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Pay-to-Win is Not the Problem
by Daniel Shumway on 01/23/14 03:00:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article has been adapted and expanded from an older post on my blog.

Some Setup

I might as well start by clarifying: I don’t mind the Free-to-Play model, and I think there are a lot of developers doing clever things with it. So if you’re hoping that this post is going to decry the scourge on the industry, it’s not.


I also want to clarify that this article isn’t going to be about how to build Free-to-Play games properly, and it’s not going to be a really detailed overview of every problem or issue surrounding Free-to-Play. Other people know a lot more about the nuanced details than I do, so they can handle all of that.

The psychology of spending money is, well, complicated. And I'll be upfront and say this article isn't going to do that topic full justice. There are nuances behind any topic that that make it difficult to, at least in one sitting, ever encompass every part of that conversation. This article isn't meant to answer every question about Free-to-Play or to end any of the debates surrounding it. Indeed, even while I talk in generalities below, I don't mean to imply that there aren't legitimate questions, exceptions, and other debates to bring to the table about pretty much every point I make.

So rather than stating a broad theory of design, what I actually want to talk about are questions – specifically, what are some of the trends surrounding our conversations about Free-to-Play, and are those trends adding anything to the discussion?  What I’ve been finding recently whenever I read up on payment models, is that we’re engaged in a really big conversation about how much players are forced to pay and what happens to the players that are stubborn enough not to pay, and as a result, the big question that players ask when encountering new Free-to-Play games is what they’re required to do.

I want to propose that the question you should be asking when you encounter a Free-to-Play system isn’t whether or not you can get around paying; it’s what part of gameplay that payment process is impacting and whether or not that impact is positive or negative.

Making systems fight

I've read a lot of people claiming that Pay-to-Win and Pay-to-Progress systems are inherently flawed, which I disagree with, at least in theory if not in practice. I woud begin by disputing the supposed differences between a player's enjoyment of gameplay and their enjoyment of any other part of a game, but that's a subject that would be best suited for another post. At the very least, I know that games like Magic seem to use similar systems - you spend money to buy better cards, increasing the flexibility and diversity of your deck and, in a sense, unlocking new ways to play the game.

 But regardless of the merits of Pay-to-Win systems as a whole, what I really have difficulty explaining to myself is how a game benefits from subverting that process, at least from a pure-design perspective. What is this supposed "alternative" to payment, and what business does it have in the game?  Is it meant to be an inferior way of playing, and if not, how does any company expect to make that person pay?  What exactly have we fit by adding additional modes of progression onto a game, by making payments optional or unneccessary?

The selling point of many free-to-pay games, namely how much content they offer and how little customers will be coerced into spending money, doesn't fit into any context of design I've ever seen used before.  And I don't believe that a payment model justifies breaking years of common sense.

I'm beating around the bush here, so let me try to summarize my main points in a slightly clearer fashion -

  • Scrolls wouldn’t stop being a good game if Porser only made new cards available for money, Magic: The Gathering style.  It would just be more expensive.  The question that we should ask instead is : what the payment system does to the grinding experience? Why would I spend money for scrolls when I already have such an excellent method of getting them: playing the game?
  • The problem with Tales of Xillia selling you currency or experience has nothing to do with what you pay, because even if they gave everything away for free or as a pre-order bonus it would still get in the way of the game’s meticulously balanced economy.  There's a reason that resources take effort to get - and buying it invalidates that purpose.
  • The problem with Plants vs. Zombies 2 isn’t that you can pay for upgrades that let you beat the game. It’s that designers are now being forced to make the game’s difficulty curve unpleasant enough that you want to pay money to skip it.
  • The problem with Dead Space micro-transactions isn’t that the base game already cost you money and EA is being too greedy.  It’s that giving players the option to tune-down horror and difficulty with overpowered guns misses the point of having horror and difficulty to begin with.

Providing alternative methods for progression doesn’t fix or resolve any of that.  The problem isn't money - it's design; and there's no way to have your cake and eat it - either something is worth paying for, in which case the people who don't have it are going to be upset that they don't, or something isn't worth paying for, in which case it's silly to expect people, at least while they're in their right minds, to give you money for it.

