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Ranting about Free to Play (itís not what you think)
by Paul Johnson on 07/02/13 03:40:00 pm   Expert Blogs   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.

 

Here's an odd situation. I was just telling someone why Combat Monsters (Rubicon’s next game) will soon make a dent on the App Store, and he wasn’t sold on a particular new feature. I was about to type "Trust me, it's free to play so why not just give it a go and see" and… I caught myself.

I had not mentioned it was an F2P game, and letting the cat out of the bag might have started another ranting session that I didn't want to get sidetracked with.

But how on Earth did we get into a situation where "free" is seen as a bad thing for the consumer?

Free to play seems to be a very controversial topic right now and I'm girding my loins as I type this out, but I'm determined to get my own point of view down on record, so here goes. First off, let's answer that question and then I'll present a few more, with my answers, based on the various things I've seen raised on forums again and again.

Q. How on Earth did we get into a situation where "free" is seen as a bad thing for the consumer?

A. We didn't.

Almost ALL consumers are fine with it, they're just a lot quieter about it. For evidence you only need to look at the top-grossing charts or the top downloads charts. On mobile at least, both are full of F2P games with paid for games being in a minority. I won't post a chart here as it will be out of date by tomorrow, but you can click this for a current list: http://www.razorianfly.com/charts/grossing/

An angry monster writes

Q. Ever more mobile games are going F2P these days. That's just greed isn't it?

A. Yes and no. Mostly no.

Publishers (meaning the big ones as well as indie developers) fall into two camps. One camp develops games purely and only to make money. They are notable because they seem to make far too much of it for the gameplay they provide, and I’m sure you can all think of an example of this right now.

I don’t want to dwell on this camp for long though, because there’s another message I want to concentrate on. However I will urge one thing. If you think a company is behaving appallingly and abusing the free to play model, then please by all means call them on it. But don’t blame the sales model – it’s the company that’s doing it.

The other camp, the one that we and probably most other indies fall into, is that of "games first, money second". We live to develop games and we need only enough money to get by.

You'll hear that a lot from younger guys, but at my age it needs a bit of a caveat. I still live to develop games and money is second, but if I can't earn a living wage by making my own games, I'll have to go get a job working on someone else's who will pay me better. I have a family and a mortgage to worry about and "games first" seriously does not include "putting my wife out on the street."  So how about I go with “games mostly first.”

Q. So if not greed, why don't you just sell me the game for a buck?

A. Because it's worth more than a buck.

That really should be the end of this one, shouldn't it? Surely they have to be worth more than $0.99? I certainly feel so, but to be objective about it you have to look at market forces - things are worth what people will pay for them. Period.

Let’s look at these market forces in action. Several years ago, a few developers were making eye-watering sums of money from the early App Store. This led a lot of people to start up and cash in, and before we knew it, there were tons of games coming out. An inevitable price war then broke out and $0.99 became the only number in town. If iTunes had a price tier of 10 cents, then games would now have to cost 10 cents for the masses to even consider buying them.

Most customers, probably all, know that this is a ridiculous bargain if they stop and think about it, but they don't - there's no need to. The only time pricing becomes a factor is when looking at differentials. I'll bet most people have looked at a $2.99 game at some point, and said to themselves "no way, that's triple the normal price but it won't be triple as good" - totally forgetting that triple the price is still less than a large coffee. And nobody can blame them for that; it's just how our minds work.

The problem now though is that the numbers just don't add up anymore.

In those early gold rush years, a developer could make up for a ridiculously low price tag with short (i.e. poor game quality) development times and the sheer mass of available customers crying out for product. Any product!

Nowadays though, that gold rush is long over. And we all know what mining towns look like shortly after the gold runs out. What happened is that simply too many people turned up to the party. According to 148App's “App Store Metrics” page, there are just shy of a thousand apps a day being released now. Just stop and think about that, one thousand a day. And the quality bar is rising all the time - a lot of games now match the graphics of early PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 games. Those that don’t tend to match the console generation beforehand. And obviously the gameplay should be there to match the spectacle.

Put simply, those massive customer numbers are not there anymore as consumers have far more variety to spend on, and the development times have also ballooned. That’s a double whammy for us small developers.

Let us look at the numbers as they stand now. According to an article on TechCrunch, the average app income is now $19,560 and falling. Given our own earnings and matching that to our chart history, I was expecting a lower figure if I’m being frank, but I’ll go with it on faith. (We do earn more than this, but we have a couple of games still at the bottom end of the charts after great initial showings. However, almost all developers are not that fortunate - a thousand apps per day, remember.)

Anyway, remove Apple’s 30 per cent from that figure and pay the tax and you're left with about $10,000? How is any business meant to exist on that? This is an app’s lifetime earnings don’t forget, not a monthly income. In our case we’d need to pay five guys out of that, plus rent, equipment costs, business rates, insurance, etc.

So developers need to look to something else. Many will quit while they can, others will quit when they're made to. Some will prosper as there's still big money to be made from the top 100 chart, but only 100 of them at most - that's several hours’ worth of new releases. What of the rest of the year?

Enter F2P. Here's a thing, if people like one dollar games, they're going to love no dollar games! That slips us nicely past that artificial differential problem as there's no game cheaper than that. And with no initial “buy before you try” blocker, you can in theory get those massive customer numbers back again, at least for just a look see.

Hold the line!Q. I don't care about your problems; you can't expect me to keep your company running!

A. Absolutely, we have no automatic right to exist.

But we do have the right to try to, and a good way to succeed is to get paid a reasonable sum for our work. So we show it to you for free, hoping to hook you into the game so you might stick around and pay for something. We're hoping that payment will be more than a dollars’ worth too. Now that the differentials thing is out of the way, we would like to get a sane amount for the many hours of enjoyment we bring you (if you're not enjoying it, pay nothing and move on – another win for the consumer).

Q. But that's when the psychological con tricks start. 

A. Sometimes, but judge the book. 

We are trying to sell you stuff and we're not trying to pretend we won't, but that's the same with prepaid. In our game, we sell booster packs to give you more choices. You can play our game for free for a long time, but we're not trying to be dishonest and pretend we're a charity. If you get so far into it, yes we hope you will support us with a purchase.

It is true that more aggressive companies use genuine psychology and stuff to maximize their earnings; there are even books on how to do it. But again I urge you to judge the individual company on that, not the sales model. We’re making what we consider a perfectly ethical F2P game where the main “trick” is to make something you’ll want to buy!

By the way, sales tricks are not limited to F2P either. Have you ever wondered why everything is priced at something ninety nine? It’s a psychological trick to get you to think something is a dollar cheaper than it is. So there you go, every app on iTunes is using tricks on you!

And here's another oft-missed point. With a prepaid game, you have to pay upfront and hope that what you're buying is what you actually wanted and expected. And often it's not, we've all been there. But with an F2P game, you see the whole game AND the things we want you to pay for, right there in situ before paying a dime. If I tried really hard, I could probably make a case that prepaid games are abusive and F2P is the real deal.

Q. So it's all about the 'whales' and milking kids with their parents’ iTunes login?

A. No.

Whales happen everywhere. If you're a multi-millionaire, dropping a grand on a game is about as serious as we think dropping a few bucks is. Get over this one, we're not chasing millionaires and you won't ever spend a grand on our game, so that’s both boxes crossed out.

For starters, there's nowhere near enough mobile phone game playing multi-millionaires who might notice our game and like it enough. It’s simply not a viable thing to chase and trying to do so would put the game beyond us mere mortals who are the real audience.

No, what we're after is to get 10-20 bucks out of you. Put away those differentials again and just consider how much money that actually is. For hopefully many, many hours of entertainment? For a game that took ten man years to develop? I think that’s a perfectly reasonable ask, and you might too the next time you book theatre tickets.

But if you don't feel that's reasonable, we have some lower priced options to extend the game some. Or if you're really determined to not pay us anything, you can play a long way into our game for totally free, including unlimited multiplayer with matchmaking, so it’s not even pay to win. It's your choice. Choices are good, right?

Regarding the kids thing, I've seen this mentioned a few times and find it abhorrent. NOBODY is trying to do this deliberately, not even that greedy camp. I understand that Apple and Google are working to stop this and I hope they succeed for everyone’s benefit.

Q. Why is this post so long?

A. Guess I got carried away a bit.

I'm truly impressed you made it to the end, and I really hope that this has done a small amount to bring balance to the Force.


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Comments


Nathan Bouk
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> A. Sometimes, but judge the book.

There are too many books for that to be practical.

E Zachary Knight
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How do you find anything to read then? There are millions of books. One would think that people would be completely overwhelmed by the vastness of it all and reading would have died years, decades ago. But no. People have evolved and adapted ways to pick out a niche that they enjoy and read almost strictly from the niche.

The same has already happened with gaming. It just so happens that a new niche has formed in the last few years and we, as a whole, have not fully adapted to dealing with it.

