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The "M" Word - Building a Respectful Free-to-Play Model
by Sam Coster on 04/29/14 11:47:00 am   Featured Blogs

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


This is the last Crashlands devlog post, and one we thought the larger industry might find interest in. We're aiming to create a profitable and respectful free-to-play model. If you want to read on the rest of this mobile epic we're crafting you should check out the rest of the butterscotch blog.

Today we're going to talk about that dirty word no one wants to talk about. You know the one... the "M" word.

Crashlands will be free-to-play. Now, before you rip your teeth out one-by-one or start mailing maimed effigies to the BS HQ why don't you TAKE A SEAT AND BREATHE DEEPLY. It's time we had a talk.

Hmm this seems different from the last time I saw this meme...


Far from being profit-maximizing suitbags, we use a pantheon of Butterscotch Principles to guide how we build our monetization strategies. THEY ARE:

  1. The game must be accessible to the largest number of players possible.
  2. The game loop must not be broken or stretched for the sake of monies.
  3. Players must be able to play for however long they please in one sitting, from 30 seconds to 24 hours.
  4. Free players must be able to complete the game.
  5. Paying players have a maximum amount they can pay.
But this isn't the only set of boundaries we use. We have a few business goals that also help shape the strategy:
  1. Make unique, one-of-a-kind games on mobile.
  2. Cultivate a large, loving and fanatic player base.
  3. Build a culture of mutual respect between our players and us as developers.
  4. Make enough money to make better games in the future.

We've now cycled through a few different strategies and, WE THINK, have created one that manages all of these goals and principles seamlessly.

Crashlands, at its core, is a game about gathering stuff and building stuff. We will have at least a few hundred unique recipes for players to create by the time the game launches. Some of these recipes we consider to be progression recipes, while others are enrichment recipes. LET'S BREAK THAT DISTINCTION DOWN.



Progression recipes are, in a nutshell, the essential recipes you will need in order to progress to the end of the game. These include:

  • Basic weapons and armor
  • Tools for harvesting materials
  • Workstations for building things
  • Basic housing items (standard walls/floors/doors)
  • Items for taming creatures

With the above items, you will be able to play through Crashlands from beginning to end and get a HINT of all that it has to offer. All players (paid and free) will have full access to all progression recipes.

But maybe you want to GORGE yourself on Crashlands. You don't want measly WOOD doors. You want CRYSTAL DOORS. And goggles that make you throw things further. And that legendary axe called THE BUTTERFLY that glows and sets enemies on fire. You don't just want the bare bones - you want a full 7 course meal of Butterscotchy goodness.

This is where Enrichment recipes come in. They aren't required to progress, but they deepen and expand the existing game systems to add utility, beauty, and outrageousness. If you get an enrichment recipe it doesn't quicken your journey to the end of the game (like that hare-brained Quadropus IAP); it adds extra paths to explore, and other modes to explore those paths.

A few items classified under "enrichment" are:

  • Additional floors, walls, doors, and furniture of cosmetic purpose
  • Beds which can be slept in to shift time forward 6 hours (not in real life, we're not that advanced...YET)
  • The Anger Omelet - a breakfast snack you can cook for your pets to buff them with Berserking
  • Bombs (including seedbombs and harvestbombs)
  • The Thro-Pipe - a blow pipe that, when swung, hurls a poisonous dart at enemies
  • And a crapton of other things!

Enrichment recipes are unlocked in three ways.

  1. Non-paying players can watch a video ad to unlock an enrichment recipe of their choosing. None of that slotmachinegrabbag crap.
  2. Paying players can buy bundled recipes (all those from the Savannah, for example).
  3. Paying players can buy the full game with a one-time IAP that unlocks every Enrichment recipe forever, including any we patch in later. This also unlocks HARDCORE MODE, which allows the game to be played with Player permadeath and Pet permadeath. This IAP will rise in cost to reflect the growing value of the game as systems expand and more content is added, so getting in early might not be a bad idea!

Paying for anything in the game will also turn off interstitial ads.

Aside from granting you a whole crapton of recipes at once, paying for stuff has another important upside. As a paying player, your transaction will be saved by Google or Apple, so you'll be able to restore the recipes you've unlocked if you, say, uninstall the game and reinstall it, or get a new phone. We won't be able to do that for recipes that you've unlocked by watching video ads, because as a tiny studio, we don't have the server infrastructure to store the save data of a bajillion players.

The Role of Ads
Let's take a quick detour and explain our rationale behind the whole, "video ad for a recipe" idea. We believe in the quality of our work. It's our opinion that, if someone is playing and enjoying something we've crafted, we should be compensated. WITH MONEY.


HOWEVER! We understand that 98% of people aren't willing  to (or simply can't) throw down a few of their own dollars to hold up their end of the deal. So, with our "watch an ad to unlock a recipe" setup, we're making it possible to use someone else's money to get ahold of everything Crashlands has to offer.