My conjecture is that in 9 out of 10 cases, a Free-to-Play system can't simultaneously be on both ends of that spectrum.

Transactions can be simple

The best way I can think of to describe this self-inflicted dichotomy of gameplay is to drop money out of the equation entirely.  Lets say that something happens - suddenly your studio comes into billions of dollars, and you decide in response that all of your micro-transactions are going to be for $0, in fact, the entire game is going to be free.  Would you still include the gameplay options in that case?

Would the designers of Dead Space 3 have put a button into the game that just, well, upgraded weapons, that you could press basically whenever you wanted to, in that situation?  Would a Facebook game with a meticulous energy system put a button in that you could press, whenever you wanted to just ignore that?

Yeah, yeah, I know - some games do; we allow difficulty adjustment, we allow people to customize an experience before they begin it.  But try to think of an experience where every single time you encounter a puzzle or a challenge or any mechanic, you're given the option to ignore it, with no acknowledgement that the mechanic ever existed?  World of Goo allowed you to skip levels, but it didn't mark them as solved afterwords.  Games may allow us to change difficulty settings, but at the very least they acknowledge that we have done so - and there's a mutual understanding between player and designer that in doing so you are interrupting and, in at least a small sense, redefining the original experience.

A transaction is, in its most simple form, an exchange of value between two parties.  You give me something I want (usually money, I really like when people give me that), and I give you something you want. The premise behind all of this is that you would want what I'm offering prior to the transaction taking place.  The money is the price, the reward is separate.

It's not to say that you couldn't talk about a lot of current free-to-play models using those terms: The player wants to level up, so he gives me money, and in return I give him something he wants: a level.  But generally, we have always had an understanding in all of our design-discussions that player motivations aren't that neat and tidy. It's not really correct to say that the player wants to level up or progress, and leave it at that. That understanding of player motivation is the reason why we throw challenges at the user, it's the reason why many games lock their difficulties at the beginning of the game, it's the only reason why games like Kirbie's Epic Yarn or Animal Crossing work at all.

Even the most base, purely psychological and chemical understanding of a game, understands that the euphoria of playing a game, of achieving a goal, is not directly tied to the moment that goal is realized. In short, no one plays a game to get to the end.

Games aren't about winning

I've come to the conclusion that although avoiding Pay-to-Win games can currently be a useful heuristic for both designers and players, like Newtonian physics the formula starts to break down when you think about it too much. "Winning" and competition in general are one component of an extremely large and diverse modern philosophy on games, and there are very few designers that would ever think about games in specifically in those terms until they encounter micro-transactions. For the moment, we have avoided thinking too hard about the current heuristics because we've restricted the Free-to-Play genre to specific areas - multiplayer games, casual experiences, an MMO or two.  We're losing that luxury though.

The future of Free-to-Play is not in Call of Duty or League of Legends. We will have purely competitive games, and they will be Free-to-Play, and people will worry about how they're balanced and designers will tweak formulas endlessly. But very little will be changing there, and very few innovations will be happening. There are, quite frankly, only so many ways you can do skill trees and skins and alternate guns before everyone realizes you're just playing fancy dress up with the same exact payment model over and over again. I'm sure there will be exceptions to the rule, and I'm sure whole dozens of games will come out in those genres to prove me wrong. But I don't that's going to be the norm.

Which is fine - it doesn't need to be the norm, and there's nothing wrong with sticking with a formula that you think works.

But outside of Battlefield and Call of Duty, there are going to be swaths of games that actually do innovate on the Free-to-Play model, and they're going to look very different than what we're currently used to seeing - the MMO Animal Crossing where you can buy furniture and public-works projects, the Disney Infinity and Next-Gen Minecraft where you can purchase new building tools, the single-player Ryse and Dead Space where you purchase upgrades that will never find their way into an online match, and so on and so on.

The problem is that in all of these future games, "winning" and "losing" are extremely vague concepts. These are games that don't have beautiful, simple, black-and-white definitions of a player's motivations, and without the ability to stick every purchase into a category of "necessary" or "optional", our methods of evaluation break down.

