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Breaking The F2P Stigma or Understanding the Core Experience
by Ulyana Chernyak on 06/12/14 10:36:00 pm   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.


F2P has become the “next frontier" for a lot of developers looking to cash in with a monetized idea. This is either by porting mobile games to the PC or just releasing a F2P game on the PC market. The problem is that the F2P market has become saturated with games designed for profit first/gameplay second, causing the confidence among educated or hardcore gamers to disappear.


To develop a successful F2P game that doesn't rely on whales, you must understand what has driven these gamers away and what is the core experience of your game.

The Core Market:

"Core gamers" is the hardest group to get behind a F2P game. These are the men and women who may or may not play social games, but everything out there. If they like a game, they will try to get their friends to play and help spread awareness for you. But if your game drives them away, they will make sure that their friends keep away as well.

There are two factors that make it hard to convince a core gamer to even play your game, much less spend any money. First has to do with any kind of repeated purchases such as micro transactions and it has to do with ownership.

Being able to buy something and have it considered yours is a big deal and something that has been declining with the rise of digital distribution. Most games these days you don't actually own, you own a license to play that game which can be taken back at any time.

And F2P games are the epitome of this concept as everything there exists at the whim of the developer and can be taken away. F2P games designed around repeated monetization such as speed ups, premium currency or pay to win raise the cost of playing a F2P to areas where core gamers are not comfortable with spending.

An AAA retail game costs around $60 with AA and Indie below that. However, a F2P game can have enough purchases to easily go over $100 dollars and then some. None of that by the way, gives the player any ownership over the experience and is akin to the arcade era of having hundreds of arcade tokens that can only be used in one place.

The second problem is the market itself, as mentioned earlier you are not just competing with other F2P games but everything on the market. And core gamers are educated on what's out there: From Indie hits like FTL to the success of Dark Souls.

This means there are always numerous games vying for their attention and all it takes is one poor monetized element or problem with the design to send them off to another game, never to come back to yours again.

While many core gamers don't like F2P design, that doesn't mean they don't play F2P games, with Team Fortress 2 and League of Legends often cited as the two most played games and well received among core gamers. And leads many designers to ask: What's their secret?

Defining the Core Experience:

The secret sounds insane, especially for people making a F2P game -- A successful F2P game for core gamers is not built around monetization. That must sound crazy and a lot of you are thinking right now that to build a F2P game that isn't about making money doesn't make sense. Especially since both TF2 and LOL have monetized elements to them. However, this is where the concept of a core experience comes in and the trick to get core gamers to try your game.

The core experience for this piece will be defined as the following:

The main gameplay systems or mechanics that are divorced from any monetization

This is the center of your gameplay, the baseline of the experience, the hook that pulls gamers in to trying it out. More importantly, the core experience is where there should be no pressure to spend any money on your game: No ads, no pop-ups, just the gameplay.

In essence, the core experience is where gamers will decide what value your game has and whether or not it is worth it to keep playing and it's where many people draw the line between good and bad F2P design.

Card Hunter -- The F2P browser game released last year had a core experience of a full length RPG. Both TF2 and LOL have easily hundreds of hours of play through competitive or public games without the need to spend money. On the other hand, F2P games like Farmville, Candy Crush Saga and so on, hit the player with monetized elements within minutes of play.

CardHunter 5

Card Hunter's monetization deals mainly with cosmetic options and avoids any claims of Pay to Win.

Defining your core experience is simple: What's left of your game if all the monetized elements were removed? What separates a good F2P game from the rest is that without monetization, the gameplay still works and can be enjoyed. League of Legends is still a highly competitive game with or without having to buy premium skins, but a game like Farmville would fall apart due to the repetitive nature and pay walls.

Having that core experience defined and removed from the monetization also makes it easier to expand the game with more content. If you've already given so much of the game for free, people will be more willing to pay for more content on top of that.

A F2P game designed around the whales is the opposite of what pulls core gamers in. By understanding and developing a core experience, it will allow you to create a more appealing game in the eyes of core gamers and develop a fan base that will be more likely to stick around and support your game.

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Senad Hrnjadovic
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Thx for the input, it makes a lot of sense to me.

I am working on an indie player vs. player RTS. I will make sure to keep all monetization out of the PvP part. (if I should ever get around to adding monetization) ;)

John Flush
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Just this last week I tried replaying a few games I have on my iPad. One of my favorite games? PBA Chllenge. Why? When was the last time you played an actual good bowling game? Well, this is the best one there is on the iPad. The problem? It is F2P. And your article finally helped me realize exactly why this is the best game, yet the worst game at the same time - core mechanics.

The bowling game's goal is to bowl. Win championships, get new balls, unlock new venues. The problem? All of that is hidden behind a level up 'power bar' that is only replenishes by waiting... or whaling. They would have had $20-30 easy of my cash up front once I played it, but the moneytization model is specifically 'vague' enough for me to think $20 to upgrade that would make it so I can play the game right? and I'm not sure. It might do little more than delay the paywall for longer... that still doesn't work for me, so I don't spend anything instead.

