DAN STAINES knows that free­dom isn’t free

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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


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


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


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.


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