But lets be honest: these lines have always been fairly vague. We avoided Pay-to-Win games because we wanted a strong competitive scene, and the best way to do that was to make the competitive scene fair. But the pleasure neurons firing off in your brain don't care whether you competitively crushed someone within a gameplay context or if you simply felt superior because you have the coolest hat.  If there is anything to learn from the meta-games like Team Fortress, it's that not all players value the same things in a game, or what we would deem the correct things. And some values aren't arbitrarily more or less correct just because we as designers like them more.

Of course there are differences between collecting kills and costumes - we could talk about skins being a form of asynchronous progression, or putting less pressure on the player to pursue them because they're optional. We could talk about competitive perks being less satisfying because they feel less genuine, or the dangers of creating an arms race.  There are all sorts of things we could debate.

But we don't.  We talk about whether or not you can buy guns, and whether or not rune-pages really are enough to carry a match, and whether or not difficulty is adjusted on the fly to make you need the purchase more.

Purposeful Inclusion

Back to what I was talking about earlier with transactions: a lot of this boils down to a concept I call Purposeful Inclusion. It's the idea is that everything in your game should exist because it does something.  Don’t put systems in a game unless they add something to the experience – that goes for crafting, leveling, collectables, 3D, or anything at all really.  Things ought to have a reason to exist.

When I talk about Free-to-Play I like to drop money out of the equation because it reveals to me what exactly is being offered to the consumer.  When we allow people to skip grinding for an in-game currency, or to get faster upgrades, what we're doing is shifting their experience away from one mechanic into an entirely separate but parallel mechanic - often with no indication at all to the player that we're doing so.

People are giving us money, and we're taking mechanics away from them - fundamentally changing the way they experience the game.

Again, I don't care about costs, or how much money someone is making and whether or not that's greedy, or anything along those lines.  But I want to know why any alternative to spending money existed in the first place.  Why can you grind for cards in Scrolls?  Why can you unlock new decks in Duels of the Planeswalkers by playing the game?

What do those systems do?  What is their reason for existence? And why, as a designer, would I want to allow a player to bypass that system?

When I design a system that allows you to pay money to skip or remove a section or piece of gameplay - a piece of gameplay that ought to be adding something to the experience in a unique and elegant way, even if it's something as trivial as grinding or progression through the game, I realize one of two things is happened - 

  • This game has bad, poorly designed mechanics, and I've made you give me money to remove them.
  • This game has good, valuable and well-designed mechanics, and I've made you give me money to remove them.

And this is the crux of the matter. There's no such thing as a well made Free-to-Play game where you will never want or need to give the designers money. There are Free-to-Play games that are basically freeware games, with a Free-to-Play system on the side you don't personally care about. There are Free-to-Play games that give you everything up front and never have anything of value to sell you. And just like a demo that doesn't make you want to purchase a full game - we need to recognize these systems have failed at their original purpose, not laud them for never "pressuring" a consumer into spending money.

A well designed game; a tight, elegant complete game, relies on all of its mechanics to create a cohesive experience.  And when it locks part of that experience away from you, because you love the cohesive, totality of the system, you will want that piece.  And you will pay money to unlock it.

And that is perfectly OK.

It's not evil for a company to put a paywall in front of you - it's not evil in any fundamental sense for a game to try and get you hooked on microtransactions, or to make you feel like you're renting gameplay, or anything along those lines.  The problem has never been money, or Pay-to-Win, or Pay-to-Progress; it has always been about design.

But when we focus on the wrong things, nothing ever gets fixed or progresses.

What exactly are we scared of?

I understand that one of the advantages of the Free-to-Play system is in the way it decreases the initial investment of players. And I understand how that can make a consumer or a designer feel wary about the practice. I understand that the first question that pops into someone's mind may possibly be, "what's the catch?"

If I had to guess, despite being in no intellectual position to do so, I would say that when we first started talking about Free-to-Play, we were so worried about the implications of that question that we dropped talking about a medium and spent all of our energy trying to convince players that there wasn't a catch. They could grind for points, and the things we were offering was all stuff they didn't care about anyway, and there was so much extra content that if they payed a dollar or two they'd have already invested hours and hours, and so on and so on.