Andy Lundell
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"Newsflash - We will be trying to sell you stuff and we're not trying to pretend we won't. "

I guess, fundamentally, I don't enjoy spending (real) money, or getting a sales pitch.

I understand that to enjoy a game, I have to pay for it, but in most cases I'd like to keep those two activities separate because I enjoy one of them and don't enjoy the other.


With a pre-pay game, once I've got it I can relax, secure in the knowledge that the unpleasant part is behind me and all that lies ahead of me is fun.
With a F2P game, the unpleasant part and the fun part are all mixed together.

Paul Johnson
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That's a very fair point and a year ago, with my 'consumer' hat on, I was of the same view. Nowadays though even the prepaid games are filling with iap's for the financial reasons above. At least with f2p you /start/ by paying nothing and can continue paying nothing if the base experience is good enough.

EDIT: The post I'm actually replying to has been deleted. This is not aimed at Andy.

Michael Herring
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@Paul Johnson

I can turn your quote right around and still be right: "At least with paid you /start/ with content, and can decide to pay nothing extra if the base experience is not good enough."

E Zachary Knight
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Michael,

But in order to state with paid content, you have to pay first. That puts a wall between someone and playing your game. F2P removes that initial wall.

Nathan Bouk
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So, you pulled down the initial wall, but replaced with an endless, fun-drowning, hassle. If you choose to pay, hassle, and if you don't choose to pay, hassle. Nothing makes that "Buy more gems" icon go away.


The only sane system that balanced both is free to download, but then at some point, 10-20% in, it asks for payment, and then it never asks again.

Phil Maxey
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And what if you start playing the game you just paid up front for and find out it's utter garbage, then what? will you still relax knowing you just wasted your money?

Lance Thornblad
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@ Phil - That's what demos are for. That's only one hurdle instead of countless small ones.

Besides, we take the same risk for anything we purchase. I might feel gypped after I've paid to see a bad movie, but I learn not to trust that director/writer or, in the case of a game, that developer.

Phil Maxey
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@Lance

A Demo is not the game, I want to experience the actual game, the thing which I would otherwise have to pre-pay for. I don't want a 30 second sample of what to "expect".

Films/Novels etc are not interactive entertainment, they are 2 entirely different things, despite numerous crossovers.

Lance Thornblad
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@Phil - A demo is whatever the developer wants it to be. But if you're okay with getting harassed every half hour to buy something - suit yourself. I agree with Andy. ;)

Incidentally, I didn't say movies and games are the same thing, but thanks for changing the context. Why is it that interactive content entitles anyone to a free ride any more than a movie?

TC Weidner
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Andy.. your post nails it exactly. I couldnt agree with you more.

the other part of this I dont like is that as a game designer you also have to then spend considerable time thinking about and designing in "toll booths" in your game, and to be honest who the hell wants to do that.

To be honest if these styles of games just didnt use the word "free" I wouldnt be so offended.

Steve Venezia
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"With a pre-pay game, once I've got it I can relax, secure in the knowledge that the unpleasant part is behind me and all that lies ahead of me is fun."

Sadly this isn't always the case, not for me anyway. I've bought many games this year at full price and been very disappointed with them. I'm only "secure in the knowledge that the unpleasant part is behind me" after I've spent about an hour with the game and I know my money was actually spent on a good product. This simply doesn't happen with F2P games; if they're rubbish I can walk away having only lost some free time.

Phil Maxey
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@Lance

Demo's have historically been examples of what's on offer in the full price game (you play for 3 mins, you play until you lose your first life etc etc). If the demo is actually the game than that's not a demo, that's F2P.

Who said anything about being harassed every 30 mins? nobody wants/likes that. There are good and bad examples of F2P, just as there are good and bad examples of pre-pay.

"Why is it that interactive content entitles anyone to a free ride any more than a movie?"

Not sure what your point is there. Interactive entertainment shouldn't/doesn't entitle anyone to a "free-ride", the whole point of F2P is that people can pay if they wish once they know whether or not they are actually enjoying the game or not. The difference between games and films is that the content changes (i'e the experience is constructed somewhat) by the participation of the player, and evolves for or with the player, hence why it makes more sense (and is inherently fairer) for players to be charged as they are playing or if they are enjoying what they are playing. But like I say there are good and bad ways to implement that.

Lance Thornblad
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"Demos (fify) have historically been examples of what's on offer in the full price game..."

Yes, and that often meant the first level of the real game. Doom and Quake are good examples of demos that were actually just parts of the game. However, I will concede that is no longer the expectation - but I think it should be and it's really up to the developer.

"Who said anything about being harassed..."

The OP did - I added the 30 minutes part - but that was his point and you were arguing that the "one time up front" fee was just as bad or worse. I don't agree, but I suppose it is just a matter of preference.

IMO, the Doom/Quake model is ideal. You pay nothing to play the first part of a game (more than 3 minutes, less than an hour). If it hooks you, you pay a one time fee and the game is yours. If you still feel gypped, stop buying games from that developer.

Of course, later chapters/sequels may be released and you pay extra for those, but they are fewer and farther between than the "play for 30 seconds, then watch an advertisement" model that is currently the standard for a lot of mobile games. Interrupting my play experience with advertisements qualifies as a form of harassment (and can happen far more frequently than 30 minutes).

Lucifer Morningstar
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With a pre-pay, I also know that I paid for it, clean conscience, not feeling I have to pay again unless I want the larger screen version. With F2P I always worry that I have to pay over and over and over and over again. And over. And again. And all over again.

Personally, I don't even consider F2P games anymore. I want to pay up front, or not pay at all. F2P will eventually lead to more pirating: When customers are tired of beeing screwed, they tend to screw back.

Robert Green
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There's a few things here I find slightly disingenuous.

Firstly, the argument from populism used as a defence of F2P. All we know for sure is that almost all customers prefer to pay $0 instead of $1, which generally goes without saying. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that most of the people fuelling this market don't really appreciate the trade-off's involved here.

Secondly, this line:
"Now that the differentials thing is out of the way, we would like to get a sane amount for the many hours of enjoyment we bring you"
Again, this is fine in sentiment, but here's the problem - you're not necessarily selling 'hours of enjoyment', you're giving it away and charging for other things that may or may not enhance that. And that's where the problems start to come in. Even if you're not doing any of those psychological tricks, users are still having to stop playing the game long enough to consider what a specific, in-game item is worth to them in the context of your game and how much extra enjoyment it might bring. To a customer trying to maximise their 'enjoyment per dollar', and remember that's how we ended up at free to begin with, the ideal scenario always involves spending nothing.

Lastly, and I've seen this a few times recently, there's the assertion that the prepaid market means "you have to pay upfront and hope that what you're buying is what you actually wanted and expected".
That makes it sound almost like a lottery. In practice though, as pointed out by PAR in the link below, the console retail market actually trended very heavily towards highly rated games. Now you can argue an over-reliance on metacritic in the games industry, but I'd greatly prefer that to the great disconnect in the F2P market between reviews and profitability.

http://penny-arcade.com/report/article/the-power-of-review-scores
-why-critics-have-more-control-than-we-think1

Paul Johnson
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" users are still having to stop playing the game long enough to consider what a specific, in-game item is worth to them in the context of your game and how much extra enjoyment it might bring"

But a lot of people lke doing that. I've pumped a lot of money into magic online over the years for example, and the high point for me is buying a stack of boosters, opening them and then trying to figure out how I can enhance my decks with the stuff I just got. And if you look at their sales, I'm hardly the only one. Nor am I being led, I /want/ to do this.

I will concede that it depends on the game. If you have an F2P twitch shooter that stops mid level to ask you to pay for a power up, I'd just move on. Monetisation definitely has to fit in with the game, but there shouldn't (imo) be an auto-assumption that it won't. F2P can be done badly as can prepay.

"..That makes it sound almost like a lottery. In practice though, as pointed out by PAR..."

We're not on console though, I'm commenting on mobile where games are so cheap people just buy them on impulse based on an icon and a screenshot. If you look at the lifetime membership of Touch Arcade for example, it's a teeny percentage of the total market that go there for reviews.

(On a personal note, I'm quite happy to be judged via metacritic etc - we only just slipped under 90+ thanks to one notably underwhelming review - it's mostly 90's and 100's. One of our prepaid games has a couple of GOTY's and it /still/ doesn't earn enough to pay the developers comfortably by itself. And that's where my post's spiritual home is. Sorry that sounds a bit arrogant, but I state it just to qualify my opinions.)

http://www.rubicondev.com/gbwg/reviews.php

Robert Green
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"But a lot of people lke doing that."

Well.... in some cases I can believe that, but in the large majority I don't. If you don't believe me, go look at the names of the IAP's in the games at the top of the grossing charts. In almost every case, they're selling consumables. Compare that to magic the gathering, which is selling things that you collect - i.e. they are not gone five minutes later. These games are not collection hobbies, they're pure money sinks.
As you say, there shouldn't be an auto-assumption that F2P is bad, but similarly, is it wrong to judge F2P as a concept by the games making the most money doing it? I'm sure I've said this in other threads, but until someone can show me a market that rewards F2P done well, and in a sustainable way, then I'll keep being worried about it.

