This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.
Understanding social networks isn't just important for player retention: I argue that social networks will be the core basis for the future of F2P games. The mentality driving games will shift dramatically from "how can we get each player to pay something?" to "what opportunities can we give players to spend more money?" As Craig Morrison, creative director for Age of Conan at Funcom, said to me, "it's not about making players have to pay, it's about making them want to pay."
But even with the shift to "want" to play, most games still deploy with a user-centric model. Most shops force players to buy their own "item currencies" (such as Riot points) and then lock those currencies to the account. Everything bought with those currencies is also locked to that account. Look again at Riot's model: my friend could buy me a gift card, but they couldn't just give me Riot points and they couldn't have bought me skins.
The problem with the Riot model is that gift-giving is linked to a physical item: a game card. In theory, a user could buy extra game cards, scratch off codes, then email over codes to friends, but how many people are going to have a stack of game cards on hand for impulse gift-giving? And how many people are going to give game card codes away to strangers they meet online? Not many.
What MMORPGs like WoW have shown us is how powerful and strong relationships with complete strangers can be. Complete strangers meet up, form guilds, raid for years, all without ever knowing each other's real name.
The gift-giving among these friendships can become very strong: my guild in WoW had a guild bank stocked with a wealth of valuables that everyone was welcome to take, but stayed stocked up on the generosity of the majority of guild members.
Imagine how many more Riot points Riot could sell if players could meet a friend in a match and, right then and there, gift them a champion or skin? Even better, Riot could capitalize on the spur-of-the-moment nature of gifting and allow players to gift champion unlocks or skins during the matchmaking that takes place prior to a game. Maybe outright unlocks as gifts might be too much for that sort of spur-of-the-moment scenario, but a temporary one-match unlock for a few RP would add up to huge extra sales.
There is one further step games can take, something I haven't really seen implemented quite so thoroughly until I downloaded Perfect World International's Forsaken World when it was added to Steam's F2P lineup. Giving gifts to in-game friends is a good step, but FW goes a step further by integrating the item shop with the game's in-game economy.
Linking a game's item shop and in-game economy is the ultimate culmination of everything I've talked about since I began this series. In Part 1, I talked about the fairness of spending money instead of spending time playing, and that's been better examined here in the various time vs money F2P models.
In Part 2, I talked about giving players better control over the pace of currency creation through various means, and linking all of a game's currencies through internal markets gives players that full control. And, most importantly, it completely divests the people who spend money in the item shop from those that consume the goods from the item shop.
The most notable result of allowing players to trade -- in-game -- items bought with real money is that people can make purchases on behalf of others without having to gift them those items. In this scenario, a player needn't even know any other player, yet can still want to buy something for someone else because they'll sell it on the open market.
Games that focus on user-by-user sales are limiting themselves because they don't embrace freeloaders and they don't embrace whales. And it's the whales that F2P games should be hunting. The term "whale" differs a bit depending on how it's being used -- for some, a "whale" is merely someone who spends more than most -- but the real crux of the "whale" concept is someone who spends more than they would if the game restricted them to self-only purchases.
That's why games like League of Legends will never have true "whales." Once you've unlocked all the champions and skins, you cannot spend any more money on LoL. Games with self-only limited item shops have a limit to potential sales: sell everything once. If you can't buy more and give it away, you can't spend more money. That's why storefronts like Steam, with their ability to buy bundles and gift away extra copies, work a lot better than storefronts such as Turbine's for Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online, where everything is bound to the purchaser's account.
Just allowing players to give gifts is a good start, but linking item shop and in-game economy takes that a step further. Whales are only as valuable to you as their ability to trade away the extra stuff they bought from your item store. If whales can only trade with real life friends, they might only give to one or two others (like with LoL game cards). If they can trade with in-game friends, that reach extends to 20 or 30 or, for particularly charismatic whales, hundreds of other Steam users.
The ultimate whale would be someone able to give stuff to complete and total strangers -- or, rather, trade stuff to them. This is where EVE Online's PLEX or Forsaken World's Eyrda store really shine: the items or currencies bought with real money can be placed on the in-game marketplace, meaning that every player can look on the market and, if they have enough game currency, buy them. Suddenly, the social reach of a single whale is the entire game.
This integration of real-world and in-game economies is what I suspect will lead the next generation of free-to-play titles. Games developed, from the ground up, with F2P in mind, rather than the "freemium" conversions, which are more like parceled-up free trials, which have become all the rage these days. These will be games that take a good hard look at that "time vs. money" graph and say "we aren't going to try and extract either from our users. We're going to let them spend what they want."
I, for one, am really looking forward to "F2P: The Next Generation".