Doing Free-to-Play Right: An Expert's View
When it comes right down to it, I'm just a guy. I say things, things that I think are right, but it's not like anyone is busting down my door to hire me to help them make their free-to-play games (not yet, anyway).
So it's refreshing to see someone who is routinely hired to help people make their F2P games espouse some of the same principles that I – and many others with the same “I think I know what I'm talking about but I'm not sure” attitude – have come up with regarding F2P acquisition, retention, and monetization.
Nicholas Lovell, who has literally written the book on F2P monetization, gave a talk at GDC Next 2013, which you can find here. It's long, and some of his higher concepts went over my head, but several of his talking points are spot-on with what many feel is the “right” way to do F2P. Much of his talk revolves around the mobile gaming market, but he has plenty of examples in the PC and console gaming space, as well.
Here are a couple of his most interesting points:
People should be able to play nearly an entire game for free. Here's the key stat I perked up on from this part of Lovell's talk: 70% of players who finished Candy Crush Saga were free players. First, I didn't know you could “finish” Candy Crush Saga. So if nothing else, I learned that much.
The next time you hear someone with a subscription-model game throw up their hands and say they just have no idea how they'll make money by making their game “free,” remind them that King is estimated to make around $800,000 per day from CCS.
Obviously, King isn't exactly known for their friendly business practices these days – a fact largely unknown to Lovell when he gave his talk last year – but the same concept applies to games like World of Tanks (which has 70% to 80% free players) and League of Legends. It seems contradictory, but you can make money with a game you give away for free. It's a proven fact, and arguments to the contrary are just companies trying to hook you on a sales pitch on their aging subscription model.
Retention is far more important in F2P than in P2P. If you buy a $60 game and play it for 30 minutes and hate it, the company that made it might be a little unhappy, but they've already got your money, so it's no big deal, accounting-wise.
If you pick up a F2P game and abandon it after 30 minutes, the developer probably got nothing out of you. Thus, F2P games must work harder to “hook” you on the initial gameplay and, importantly, get you into the game faster and provide what Lovell calls a “meaningful experience” quickly to retain you and get you to spend money.
This is a bit of a double-edged sword. Let's face it: Many F2P games feature shallow, uninteresting gameplay that still manages to “hook” players because they're easy to figure out and borderline addictive (see Flappy Bird). They figure that if they remove those pesky barriers to entry like, say, having to figure out a complex bunch of systems or, most importantly, handing over your credit card info, they'll get you in quicker. On the other hand, games that are, at their core, simple, like an FPS (grab gun, shoot bad guy, repeat), can draw players in quickly with their accessibility and keep them around with their depth.
It's no surprise that F2P games that follow the typical “grind for hours before getting to the endgame” model (especially MMOs) tend to lose their luster and appeal rather quickly while games that are essentially the same from start to finish (like most PvP games) have a much longer shelf life. Games that let players enjoy the core experience right out of the gate have a better chance of hooking and retaining players than ones that require a long lead time before you get to the “fun stuff.”
That guy in World of Tanks. Seriously, even if you don't want to watch the whole video, you have to hear Lovell's incredible description of a (possibly apocryphal) World of Tanks players who hates dying so much... well, check it out for yourself. The story starts at 35:40.
Anyway, if you have an hour or so to spare, give Lovell's talk a try. You might have to pause it occasionally to consider some things, as I did, but it's an interesting look into the mind of someone who knows more about this stuff – and isn't trying to sell you on a concept – than any of us.
About the Author
Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.
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