"We're not on console though, I'm commenting on mobile where games are so cheap people just buy them on impulse based on an icon and a screenshot."

Absolutely, and if your whole editorial essentially boils down to "we're trying to do the best with the situation we're in", then I certainly won't hold that against you, and if I did then you could easily hold a mirror up to me. My point here was simply that when people talk about F2P potentially being the future for all games, they're implicitly talking about leaving behind this retail model that rewarded quality in a way that few other entertainments mediums can claim to.
Your point about the price of these games though is undeniable. When Apple introduced the Top Grossing chart, it was done as an acknowledgement that developers were having trouble charging more than $1, which they increasingly needed to do as the devices got more powerful and expectations increased.
In the absence of IAP's, a scenario that might have happened is that top-tier developers like yourself might have all started charging more. Perhaps in this scenario, the sight of an app for $1 might have been seen as a marker of low-quality, in the same way that most people would ignore a bin of $1 CD's at a music store (if those still exist) on the assumption that nothing in there is any good. Should that trend continue, games may have reached the price point where it's worth taking a moment to check reviews or seek others opinions first.
All that is wildly optimistic speculation of course, but it's at least a hypothetical alternate reality to the one where every game is a store in itself and many genres no longer work.

Josh Bycer
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"In almost every case, they're selling consumables. Compare that to magic the gathering, which is selling things that you collect - i.e. they are not gone five minutes later. These games are not collection hobbies, they're pure money sinks.
"
This in my opinion is one of the determining points of what makes a good F2P. If you spend $100 on champions and costumes in League of Legends, those purchases remain tied to your account for as long as you are playing and can be used long after your purchase.

But if someone spends $100 on consumables in a game like Farmville, those items have no long term value and once you go through them, you'll have nothing to show for your purchase.

The only consumable F2p game I tried was Indiana Jones Adventure World and after about 30 minutes of play and the constant bugging and requirement of consumables, I gave up playing and never looked back.

Rindel Ryan Ibanez
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Love this article. Some people don't realize that most gamers like this kind of set up. They are only limited to the amount of money they are willing to spend. You're not tricking them into buying, they want to spend because your game is popular and lots of people are playing it and they want to be on top of everyone playing your game. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's evil for some people that don't want these kind of f2p games, but they are not the target market.

Ricky Bankemper
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Not being the target of the market is fine. However when you become targeted less and less is when things grow tiresome in the F2P world.

As a player, my time and effort loses equity and meaning in the world when someone else can earn the same with money. It seems to be a more popular outcome then I would have thought to see. Thus developers flock to this marketing strategy, because why shouldn't they? For gamer's honor? they couldn't give a damn and shouldn't.

It is to the point where there are scarce few games that don't have this type of option. Dota 2 is still the only game that has Free to play truly correct, but this article focuses on the mobile market. The future will never be a purely f2p model. I would like to thing there enough gamers out there, like myself, who enjoys the games they play enough to put time into them. I am willing to support a developer for their product, but through purchasesing progress/gameplay.

Rindel Ryan Ibanez
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@Ricky

That's my point, you're not really the target, then don't succumb to its f2p model. Just like what the author said, if you aren't happy with the game, you can just stop playing without having to pay anything. There are still a lot of games out there that aren't f2p and are good. People just have to stop picking on f2p games just because they don't like it.

I play f2p games, I spend a lot (sometimes) on some of them. Most f2p, I don't like because it's either too expensive or they're not good enough to take my money. But I also play one time payment games. I like both kind of games and if a developer makes something that I really like, then I'll throw them my money. If not, I'll find other games to play. There's nothing wrong with that, we've got thousands of options doesn't mean everything should be "fair" for us. It's on us to find the ones we'd like to spend and waste time on.

Katy Smith
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Oh man, and here I am in the middle of writing an article called "F2P is not evil". Thanks for taking a balanced view on monetization of F2P apps. It's a pleasant change from the pearl-clutching, "think about the kids!" articles I usually see here on the topic.

Josh Neff
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Its true! F2P is NOT evil...it's all in how it is used. Therein lies the problem... it has largely been used in abusive ways. There is also the ever present issue of value of development to cost of developed product ratio that gamers are hyper sensitive to. Add to that the already tarnished history of F2P and it becomes an uphill battle to change perceptions.

Aaron San Filippo
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Had to stop reading here, simply due to the pure ridiculousness of this statement:

"Almost ALL consumers are fine with it. For evidence you only need to look at the top-grossing charts or the top downloads charts."

The fact that <5% of consumers are spending massive sums of money is not evidence that almost all consumers are "fine" with F2P. You don't have to look very far to realize this isn't the case.

Jordan Georgiev
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The fact that <5% of the consumers are spending massive sums of money is not evidence that almost all consumers are NOT "fine" with F2P either.

On the other hand the fact that most of the top downloaded games are F2P is quite indicative of how the consumers feel on the subject, the case with most of the top grossing games being F2P supports this.

Paul Johnson
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That's why I also included the suggestion to look at the raw downloads charts. That's purely about the number of different people, not what they spend.

I do wonder how long is it going to be before the neighsayers realise that every single chart, that doesn't exclude free games, disagrees with their opinion.

Aaron San Filippo
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"They're spending more money on this, so they MUST like it more!"
"People download free games more, so they MUST like them more!"

flawless logic there...

Paul Johnson
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"They're spending more money on this, so they MUST like it more!"
"People download free games more, so they MUST like them more!"
flawless logic there...

I know sarcasm when I see it, so I'm just dying to hear the alternative real explanation. Please go ahead.

Aaron San Filippo
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Paul: My point is, you can't simply use top-grossing charts to determine what players like and don't like. of course free games are downloaded more than paid ones - who doesn't like the idea of free stuff? It doesn't mean that consumers actually enjoy these games more.

Likewise, the fact that economist-minded game designers and businesses have managed to figure out how to pull more money out of consumers with a F2P model - doesn't mean that players in general like these games more, or that there aren't large numbers of players who despise the model because they feel manipulated every time they try one.

It sounds like you guys are doing your best to be ethical and fair with it - for that I give you kudos. But let's not pretend that everyone's fine with F2P, or that there aren't tons of examples of manipulative, greedy F2P games out there. Glossing over the problems doesn't make them go away.

Bruno Patatas
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Fact: F2P dominates top-grossing and top download charts: http://www.appannie.com/top/

Can people stop treating F2P gamers as if they had some sort of mental disorder that prevents them to "buy good games"?
Gamers worldwide embraced F2P. Games like Puzzles & Dragons generate more revenue IN ONE MONTH than a lot of console games generate on their whole life-cycle.

"doesn't mean that players in general like these games more"
No, they are spending tons of money on those games because they hate them...

You may like or not like the F2P model, but saying it is not the favourite model of mobile gamers almost raises the discussion to trolling levels...

Steve Venezia
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If the consumers playing these chart-topping games were not happy then the games would not be chart-topping.

Andrew Traviss
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I've personally downloaded a ton of free games that I absolutely hated. All the download chart proves is that people will download something if it doesn't cost them anything to do so. It demonstrates nothing about their likes and dislikes.

Aaron San Filippo
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I never said free wasn't a consumer preference on mobile - but that's not the claim Paul made, or the one I took issue with.

Again - you guys are using pure download numbers (which will ALWAYS be higher for free products) and revenue to try and prove that MOST consumers are "fine with F2P." The fact is - MOST consumers never spend a cent on F2P, and MOST F2P games are rated lower than their paid counterparts. The entire model is targeted at a very small number of users spending large sums of money - by design, it doesn't give a crap about what the majority of players actually think.

Steve Venezia
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Andrew, I have also played many chart-topping games and despised them. But apparently hundreds of thousands of people think differently, because the games are at the top of the charts.

We're not talking about good games or bad games, we're talking about games that the masses like. And unfortunately the masses generally prefer 'simpler' products, to put it nicely.

Steve Venezia
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"MOST consumers never spend a cent on F2P"

This does not mean they disliked the game, it means there are a lot of people playing the game who don't spend money on it. But these are the kinds of people who won't spend much money on anything (like children, who generally can't).

"The entire model is targeted at a very small number of users spending large sums of money - by design, it doesn't give a crap about what the majority of players actually think."

This is mathematically incorrect. Statistics (and yourself) have shown that about 5% of players will spend money on an F2P game. So to increase your earnings you must make that 5% of a bigger pie (get more players). And to do that you have to make a great game that many people will enjoy.

Aaron San Filippo
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Look, guys. I'm not saying F2P is evil, I'm not saying there aren't great examples of it. But let's stop pretending that everything's just hunky-dory, and try to use download and revenue numbers to show it. Revenue is a data point, it's not an end-all-be-all way to prove what consumers like.

