Everybody hates free-to-play

Or do they? One of the most popular ways of paying for games is under constant scrutiny from the media and core consumers.

So what can be done about free-to-play’s negative image?

The successful freemium game is based on five principles,” says Canada’s minister of mobile gaming.

Entice the player with a simple game loop. Use lots of flashing ch-chings and compliments to make the player feel good about themselves. Train the players to spend your fake currency. Offer them a way to spend real currency for your fake currency – so they will forget they are spending money. And make the game about waiting, but let the player pay not to wait. It is a sure-fire way to make lots of money.”

We understand micropaying,” replies the comedian Phillip. But can’t the game hidden inside the charade at least be fun?”

No, it has to be just barely fun,” answers the minister. If the game was too fun there would be no need to micropay in order to make it more fun.”

This is an exchange from the South Park episode ‘Freemium Isn’t Free,’ which aired last November. It was the latest in a string of attacks on free-to-play, where developers have been accused of utilising underhand tactics to extort money from unsuspecting players.

In fact, even some of these developers have their issues with the business model.

Certain elements of free-to-play games are comparable with casinos,” says Playrise Digital’s Nick Burcombe, who created free-to-play mobile game Table Top Racing.

Firstly, get them through the door for free. In casinos, they want you to forget about the realities, so there’s free booze and attractive people serving drinks, which always loosens up the wallet. Then they establish an understanding of the ‘in-game economy’, push players towards a purchase, figure out who the big spenders are and then put the ‘menu of value’ on the table. In casinos, this is the ‘comps’ system: free drinks, food, rooms, show tickets, helicopter rides, whatever you desire, as long as you keep spending – the more you spend the more they will comp you.

It’s the same for games, and the reason people feel it’s unfair is that you instinctively get a sense that this model is just there to exploit you.”

He adds: Effectively you’re being ‘gamed’, and getting money out of you is a metrics-driven science.”


Of course, free-to-play was not born as a cynical ploy to pick pockets.

It is a response to the changes wrought by digital: ridiculously cheap file distribution, unlimited shelf space, fewer gatekeepers and virtually unlimited consumer choice,” says Nicholas Lovell, analyst and free-to-play consultant.

All of this led to a situation where free was inevitable,
driven not by piracy but by competition for the most valuable thing in a digital economy: consumer attention.

F2P also introduced a whole new audience to games. Players who don’t get Dark Souls, or even Hearthstone, but for whom Candy Crush Saga, or Kim Kardashian: Hollywood are absorbing, entertaining pastimes.

There have been negatives. The first rush of ‘my kid spent 1,000 on virtual currency’ has passed as parental controls and understanding improve. There will always be these stories, because they make good headlines, but anyone who thinks that F2P is ripping off children who don’t understand what they are doing is deluded and in for a big disappointment when the model doesn’t disappear.”

Indeed, consumers have voted, and they want free games.

They overwhelmingly want free-to-play,” says Lee Cummings, creative director of free mobile game Doctor Who Legacy. Publishers know that if they charge a price – any price – the installs will drop dramatically. This has created a very difficult paradox, because consumers have become accustomed to free games – yet, of course, they aren’t free to make.”


For all the criticisms, free-to-play is popular, and the model has its benefits; independent developers can now make huge amounts of money without the need for a big publisher, while consumers can essentially try before they buy.

But what about the accusations that have been levelled by South Park and the ilk? That too many free-to-play games are just ‘barely fun’ and utilise cynical tricks to persuade players to spend?

If you forget to delight your players and rely on a playbook of monetisation techniques, eventually they’ll get bored and play the games of someone who doesn’t treat them as numbers in a vast, metrics-driven database,” says Lovell.

There are many things that still disappoint me about free-to-play games. The Kate Upton adverts for Game of War are an embarrassment to our industry. I’m saddened by how little distance we have come in our marketing techniques or our portrayal of women.

I am also saddened by the number of triple-A developers who shove timers, energy gates and aggressive monetisation into well-loved franchises with little understanding of the fundamental principles of good F2P design.

The lack of understanding, love and respect for the players shows through and means these games are unlikely to work.”

"If people want to buy a virtual doughnut for 69p,
who am I to argue?"

Nick Burcome, Playrise Digital

So what can be done to turn around free-to-play’s perception problem?

I’d like to see a change in mobile where if you put more money in, you get more fun out,” answers Burcombe. So you’re not constantly being asked to spend small amounts on short-term power-ups, or worse still, spending money that reduces your waiting time… that’s where I have a moral issue with some of the free-to-
play mechanics.

I’m keenly aware that the public vote with their wallets and, regardless of my wishes, the prevalent model will win out. If people are happy to spend 69p for a virtual doughnut that doesn’t get them anywhere – then who am I to argue?”

Susan Cummings, executive producer on Doctor Who Legacy, agrees: As an industry, we need
to stop making consumers feel that they’re being duped – start offering real value so that they don’t feel bad about spending money. Yes, there is clearly a lot of money to be made in pay walls and tricks – but morally, is this really what we want our industry to become?”

She continues: Perhaps gamers need to become re-accustomed to the fact that games cost money to make. Most free games have fewer than five per cent of players spending. That is the reason for so much focus on tuning monetisation.”

This is the conflict at the heart of free-to-play. These games cannot be free. Developers need to be paid. And if the monetisation is too generous, no one will spend – if it’s too aggressive, it spoils the experience. It’s a tough balancing act to pull off.

Some have got it right (take Blizzard’s Hearthstone or Valve’s Dota 2 as ideal examples of the model), but these are offset by the high-profile failures.

The hope is that developers can learn from these errors, so that the controversial business model can shrug off its PR problems and live up to the po

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