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Free-to-Play: The Price of Free

Free to Play. You hear those three little syllables and an icy tendril shudders involuntarily down your spine. Visions of corrupt publishers with their squat, grubby fingers rummaging around the cobwebbed corners of your threadbare leather wallet flicker through your mind and you start to grumble about bad payment models and rich kids beating skilled players by buying their way to the top.


You're not alone, and your opinions aren't unfounded. There exists in our gaming industry a plethora of F2P games that present themselves in such a way that it really doesn't take much to get hackles rising when you see what's for sale at what cost. Games that get progressively more difficult unless you shell out some change. Games that masquerade under 'completely free!' headlines until you start playing and realise that as a free player, you're facing restrictions on class, race, profession, crafting - and it dawns on you that you've been tricked into playing what more civilised publishers call a 'demo'.

The unfortunate truth here is that F2P as a business model is a really useful thing for small dev studios; by presenting an initially free game you're widening your prospective audience significantly, and by ditching the pay-once model and instead perpetually offering small sales you're securing higher overall revenues. Both of these things ultimately provide a more stable income. In 2012 F2P became a more popular gaming model and we can see from the Game Developer's 2012 Salary Survey that layoffs trended downwards; it's not a far stretch to presume that the two might maybe possibly perhaps be related.

Of course, no self-respecting, morally sound dev studio is going to get all gooey-eyed at the prospect of making a game that continuously encourages the player to shell out some cash. It just feels wrong. That's the first hurdle to overcome for anyone looking at the F2P model - the second is 'doing it right'.


If you read gaming news you'll have encountered, at some point over the past few years, horror stories of game industry layoffs. The most noteworthy of late are perhaps the sad, sad closure of Lucas Arts and THQ going bust, and just this week EA, Funcom and Popcap have laid off swathes of people, Activision has been in the news for closing down an entire studio the moment their last game was finished (Deadpool?) - it's everywhere. These are Triple-A development studios that traditionally use the pay-once model for releasing their games. This model comes in two flavours; the Hollywood model where a one-time group of workers are assembled to produce one project, and the software dev model, where a team of people are focused on building and improving on a product for the sales lifetime of that product. With software development there are bugs to fix, patches to go out, version updates to work on - but with videogames, a time will come when your game will be finished and the studio won't have anything else for you to work on. Hire dev, make game, lay off dev.

The development of F2P games is structured very differently. Many F2P games release early with a minimum viable product; this early launch version can start making money while the devs continue working on content. Development can continue indefinitely, as long as there's always something to add to the game, which means more sustainable employment > less layoffs > happy devs.


As a business model, then, F2P makes sense and is veritably steeped in advantage. The soul-sucking kicks in when you start to think about implementation of your money-making strategy. There's a fine line between providing a fun free game with additional paid content that doesn't too heavily overbalance the free stuff. You want to make money, but you don't want to be too brazen about it. At the same time, you of course do need to entice people to spend or the whole endeavour becomes pointless. To walk this fine line, and to understand how F2P games even work, one has to understand the Compulsion Loop.

Time for some psychology, yay! The Compulsion Loop rotates around the principles of reward and reinforcement. A reward is an appetitive stimulus given to a human that alters its behaviour. In neuroscience, it's a collection of brain structures which attempt to regulate and control behaviour by inducing pleasurable effects (mmm, tasty dopamine). Rewards are reinforcers - and a reinforcer is something that, when presented after a behaviour, causes the probability of that behavior's occurence to increase. A schedule of reinforcement is a rule stating which instances of a behaviour will be reinforced, from every time it occurs, to not at all. The goal of reinforcement is always to strengthen the behaviour and increase the likelihood that it will occur again in the future.


Now let's apply this to videogames. You're playing your character in a videogame world. Your character ordinarily gets 10xp from killing a troll and needs 1000xp to level; that's 100 trolls. This is a boring repetitive action. However, you can buy an XP booster for $1 that doubles your rate of XP gain. Now you only need 50 trolls. Your reward for spending that $1 is that you level faster, increasing your characters power so that you can kill trolls more quickly - suddenly you're grinding less and the game is more pleasurable. Your brain squirts out some dopamine and it tastes gooood, baby. Reward reinforcement.

A Compulsion Loop in video games, then, is when a game's mechanic is designed in such a way as to keep someone engaged by pairing their actions with a reward. There's a problem, though - diminishing returns. Drink enough coffee and you'll know that the more you knock back that brown ambrosial nectar, the more you need to get your kick. Similarly you won't be happy with the same videogame reward over and over indefinitely; you'll eventually start craving a reward that's more satisfying long-term than short-term. Essentially, there's a complexity to consider when approaching compulsion loops in videogames. I'm not going to go into it here, but if you want to read more, head over to Gamasutra where Pete Collier talks about the holy triumverate of Compulsion Loops in games.