Yes, there are great, fair, ethical F2P games out there that people love.
Yes, there are fun F2P games out there that people despise, but play anyway
Yes, there are F2P games that are manipulative and greedy, but that make tons of money because 1% of addicted players spend thousands on them.

Bob Charone
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People remember that TOP GROSSING means top money-making, not top-downloaded!

Rindel Ryan Ibanez
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I really don't understand why some people get pissed with f2p games that offer players advantage over other players if they are willing to throw them money. Most people like doing that, you know? People with money but don't have time. Or simply rich people who want to be on top. Or people playing with friends and want their friends to be as strong as they are so they spend money for them.

What's wrong with that? You can still play without spending a dime! A lot of my friends play Candy Crush and are on level 300+ something and they have never even spent anything on the game. It's your choice if you want to spend.

Most consumers are fine with f2p because they can play the game for free until they don't want to play anymore and it's time to find another game.

Alexander Symington
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Aaron's argument is entirely correct. If you maintain a 5% conversion rate as the number of users grows, the absolute number of people who 'like the game' is only increasing because you have a larger sample size. Proportionally, the number of people who 'like it' hasn't changed, which is the relevant metric here because people who haven't played it can't have a meaningful opinion either way. The above still assumes that conversion coincides with enjoyment, which is also very questionable because, for example, some users might like a game *because* monetisation doesn't significantly impact the experience, causing them to avoid converting.

Then again, while raw download rates are probably most significantly a function of upfront cost, marketing spend, virality and file size, rather than whether or not somebody likes a game she hasn't even played yet, paid app charts have a similarly high level of indirection. Shareware seems to me to be the existing business model that probably best aligns developer income with player enjoyment, though it is hobbled in the marketplace by a lack of support for differential pricing. Hopefully we'll see business models in future with closer relationships between enjoyment and payment, e.g. perhaps a PSN+ user could be allowed to vote on how his subscription fee is distributed between the games made available on the service each month.

Rindel Ryan Ibanez: Why do people think Pay-2-Win is bad? On a gameplay level, it's simply uninteresting and unbalanced, making the game shallower by giving some players arbitrary advantages. On an ethical level it's bad because it's an example of corruption, albeit thankfully within a domain where the damage is limited (yet not entirely imaginary).

Rindel Ryan Ibanez
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@Alexander

I understand that, but most people want that. They enjoy being able to spend as much as they want to gain advantage over other players. Or maybe just so they are stronger than the friends they are playing with. And also, those who choose not to pay can still enjoy the game with their friends or with other people who don't pay. If you don't want to play, then you can find other games to try, there are like thousands of games out there.

Alexander Symington
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Looking at outcomes selected in situations where people have equal representation and care about the result, such as elections, leads me to believe that most people *don't* want a corrupt environment most of the time. What typical metrics of games with P2W seem to indicate is that actually only a very small number of people are willing to participate in the types of antes you describe, but they become so involved that they are willing to spend very large sums of money competing in them. Still, a much larger group of people with mostly very low investment in the game are somewhat tolerent of this situation, at least to the extent that they are aware of it.

P2W coupled with F2P is commercially effective because the small number of ante players can have almost unlimited spending potential, and a low barrier to entry makes it possible to access large absolute numbers of these proprotionately rare high spenders. This system is very effective in certain marketplaces, but the relationship it has to 'what most people want' may be extremely loose.

Michael Herring
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"Q. How on Earth did we get into a situation where "free" is seen as a bad thing for the consumer? A: We didn't."

Yes, you're right, we didn't. We got into the situation where "free" is bad both for games as a business, and game design as an art form.

Josh Neff
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Spot on

Paul Johnson
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I refer you back to the charts thing again. It's certainly not bad for games as a business, whether our own offering succeeds or fails. Giving games away for a buck or two is bad for business and I thought I'd made that case reasonably well tbh., both from the devs point of view and the customers.

As for games as an artform? I've never bought into that mindset. Whether F2P or not, I'm trying to make something you enjoy playing. If the sheer joy of ownership, or knowledge it exists, is all you rely on (what art is usually about), then we've failed already.


Craig Bamford
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Cripes.

The people spending a grand on IAP are no more millionaires than people buying $60 games. The people spending a grand on IAP are people who many well be spending *money they can't actually afford to spend*.

That's the whole point. That's the whole critique. It's someone falling prey to psychological manipulation techniques because they were never taught how to watch out for those techniques and avoid them. It's someone else *becoming* a millionaire based on that information gap. And to say nobody's exploiting this sort of thing deliberately, including with kids, so IMMENSELY begs the question that it can be seen from space.

I appreciate that this sort of thing may be putting food on your table, Paul, but come on. There ARE ways to make money that are downright unethical. You know there are. If your sector's engaged in that sort of thing, your dependence on it doesn't change that.

Paul Johnson
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Did you actually read the article?

"There ARE ways to make money that are downright unethical. You know there are"
Indeed. I distinctly remember pointing this out myself. :)

Josh Neff
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@ Paul Johnson ""There ARE ways to make money that are downright unethical. You know there are"
Indeed. I distinctly remember pointing this out myself. :)"

Except you keep trying to ignore that F2P has been used as one of those unethical ways. Unfortunately, you must now you must contend with that.

Emmanuel Henne
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All I read is: Rubicon doesnt make enough money with their hit games :)

Steve Venezia
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Alarm bells should be ringing when a chart-topping game doesn't make enough money to support its developers.

Paul Johnson
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Thanks Steve. I wanted to say exactly that, but me doing it would make me look like an arse.

Ricardo Carretero
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I have been lucky enough to make two Top 50 App Store games. None of them economically succesfull. I do F2P games now on a healthy company. Here is the data:

MOST of our revenues comes from players spending LESS than 4 bucks.

Kim Pallister
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Sure, F2P dominates the top grossing charts. However, that doesn't speak to whether other models can still work, nor whether the top grossing are also top in terms of profitability.

Anytime someone points to any single business model as The One Way, its a good hint they are wrong. There is room for lots of business models and different approaches.

Also, one should question whether part of the slant toward F2P is driven by the structure of things like the app store and whether that could be changed to tilt things differently (for example, this vestige of Free vs Paid apps being different downloads/binaries, that's just silly and should be fixed).

Jordan Georgiev
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Good article. The word free tends to have twisted meaning nowadays, yet I fail to see any sensible reason why.

People are amazing beings - no one sees anything wrong with TV commercials filled with subliminal context and marketing tricks. Switch the medium to games and suddenly - everyone is forcibly spending more money they could possibly afford.

Even within the industry itself - not a day passes by without someone paying 60 bucks for a crappy title with an awesome trailer. Yet there are people that find giving the whole thing for *Free* more misleading and unethical.

The same hocus is used everywhere - from commercials to banners to all your freaking clothes with little stamps that advertise some company. This applies to 1 dollar games, to 60 dollar games and to free games.

Giving the game for free is awesome - you get to play and evaluate the real thing, you get to pay only if you want to and only the amount you want to. To top that off you can actually split the payments across several months, while getting the full enjoyment. The same thing that you did with your car, except you didn't have to pay an additional 10% to your bank.

Alan Boody
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And, when you see a Reese's commercial you don't see them saying free-to-eat. Then, when you get the wrapper there's just a small piece of chocolate and a button that is linked directly to your bank account that says - to buy a reese's cup you must pay $5. To have it filled with peanut butter you must pay an additional $5.

All while cute cartoon characters dance around with sparkles.

Daniel Cook
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You know who is the absolute worst? Those elderly ladies giving free samples in the grocery store. Every single time they offer me free olive spread on those new sesame crackers, I buy like a $1000 worth.

Nathan Bouk
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Not no one. Tons of people see things wrong with tricky advertising. Its probably the same crowd of people who don't like it when games pull the same bullshit. Just because it apparently isn't enough to make a change doesn't actually make it OK.

Daniel Cook
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There exists a very valid critique of our capitalist society. We buy too much stuff that we don't need and large segments of society actively seek to encourage our bad purchasing habits.

I'd recommend everyone read Caldini's Influence (http://www.amazon.com/Influence-Psychology-Persuasion-Business-Es
sentials/dp/006124189X) if you want a broad overview of the techniques at play. F2P games won't be the first to use these nor will they be the last.

What ends up being hypocritical is when a specific market is called out as particularly vile when almost all businesses use identical sales techniques. When you are okay with one evil and not okay with another nearly identical evil perhaps there is something else at play? The thing people are complaining about with great emotional intensity is almost never the root cause.

When I have one on one conversations with the most avid anti-f2p people, much of the angst is emotionally driven. People fear the world is changing. They fear the games of their childhood are passing from this age. They fear new language, new processes, new cultures and the uncertainty it all brings. The Other is a threat to their way of life.

So they fight back. With rhetoric, cherry picked examples, and polarized commentary. Sadly, no one can back down because doing so would be giving up a part of their identity. They are warriors for a cause and are defending their culture.