And the really vocal players started to respond and issue their own demands: These are the things we don't really care about, so you can charge for them, but it would be immoral if you stopped charging casuals for what they want and started charging us for what we want, and this is the amount you're allowed to advertise your product, because hiding a purchase behind two menus has a direct influence on its moral and artistic merit, and so on and so on.

If I had to make a statement about that, despite not being in a position of authority or credibility to do so, I would say that is was understandable for us to have those reactions. But it was also stupid and hurt the entire industry.

So I want to encourage our discussions of the Free-to-Pay genre to focus less on money and more on actual game design, I want to encourage designers to stop treating the Free-to-Pay market like an island that plays by its own entirely separate rules from any other artistic medium, and I want to encourage consumers to talk less about whether or not they need to spend money, and more about what actually happens when they do.

Your thoughts?

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TC Weidner
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as you say Free 2 pay money schemes stink because it used to be

Give me money upfront, I'll will give you the most fun, complete game and experience Im capable of

Now with F2P nonsense its

The more money you give me, the more of this games nuisances and crap I built into it, I will remove for you.

and I know there are always a few exceptions and outliers, and I know both sides can be abused, but there really is only one side that really imposes itself on the game design itself.

Sam Stephens
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Of course there are always exceptions, but the problem of F2P games is that they usually allow the player to circumvent challenges. Games are totally "about winning." The challenge is what is compelling. Sure, many have found enjoyment in parts of games that are not necessarily related to gameplay (storytelling, immersion, art style, social interaction), but we are talking about game design here, not those other elements (which is why Animal Crossing is a bad example, because it has no gameplay challenges).

"Winning" and competition in general are one component of an extremely large and diverse modern philosophy on games, and there are very few designers that would ever think about games in specifically in those terms"

All games feature some level of competition, challenge, and conflict, even puzzle games. If it does not have competition, it is not a game. What if you could purchase all the 1-ups and super mushrooms you wanted in Super Mario Bros.? What if you could purchase unlimited boosting in Vanquish? These changes would certainly undermine the challenges present in the games. By saying that not all games are like that, you really are just dodging the issue which is that the F2P model has generally allowed players to undermine and smooth out all the wrinkles in the gameplay they don't like. In other words, they don't have to do any of the work.

"The problem is that in all of these future games, "winning" and "losing" are extremely vague concepts."

These concepts are not difficult to define and talk about at all if you take the time to study the design. Games have interaction that result in outcomes. Interaction requires choices to manipulate an outcome, and challenges give context to make those choices interesting (without challenge, there is no standard by which to judge the player; no context). So winning simply means overcoming a challenge (the preferable outcome) and losing means failing to do so.

Gregory Kinneman
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As an example of a feature which is valuable to the player that could have been monetized is the summoned allies in Dark Souls. On some bosses these summoned allies make the fight trivial, or at least significantly easier.

Those who worry about pay-to-win might say that this would break the game and players wouldn't feel compelled to play since other players could bypass some of the difficulty. Yet that isn't what we see in the Dark Souls community.

In actuality the community has made it clear that while both options are valid approaches, defeating a boss without those aids reflects much higher on a player's skill and gives them something to brag about. Much like roguelikes, some players set further constraints on their playthroughs (such as staying at lvl 1 or never wearing armor) of the game in order to garner more respect from their peers when they are successful.

I think you would be hard pressed to say that Dark Souls isn't challenging, and the game effectively lets the player make some (but not all) of the bosses a little easier if desired.

Sam Stephens
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You make some good points. The removal of some elements is optional in many games so here are some things to think about.

Many games (especially Nintendo games) are designed in such a way as to be accessible while maintaining room for high-level of play (such as holding down the sprint button or collecting every coin in Super Mario Bros). Other games have multiple difficulty levels. But there is a difference between this toggle of difficulty and the F2P model. The biggest difference is that the above examples require a mandatory level of skill (no matter how small) to complete specific challenges. Many, not all, but many F2P transactions allow players to circumvent challenges all together, thus making them pointless to begin with. Sure, some will ignore this, but many people will choose to circumvent challenge when they would have otherwise learned skills and overcome these challenges if there was no such option.