That someone-else being advertisers. If you don't or can't pay us to consume the work we've created, then advertisers will do it for you, and that's perfectly fine by us! We'll also be using interstitial ads to help support the game, but any purchase you make will turn them off forever.

Mad Respect
It's our hope that by being transparent about our goals and principles regarding monetization that we can build a culture of respect between ourselves and our player base. Too often questions of a game's monetization scheme turn to accusations of "greediness" on the part of developers or "entitlement" on the part of free players. The question that should be asked is whether or not paying players are getting value for what they're paying for and whether or not free players are able to reasonably compensate developers for what they're receiving. We think that the system we've described above will fare well on both accounts.

We win. You win. EVERYONE WINS!






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John Flush
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As an interesting aspect of people that pay you money directly could you put in a questionnaire as to why they paid? I think it would be an interesting statistic to know how many people paid to turn off the ads, to unlock things without doing ads, or even just give you money because they preferred a one time purchase?

Have you thought about making a 'free edition' that has IAP and one that is paid that just does option #3 out of the gate? or do you get hit with an iStore penalty for putting up two apps?

I'll admit as a consumer I think your ideas sound great, unfortunately I ignore anything that says "free" on it these days unless it becomes popular enough for me to 'know' what the game is at a high level for social reasons.

Sam Coster
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It'd be extremely interesting to get a read on why it is that people actually pay. With our analytics we'll be able to see the relative proportions of each purchase, but drilling down on the why is something else entirely. LUCKILY psych is my background and this is something we are, of course, very interested in. We may very well do it!

We do get a penalty of sorts for splitting the app, in that the reviews and downloads aren't all contained within a single store item, and pirating of the pay-up-front one would drive down the overall userbase. We launched a pay-upfront game with our first title and experienced a 90%+ piracy rate. I wouldn't recommend it. The Full Version purchase inside the free app does precisely the same thing while working around these ecosystem issues.

We're aiming to change the very mentality with which someone such as yourself approaches free games. I'll be honest, most of them have such horrible monetization structures that the fun gets sucked right out of them. Hopefully we can provide a solid basis for other people to build respectful and game-preserving free-to-play models.

Thanks for your thoughts!

John Flush
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@Sam all awesome feedback I hadn't considered. Makes sense now on the reason to push to one app rather than split them.

Brendan McGuire
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MAD RESPECT indeed! Your principles and methods as described are everything I've been wanting F2P games to do for years. This is exactly the kind of thing that has a real capability to make you guys good money, while respecting both paying and non-paying players. You've won a fan in me, and I will be downloading, playing, and contributing to your game the moment it's released.

Connor Fallon
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They "Paying by watching at ad" thing is super interesting. Is there a reason why other games have not tried this? I'd imagine the margins are much lower.

Kenneth Barber
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I used to play a lemonade tycoon game that has the same model.

Ashley Blacquiere
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Plenty of games do this. In fact, there are 3rd party services designed specifically to facilitate this model, such as TrialPay:

Ashley Blacquiere
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I like your forthrightness, and I hope your principles survive your release intact.

I have a question regarding your 5th principle. You say there is a maximum paying players can spend; you also say there is a one-time unlock everything IAP. How do these two things relate? Is the 'maximum' any player can spend a daily-, or session-based maximum?

I was surprised not to see a principle regarding selling at pinch points. You don't specify when a player can make a purchase, and I think that is one of the key elements to making F2P a more ethical proposition. For example, if you're trying to make a sale when your player is particularly susceptible to it (Puzzle and Dragons comes to mind) then you're treading some dangerous waters. If, however, you offer sales only when the player is in a position to make a rational decision then you're moving more towards ethical territory.

Sam Coster
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We'll see if the principles withstand a market test, for certain!

Regarding maximum spending, that's a lifetime maximum. If the player purchases the one-time unlock then they'll get everything forever. If they decide to buy things in bundles, then after the x bundles are purchased they'll have access to everything forever (though at a slightly higher cost than if they would've just bought the full unlock. WHAT A DEAL!)

Regarding pinch points, the things we've chosen to monetize (recipes) are not able to exist in a pinch point, so it wasn't something we even thought about clarifying. There's no circumstance in which you'd be rushing to suddenly have a Thro-Pipe *recipe* on hand, or an extra chair for your living room, because getting the recipe is just the first step in the series of events you need to complete to actually have the thing - you still must collect the materials and build it!

The same can't be said for something like Puzzles & Dragons or Candy Crush, where your dollar can bridge the artificial gap in the game loop and let you finalize the work you've been doing. If we monetized the game through a currency system, where the currency was required to build everydamnthing and you routinely ran out of it after having myriad components needed to build something, then we'd definitely be doing pinch sales.

Interestingly that was actually the first model we toyed with in-house to see if we could make it not feel atrocious. We couldn't, so we threw it in the trash!

Thanks for your excellent questions and comments!

Ashley Blacquiere
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Cool. Thanks for the reply.