F2P, social and to a degree mobile games are the 1800's Irish immigrants wandering into our happy community of non-Irish. It helps to see the moralistic rhetoric in a similar light.

Is there an alternative to negative polarized rhetoric? Wouldn't it be cool to have a conversation about making more positive games sold using less abusive sale tactics in general. What good does your personal project bring to the world and how might players love that? That is a concept that stretches across business models.

Lots of love,
Danc.

Alan Boody
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My fear with f2p is the cheapening of games.

Josh Neff
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@ Alan Boody "My fear with f2p is the cheapening of games."

I share this fear.

Jeff McPhate
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There are two major quirks of the human brain being exploited by f2p. The price war that pushed prices to .99 creates an anchor that biases people to compare everything to that number. This is mentioned in the post. The second is that "free" leverages people's loss aversion and future cost discounting. If its "free", then there's no regret to choosing the "free" option. The problem comes about because TANSTAAFL - there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody has to pay the game developer. Then, as David Paris said above, you get into obscured pricing structure. It stinks. It wasn't free at all, and now it uses all the quirks of the human brain to winkle money out of the player by hooking into the standard box of irrational behaviours we all have. But as long as we're dealing with people, f2p remains a viable monetization strategy. Look at casinos. They aren't going anywhere.

Paul Johnson
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As I said above, that's down to the developer. In our game, and many others, you see exactly what you're going to be asked to pay and exactly what you're gonna get for it. SOME games obscure this - see my "greedy camp" disclaimers. But again, that's not the models fault.

"Look at casinos. They aren't going anywhere."

Exactly. Because a lot people love spending money. Sorry, buy they just do. Surely you don't think all the vegas punters are expecting to win and feel cheated when they don't? Of course not. They're their for the thrill of the chase and expect to pay money to get entertainment. I think what you might be referring to is gambling addicts, but that's a whole other thing.

Nathan Bouk
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How thinks being associated with casinos is a good thing?

Paul Johnson
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Well, I like casinos. I don't go to them often because I don't have that much spare money.

But in my younger days I would often round off a night on the tiles with an hour in the club - they gave free sandwiches and I could get an hours entertainment (and free sandwiches) for 10 or 20 quid. I enjoyed every minute of it.

You see, we don't all need our mind's controlled or to be looked after by someone who thinks we should behave the same as them or be committed to an asylum.

Nathan Bouk
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And it never bothered you that while you were responsible at the casino, the casino's main support was from the others who were coming in and being irresponsible? That your good time was essentially being subsidized by the irresponsible?

Paul Johnson
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No. Anyone over 18 gets to make their own mind up in my corrupt world.

Where do you get that assertion from btw, got any numbers? Everyone I remember seemed to be dressed up for a fun night out.

Kujel s
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My problem with f2P is the model is extremely susceptible to corruption. It's way to easy to make a game that uses psychological tricks to get you to pay rather then making great gameplay that gamers want to pay for. There are a handful of f2p games that have held off the influences of corrpution but they are very far and very few between. More often then not they end up being really bad games filled with snake oil salesmen wraped in graphics.

I wont support this model as a game nor as a developer for these reasons. If your conscience is fine with this that's your business but don't try and convince the rest of us to drink the kool-aid.

Steve Venezia
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I agree with your first point completely - there are many terrible games that abuse this system. I see my friends playing them and it makes me crazy: "You used to play proper games!" I yell at them, but they don't care. They're hooked.

What Paul is trying to say, and I'll quote him here, is "donít blame the sales model Ė itís the company thatís doing it." The sales model is great; if used right, everyone wins. People that don't like the game don't pay a penny, whilst people that love it can pay what they want.

When it's done wrong, and this is where I agree with you, our industry gets contaminated with rubbish products that get people addicted to them. So I think your ire is more wisely directed at the companies that do this, rather than the F2P model itself.

Kujel s
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@Steve I'd direct it more at the developers who abuse it if it was a smaller percentage of them doing that kind of BS but sadly most go the corrupt route and degrade our medium :(

Bruno Patatas
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Gamasutra comments section does never changes... Jesus!
F2P is here, and it will not go away. It's a business model that will co-exist with other business models. For years that people have been saying that F2P is not a viable model and will decline. Guess what? It didn't and it's stronger than ever. Take a look at Clash of Clans, Puzzles & Dragons, etc...

Daniel Cook did this "analysis" of boxed games in the style of "free to play games are evil" panic editorials. I think it's appropriate for this discussion:

https://plus.google.com/u/0/105363132599081141035/posts/Cyi2Am8gqGq

Bottom line: every business model is susceptible to corruption. Saying that " F2P uses psychological tricks to get you to pay rather then making great gameplay" is just (pardon me) stupid. If there is anything that is lacking from a vast majority of AAA titles is great gameplay. They serve us the same boring mechanics over and over with only an asset swap. Is that what automatically makes great games?

Paul Johnson
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Amen Bruno. I'd not seen that article, but it was exactly what I was alluding to when I said I could make the case - though probably not with such finesse. Excellent! :)

Bruno Patatas
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Yea, I loved that article so much! :)

Btw, nice article you wrote too. Very good points. Good read.

Aaron San Filippo
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So you guys are saying that this stuff doesn't actually happen?
http://gamasutra.com/blogs/RaminShokrizade/20130626/194933/The_To
p_F2P_Monetization_Tricks.php

Or are you just saying that anyone who has a problem with it is wrong?

Bruno Patatas
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It happens, like it happens me spending 60 pounds on Aliens Colonial Marines to then discover I have been lied by the publisher and developer by their promo materials, and I got a product way inferior to what I was expecting and that PAID 60 pounds upfront.

And your question is?

Aaron San Filippo
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My question came just before your straw-man.

Bruno Patatas
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Ah, the straw-man argument. Well, I never argue about facts, and the fact is that F2P dominates mobile gaming. If you like it or not is up to you, but the facts are facts.

Robert Green
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Bruno - "F2P is here, and it will not go away. It's a business model that will co-exist with other business models."

No, it won't, and that's part of the problem. I think it was supposed to be a key point in Paul's editorial, that making a paid game in the iTunes store, even a very good one, just doesn't seem to be a viable model any more. If things were as simple as "let's use F2P where it makes sense and other models when it doesn't", then we probably wouldn't be having this debate any more.

Bruno Patatas
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@Robert Personally I believe F2P can co-exist with other business models. There are example of paid games that found success. Just take a look at the high price of the new X-Com and how it is storming the charts.
In my opinion, F2P is the perfect model for mobile, and the consumers have already made that choice. F2P is the model that makes sense in an industry that is making the shift from games as a product to games as a service.

Paul Johnson
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>> "So you guys are saying that this stuff doesn't actually happen?"

Please stop trolling and cherry picking. I ACTUALLY STATED IT HAPPENS IN MY PIECE. It's just that you no longer want to discuss that, but instead make a soapbox of your own. Which is also fine, go do that.

Paul Johnson
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@Robert: " I think it was supposed to be a key point in Paul's editorial, that making a paid game in the iTunes store, even a very good one, just doesn't seem to be a viable model any more"

Thats a perfect precis. That cheap games still come out is largely down to new devs trying for the first time, not noticing how things have changed, plus the big guys with the marketing stones to get the customers needed.

One thing I didn't mention in the article is that F2P is not guaranteed either. It seems worth a shot right now, but if that also fails then I really do see us going back to fart apps by 2015

Robert Green
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"Just take a look at the high price of the new X-Com and how it is storming the charts."

I did. And what I saw is a very high quality port of a game many considered to be the game of the year on PC/consoles last year slipping out of the US top-100 grossing charts after just 2 weeks. Storming the charts indeed.
Compare this to titles like Slotomania and The Simpsons: Tapped Out, which have basically been in the top-25 grossing since launch despite poor reviews. In other words, these things are barely even in the same league, and with examples like XCOM we're talking about the highest quality paid games, which likely wouldn't even exist had it not been made for other platforms first.
Perhaps you'd like to find a better example?

Paul Johnson
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@Robert, you are kinda backing up my position with that somewhat. People are indeed voting with their wallets, and they're voting for F2P where they can be more informed and selective about what they spend.

I'm a lifetime lover of XCOM btw. Even despite the fact that their PC game beat us to the BAFTA academy award that great big war game was nominated for. That's the game that's "failing" btw. I wonder how the bafta nominees in the film industry are doing right now. They sure ain't working for a dollar.

Robert Green
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People certainly are voting with their wallets, though 98-99% of them would be more accurately said to be voting not to use their wallets at all. So unless your game has advertising (the most lucrative of which seems to come from those same companies that give F2P its bad reputation), they're not even customers. In an ideal world, the 1-2% who are actually willing to pay for stuff in F2P games would keep playing F2P, along with the people who were never going to pay for games anyway, and the remainder could be served higher quality experiences. But thanks to the ever-present comparisons with an endless supply of free games, I don't see how that can happen.

