DAN STAINES knows that freedom isn’t free
Dan Staines discovers that the future of free-to-play gaming is looking rosy
Free-to-play (F2P) games have kind of a bad reputation among gamers, and with good reason. A glut of crass, exploitative F2P titles, most of them for Facebook and mobile, have left a sour taste in our collective mouth and we are rightly suspicious of a model seemingly predicated on deceit and psychological trickery. Free-to-play they say… and then when you’re well and truly hooked they hit you with the pay gates, the extra lives for only $5.95, the premium “extras” that are essential to progress. When we think free-to-play, we think Zynga, FarmVille, Candy Crush Saga… in short we think insidious, manipulative bullshit.
But a new generation of F2P games could change all that. Games like League
SOME ARE OBVIOUS, OTHERS LESS SO; SOME ARE ETHICAL, OTHERS…. NOT SO MUCH.
of Legends, Card Hunter, and Hearthstone challenge the assumption that F2P games are sloppily constructed timewasters designed to divest bored housewives of disposable income. These are proper games made by experienced developers who understand that F2P doesn’t have to be exploitative and that good game design is itself an inducement to spend money. As Klei Entertainment’s Jamie Cheng once put it, the idea driving this new crop of games is not to make us pay for entertainment but to entertain us so that we pay.
Before we get into the specifics of how that can be achieved, let’s pull back a bit and look at the big picture. What exactly is a “free-to-play” game and how do the different F2P models differ from one another?
MONEY >> The vast majority of F2P games share the same fundamental goals: engagement, retention, and conversion. In other words, F2P games need to pique your interest and maintain it long enough to turn you into a paying customer. In pursuit of this end, developers deploy all sorts of tricks and techniques. Some are obvious, others less so; some are ethical, others…. not so much.
Approachability is a matter of economic necessity for F2P games. The very last thing any F2P designer wants is to scare away a potential customer. Not all that surprisingly, we tend to be much more patient with games we’ve paid for. We want to get our money’s worth, so we endure – committing what economists etc. call the “sunk cost” fallacy. With free games, though, we’re far less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. Think about it: how many browser games have you given up on after like 20 seconds? In my case it’s a lot and I don’t think I’m that impatient.
This is one reason why F2P developers have such raging hard-ons for Facebook – you don’t get much more approachable than an interface familiar to billions. For people who don’t play videogames, who have never installed a program or opened a config file, who use their computers for
checking the weather and keeping in touch with family, downloading and launching an executable is a process equivalent to dark sorcery. But literally anyone can press the “Play Now!” button next to their status update box. Community is king: F2P games are seldom promoted with huge marketing budgets, obliging developers to rely heavily on word-of-mouth to attract an audience. Larger communities generate their own social gravity, drawing in newcomers like black holes gobbling stellar debris. This is another reason why F2P and FB are BFFs: Facebook is readymade community. No person is an island on social media: once they’ve got you they’ve got everyone connected to you, at least potentially. And even though the days of games auto-posting status updates sans consent are long behind us, players are still very much encouraged to badger their friends with what amount to covert advertisements. “I just need three thingies and I can build a whatsit! Won’t you help me, Dear Friend I’ve Not Seen in Real Life since Primary School?”
[GAME] >> As well as attracting newcomers, active communities play an important role in maintaining player interest over the long haul. League of Legends, whose massive, passionate community is the envy of F2P developers everywhere, is again an instructive example. For many Leaguer, talking about the game – formulating strategies, dissecting matches, spreading gossip – is an activity almost as important as playing it. In the event that a hardcore Leaguer calls it quits, s/he’s not only giving up a videogame, but a circle of friends, a daily habit.
According to game consultant Tadhg Kelly, F2P games are often designed to exploit our innate compulsion to finish incomplete tasks, especially ones seemingly on the cusp of completion. So imagine: you’re half way through building a [structure] for your prize [nouns] when suddenly it becomes apparent that you’re almost out of [resource]. Now you have a choice: you could come back [x] hours later when [resource] is replenished, or you could buy [currency] and get [x] [resource] right this very second. From the developer’s point of view, it’s a win-win scenario: you’re either hooked or committed to coming back for another bite. Many games – Card Hunter, Hearthstone, Mighty Quest for Epic Loot – are designed to be so-called Skinner boxes, using randomised loot (or cards, in the case of Hearthstone) to keep players thinking they’re just one chest/pack/hand away from The Big Jackpot. Slot machines operate the same way, though usually with much worse odds. This by itself isn’t problematic – a lot of great games, dungeon crawlers especially, are Skinner boxes. The problem is when you combine Skinner box design with manipulative or unethical monetisation. That’s when you get compulsive behaviour. That’s when you get addiction.
