Pay-to-win in free-to-play games ain’t what it used to be – and that’s a good thing. In most “reputable” F2P games, it’s pretty much non-existent. Sure, there might be the occasional piece of “sidegrade” gear in the cash shop that offers -2 to this but +4 to that half the time – hey, that’s a total of +2! It’s pay-to-win! Sure, pal.
Still, P2W is something most developers are fully aware of, to the point that, when I interview someone about their new F2P game, they trip all over themselves to say, “We’re not pay-to-win!” Like most 800-pound gorillas, it’s pretty hard to miss.
But what else does a F2P game need to be successful? What are the less-obvious traits that separates a “good” F2P game from a “bad” one? “Don’t be pay-to-win” is a fine starting point, but there’s quite a bit more that can elevate a game from “also-ran” to “smash hit.”
Get off to a good start. Free-to-play games are really easy to get into – and just as easy to quit. If a game doesn’t hook you in your first play session, there’s a reasonable chance you won’t come back. With a game you paid $20, $40, or $60 for, there’s a chance you’ll suffer through a couple of dreary hours to get to “the good stuff,” since you’ve already made an investment. With a F2P game, there’s no investment, and it’s ridiculously easy to just classify a subpar opening experience as a little bit of wasted time and move on.
F2P MMORPGs – especially ones that started as a box+sub game – are the biggest culprits here. They want you for the long haul, want you to play your way up to max level and experience endgame, to the point that they make the leveling experience as simplistic and repetitive as possible, ostensibly saving programming resources for the “real game.” If the “real game” is endgame, is it a good idea to make you wait 30+ hours before experiencing it? Imagine an online multi-player FPS or MOBA doing the same thing, forcing you into single-player action for 30 hours before you could play the PvP core of the game? Would you stick with that game? Probably not.
An hour or two holding your hand and teaching you the basics is fine, in my opinion. But if I’m not entertained by a F2P game after about two hours, I’ll generally quit it and never look back. There are plenty of other options out there.
Don’t divide your player base. Some paid players don’t like the F2P-ers encroaching on their space. The thing is, an online game has to include as many people as possible to keep providing active players for everyone to play with or against. Segregating free players from paid players, whether it’s by zone, PvP maps, or other means, carries with it two massive disadvantages: The free players don’t see what the paid players are doing, and are less likely to want to become paid players as a result; and all players have fewer people to potentially interact with, reducing the viability of the game as a whole.
Think of it like having a local group to play your pen-and-paper RPG. You and a few friends might have all the books, miniatures, dice, etc., and another friend might want to play but doesn’t want to (initially) make that monetary investment. You wouldn’t “punish” that player by forcing him to play a worse character or outright not let him play with you, right? You’d probably let him borrow your stuff and, if he enjoys himself, he’ll maybe buy some stuff of his own.
And while it’s true that some free players are jackholes, and might even be more likely to be that way because they figure their experience to be temporary and aren’t afraid of consequences, it’s not like players in subscription-only games, or paid players in a F2P game, are all saints. Plenty of people are idiots in the Internet, regardless of their financial situation.
Have a plan for gold sellers. Something that is more prevalent in F2P games is gold sellers, especially when a game is new. Being able to make an account for free means you don’t have to worry if your old account is banned – just register under a new e-mail address and start over.
Stopping gold sellers is a complex undertaking, and new games probably have lots of other concerns besides stopping gold spam. On the back end of things, I don’t really know what security measures or staffing requirements are most effective.
However, it always surprises me how many games make reporting gold sellers an arduous task. It makes sense that reporting players in general, for bad behavior, rudeness, harassment, and so on, should require a few clicks, and maybe some description of their acts, so that the game masters can get the right information to take appropriate action. But gold selling is a simple and obvious enough offense that it should have its own category, right from the start. Just right-click on a name and there should be the option to “Report as gold seller.” Make it easier for us to report these clowns and you’ll have fewer of them in your game.
Limit the grind. I know, online games are all about grind. And every F2P game that has some sort of repetitive task – leveling, acquiring tokens for gear, PvP ranks, etc. – can be perceived as grind, grind that almost invariably can be mitigated with just a small purchase or two in the cash shop…
But there’s a limit to how much you can reasonably expect people to grind and still enjoy themselves enough to want to keep playing – and, more importantly, spend money. Making the grind impossibly tedious without spending is the kind of negative reinforcement that drives people away from a game. You want people to spend money on things that make them like your game, not on things that they feel they have to buy so they don’t hate your game.
A corollary to this is the game that has a cash shop but promises everything in it can be earned through in-game action – so hey, the entire game is available without spending a dime! Look at how free we are! If it requires 20 hours of gameplay for an item that would cost about $5, though, or would take a subscriber about an hour to earn, then it’s not really free. Make it achievable through reasonable means or don’t claim that you’re “totally free.”
Those are just my thoughts on some of the more subtle elements F2P games need. What are yours?