Rindel Ryan Ibanez
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Some people like Simpsons, some like XCOM. Reviews don't really matter, it's the opinion of a few people. They can't speak for everyone since everyone has their own unique taste in games. Remember, there are millions of gamers our there and most don't even bother to go to websites like Gamasutra, or rate a game in the AppStore.

A game is meant to be enjoyed, if people want to throw money to the developers so they can enjoy the game with friends, or even alone, or even just because they are rich and don't know what to do with their money. What's wrong with that?

Aaron San Filippo
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@Paul: To be clear, I was responding specifically to Bruno's accusation that the suggestion that F2P uses psychological tricks rather than great gameplay is "stupid."

And on one hand, you said that manipulation happens - but then you also claim that NOBODY is trying to take advantage of kids. This clearly happens.

But sure, when in doubt, just call any dissenters trolls.

Robert Green
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@Rindel - "What's wrong with that?"

Nothing really. Well, almost nothing. Apart from the way you just dismissed every single argument that has been made, along with the entire concept of professional criticism, nothing.

Josh Neff
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@ Aaron San Filippo
I too noticed Paul's tendency to attempt to discredit arguments he doesn't like as "trolling"... its a common tactic when someone lacks a way to refute a perfectly valid point.

Raymond Mitchell
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I play some free to play games. Some of them frustrate me. The biggest offenders are the collection games that give you a false hope that you can play the game for free and be able to hold up against anyone else. Then you decide to buy a "Premium" pack so that you can keep up, but the money that you spend isn't guaranteed to give you anything and it usually doesn't. And it isn't like give me $1 and get a chance to get one good thing, it's give me upwards of $10-$15 and then not get anything playable. They label the "rare" as the base thing you get for money, but unless you have the "Super Rare" or "SSRare" collectibles, you can't really continue to play the game. Saying an object is "Super Rare" means it should be theoretically possible to get it if you try enough times. However, I have never gotten anything past "rare" from free packs. That's two or three tiers below what I need to stay competitive in the game. If you are going to charge me money for something that is an integral part of the game, at least give me the thing instead of a pack full of junk "Rare" items that aren't useful at all. So I'm like okay I'll pay another $10 and see if I get any, I mean my chances should be good since I got nothing last time. Nope... still nothing. At Least in League of Legends if I pay money for a skin I get the skin, not a random chance to unlock a skin that might be a good skin but is probably one I don't want or already have.

Steve Venezia
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This is a critical issues when designing these games. It sounds like the game you played failed in this regard.

When testing our game on a friend, I let him buy a booster pack and asked him if he'd buy another one himself. He said yes, "because the first one was so successful". Almost all the cards he got in the booster went straight into his starter deck, and he found them useful and fun to play.

There is a misconception that you can't give the player too much for their money or else they won't come back for more. I think the opposite is true; if the player doesn't see a tangible reward to their efforts, they will get frustrated and leave. That's why it's so important to make sure your IAPs are all of consistently great quality and value for money.

Don't cheat the player by teasing them with mega rares. Keep rewarding them and they will keep coming back for more.

Alan Boody
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There's a trend among the top grossing free-to-play games that Ramin referred to. They use coerice monetization tricks to make money. Just because it isn't illegal doesn't mean it isn't unethical.

Katy Smith
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I guess my issue with Ramin's article is that I read it and was like "yes, and?" Anything that is being sold to you is using psychological tricks. $60 console games, F2P games, computers, Pepsi, gmail...all of these are using some sort of psychology to get you to spend money.

Alan Boody
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@Katy Yes, even the use of certain colors in marketing is a psychological 'trick'. However, your argument is complete nonsense. For your faulty generalization argument to work we'd have to assume that all psychological tricks are also unethical. Additionally, we'd also have to assume that all psychological tricks employed by the likes of Pepsi, Google, etc are on par with the coercive monetization practices that Ramin mentions in his article.

Besides, no one is arguing that psychological tricks that are unethical are acceptable in other areas, but not gaming. That's basically what your response to Ramin's article is and your basis for dismissing it. Which is completely ridiculous.

Katy Smith
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There certainly were a lot of words put in my mouth there. I'm not saying psychological tricks are evil. I'm not saying they are good, either. How is my argument nonsense when all I said was that psychological tricks are used in other venues and you agreed with me?

F2P isn't evil. It's a tool. It's like blaming the hammer that was used to build the house when it falls apart. It wasn't the hammer's fault, it was the worker who used it. There are some awesome F2P games out there. There are some terrible F2P games out there. There are some awesome P2P games out there. There are terrible P2P games out there. It has nothing to do with the monetization model, but how that model is used.

Alan Boody
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Never said F2P was evil. Nor did I say it was necessarily bad. Nor did Ramin say it was bad. The fact remains is that there is coercive monetization techniques that are borderline unethical, if not outright unethical.

One of my favorite games is League of Legends. They designed a great game, first. They didn't create a monetization model then build a wrapper game around it.

The fact a game like Candy Crush Saga can be as big as it is and gross as much as it does speaks volumes to the level people can be manipulated. Then again, this is our society and culture, nowadays. If it's legal it's fair game; the consequences and unethical ways it's done be damned.

Katy Smith
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Once you start throwing around words like "coercive", it adds a value judgement on the thing that comes after it. These games aren't jumping into your head and forcing you to buy IAP. No more than Activision's shiny retail stand and pretty trailers are forcing me to buy the next Call of Duty. My original point was that anyone selling you anything is using these techniques to get you to buy it. It seems disingenuous to jump all over F2P because they're doing the same thing that arcades have been doing for decades and salesmen have been doing for centuries.

I don't like how King forces you to get you to try to buy at every possible moment. That's why I haven't spent any money in CCS. It's not the model that's the problem, it's the specific game.

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Alan Boody
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@ Joshua

Excellent response. A lot of people cannot make that connection. And, as Ramin pointed out in his article, people ages 25 or lower are actually more vulnerable to this. This is why these games primarily target that age group.

Katy Smith
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Upthread, Daniel Cook made a post I wish I could like more than once. Here's the part that I pose to you guys who are saying f2p is inherently evil:

"Is there an alternative to negative polarized rhetoric? Wouldn't it be cool to have a conversation about making more positive games sold using less abusive sale tactics in general. What good does your personal project bring to the world and how might players love that? That is a concept that stretches across business models. "

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Steve Venezia
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I don't think anyone here disagrees that some games have terrible F2P practices. But the point that this article is trying to raise is that the F2P model itself is not broken, rather the companies that abuse it.

Marketing is evil, sure. Anything that manipulates you is inherently unethical. But even the F2P titles that put gameplay first can still be considered 'evil'; League of Legends, for example, as was mentioned earlier. It uses the same trick that drug dealers use, by giving you the first one for free. Whether it's a hero or a shot of cocaine, the effect is the same; you try it, love it, then it's taken away from you.

Yet at the same time you're given most of the game for free. I played that thing for 3 months before giving them any money. Do I feel like I was manipulated into making that purchase? No. I played a great game for free for 3 months; if anything I felt guilty that I hadn't given the developers any money for it. It was borderline piracy.

I like games that let you decide how much you want to pay them. If I feel like I'm being cheated I walk away, simple as that. I've wasted far more money on full-price titles that I didn't enjoy than I have on F2P games, simply because I've been given the freedom to make my own mind up.

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Laurence Nash
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There's nothing wrong with free. I always viewed F2P as a great way to get a game out to people who are afraid of paywalls and barriers to entry. The problem is the way in which the monetization is executed. Which I think is oftentimes highway robbery and non-sustainable. It's great to try to extract as much money as possible since that is the purpose of any business, but the way it's done is crass and thinks nothing of the end user.

Alan Boody
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There was a time when game developers created games because they enjoyed making games , and they made games they envisioned. Nowadays, it's build a monetization system then adapt or build the game design around that monetization system.

Essentially, the gameplay is a wrapper around the monetization system.

Phil Maxey
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@Alan

In some cases no doubt, but in others it's not. It's how the IAP's are used, how they impact or not on the gameplay that matters, not the fact that the game has IAP's in the first place.

Dane MacMahon
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I think a big factor here is that your customer base is largely ambivalent. My wife doesn't care how much money you make, how much better your graphics are or anything else. All she cares about is passing the time between signing in at the doctor's office and being called by the nurse.

In console or up-front payment models your audience genuinely cares about story, the series, graphics, fighters, maps and whatever else. They want to see what's next, they want to collect, they want to try all the characters, they want map variety, they want premium development aspects which cost more to produce.

On mobile people are just passing the time, by and large. They can do that for free now-a-days, they can do that for a dollar if they really want. They don't need to give you more money, so why should they?

That's how I see it.

Neil Doherty
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I completely agree with this. I don't know why being free makes people think you're trying sneakily charge them something. Obviously you have to make money somehow. I would prefer to think of F2P as a 10-20$ game with a very long term demo available.