Not only that, what is the best bowling game on the iPad? There isn't a good one just F2P junk you have to waste your life on either waiting or investing in. Yep, that is what you get when you do just what this article describes - hide core mechanics behind F2P paywalls. Negativity and hate against your game (that actually isn't too bad).

btw, does anyone know of a good bowling game? Nintendo had 2 (that's right, 2) chances to make the best bowling game ever. Instead they made Wii Sports bowling (nice proof of concept idea) and Wii Sports Resort (the proof Nintendo can't make any deep complex games out of a proof of concept that hit the nail on the head).

Paul Weber
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I've always liked League Bowling for Neo Geo...

Paul Weber
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I enjoyed the article and will keep it in mind when (and if) I make my game f2p...

Ujn Hunter
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Stop F2P! :(

Simon Ludgate
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I dispute Card Hunter's F2P implementation as not "pay 2 win" because (if I recall correctly) each time you finish a mission it shows you 4 items you do get, and a 5th superior item you don't get unless you subscribe.

I think this form of waving F2P in the face of players defies your thesis that "The main gameplay systems or mechanics that are divorced from any monetization." In this case, the core reward mechanism is flaunting F2P, and certainly gave me a bad feeling about the game.

Josh Bycer
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The thing with Card Hunter is that those superior items are not locked to the monetization, IE: You must be a premium member to ever find those items. Someone can still have a chance of finding those items show up as one of the four you get for beating a level or buy it from the store.

When I spoke with one of the developers last year about it, they were pretty adamant about making sure that money would not let you purchase any unique in game advantages.

I would say a game that really skirts that line between F2P and Pay to Win would be Hearthstone. On the count that technically you can unlock all the cards through play, but at the same time someone can just spend money and follow a deck guide to build a powerful deck. It's a game that I've been going back and forth with in trying to decide whether that should count as pay to win or not.

Simon Ludgate
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Hmm, well, I suppose my issue with Card Hunter wasn't that the fifth item was exclusive to paying players (a true pay to win) but that it dropped the item, then put a lid on it, and said "HA HA HA you WOULD have gotten this if you paid, but since you're a freeloader, TOO BAD!"

Perhaps a... Provoke-2-Pay strategy that I don't appreciate? It's telling you that you EARNED this item, but that the game is taking it away from you for not paying. That's kinda nasty in my mind.

Compare that to, say, Path of Exile, where the only real integration of payments show up either as the "deal of the day" item on the side of the log in screen, or the little tiny plus button next to the stash tabs. The deal of the day isn't saying "you would have gotten this, if you had paid" but rather "you could get this, if you pay." The stash tab + icon isn't saying "clearly, payers have more tabs, but we locked away the extras from you" but rather "you could have extra tabs, if you want to pay for them."

I don't know if this is a unique nuanced perspective that only applies to me, or if I'm able to pin down a wider sentiment that others can relate to.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I describe this technique as "Reward Removal" in my Top F2P Monetization Tricks paper. Most of the top performing F2P games in the space currently use some variant of it.

Eric Finlay
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Good article. It's gotta be bad for game developers who envision a complete game, and then have to hack it to pieces to shove F2P elements into it. Getting F2P out of the core mechanic could solve this. The trouble is, the created game needs to be so good that people are willing to pay even after experiencing the "entire" thing. For many game developers, I imagine it's a safer bet to restrict the core gameplay, than trust that the game is so engaging people will pay for cosmetic/optional items.

Dann Marais
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Ulyana, I found your article fascinating.

I have been a "member" for quite some time, but to date have not contributed. As a "new and green" developer I have just been an observer of the various posts and it has been an awesome learning experience.

There have been numerous articles, posts, comments, discussions, disagreements etc. etc. about F2P, in my humble opinion, that discussion will never end. Analogy; which is a better OS? iOS or Android? You will always have those that choose either and then those that chose neither. [Please don't answer, that discussion will go nowhere as well :-)]

"Defining your core experience is simple: What's left of your game if all the monetized elements were removed? What separates a good F2P game from the rest is that without monetization, the gameplay still works and can be enjoyed."

In other words, if I may use a practical example. The game chess; the gameplay (core) works and can be enjoyed and we assume that it is F2P.

If the following monetization elements are introduced, not pushed onto or required to complete the game eg; (i) a player can buy a number of "hints" - show possible next move, (ii) buy a number of "undo's" - to undo a move that was made (iii) upgrade content - access to play against a stronger AI.

The core gameplay is not restricted, it works and is fun. The player is also in total control in regards to in-app-purchase options - it is based on free choice. Thus will this then be deemed to be a good F2P game or F2P element(s)?

Scott Sheppard
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I like the Extra Credits episode on F2P. The thing I pulled from it was that James tries to explain that the monetization must actually be fun. Just another thought to throw out.