The free-to-play (F2P) gaming trend is seemingly unstoppable. As of this article Steam currently lists 3 F2P titles in the top 10 most played games, and many more of these titles in the top 99. High production value games like Path of Exile, Blacklight: Retribution, Dota 2, League of Legends, Dirty Bomb, Warframe or Heroes of the Storm are pushing hard against the established AAA market, cleaning up with the cliché shallow mobile games. Quite the opposite is true: Many F2P titles feature gameplay elements and a quality level rivaling (or sometimes trumping) AAA productions, delivering lots of content for no or little money at all.
But is this really a heaven for every gamer on a tight budget? Unfortunately not, as these games are just seemingly free, sometimes hiding their malpractices, pitfalls and black sheep. These “money-traps” are sometimes hard to identify, even amongst the aforementioned high quality titles. Some developers are completely transparent about their business model while others try to hide their intentions behind a nice facade – and then there are those obvious and rather evil ones. In this article I’ll try to reveal the biggest F2P-sins that occurred to me over the last years, and how they could be avoided.
Sin 1 – Having your players gamble with their money
This might sound really harsh for some people, but players buying randomly generated content in any F2P game are effectively gambling with their money – a thing that can easily turn into an addiction. Not only is this a bad thing for consumers, it’s also setting a really bad example for other, especially younger players and other gaming developers alike. People effectively rely on luck and their big wallet, re-buying the same content over and over again to achieve a certain goal. It’s a process that easily lets you lose track of your money.
As a gamer keep in mind that you’re playing “against the bank” here, as any developer can easily obscure or modify the chances of getting “desirable” content. Any development team relying on this model should take a step back and reconsider the image they are representing towards their audience.
Sin 2 – Don’t value the time of your customers
It’s clear that F2P games need to make money in some way. Usually this is done by stretching the progression system or tempting the players with daily rewards. All of that is OK in my book as long as people are effectively seeing progression when playing normally. Skipping over that daily grind is also OK when priced reasonably. As an example: Something of 5$ value should be doable with two or three sessions of normal play. On the contrary, setting the price too high for an in-game object which is rather easily obtainable via normal means also sends the wrong message – namely the shop being ludicrously overpriced.
When you as a developer want to build your business model around “saving time”, e.g. by selling XP boosters and in-game money, make sure that the player has an acceptable experience when playing your game normally. Also keep the price / benefit ratio in mind, as it can easily ruin the experience. Adding repetitive grind or huge XP bars just to encourage buying in-game boosters is a malpractice sometimes visible even in fully blown AAA releases such as Dead Space 3.
Sin 3 – Calling it Beta with a fully functional shop
This is also a quite common malpractice: many games offer the “early access” or “beta” experience, which is another excuse to offer a product with defects to a paying audience. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if the shop isn’t the first thing that is fully fledged and functional within an otherwise very rotten product. This approach has multiple layers of bad taste to it, as it not only shows the development priorities (money first, then the customer), but also bears the additional risk of selling content to your customer that is likely to change (or be devaluated) as beta development goes on.
As a developer you should be very sure that the overall quality of your product is equal or even better than the ingame-shop functionality. If you don’t ensure that balance of quality, people will be quickly there to spot the discrepancies and call you out for it. Being a consumer you can clearly evaluate this by comparing how quick and responsive the shop-GUI and pricing model works and how often the shop is getting new exclusive items in comparison to “non-revenue” content like bug-fixes, new free levels or other content that can be accessed for free.
Sin 4 – Spoon-feeding content to your audience
Free to play games have a very distinct feature that distinguishes it from “normal” pay-to-play products: their scope. While normal titles are sold on a “you pay for what you get” agreement, F2P titles live and die with the amount of content that developers can manage to dish out after a game’s initial release. Many seem to consider this fact, not having a backup plan for when the game is actually released. People will quickly look for new content and walk away if the producers are not prepared.
The constraint of steadily having to add new content also bears multiple traps for developers to step into: On the one side you have to lure in new players, on the other you have to keep long-term players entertained by adding more “advanced” content that is not too easy to browse through – all at the same time without “diluting” your audience too much. MMO’s in particular have to fight with this problem, having to keep their player base engaged while striking a balance of not devaluating older content by replacing it with something new and better, depopulating old areas in the process.
As player you should have a keen eye on a developer’s history: Do they listen to player feedback? How high is the speed at which new content is added? Which audience does the content cater towards? Keep these factors in mind before investing money into a F2P-title, because you also vote with your wallet and directly show what things you appreciate.
Sin 5 – Establishing a class society in your game
F2P often tend to offer “wealthier” players a better experience – which is not a bad thing per-se, because they pay and expect more value in return – nothing unfair here. However this behaviour can easily tip over into listening exclusively to your paying customers, potentially making poor gameplay decisions that cater to a very minor vocal (paying) audience. The best example of this is the well-known “pay-to-win” accusation that most F2P titles have to defend against. Selling items that influence the game’s economy or balance mechanics exclusively for hard cash is a surefire way to quickly drive a game into oblivion. Another example is developing your game around high-paying customers (whales) that cover the costs for 99% of the other players. It’s kinda like relying on sponsorships and benefactor goodwill instead of a healthy sustainable business model that everyone can agree on.
But there are also other pitfalls that can poison the climate of a game: exclusively locking out other players by offering “early access” goodies or permanent bonuses which are restricted to either cash or the system you play the game on can lead to tension and dissatisfied customers, as it gives them the impression of not getting the “optimal” experience for their time and money spent. As developer it may be hard to deliver the same quality over multiple platforms, but while graphical levels may be subject to discussion, content is not! Make sure that every player has the ability to see all of your game via normal means of play.