Paul Johnson
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That's me in a nutshell.

There's a ton of psychobabble going on above, and I'd have to use google to follow those conversations. They must be talking about something, but it ain't us! :)

Jeremy Reaban
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But they rarely stop at $10-20. They want $100s, even $1000s.

F2P games have turned the gaming industry into the casino industry, wanting to get you hooked and drain you of everything you own.

Aaron San Filippo
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If you guys can make a successful F2P game with a $10-20 maximum spend, then I congratulate you - and as I said above (before you dismissed me as a troll) I appreciate that you guys are taking a reasonable angle at the business model and avoiding manipulative monetization. The fact is though, most F2P games that shoot for $10-$20 maximum spend don't do well financially.

Wish you guys the best.

Logan Foster
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Great article Paul! As someone who works in this space I found it to be an entertaining read that really did a good job at going over F2P without going grossly in-depth with details. I also think you did a great job of highlighting that a good part of how we got here was due in large part to the lack of control Apple initially put in place with iTunes pricing (and its lack of a trial mode), which in turn lead to the "race to the bottom" and has in turn forced developers to get creative with how we bill for things.

Fundamentally people need to look at F2P as a unlockable demo mode that can help attract people to your product, and like with any game or monetization system (PC, Console, Mobile, etc.), when done right it can certainly reward you (as the developer) quite well. Every monetization method has its pros and cons and these can be augmented more based on how you implement them. The key IMO is that you need to think of how you will monetize from day one and not treat monetization as a solution that you tack on at the end before you are ready to ship (sure some guys will want to nickel and dime you to death, but the solution there is don't pay, no one is forcing you).

The only sad thing I actually thought of when I was reading this article was "It's a real shame that as game developers we actually need to explain to our peers what F2P is, how we got here and why it is working".

Jonathan Jennings
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I don't the issue is with the concept or idea of free, however free more often than not is presented as reduced and that reduction for many studious is further devolved to gouging.

I know it's naive but I hate whenever I ear the heads of studios i work at mention IAP and try to break down things the player can pay for , what they can give for free, and what ways they can use the players desire not to purchase things with real money as a means to get them to give something anyway ( watching a video of other apps, sharing across social media, etc.) .

I don't think anyone dislikes then notion of a free game but many dislike a game that more or less is built on the premise of getting a player to spend as much as possible for an improved, faster, or easier experience . still even that is hard to argue against because at the end of the day people buy what they want to.

James Margaris
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Take this piece and change a few words and you can make it about licensed games instead.

How did we get to a place where a game based on a cool funny super dude like Deadpool is seen as a bad thing?

The answer to that question is illuminating.

jean-francois Dugas
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@ Josh, you wrote "F2P games are targeted at casual gamers, in large part because most semi-serious to hardcore gamers wont touch F2P. The cassual crowd is "casual" frequently due to the lack of time they have to get involved into a game. Those people donít have time to get themselves acquainted with the minutia of the industry.".

It all come down to one point: How much time a casual gamer needs to play a game to become the so called hardcore gamer?

F2P games gather both type of player. There are players that will play a game for roughly a month, drop-out and come back later.
There are casual gamers that will play 10 minutes per 72 hours.

However, there's also player that play around 1-2 hour per day and this for a year.

Josh Neff
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The model is entitled Free to play... the implied message is that the game is free to play... in it's entirety... not free to play parts of the game and then buy the other parts. It lies from the get go...and then pretends that it never lied, until you want to do more in the game, then it sticks you with the ďOops, sorry, did we forget to mention you have to buy that?Ē... this practice, regardless of packaging or word wrangling is deceptive, full stop.
If you wish to know why its controversial, now you do. If so called Free to play games were up-front and honest about it, there would be a lot less issue with it... point of example; Consider how the XBox One is dealing with massive backlash regarding the policies surrounding its use. When confronted with dribbles of information about DRM, game trading policies, and mandatory online requirements that leaked, Microsoft stayed mum as if it had never really happened and the internet lit up like a blazing bon fire. Free to play historically has tried to pretend that its really not a micro-transaction game when it really is. And there's the crux of the issue.
Free to play (FTP) has been drug through the mud, like a screaming child who's been caught red-handed picking the pockets of those who dared venture too close... FTP already has a well established and dubious history. Way too many unscrupulous developers have made FTP synonymous with scam. Asking people to ignore that is simply unrealistic and unlikely. Perhaps, with time, those who create Free to play games will manage to garner trust by the consumer. I can tell you now it wont be any time soon.

Paul Johnson
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@Josh, I think you're insulting peoples' intelligence.

This model has been called many things since it first started taking off. (Now there's a cheap shot surely somebody can't resist.)

It's just a name that people now understand, and every person in gaming also understands that an F2P game will contain opportunities to pay for something. It contains the word "free" because these games are in fact free to play in some way or other. Not so with games not of this model, and that's the important differentiator.

If it makes you feel any better, you can call our sales model the "unlimited demo where you see all of the mechanics, 50% or so of the levels, where you get given a shitload of stuff at the start to play with and can in fact play matchmade multiplayer forever with what you get given" model.

Good luck with that though. :)

Alan Boody
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@ Paul

There's the problem. You call it 'opportunities' to pay, as if this was a good thing for the consumer.

Opportunities like spending over $1000 on Smurfberries?

Now, I understand the argument that parents should be mindful. BUT, don't you think $1100 for a game is sort of an excessive return for a single player? Now, I'm not saying your game does this, but this what people will think about when they see 'free-to-play'. Or, at least, the people who have critical thinking skills.

Paul Johnson
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@Alan "Opportunities like spending over $1000 on Smurfberries?"

I find it excessive, and I put the developer of that game firmly in that 'other' camp. But having said that, people can spend what they like on whatever they like. What type of other society would you prefer?

Smurfs village at least took a lot of effort to make. I personally think paying $100 for a set of lego is an appalling rip off. But when large companies make massive mark ups selling cheap plastic to children, they don't feel anywhere near this amount of heat.

Josh Neff
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@ Paul I think you misunderstand the inherent target market for F2P games. F2P games are targeted at casual gamers, in large part because most semi-serious to hardcore gamers wont touch F2P. The cassual crowd is "casual" frequently due to the lack of time they have to get involved into a game. Those people donít have time to get themselves acquainted with the minutia of the industry. I liken it to politics; Most people in the states donít become politically aware until commercials start to blare across the TV (If you could call that awareness).

I donít question people's intelligence, I question the likelihood of a spare-time challenged target market to become aware of which companies out there are genuinely trying to provide quality product vice those who are (STILL) trying to bilk them. The casual market simply cannot be lumped in with more knowledgeable gamers... not because they arenít smart enough to know better, but because they simply donít have the time. Our society is thoroughly built around long work days, instant gratification... and financial predation. F2P takes advantage of all those facts. Add into the equation that F2P is a marketing ploy that is psychologically a predatory mechanic that thrives off of Pavlovian response.

I get that you want to be successful, who wouldn't... and truth be told, I wish you every success... particularly if you are indeed trying to be a responsible progenitor of F2P. The problem is that I donít see it happening with F2P. I hope, for your sake, you prove me wrong... but the so-called greats of F2P are flagging pretty heavily. F2P overall is spiraling the drain as the ďbig moneyĒ business model. Particularly with Forbs articles stating things like: ďZyngaís profits are down 95%, going from $27.2M to $1.3MĒ... thatís huge.

No matter how you slice it, here are the facts:
F2P is indeed here to stay, but its time as leader of the pack was/is/has always been limited to how quickly that casual target market self educates about the marketing model and how tolerant that market is to being nickeled and dimmed (In the US, their not tolerant at all).

F2P has a well deserved stigma attached to it. One that wont be going away anytime soon, no matter how anyone might wish otherwise.

F2P is overflowing with people who have jumped on the bandwagon. Companies saw Zynga's success and wanted a slice of the pie. Consequently, you arenít getting paid what your work is worth. The industryís former success is its own downfall.

F2P is a deceptive marketing practice... I could cite all kinds of psychological mechanisms that prove this, but I don't think I want to be stuck typing all day, nor do I think youíd want to read it all. Suffice it to say there are droves of studies and evidence based theories to back this. Marketing practices are all psychology based anyway.

Bottom line is this: Any practice that relies on deception has an inherent part of its en-action is in fact, consumer hostile. That is exactly what F2P is. There's simply no escaping that.

Amir Barak
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I'm not trying to be flippant nor am I attempting to remark upon anyone's character (given that I don't know the developer/writer of this post). But what is this mythical "other" camp that all the people who make F2P games seem to refer to that exist besides themselves...?

Paul Johnson
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@Josh. Sorry but it's you doing the misunderstanding. Once again, it's not the model, it's the company(s).

Our game is NOT targetted at casual customers for example. Someone that can play angry birds without dribbling will wet their pants when they look at the depth of our game - it's a hardcore ccg.