So making a F2P game isn't just about milking as much money from the player as possible; it's about keeping the player occupied and having fun even when there's no money being spent, because the longer aplayer spends in a game, the greater the chances of them deciding to spend money on it. You want a game that encourages people to play and have fun *without* spending any money, but where the impetus to spend still exists and is still compelling enough to ensure your game will be financially viable. The constant distrust and scorn of F2P models in gaming is enough to demonstrate that finding that balance is really tricky business.


Most of the games that get bad press for going F2P are games that were never designed to be F2P in the first place. Brace yourselves, because I'm going to say it - ready? - Star Wars: The Old Republic. Ooooh shudder, there it is. SW:TOR transitioned to F2P because the subscription model just wasn't working out for them, but the game wasn't designed to be F2P. Hearkening back to Compulsion Loops, the psychological mechanisms that exist to keep the player interested in subscription-based games is different from those in F2P games. Stepping from subscription to F2P is like wearing someone else's shoes; your feet might fit, kinda, but it just feels wrong.

TERA is another one, but arguably one that did it better than SW:TOR. There's a big Q&A on Gamasutra (yes, I like Gamasutra, hush) with TERA COO Soo Min Park talking about TERA's move to F2P, but the essence is this:

We chose to launch TERA as subscription-only because it was designed around this model, and we were confident we could deliver a great game experience. We also wanted to better understand what our players valued most in terms of game content.  
For example, even though our players were paying for a subscription, they were also interested in purchasing additional cosmetic items through our web store. The strong performance of these item sales helped support our belief that TERA could succeed under a microtransaction model.


But what about SW:TOR? There's one fact from their switch to F2P that just can't be ignored; since moving from subscription to F2P, SW:TOR has gained 2 million users. From the SWTOR blog in March of this year, Bioware executive producer Jeff Hickman spoke about the move to F2P;

Last spring, there was some uncertainty surrounding Star Wars™: The Old Republic™ as we were starting to lose subscribers and players were growing frustrated. In fairness, many of the complaints and worries were justified. At the end of the summer, we announced that were (...) bringing back vitality to the game by reaching out to new players via a Free-to-Play option. So how did it go? Well, you can see for yourself when you log in to the game. Our new, high capacity servers are teeming with people. Since launch of the Free-to-Play option we have had over 2 million new accounts created and have thousands of new players jumping in every single day. This means more people to play with, more growth for your guilds, more Warzone matches, and more ways for players to continue to advance their characters

That doesn't sound so bad, does it? In fact it sounds positively shiney. But there's more to this than the SW:TOR blog post suggests. Let's go back to Gamasutra, where Simon Ludgate explored the nuances of SW:TORs F2P model. Simon wanted to know how much it would cost to play SW:TOR with a subscription-like game experience, without actually subscribing. The answer? $56 a month -

And that's assuming you're going to plunk down $180 to unlock everything (including hotbars to put your abilities on so you can actually use those abilities) on only two characters. You can't actually get more than two characters (as far as I can tell), and there's plenty else you can't unlock, like getting quest rewards from completing quests or carrying more than a handful of credits. This is what they're expecting free players to pay. And those players are "free players" because $60 for a boxed game and $15 for a subscription was ridiculously overpriced and not something they were willing to pay for. That's why they're in SWOTR now that it's F2P, as a free player, spending Cartel Coins like they're Zimbabwe's 100 trillion dollar bills.


Yeah, not so shiny.

The real shiv-to-the-gut is the ongoing weekly cost to play SWTOR. SWTOR has five main content avenues: the single player story, the single player space missions, the group Flashpoints (four-player dungeons), the Warzones (PvP battlegrounds), and Ops (20-person raids). You have to pay for four different passes to unlock four of the game's five content avenues (all but the story) and each weekly pass is 240 cartel coins. As each cartel coin costs a little over 0.727 cents USD each, 240 per pass, four passes per character, two characters, four passes a month = 7680CC, or $55.84. Now obviously, no sane person is going to actually pay $56 a month for SWTOR. They're going to pay the $15 subscription fee, or they're not going to pay at all. Which makes one thing very painfully obvious: SWTOR's F2P isn't meant to be a free-to-play MMORPG; it's meant to be an excessively contrived demo to get people to sign up for subscriptions.

And it dawns on you that you've been tricked into playing what more civilised publishers call a 'demo'.

I think F2P has great potential for allowing smaller studios to unleash awesome games that are fun to play but still financially viable - but I also think there's still a lot of work to do before there's a really solid F2P model out there that doesn't burn either the players or the devs.

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