meadow in full bloom it appeals to all audiences. Like a meadow in full bloom it is nothing special if you know when and where to find it.

Typically you aren’t given any choice but to start playing the game. The rules are extremely simple at the start, the interaction understood in a split second and the early levels are designed for player success. It’s a series of visual and audible successes and before you begin to truly enjoy it, the level is complete. And that is intentional.

As you progress in the early levels, they all seem over far too quickly as you’re introduced to more game mechanics. This is what gets players hooked, the simple fact that they could keep playing and enjoying themselves but the game always stops them short of getting in the zone. This is the stage where the player is conditioned to advance to level after level.

In a sense, the player isn’t really “free to play” as he or she wants to.

By around level 10 the game throws ever more difficult challenges at the player. Some even seem to alter their internal mechanics, especially games featuring random drops or randomized game content – suddenly there’s fewer combos you can perform successfully. In a match-3 game you’ll find far fewer and shorter lines to work with.

This is the point where the game wants players to start failing. Players start to lose “lives” and start spending “coins”.

Eventually the player runs out of “lives” and thus gets locked out of the play experience until “lives” are automatically replenished over time. Of course there’s always the option to buy more lives.

The player also notices the game is becoming increasingly harder. Thus “coins” must be spent on upgrading units or unlocking features and consumable items to keep the game experience at a manageable level of difficulty. In some games “coins” do not exist or do not play an important role, but instead upgrades must be bought directly with money and the game relies more on “consumable items” such as short-lived powerups.

There may even be other options to earn “lives” or “coins”, such as taking the player’s attention elsewhere. Start another app. Sign up on some website. Buy something from some vendor.

Overall, the entire experience is engineered not so much for the enjoyment of the player but to condition the player to become a paying customer. There are a lot of variables intricately balanced to achieve the one and only goal: monetizing the player.

How much do free to play games charge?

It seems casual free to play games charge $2 for “coins” and/or “lives” item. The next coins item is usually much more expensive, say $10.

From there it goes up with 3-5 more purchases up to $100 for an item. Of course the more expensive the item the more coins you get overall. This is the “35% more coins” trick to get players to pay for higher-priced items.

As a side note, remember how the press got all hung up on games that sell ingame cars or other virtual items for about $50? Yet no one seems to complain about games that allow players to purchase virtual currency for far more money.

This is the appeal of virtual currency – currency as a concept is well understood and accepted – you can’t put value on the currency itself and you don’t know what the player will use the money for. And players lose track of the real value as they make purchases, and since they already have paid for the virtual coins it psychologically becomes easier to spend them rather than real money.

The decision to purchase currency and the decision to use the currency to get a specific item are often separated, and thus less stressful on the mind.

This is different for individual items because know you know the value of the item (say: yellow sports car, $49) and you can make comparisons (say: red pickup truck, $29) and even compare the perceived or factual “quality” of the item ingame. Say, the yellow sports car accelerates a lot faster than the fastest free car but it hardly drives any faster.

Such purchases aren’t only harder for players to justify, they’re also harder for developers to balance properly and to set the right prices.

How is Free to Play bad for Indies?

Temptation mainly. You see the successes free to play developers have. You consider how awesome it is to get players to spend $10 to $100 for a single item, let alone multiple purchases.

However, a typical Indie wants to make a great game, possibly something she was interested in to begin with or perhaps even an expression of oneself, a statement.

It doesn’t take a genius to notice that free to play games aren’t great, nor an expression of oneself, nor a meaningful experience. They’re time-killers. They’re designed to lull players in and to get them to zone out of the real world. They’re the gaming equivalent of a daily soap opera complete with product placement.

The most successful casual free to play games are nothing but virtual cocaine.

Moreover, free to play in the sense I described above only works with mechanics so simple a 3-year old can play it. More demanding game developers continue to express the idea that you could create a deeper, more complex game and apply the same monetization mechanics, perhaps not quite as intrusive.

You can’t. It just won’t work. If it would, we would have “core gamer free to play” experiences using the same mechanics already, wouldn’t we?

What about non-casual free to play games?

Now there are non-casual (ie core gamer) free to play games, how do they monetize again?

Quite simply: peer pressure. If the game offers PvP then items that give players advantages in PvP – though often frowned upon by players – are an important purchase driver.

Likewise purely aesthetic items are all the rave for both competitive and cooperative games if the game has a large community. For aesthetic items to work the player must of course be able to present them to other players, to carry them proudly, to invite conversation, applause and envy.

Such games often sport complex game mechanics, many of them are MMOs, some shooters and franchise sports games. All of them are multiplayer games where socializing or competing with fellow peers is an important aspect to players. There’s few of those games available on mobile since those experiences lend themselves more naturally to desktop games.

I focus on the more ubiquitous “casual, mobile” games in this article.

What are the challenges of designing free to play games?

The real problem for Indies: they want to focus on making a game. A great, meaningful, innovative game whenever possible. At least that’s my idealized assumption of an idealistic Indie.

Yet free to play mechanics demand that game design be subordinate to monetization. In fact the gameplay is a tool that drives monetization – the game can not be changed at will, it must be engineered to drive players towards purchasing virtual items. The game mechanics must subliminally coerce players into needing, then wanting to have the paid items, then purchasing them.

It doesn’t matter what type of game it is – for every successful free to play game there have been several very similar experiences that failed and have been removed from the market. This is an appalling aspect of free to play games: those that fail will be removed from the market.