Nor is it relying on deception. The word "collectable" is in our sub-title and the prices for all the boosters and other offers are on a button you click from the main menu.

Please download our game when it's out. I know you still won't pay us anything, but it will broaden your horizons just a little bit. And then I can show you a bunch more F2P games that are equally as "honest".

Paul Johnson
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@Amir. I think the point is to make your own list up, based on how much you feel companies and customers should have their hands held by a moral guardian. Or on how big a percentage of payers in F2P you /actually/ believe are sneaky children and mental retards. Etc.

Josh Neff
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@ Paul we'll just have to agree to disagree. No person (or game company) is an island. Your company is going to have to deal with the fact that F2P is already tarnished. There is no getting around it. Your company may be trying to be above the fray, but the reality is the very fact that you feel the need to come here to defend F2P is indicative of the level of mistrust placed on games utilizing this micro-transaction model. An additional indicator would be the vast array of comments, both on this board as well as many other mainstream industry forums that are dubious of your chosen approach. Either way, I wish you luck.

Nooh Ha
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Surely we simply let the market decide. If the majority of gamers don't like or want F2P games they will stop downloading and playing them and developers will stop making them.

Peter Eisenmann
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It feels most people's problem is in fact the word "Free". But I don't see too many mobile games that actually use "free to play" in their advertisment (it is more commonly used with browser games).

I doubt that many players think a commercial-class game can be totally free. Still, people want to download everything without a fee, it's just expected these days. But this only covers the download and basic gameplay. Most somewhat experienced players will know and accept that in case they get hooked with a game, they will have a hard time without paying.

Phil Maxey
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At the end of the day it's all boils down to the following...

1) How much gameplay do I get for any money I spend in the game.

2) Are the in-game costs properly advertised before I spend time playing and get to a point where I need to spend money.

If the industry sorts the above out, I think all will be fine.

Peter Eisenmann
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That are questions that are not easy to answer, even for an honest developer.
It depends on player skill, experience, frustration tolerance...
Do you "need" to spend money after you fail five times at a level? Or a hundred times?

Phil Maxey
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@Peter

Not easy to answer but that's also probably why this F2P good/bad debate is ongoing. It's not easy to quantify gameplay and/or enjoyment of a game. But that is perhaps a way to resolve this issue.

The 2nd point though is an important one because it's about clarity of what's on offer to the player and transparency of what they might have to pay.

Regarding your question though in theory you don't have to spend money at any point in a game ever :) so the answer is a combination of what the player is happy to give and what the developer wants/expects to get, and yes those questions are also based on many variables.

I think if games had to say how much was needed to be paid to "complete" the game (whether that meant to reach a certain level or rank) up front, the App store might look very different and perhaps that might put the emphasis back on gameplay.

jean-francois Dugas
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I think the issue with all blogs about F2P is that Gamasutra's Social community is rather young and still lives inside stereotypes.

First of all, everything you're reading here is assumption, unless proven by metrics.
If you think monetisation comes from kids and poor workers that falls into evil tricks or.. Coercive monetisation system, then you're assuming.

Lots of people often ask why F2P games doesn't limit the amount of money you can spend. Here's why:
Facebook conversion is around 2%.
Mobile conversion is around 3-5%.
Let's say I limit the spending power to 10$. It means 7$. (30% revenue to the platform)
For the sake of the example, we won't take in account retention, so we'll say that we have 500,000 active players.
on facebook, it means a maximum of 70,000$.
on mobile, it means a maximum of 175,000$.
so for a cross-platform game, you may get 245,000$ in your pocket! seems nice?
no.
You forgot to calculate the Acquisition price, marketing, server maintenance, tracking pricing (unless you use Google Analytics..I hope not.)

let's say all that cost you 75,000$.
you then have 170,000$.
The thing is, you'll have to gather another 500,000 Active users to possibly have the same cash flow again, because you limited yourself at 10$, meaning your paying user can no longer pay.

And if you think your monetisation trick is so evil and powerful it might convert more than 10% of your active players, than you're assuming.

Is it evil? Is it illegal? I would like that! That would be awesome if every single game company would do that! You pay 60$ a game and all DLCs are free.

There was a time where it was true. Business is a model that is always evolving and follows trend.

What I invite you to do is if you're a developer, to give it a try to F2P. Play it, create it, learn from it.

Peter Eisenmann
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It all boils down to having an addictive game. The 3-5% for mobile must apply to quite active users who play the game nearly every day for at least two weeks (just making an uneducated guess here).
I cannot imagine someone playing a game only occasionally, but still spending any money on it.

Tari Robert
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I think quality is more important than numbers. From the sheer number of games on the App store only a fragment is really good.

If a game is good, it usually sells. Sometimes maybe it has to be great, because of the vast number of titles.

Every day I am looking for games for my Ipad and usually I would choose a game like X-Com, that isn't F2P or cheap. I guess, I am a minority, but still - I am certain, that it's always going to be quality over quantity. Therefore you don't really need F2P. You need to be good.

Eric Robertson
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I would argue making a game 'too' free is also a bad idea.

The more money one invests in a game the higher its perceived value is.

Randall Natal
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I don't agree for a second that free to play games are better or a good way to play a game for free. You constantly have messages or banners poping up telling you you should buy this item or that some items are on sale for a limited time. If you actually end up buying that in game item or power up its usually a one time use that may or may not improve gameplay and there goes the 3.99 you just spent. The worst of these are all the F2P card games you pay 3.99 or so to buy 1 card then you end up with crap you already have. But you battle against someone who went for the 49.99 pack and got lucky with a few cards and now the game is about who has the bigger wallet. With console games you have demos to try it or you can even rent it for a buck and if you like it then you pay the one time $50 or $60 for it and be done with it. For the games with DLC at least if you decide you want to pay $4 $6 or $10 for it you're getting extra maps, chapters or characters to add to the experience. I think that's a lot better then a one time use item or a chance to get a good card in some of those F2P games.

Paul Johnson
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*retired* What's the point.

Josh Neff
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F2P isn't going to lose its "evil" or "bad" tag anytime soon.

Steven Cawein
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Pricing models, like camera perspectives and individual game mechanics, are tools. They can be used responsibly, and they can be used inappropriately. So on a very basic level, F2P is not innately evil.

At the same time, the model has a stigma for *a reason*. It has been abused. Not even rarely.
Is there a knee-jerk tenancy in the gaming industry to scream "ew!" at the mention of an F2P model? Of course. Is it unfair to developers that aren't planning to abuse the model? Definitely. Does it make sense that consumers, as a whole, have reached this point? Yes, absolutely.

Until that foul taste has been washed from the consumers mouths, by way of trustworthy, conscientious designers, that's the way it probably ought to be. That cynicism was hard earned, and presently it is the only thing between companies that would abuse the system, and millions of wallets.

Aki Jantti
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So... basically an apologist rant that could be shortened to: Don't hate the game, hate the player. ;)

Paul Johnson
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I have nothing to apologise for. And I'm not doing so.

I presume by "hate the player" you mean get money from them in return for goods and services? Try communism, that works a treat and is far more people friendly...

Aki Jantti
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Also, sorry for being mean, I actually partly agree with you; payment models change, the industry changes, things change and there's usually always some backlash. I was just tired and half of my brain wanted to be too witty for my own good. (Also sorry for being a bit late into the discussion, going through some backlog of blogs.)

I'm referring the the expression "Don't hate the player, hate the game" that some people use, as in "Do not fault the successful participant in a flawed system; try instead to discern and rebuke that aspect of its organization which allows or encourages the behavior that has provoked your displeasure."

With the "apologist" part, I meant is that the overall tone DOES seem a bit "Come on, it's not THAT bad".

But yea, for the most part, it's about the players. (As in, the developers playing the game of making F2P games.) From what I've seen, F2P (or IAP) is practically almost always done for business reasons, implying that might be on the expense of the quality of the game. Sure, you make the decision of making it paid instead of completely free for business reasons too, but for F2P to work, it has to be part of the game itself, affecting the actual gameplay. And to me it feels like the more you add F2P salt in the soup, the more money you get on the expense of quality. (Of course, it might sometimes even improve the quality on the basis of making more money, therefore enabling devs to put more money into it, but in practice...) Of course there's a balancing point where the declining quality and blatant monetization starts hurting the money coming in, but right now in this gaming culture that balance point is way off in the wrong direction, I think.

You were talking about the worth of what you get for your money, but it's very rare to see a F2P title where you get anywhere near your money's worth if you pay. Especially if you compare what you get for paying when buying a whole paid game, even if they weren't victims of harsh price competition. I mean seriously, look at what you get for your money in the games on the top grossing list you linked, say, Candy Crush Saga that's on #1 currently.

I hope your game is one of the good ones, but if it is, unfortunately it's less likely to make decent money.

Paul Johnson
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I actually agree with a lot of that.

"Come on, it's not THAT bad" could be part of my message, but I don't see that as an apology, more shining the light away from the easy targets who deserve some shit.


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