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.

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.


  1. Easy. Eliminate the greed. Put in the cash shop with just costumes. Fun systems based on player input and Poof. People actually give you money just because (look at star citizen).

    Most companies like to play with illusions, that your cash is doing some thing magical online to protect you. Sadly, that is a lie. I have been in private server communities for years. I have had no problems where as my new Guild Wars 2 account is compromised in 2 days.

    Private servers put cash shop items in an npc shop to be purchased with in game coin. They only ask for donations based on your fun. They stay active and people give monthly donations because they know supporting fun is better than “pay this because we are X brand”. And the companies know it and are running scared. Look at the last updates.
    All updates companies are doing are trying to fight the private servers. WoW, instant end game character for 60 bucks. Webzen did this, and other titles to “entice new players”.
    They release all these excuses and reasons why they are doing it to calm the sheeple: “It is because we find that blahblahblah” Damage control. The fact is, they are losing people who are having better experiences for free.

    Really. Nuff said. The rest is just propaganda. “Oh, private servers are hackers ” blah blah fear fear.
    Hackers are your friend. If it was not or “hackers” like Napster, the system would still have us use CD’s only. No digitial MP3s allowed. Napster forced the entire market to change, and Itunes was born and other enterprises. And in the end, .99 cents a song = bigger profits than CD purchases, especially when you can cut out the plastic used to make the CD. Thank you hackers. Thank you very much for evolving humanity.

    The hackers that “steal your information” usually can be traced to the same company taking your credit card information. DERP.

    • With the private WoW servers – I hate to say that, but it’s empirically proven that Blizzard did a great job with Cataclysm (and probably also later with MoP) to make private servers less preferable.
      They introduced a huge amount of phasing and reworked the classic areas (about two-thirds of the available zones by that time) – if someone actually spent some time to work and script the complex quests (and that was pretty much required in order to have a good experience), then all that work will just get blown away as most quests have a decent chance of getting at least reworked if not removed and the “developers” have to do the scripting again.
      I’ve seen servers on Cataclysm for an extended period of time (over years now AFAIK), and the players say about leveling “buy a boost to 60-70-80-85 so you can skip the grinding from ~lvl40 where there are barely any working quests”, but even on the best WotLK server I have ever heard of there are quite some phasing issues (and WotLK had significantly less of those than Cata did) – example: for some quests my friend logged in from another friend’s account so he can use his pet to pull the mobs “out from the phasing” (so into an area where they’re visible and he can fight them), because walking up to them just dropped the player into another phase where they weren’t visible.

      While I really like the idea of “donation supported games”, I hate to say that (again) they’re still businesses and their main goal is to make money. F2P titles with cosmetics only (DotA2, HoN) do a really good job there (as they’re still up and running after quite some time). Boosts are a big “maybe” for me, depends a lot on the speed of progression and how much it’s required to have the full experience. I don’t like the idea of anything else (even if it can be acquired through playing).

  2. actually what he basically stated as the needs for a f2p system to work is exactly why sub fans hate f2p.

    1. super fans – they are 40% of the total revenue and spend over $1000 each. even in a pay to save time game, at those numbers a definite advantage can be gained.

    2. freeloaders – the players who simply exist. these players rarely care about the game itself and are usually only there for a) free stuff from a super fan or b) only there for a short time or c) there to create trouble – now c = good for the devs because when trouble starts super fans pay to win.

    games like LoL, Dota etc are pretty much exceptions to his rule set. why? because they aren’t real mmos. session based games take less money to create and less money to operate. phone apps are big with devs because of the same reasons. they make tons of money since development and operation costs are minimal.

    so if you are an open world mmo player you wont see those same results. you will see superfans, and tons of freeloaders. and since a good open world mmo costs a lot of money to develop you will likely see less content/engaging experiences.

    people have been saying subs are dying for years as if they say it enough it will eventually become true. yet year after year the big mmos launch as pay to play due to monetary restrictions and the fact that there are still enough players who realize what f2p comes with.

    good read Jason and nice vid. thanks for the link

    • “year after year the big mmos launch as pay to play”

      1. Blade and Soul – china – f2p
      2. Rift – f2p
      3. Dungeons and Dragons – mostly f2p
      4. Russian ArcheAge – f2p
      The list goes on.. so yeah, i don’t think what you think is entirely correct… ^^)v

    • Just replying to your few statements, since I greatly support the F2P model and despise the pay-to-play model.