CONVERSION >> Examples of unethical monetisation/ conversion abound. In a blog post entitled “Mastering F2P: The Titanic Effect”, Wargaming.net game economist Ramin Shokrizade describes how the Zynga game FrontierVille – whose cheery cartoon aesthetic was clearly designed with
THAT’S WHEN YOU GET COMPULSIVE BEHAVIOUR. THAT’S WHEN YOU GET ADDICTION
children in mind – confronts the player with a “wounded, bloody, and crying baby deer” and then offers to save it at a cost of five dollars. In other words, FarmVille presents the probably-not-even-adolescent player with one of nature’s most adorable animals and says “Gimme a fiver or Bambi gets it.” It’s emotional blackmail, an example of what Shokrizade calls “distressed monetisation” – the tactic of inducing high levels of emotional stress and then offering relief at a price. One common (and commonly reviled) tactic for converting freeloaders into paying customers, one that has been around since the dawn of coinoperated arcade games, is to threaten the player with loss – “reward removal” in Shokrizade’s terminology – unless they part with some cash. Usually it’s progress on the line: the old “Continue?” trick sans ominous timer. Loot’s a popular and effective choice too, and it’s easy to see why. If I picked up a coveted Bad JuJu
Mace in Card Hunter only to be blackmailed with losing it before the thrill of discovery has had a chance to wear off, then yeah, I’d probably break out my credit card.
The point, though, is that Card Hunter doesn’t do that, or indeed anything like it. Nor does League of Legends, Hearthstone, World of Tanks, Ghost Recon: Phantoms, or Mighty Que st for Epic Loot. Though still in the minority, this new wave of F2P games defer coercion and manipulation, preferring instead to cultivate good will with solid game design and transparent monetisation. These are the games that will rehabilitate F2P.
ETHICS >> Humming along successfully after its release in September last year, Card Hunter is a model of good, ethical F2P game design. Asked to describe its business model, designer Jon Chey says “we rely on players wanting to spend money because they like the game and feel like compensating us for that.”
“We don’t have any pay walls nor have we adjusted the difficulty or item drop rate to make it tedious to play through without paying,” he continues. “Paying can accelerate your collecting efforts, but can’t get you to stuff that isn’t available through regular play. Also, the game has been tuned so that paying doesn’t accelerate you much beyond free progress. For example, [a Card Hunter] Club membership gives you one additional item – in a chest that often contains four items anyway.”
It’s also worth noting that the process of spending money in Card Hunter is almost entirely removed from the experience of actually playing the game. Ingame stores can only be accessed outside battle, via the world map, where the player’s emotional investment in the game is at its most subdued. Which might not like sound like a big deal, but the fact is that there is a world of difference between going to the store after losing a fight and being presented with a locked chest – one guaranteed rare, openable for a mere $5.95 – while teetering on the precipice of defeat. Says Chey: “All we can do is work hard to try to show that we’ve created a game that isn’t primarily a mechanism for extracting money from gullible players, but is a well designed piece of entertainment that allows you to pay for it if you consider it to be worthwhile.”
RESPECT >> And that, in a nutshell, is what separates Card Hunter and F2P games like it from the Villes and the Crushes and the Socials that have tarnished the genre’s name. Respect. For the player, yes, but also for the games themselves, for the power of good game design to
DEVELOPERS LIKE CHEY HAVE REALISED IS THAT THERE’S NO NEED TO TRICK OR MANIPULATE
move and entertain. What developers like Chey have realised is that there’s no need to trick or manipulate the player out of their money if they want to give it freely of their own good will, as an expression of appreciation and support. The benefits of the F2P model are numerous and varied. For developers, it’s a means of minimising costs while maximising returns, allowing smaller companies to avoid the crippling costs of marketing and distribution. For gamers, for us, the value is obvious: free games, no obligations. It’s only by virtue of a few less-than-virtuous practices that the genre has suffered such a dismal reputation, but it is clear now, with the emergence of games like the ones discussed in this article, that said practices are no longer a necessary ingredient for success. Once upon a time, the notion of F2P becoming the dominant videogame pricing model – as so many industry types have predicted it will – was a nightmare scenario, a vision of a grim and joyless future. But you know what? Maybe it wouldn’t be so
bad after all.