Though I usually do not resort to analogies, I feel this one is appropriate. Imagine if you could make school "easier" by paying to remove homework or passes that allow students to skip a day. Both school and video games require learning to reach desirable results. Some people will just play games to sit back, relax, and reflect upon the day's events. But I think it is fair to say they are not getting the most meaningful experience by doing so in the same way that the student who circumvents learning in school would not receiving the full, meaningful education.

The biggest issue here is that F2P is entirely a business model, which is fine. Games are a business after all. But F2P has nothing to do with game design. That is, the motivations behind most F2P decisions is not concerned with what is good design, but with the satisfaction of the customers (who are not designers). So naturally, people working within the F2P model are going to make business decisions that undermine or go against the design of the game. This article claims to be about game design, but I see no actual discussion of any design within. The author just seems to be trying to justify a business model; one that generally has lead to bad game design.

Daniel Shumway
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I'm not sure we disagree quite as much as you think we do. In fact, one of the larger points I was hoping to make seems to be fairly in line with what you're specifically talking about.

When I say that a game isn't about winning, I mean that the reason a person sits down to play a game isn't for the final moment - it's not for the specific "you just won" message.

- "It's not to say that you couldn't talk about a lot of current free-to-play models using those terms: The player wants to level up, so he gives me money, and in return I give him something he wants: a level. But generally, we have always had an understanding in all of our design-discussions that player motivations aren't that neat and tidy. It's not really correct to say that the player wants to level up or progress, and leave it at that."

Or in other words, it might seem simple to say that a player wants to skip grinding, and they're giving us money to do so; but whether or not the player knows it, skipping grinding or a puzzle isn't always doing them a favor - sometimes it's making their experience worse. Again, the purpose of a game is not the moment of winning, it's the experience leading up to that point. To travel well is sometimes better than to simply arrive.

If I may build upon your earlier analogy, lets imagine that I am in school, and the teacher is talking about models similar to the ones you suggested: skipping class, not turning in homework, boosting a letter grade, etc...

Now, I don't have a problem with someone making me pay for my education - even making me pay per class, or forcing me to pay extra so that I can go to bonus seminars or get extra class-resources via in-school microtransactions.

But I would have a problem if I was asked to pay money to remove my education experience - to not take a class. At that point, I would question if one of two things were happening -

a) does the teacher know why I'm in school?

b) or is the teacher signing me up for a bogus class designed only frustrate me?

But I don't think those are problems with payments - I think they're problems with design. School classes shouldn't have a mechanic to skip directly to the end; whether that mechanic be free or for money.

Often times, Pay-to-Win games are criticized, not because they're bad games, but because they're expensive. I don't think that moves us forward as developers or designers.

Sam Stephens
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"When I say that a game isn't about winning, I mean that the reason a person sits down to play a game isn't for the final moment - it's not for the specific "you just won" message."

Agreed. It's the journey, not the destination so to speak. But I think the purpose of F2P, in most examples, is to make the game experience as pleasurable to the player as possible. Having read Jesper Juul's The Art of Failure, I am fairly convinced that the most meaningful gameplay experience are not always fun or pleasurable. That is, gameplay challenges force players to experience other worthy emotions. That is not to say that simple, accessible, and straightforward games lack this. Not at all. In fact, I would say that the worst games tend to be overly complex or difficult in a way that works against the player (especially "masocore" games such as Demon's Souls). However, when we allow players to circumvent challenges, they are naturally just not going to be thinking about the systems on a deeper level, because they don't have to. They don't get to complete a journey of learning and mastery.

I don't think all F2P games are bad. I do think that most F2P games that I have enjoyed have nothing to do with the transactions at all though. Good games are born from their gameplay and I just don't see what F2P adds to the gameplay.

Justin Speer
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I appreciate a lot of the points you make here, particularly under the headings "making systems fight" and "transactions can be simple." But I also feel like you're talking around competitive games, where creating pay-to-win scenarios conflicts directly with a game's design. A game like Street Fighter or League of Legends is about winning, and it is about getting to the end of the contest and emerging the victor by virtue of your own skill.

