50 Shades of Pay – Our take on Free to Play
I can say that one of the most controversial debates between developers is the Free to Play debate. Some will tear down any game using it, others will practically force a player to pay for some in-app purchase to viably complete the game. As with most internet debates, these are only the extremes, and the stance that I believe is worth taking is somewhere in the middle.
I bring up this topic because Honeyvale will inevitably be questioned on it at some point – that’s right, get your pitchforks out ladies and gentlemen, because Glyph Gates is indeed going Free to Play! But it isn’t without reason, and I hope to explain that clearly here.
This is just an opinion piece. If you disagree with me, that doesn’t mean I’m saying you’re wrong and I’m right – debates never evolve with that kind of attitude. Just bring it up in the comments! I’d love to see if there’s something we aren’t clear on – or if there’s a perspective we haven’t taken into account on the issue.
Overall, each monetization strategy will have its own set of goals. Before we dive into Free-to-play, let’s have a look at our recent history with different models.
For the pay-once-and-play model, often the only goal is to make a game good enough to tell others about. A lot of people are a fan of this model because of that reason, and I really can’t argue with them – it makes sure that the money is where the fun is. On the other hand, particularly with new AAA releases, this can lead to inflated prices for otherwise fairly small games – but let’s not get into that here.
Jump back not too long ago, we had the coin-op being the most prevalent monetization model, which usually required players to die – a lot – to earn quarters. But it had to be the kind of frustration that spurs a player on to try again, which led to the difficult-but-fair style of game which still appeals to the Dark Souls and Super Meat Boy fans. However, it wasn’t all gravy, as this opened the door to games which basically required the player to pump quarters into them, like a rigged carnival game. The term ‘artificial difficulty’ could be used a lot here, for games would put in obstacles which were virtually impossible to overcome without dumb luck or already knowing they were there from a previous death – such as an anvil randomly falling out of the sky to hit your character.
However, it was difficult to criticise coin-op as a whole, because not all were based off of a die-lots system, or even abused that system in the first place. Competitive classic arcade games such as Pac Man or Donkey Kong were almost literally impossible to get to the end, but the real difficulty was facing against other human opponents for high scores – which is, often, a very fair difficulty. Arcade fighting games usually require the loser of a head-to-head match to put in another quarter to challenge the victor again. These games don’t really fit into criticisms that others have of the coin-op experience – they don’t have to force the players to die to earn money, they rely on players simply playing it a lot.
I feel this has a lot of comparisons to Free to Play. It is not uncommon for people to say that Free to Play games inherently focus on trying to psychologically barrage you into paying for an in-game service. Just like coin-op, that is something that could be said about a lot of prominent examples – and I’m not going to defend them. But just as context was needed to determine if a coin-op experience was ‘doing it wrong’, I think a lot more context is required before we can really dismiss a free to play game for using the model. Would League of Legends be a better game were it not Free to Play?
What I would define as a dangerous use of Free to Play is when games create an artificial sense of compulsion to play their game, rather than making the game be worth playing for its own sake. Psychological caveats such as Sunk Cost Fallacy or Loss Aversion Theory can be used to punish the players for not playing rather than providing a reward when they are – and this system is at the heart of Game Compulsion. A privy gamer might ask, “Do I want to see games which introduce punishments to my life? Or reward me for a few minutes a day?” The former obviously doesn’t benefit players, and the rammifications of it have already been demonstrated in prominent culture with gambling.
So are there Free to Play games which don’t rely on compulsion rather than entertainment? Of course – there’s nothing about optional payments which force people into these compulsions. I’ve heard the argument that every Free to Play game is trying to break its players, or that, of course companies only want your money, that it’s the only thing to gauge a player’s worth. But I don’t actually believe that a player spending money is the most important thing to a developer. A player which convinces at least one of their friends to play regularly makes your fanbase bigger, and in terms of word of mouth, that’s where your game snowballs into a great financial success.
Glyph Gates is Free to Play, but only because we want as many people to play and enjoy it as possible. We’re perhaps erring a little hard on the non-financially viable side of the coin, but to us, its justified – this is a portfolio piece and a bundle of experience. We’re still iterating through the exact execution of monetization, but the core we are building it around assures that it makes the game better, and doesn’t make anyone feel bad for paying or not paying.
However, even if all we cared about was money, having players who never spend money on Free to Play games are still important to have. You need them to tell their friends! Rate your game five stars! Play it on the bus for curious onlookers! If even one other person picks up the game because of a non-payer, then its considered a success in my book. In fact, someone who is amazed by the experience and tells everyone they know about how great this game is will often be a greater boon than the $10 or so they would have spent, max.
I’m not an economist. I haven’t done years of looking at books studying dollar signs. And I think that people who apply that sort of knowledge to games have lost the point. If someone sat down with Flappy Bird and tried to maximise both average user revenue and user retention, I have no doubt they would have ruined it, but it would be the obviously bad game that was blamed. But if you’re getting as many players as Flappy Bird, perhaps you don’t need to squeeze all those nickels and dimes.