Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
October 24, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 24, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

An Indie F2P Dilemma
by E McNeill on 08/01/12 09:27:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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


My abstract RTS game Auralux was just released as a free-to-play game on Android, and I'm already facing a monetization dilemma.

First, some background: the game is slow. Very slow. A single match might take 30 minutes, especially for players who are just learning the mechanics. This slowness is intentional; I didn't want the game to be about reaction times or Actions Per Minute. Instead, Auralux usually gets labels like "hypnotic" or "relaxing" or "cerebral", which is just what I was going for.

I developed Auralux over the course of a year and a half, and it was designed to be slow from the start. It was a labor of love, the product of many late nights in a dorm room, and the slowness is an integral part of it. However, right before release, I programmed in a bonus "Speed Mode", which jacked up the pace of the game. This turned out to be great fun for players who had thoroughly mastered the basic mechanics, and I found it was sometimes initially hard to go back to the normal mode.

When readying the game for Android, my partners (who ported the game) suggested a free-to-play model, where the player would get a few levels for free and other levels would be sold in small packs. Because Speed Mode was developed as an extra bonus and could easily be split from the rest of the game, they suggested that it would also be sold separately for a dollar. Essentially, the F2P version would work like a demo + DLC, which was totally fine with me.

Here's the problem:

Some players just don't like a slow-paced game. That's their personal preference, and they're entitled to it. The game's not made for everyone! But then they see that Speed Mode is up for sale... and then they observe that "to play faster you have to buy the speed mode, which seems like they intentionally made the original game ridiculously slow in order to profit."

There aren't too many people with this complaint, but it strikes a nerve for me. I consider this to be an accusation of black hat game design. I plead Not Guilty. That said, I totally understand why this looks so bad, and I really don't want to use this kind of monetization tactic, even if it's unintentional.

But if I were to make Speed Mode free, is that compromising the artistic integrity of the original idea? (I'm certain that many players would just skip the slow mode, even if that's what they'd actually appreciate the most.) Or did I already compromise it by offering Speed Mode at all? If I consider speed controls to ever be appropriate in Auralux (i.e. if the slow pace of the game ever becomes a straight-up burden) does that really just point to a deeper flaw in the design of the pacing?

I'm still grappling with this.

Related Jobs

Yoh — Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Build & Test Engineer
The College of New Jersey
The College of New Jersey — Ewing, New Jersey, United States

Assistant Professor - Interactive Multi Media - Tenure Track
Bohemia Interactive Simulations
Bohemia Interactive Simulations — Prague, Czech Republic

Game Designer
Next Games
Next Games — Helsinki, Finland

Senior Level Designer


Charles Geringer
profile image
No right answer.

Have you considered keeping the speed mode as a DLC, but allowing people to play to unlockck it by completing "X levels", thus allowing people to unlock the speed mode without paying, but ensuring that, they will first play the slow mode, thus keeping it faithful to your artistic vision?

when they select the "speed mode" DLC, do you have a quick description that says

something like:

"The game was made to be slow and relaxing, but some people asked for a faster version, so here it is" ?

It is quick, and shows that it IS an add-on, not originally part of the game vision.

But to answer the question of whether you are exploiting players, the answer is no. You made a game, showed a demo of the core gameplay, and allowed people to buy more of it without making it pay-to-win. But your game IS a bit different(slow-paced) and thus can be misunderstood.

E McNeill
profile image
Thanks. This is helpful. I actually did make Speed Mode an unlockable bonus in the original PC version of the game, so it would be pretty consistent to do it here, too.

EDIT: On the other hand, that doesn't really address the issue directly; one can imagine a game that has everything unlockable for free, but intentionally makes the unlocking process painful. Like most big facebook games, for instance.

Charles Geringer
profile image
But did you make the unlocking process painful, or did you make a fun game where after you get the basics, you unlock a new mode that challenges your new skills, but isn´t for everyone?

Conceivably everything you do can be found by someone to be a cash grab, after all there are complete free games with bigger scope than yours(Dwarf fortress for example).

You can´t please everyone, so do your best. There is a time you need to put a limit

"I am a game designer, it is my profession and I need to make money to live, I honestly believe that I have done a good job and that this content is worth your money".

There are people who automatically dismiss free-to-play games, because of the reasons you gave. You can´t do much more than say your opinion, respond to feedback and hope that they understand or give you the benefit of the doubt.

Take DLC for example: it can be done in a good and in a bad way.

Or even more specifically: cosmetic DLC, like extra costumes in a fighting game.

To some it is a cash grab, because it does not adds anything to the game, to others, being able to customize your characters is a big plus, and something like that not only enhances the experience, but does not affect the balance nor grants any advantage to the person who paid extra, and thus is exactly what DLC should be like.

Good Luck

Simon Ludgate
profile image
I suppose it comes down to how basic the speed up is. Does it feel more like a basic game option or more like a game-changing bonus? I wonder if a basic option speed slider would be better suited to the game than strict "slow" and "fast" modes.

Generally, basic options aren't very good to put behind the pay wall. It's like downloading a F2P game that's unplayably dark because the designer wanted to make a spooky dark game, but hey, you can buy a gamma correction slider to brighten it up a bit.

E McNeill
profile image
That's a good lens for looking at this. I'd say that it's a pretty transformational bonus; the fast mode almost feels like a different game, unless you're an expert player.

I'm certainly thinking of something like a speed slider for a sequel, but that goes along with a much more fundamental re-examination of what this game is meant to be. In retrospect, I don't think that "relaxing" and "cerebral strategy" are as close as I had thought. Chess gives you almost as long as you'd like per turn, but that doesn't make it a "relaxing" game. The current slow mode of Auralux is akin to a game of Chess where you're forced to take at least 1 minutes per turn; it's all right most of the time, but in some cases it's just a pain. Whereas Speed Mode is more like speed chess, I suppose.