It may be true that "The pleasure neurons firing off in your brain don't care whether you competitively crushed someone within a gameplay context or if you simply felt superior because you have the coolest hat" but there's another part that exists in the brains of many players that certainly does care about the concept of fairness and registers such victories as unearned or hollow.

If you've lost to someone in a situation where you cared about winning and feel the reason you lost had nothing to do with your skill or planning, you are unlikely to be very happy about the result. You can easily reach the conclusion that someone has paid to take something away from you: a chance at a fair fight. I don't think purposefully removed pay-to-win elements from their games without good reason and without doing some thinking on the matter, this was a business and design decision as well as a PR move and I applaud them for it.

I do think that the free-to-play conversation should be centered on good design. As for the "Free-to-Play Island" phenomenon, I think it's kind of an "Isle of Misfit Game Design" that happens to be populated by a bunch of free-to-play titles that have committed many of the design problems you've addressed. Of course it's more productive to look at each individual case.

Daniel Shumway
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I would absolutely agree with you that payment models can break competition, but I don't think that the problem is necessarily always the Pay-to-Win concept. My worry is that the discussion about how much is being asked of the player can get in the way of the actual concerns of design.

Again, I like to take money out of the equation to get a better sense of what's happening. Assuming you have a competitive game like World of Tanks, or perhaps even better, an MMOPRG or RPG. Does it make sense for me to have a button in multiplayer that just levels you up?

The cost is superficial, the issue is that as a designer I've made a (supposedly) competitive experience into an arms race based on who can click that button the most. The mechanics no longer have a sense of unity.

In practice right now, you can kind of get away with not making the distinction. I think the World of Tanks example is a really good one - the changes they've made are a huge improvement to the game. But... when talking about why they made those decisions, their justifications made me cringe a little. The problem was never forcing people to pay - it was mechanics that didn't serve the main focus of the game.

When we move the discussion away from "Pay-to-Win is bad", we open up more avenues to have deeper discussions about player psychology and to leverage the conclusions we draw, not as moral absolutes, but as tools for future experiences.

Sam Stephens
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"Again, I like to take money out of the equation to get a better sense of what's happening. Assuming you have a competitive game like World of Tanks, or perhaps even better, an MMOPRG or RPG. Does it make sense for me to have a button in multiplayer that just levels you up?"

I think that taking "money out of the equation" is definitely a must when talking about game design. But in doing so, I can't see any benefits that the F2P model offers the designer. In what ways does F2P help designers? This question is not rhetorical. I honestly want to know what you think as someone who seems to be familiar working within this model.

"Does it make sense for me to have a button in multiplayer that just levels you up?"

I would answer this question with a resounding no. However, it does not really "make sense" to have the player pay to level up either. The better solution would be to have the player earn that level-up by doing well in the game (though the concept of leveling up in any game can be problematic to begin with, but that is an entirely different topic).

Sam Stephens
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Perhaps you could provide some examples of games that prove me wrong or that you think do not create the issues I have mentioned (I'm a stickler for examples)

Daniel Shumway
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Sorry I never ended up replying to this. I'm sure someone could prove me wrong, but from a pure design perspective, I don't necessarily think adding free to play elements does add anything to a game, but there are some advantages from a psychological perspective - it does make games more accessible, for instance.

I should clarify upfront that I'm not an expert on free-to-play, so I unfortunately don't have the experience to give you a really in-depth answer or provide you with too many examples. One of the first things I try to do when evaluating a free-to-play game is to check that you actually get something for your money - ie, the make everything $0 test.

I think there are some games that do well in that area - Magic the Gathering comes to mind. You give them money, and in return you get, essentially, additional gameplay: more variety in cards, more resources to make an effective deck, and so on. It's a great system because without it you'd need to pay a fortune just to get into the game, and as it is, you can buy one or two pre-constructed decks and play casually for a very small price.

I haven't taken a look at Hearthstone, but I've heard people say good things about that as well - it seems to be primarily built around buying cards, and the grind system (as far as I've heard) is purely in place to give a small reward to people who contribute to the community by playing a lot.