Because failed games still occupy players’ attentions who are then unavailable to make purchases in other games. Of course the developers will say how the running costs don’t justify keeping the game alive or something to that effect. Not a lie but not the entire truth either.

All of this strictly prohibits or severely limits the possibilities and the changes you can apply to free to play game mechanics.

Challenges in designing free to play games

This is where it gets really, really difficult for Indies. Not just to implement but apparently even to understand and grasp the scope of such designs, specifically those things not directly related to designing a game:

  • Focus group testing
  • Player acquisition and retention
  • Metrics, implementation and analysis
  • Balancing difficulty and progression
  • Optimizing free vs paid mechanics (ie optimizing revenue)
  • Marketing, specifically to casual players (ie all and expensive channels)
  • Business development, collaborate with platform holders etc.
  • Localization
  • Soft launches
  • Many more …

All of these things trickle down to game design, and require game design changes. It is not the other way round! Monetization goals drive the game’s design.

Moreover, if you’re looking at a casual game, the above items easily take up more time (equals money) and resources than designing and possibly even implementing the game itself.

The casual games aren’t so simple because the developers want them to be simple, it is more a necessity to keep the development risk at a minimum. The casual free to play games only work because the game mechanics can be so simplistic, and it’s a good fortune for the developers that the mechanics actually have to be simplistic.

So anyone expecting these games to grow more “mature” over time and give players a more meaningful experience will be disappointed.

Why free to play isn’t for Indies

Free to play game mechanics are diametrically opposed to immersive, innovative, expressive game design. Free to play games frequently and consistently remind players, directly or subtly, that a purchase should be made.

Players are conditioned to overpay for the experience, too. A typical match-3 game would cost at most $2 on the App Store these days, if at all. A very similar free to play match-3 game may easily lure players into spending the minimum of $2 – repeatedly. And isn’t ashamed of allowing players to spend $100 on them in a single purchase. Hey, it’s a sale. 50% more coins. Who could resist?

Clearly games like these are designed for the weak-minded, uninformed players. For us indie developers that is not the audience we aim for, right?

What In-App Purchases are “good” for Indie games?

There’s still money in In-App purchases for us Indie developers. In fact, besides the classic “free” vs “paid” apps which has some pros and cons going for and against it, the alternative is to make the app free and at some point unlock the full version through an in-app purchase. Classic shareware principle.

But also level packs and DLC are good uses for in-app purchases. So are hardcore modes for the truly dedicated players. Individual items that are fun in their own right, say grappling hook or gravity gun.

The important lesson I wanted to teach with this article is that for us, as Indie developers, we should look at the game first and then consider what kind of In-App purchase items it naturally allows us to offer. More levels. Better weapons. Inverse game mechanics. Unlock ingame editor. Other playable characters with distinct playing styles. Yes, even aesthetics.

But don’t fall prey to systems that, well, prey on the player. Deliberately diminishing the play experience like forcing the player to take another option or to wait some time just so you can sell wait-removal, annoyance-removal, ad-removal and other items just so the game gets out of the way and lets the player experience it. For a little bit more, for a little bit longer, with a little bit more ease.

Speaking of ads: please remove your ingame ads purposefully placed or appearing so the player accidentally taps on them. Please don’t make me wait for the X button to dismiss an ad view. Please don’t randomly change the way an ad must be closed. Please don’t sell me an app whose main or sole purpose of buying it is to get rid of the ads with little or no other benefits. Doing any of that is distasteful – always treat the player as your customer, even while she is not!

Indie developers should not succumb to the temptation of trying to design a game around (now well understood) casual free to play mechanics because

a) we can and want to do better than that and
b) they don’t work to our advantage and
c) most of us don’t have the right skill and mind set,
d) nor the resources to properly implement free to play mechanics.

Do whatever the big companies don’t do. Make unusual games in unusual settings with unusual game mechanics and find unusual ways to get paid. Be creative and follow your inspiration, not the big money. Because that’s exactly where you’re going to be the little fish in the shark tank.

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5 Responses to “Why “Free to Play” is bad for Indie Game Developers”

  1. This is a great article. Do you know if there is som big game companies that has an open policy about this? Maybe som company that says they never gone try in-game?


    • Is there any big company with an open information policy?

      The (my) problem isn’t how purchases are made, it’s how purchases are being incentivised. And the fact that you can get the same or very similar game experience for just a buck or even truly free.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Great article, Steffen. You summed up what ai find distasteful pretty well. I assume you are right, these games would need a significant advertising budget to be profitable anyway.

  3. Marek says:

    I have just one word for you Stephen: Hearthstone. Have you tried it? Of course it is way faster to get to the top leagues if you spend cash but you can progress at a steady rate, getting new cards without spending a dime. And it is quite complicated, there is a fair amount of cards in it. Of course it does not invalidate your main argument, that it is too difficult for indies to make a ftp game, but it is an example of a free to play game which is not overly simplistic and made just to squeeze money out of you. Actually I believe Heathstone has already changed the standards. Soon people will not accept free-to-play games that just milk you.

    • Hearthstone was designed for core gamers, therefore the f2p milking-strategy simply would not have worked there. Kudos to Blizzard having figured out a way to do “fair” f2p. I also know of an MMO where you pay only for visual improvements, not pay to win, which I would also deem fair. But milking will continue to work for casual games I’m afraid. On the other hand many players play these games as a sport trying to “game” it by getting the most out of it without paying, and that too has become a rewarding experience on its own. Weird.