Simon Ludgate
profile image
Reminds me of the age-old argument against the viability of real-time chess. Turn based isn't always bad!

I dug out my phone to try the game out but apparently it doesn't work on either my old Moto Milestone or my new Samsung Galaxy S2X :(

One other major consideration when developing for the mobile market is the frequent desire for flexible games that can be played in short durations. A 30 minute relaxing game might make a lot of sense on the PC, but 3 minutes might be a better target for a "whip out the phone while I wait in line" moment. In a time-constrained environment, any slowness may be perceived in a very negative light. I don't know if you have like a "save/pause" feature or not though, since I can't download it and see :P

E McNeill
profile image
Yeah, we're slowly rolling out wider Android support, in hopes of avoiding a crush of incompatibility issues. Tomorrow night it should be available for more phones, possibly including yours. :)

I appreciate the desire for shorter games, though this is meant more for a long bus ride or for the couch at home. We targeted tablets primarily. A lot of people mention how long the games are, but often in a good way.

Aaron Fowler
profile image
If it was a real problem, there would be a lot more of your players letting you know.

But, it looks like a large majority of your players love the game! This should be your bottom line.

I wouldn't worry about that comment.

E McNeill
profile image
It wasn't just the one comment, but I will try to keep it in perspective. :)

Anatoly Ropotov
profile image
So you've spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours throughout the year developing a free game -- you could've learned Dutch during those nights or worked night shifts earning money without facing this dilemma.

Now you are worried that a random player playing a free game might complain that he's being tricked into playing a free game that is too slow. "HOW DARE YOU TO MAKE THIS GAME SO SLOW. I DEMAND A FREE FASTER MODE. IF YOU DARE TO ASK ME FOR MONEY AFTER SPENDING A YEAR MAKING A FREE GAME, YOU ARE GUILTY. YOU MUST NOT EARN A PENNY, YOU ARE A FRAUDSTER."

There's a pace of the game that you've designed to be good enough for you, this is your artistic expression. You feel like players should experience the game at this pace. There should be no moral dilemma in releasing new paid features for players, your most loyal fan base, who want a different kind of experience.

FEAR NOT, you are free to monetize the game. Fear not, there's no black hat design in "FREE", unless it's a horse armor PDLC or you are not delivering what you are advertising.

You are also comparing content gating to Facebook games. Let's make a different comparison to relieve your moral stress. You've spent a year drawing an astonishing visual novel, investing not only time, but thousands hours of other artists. You've decided there are 2 ways to experience it: everyone gets one chapter per day for free or there's a way to buy the book and read all the chapters instantly. Furthermore, you'll be releasing a new chapter of the novel every 2 weeks as it's still WIP.
Will people call you a fraudster if you dare to ask money for letting them read it in such a way? "You've designed a novel in such a way, that I really anticipate the next chapter. I want to experience it in a quicker way, I demand Smörgåsbord novel reading for free. You are a fraudster, I demand it for free." Furthermore, you dare to release a premium art book containing all cool characters that requires players to answer a tough quiz or actually pay for it...

Hope this solves your moral dilemma. Free is free.

Anatoly Ropotov
profile image
PS Your game isn't compatible with Samsung Galaxy S3.

Bart Stewart
profile image
Some more free advice:

If Speed Mode feels to you like it's still got the soul of Auralux, just in a different form, then it's part of the base game. I'd keep that free to pull more players into the base game and find new modes to put behind the pay wall.

If Speed Mode feels like a different game -- as you said yourself -- then why not run with that, and create a version of Auralux that rings lots of changes on the faster play experience? If it's really different, that minimizes (though nothing can eliminate) the number of "they split up the whole game just to make more money!" complaints.

I don't see either of those as exploitative.

Marc Vousden
profile image
I suppose the problem is what some of the audience see as the more enjoyable experience. If they find the faster game as more enjoyable they are seeing it as the core product and the slower version as an inferior version and that you are trying to "black hat". If they see the initial slower game as enjoyable they will see the faster mode as a bonus that is fine to pay for.

In terms of artistic integrity I wouldn't say it has destroyed the initial game by exploring a different route with the game. If we never deviated from our initial plans then we wouldn't have those happy little accidents that seem to form the basis of a lot of creative endeavours. At very least, as you say, it allows you to learn something about the initial design and see if the engagement was integral to the pacing or not.

Kenneth Blaney
profile image
Is there something that is wrong with the Demo+DLC model as you described? If people enjoy the slow version because it is a solid game, you are simply offering them the opportunity to pay you for that slow version and rewarding them with a bonus add-on feature.

I haven't played it yet (to be remedied soon), but your sales pitch is sort of "RTS with less emphasis on APM"... which is great to me as I think "Starcraft" gets dominated by APM which radically throws off the "cost to build"/"effectiveness" ratio of the units.

Kenneth Blaney
profile image
Played the game. The free version feels very much like Demo+DLC. I wouldn't say you are exploiting any more so than in the strictest "Thomas Aquinas" sense of the word.

The only thing that might make me feel that speed mode was an original part of the game that was cut for DLC later is the appearance of speed mode in a few achievements. That is where I understand the complaint, but not agree with it (because there are a lot of achievements that require purchases).

Chris Hellerberg
profile image

from all the reviews I've seen (on 12 pages or so) only one mentioned this issue. So, should you take note of it? Certainly. But should it be high on your priority list? Certainly not. On the other hand, a lot (I didn't count.. but it seemed like nearly all of them) of the people that gave your game a score of 4 or less mentioned the game crashes a lot on their device. So that should be way way way way way up on your priority list of issues to tackle, in comparison. Make sure you know what your priorities are, then act accordingly.

Best of luck~