What's funny, and I guess appropriate, is that those are both games many people would say are pay-to-win, and I don't necessarily think I'd disagree with them.

I think there are discussions to be had about F2P adding to an experience - in theory, it shouldn't effect design, but anytime you ask someone to spend money, it does psychologically change things. I think there are interesting ways that could be used, a competitive collective environment with actual classicism within the playerbase might be a really cool experience. Or really dumb. In order to talk about that stuff though, we'd have to get out of the mindset that "gameplay" can't be touched by money, and only stuff like outfits or accessories are actually OK to involve with micro-transactions.

That's really what I was trying to get at with the article in the first place. We criticize Pay-to-Win, but often without actually thinking about why it usually doesn't work. I think as a result we've spent a lot of time arguing about a symptom of the problem rather than the actual source.

Eric McConnell
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Great article. I wanted to know if you (or anyone else) could list examples of well designed f2p mechanics or games. I'm very interested in knowing what everyone thinks

My favourite is still Puzzle & Dragons. As it has a great balance of allowing players to pay for aid, time or a slot machine, but the game still requires a mastering of gameplay to succeed at High levels, no matter how much money you have sinked into it. The game makes spending money exciting and purchases feel like a great bonus rather than a requirement.

Sam Stephens
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I would say Punch Quest is a good F2P game, though what makes it well designed has nothing to do with what you can purchase as it does not affect the game too much (probably explains why it was not financially successful despite getting a lot of downloads from the app store).

Bob Fox
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All F2P games have problems with forcing timesinks. If you doubt this you can load up Need for speed Most wanted (2005) and compare it against Need for speed world (2009-2014+).

You'll notice Need for speed world has huge amounts of grind to unlock stuff to compensate for the lack of interesting things to do in the game. Almost all F2P games rely on level grinds/timesinks, not intrinsic fun.

Many a complaint from many league of legends players is all the stuff that's still broken in LoL not being fixed even after YEARS and them making record revenues (600 million this past year).

The just released last year Neverwinter (perfect world) you can tell it was designed to be a single player game but they gimped it for F2P. NWN takes the most wanted items hostage, in this case the 110% speed mounts while your regular mount adds a lot of wasted time between doing things. The missions are all spaced in tedius ways that waste enormous amounts of player time.

Almost every F2P game uses time sinks to hold back on content and the content they add is marginal. Today's F2P games are exactly like taking Starcraft 1 multiplayer hostage, banning user maps/mods. That's the equivalent we got to day in F2P land.

League of legends as a multiplayer F2P game's analogue if we had F2P back in the 90's would be starcraft 1 / warcraft 3 without the modding scene.

SC1 / Warcraft 3 had vibrant mod communities that far outstrip any F2P game. Not to mention the suffocation that has happened to Neverwinters quest editor for fear of exploits/competing with their own content.

F2P just adds a tonne of needless politics and forced relationships and devs have to be assholes to the playerbase because their money comes from monopolizing the game by taking the game hostage by coding chains to a dedicated back end.

Michael Eilers
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"The problem with Plants vs. Zombies 2 isnít that you can pay for upgrades that let you beat the game. Itís that designers are now being forced to make the gameís difficulty curve unpleasant enough that you want to pay money to skip it." THIS THIS THIS THIS.

The real problem here is how the "job" of the game designer is becoming twisted and co-opted by Accounting and Marketing. I am not foolish or naive enough to think that Design is some ineffable good that belongs on a pedestal, but we all know good design; good design does not involve giving the guy who paid extra for a game a clear, obvious and un-earnable advantage over someone else who did not pay for the game. That excludes players from the table; someone is going to walk away extremely unhappy, and that is just bad business.

I have no core issue with pay-to-win. If a game will allow others to win by spending more money, make this as transparent and obvious as possible; if there is an audience for the game, and they are compatible with this philosophy, they will find the game and it will succeed. I have some experience in auto racing, and there is no sport on earth that is more "pay to win" than that one! The difference is, everyone in auto racing knows and understands that you can get out-spent and beaten, and that is just a fact of the sport. Games still exist in the illusion of "fairness," divorced from reality.