      1. There are some F2P games that don’t require payments to win to gain an advantage. A prime example is the recent TPS “Loadout”, where you can only pay for boosters and cosmetics items with real cash. Also, a “pay to save time game”, if you are talking about boosters (such as 2x EXP), are no real problem. You progress faster, but you don’t normally get any amazing benefits that puts you ahead of others. Exceptions are ones that requires to “level” or “rank up” to gain new items. But, the majority of the games that uses that sort of system are skilled-based games (Lost Saga, Warface).

      a) “Super fans” would normally not give away their cash or time to a total stranger for free. By time, I mean the total time it took for that person to actually earn that certain item.
      b)It’s a person’s decision to like the game or not.
      c) I can perceive this in two ways; trolls, or paying players. These trolls can ruin a game, but it’s a player choice to take attention to them. Considering that these trolls just joined, they would likely have to face existing veteran players, and their “trouble” wouldn’t be much.
      If you mean paying players, then that would only count for pay-to-win games. Even if they own players in a game that doesn’t require payments, it still proves that non-paying players can still achieve that, it just takes time.
      Any other players that cause trouble would be hackers, ragers, jerks, and overpowered veterans, which would hurt the community and can eventually hurt business by driving away potential customers. This only counts for a selection of games because these games would normally drive up tension (PvP, very difficult PvE).

      MMO – Massive Multiplayer Online ; So MOBAs can still be considered as MMOs because they connect the community togethor by having players interact, both as teams and enemies.

      I’m implying that by open world MMO is that you mean MMORPG, since they make up all, if not the majority of the open world MMOs. I do not have much experience with these games, since I never reached endgame content, but I don’t really see too many that require payments to enjoy them. I do not see that not paying for games does not bring enjoyment. So, I don’t really believe in the “super players” and “freeloaders” in any sort of games. I have played multiple open world MMOs that are not pay-to-win and are very engaging and packed with content.

      So yeah, I really like the F2P models. It does has it problems, but it’s only because of the actual game that the model was built around and what the company feels is the best step to making business. Some pay-to-win games are successful just because of gameplay, while others fail due to lack of engaging gameplay. F2P models that only provides convenience and cosmetics are very friendly, but can risk a loss of profit if the gameplay doesn’t bring in players. In the end, what I think that makes a F2P game successful is a fresh, great gameplay experience, which only a selection of games can provide.

      • “Some pay-to-win games are successful just because of gameplay, while others fail due to lack of engaging gameplay.”

        Forgot to add “or veterans taking out newcomers (which mainly applies to PvP based games, but can apply to MMORPGs in certain conditions).”

      • I play warframe. I like it. do I consider it as large or expansive as the p2p mmo launches? not even close. I addressed session based gaming. its more mmo-lite really. even most of financial reports that have mmos compared leave those games out. so it isn’t just me.

        there is nothing wrong with f2p as a model. but the products are rarely done well, and even less so in large expansive projects that are not limited to session based games. pretty much all of your points included those. as I stated, they are considered exceptions. because you cant really compare a LoL to a ESO or Wildstar.

        I liked my time with Age of Wushu. but it still wasn’t a AAA p2p mmo by any means. it really did some things right, but not enough for me and many others to consider in the same league as the big boys.

        further up someone mentioned ArcheAge. that looks promising. but until it actually proves its done well, is as large as its p2p competition I cant really comment either for or against it.

        thanks for the well thought out comments.

    • I Love F2P, many things to try without paying a dime, and even some really good ones worth money – if you like. If you don’t – walk away without loss.

      I have been playing World of Tanks almost daily for about 2 years – every day as a freeloader. (now theres value for money) – So I would not think myself belonging to any of your freeloader categories.


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