The real issue, summed up also by several other comments here, is when a traditional "fair for everyone" game is distorted or forced into the F2P model; a secondary issue is when you try to get freeloaders and those paying to win to live in the same world and interact with the same quests and content. Either scenario is fraught with disaster potential.

Ryan Christensen
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Great write-up and thoughts. F2P has to be done correctly and justly, while adding to the game. Developers have to make money to make them, and players have to have fun. F2P is a better fit for most aspects of game playing and development as long as it is done correctly. Perfect examples of proper F2P design are Valve (TF2, DOTA, soon CS:GO and others), Jetpack Joyride on mobile and many others. The problem is, like with anything new there are lots of get rich quick schemes so you get overly aggressive IAP standing out. Games should also offer a way to purchase out of systems that might annoy (ads, CPA etc if they pay).

Games in their inception, the arcade, always had a pay to play. Games have to make money, players understand that for a better game. Lots of free to play gamers don't drop the $60 they would on a console title so the population of players and other revenue options start to emerge. I am starting to lean more F2P because the game has to be good. It makes for better quality and longer lasting games if done correctly. It also is more true to the origins of arcades rather than metric tons of console content and cost tons of up front money on both sides.

When you break it down. F2P is better for the developer and the player overall. It seems natural it will win out or be the prevalent force. Paid games aren't going anywhere, costs come way down though.


- The developer puts money into features gamers like and both development and player interest is engaged longer.

- The obvious barrier to entry being much lower for the player. Everyone can play your game now! That is the biggest step.

- Networks of games that are more easily connected being free

- Deeper content and progression systems to lessen player churn

- In pay to play, if you are short on time you can buy your way up (whales)


- Risky initially as revenue is tied to population and correct balance of economy/IAP/design

- Possible lower ratings as free products always get more criticism

- Overly aggressive IAP designs and F2P

F2P can extend the life of a great game, letting characters and developers live on. And we have always used quarters, tokens, money to play games even consoles that are one time rather than spread out.

Amir Barak
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Of course F2P and P2W aren't the problem... duh... It's the people that make those kind of games that are the problem. If only...

Oops, I wasn't going to comment about the crap that is F2P anymore but this article made me laugh too much.

Sam Stephens
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That's a bit rude. Why not be a bit more constructive and add to the conversation. The author has put effort into his article. The least you could do would be to put out a more thoughtful/in-depth response.

Jonathan Murphy
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Gameshark, cheat devices for $50! Solution. Beyond that. Treat your game like affordable entertainment.

Aegis Heng
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I feel the players' perception on P2W for a mainly PvP game and a PvE game can be totally different though. Most of the gamers won't make such a big fuss over P2W on a PvE game (e.g. Plants vs Zombies 2) but for a game like World of Tanks, pay to win is so huge that they start to change their stance to "Free to win" recently.

I wish to get some views from you guys on what makes a successful free to play model on a competitive PvP game.

Daniel Shumway
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Somewhat ironically for being the author of this article, I'm probably not the best person to answer your question, but I wanted to chime in and say I like the distinction you make here. I think some of the pushback over Pay2Win grew out of purely competitive games, and that in that genre, a lot of the criticisms are pretty straightforward - paying money to beat another person is unfair and turns people away.

To me at least Free-to-Play systems get a lot more interesting when they're applied to the less competitive genres you're talking about - both in single player games and in multiplayer games that aren't designed with a clear "pick a challenger, play for x minutes until someone is the winner, repeat" approach. My concern is that free-to-play is evolving, and that the average free-to-play game of the future isn't going to look like League of Legends - it's going to fall into much more amorphous and complicated genres.

When (if) that happens, classifying a game as good or bad based on either wealth requirements or purely competitive "fairness" is no longer going to be an applicable measurement, and we're going to run into some very complicated arguments, without a good, shared philosophical basis to help us figure out these newer games.

It's certainly not everyone, but there's a significant subgroup of both players and designers right now who judge whether or not a F2P game is good based purely on the question, "will I ever need or want to pay?"

I understand why people ask that, but in no other genre or payment model do we judge games based on such a trivial question.