June 30, 2012 1:00 PM | John Polson
Ask IndieGames is a monthly feature that takes a range of topics relating to indie gaming and development and poses them as a question to the editorial staff.
This month's topic is free-to-play (F2P) games. Love them or loathe them, F2P games are gradually taking the video game industry by storm, in the web browser, on mobile devices and now even on home consoles. What elements should indie developers look to include or avoid when building a F2P game? What can indie developers do differently?
Mike Rose: Free-to-play gaming could be something amazing - in fact, in numerous examples, it already is. If you've played games like Tribes: Ascend or League of Legends, you'll know that free-to-play isn't as nasty and manipulative as elsewhere, with microtransactions that don't affect the game in such a way that your progress is impeded otherwise.
Unfortunately, the majority of free-to-play games aren't like this at all, instead opting for huge waiting times between plays (unless you pay cash) or days and weeks of doing the same thing over and over again (sped up by - you guessed it - paying cash). None of these 'games' are really enjoyable at all, but rather, play on our obsessive nature. We *have* to see what happens if we manage to get a certain way through the game, even if getting there is incredibly formulaic and full.
For the future of free-to-play games, I hope that developers rapidly start shifting away from these time-sink tactics and into the realms of actual fun. And you know what? If you offer me free gameplay that I enjoy, I may well feel like purchasing a few microtransactions here and there is worth it. With the innovation coursing through the indie scene, I sincerely believe that the breakthroughs in free-to-play will come from indies.
Konstantinos Dimopoulos:(Gnome) Though I wouldn't consider myself an expert on free-to-play games and microtransactions, I am pretty aware of the fact that this can be a risky and difficult to balance way of monetizing ones game.
Offering, for example, too much content for free can easily make any sort of purchase pointless, whereas offering too little can frustrate gamers. It was only a few days ago that the developers of a successful and widely downloaded iOS game were telling me that most people simply enjoyed their core/free game for a few hours and them failed to grab its well priced and hefty in-app expansions...
Apparently and according to the same devs, in-app purchases of some sort of in-game currency that unlocks levels, makes the game easier or just provides with a bit of help seem to work better. At least on iOS I'd add.
On the other hand and as major MMORPGs have proven, you could simply give the whole game away for free and only charge for cosmetic extras or extra content, but you'd really need a substantial community and a game that is both good and addictive enough for players to emotionally invest in.
Then again you could go the Farmville way and charge gamers for stuff that doesn't really make sense. My tip for this case? Employ dark sorceries.
1. Your game should be fun to play without requiring a purchase. Many free-to-play titles tease purchaseable features that eliminate tedium or speed along the game's pacing. Often, these features are key mechanics that should have been unlocked at the game's outset. If your game isn't immediately fun enough to hook the player, they're not going to want to spend money on it in the hopes that it will somehow become more fun.
Both Jetpack Joyride and Temple Run are fun to play without spending a dime, and both offer core gameplay that feels feature-complete without purchasing upgrades.
2. In-app purchases should make your game more fun to play. Jetpack Joyride includes a series of gadgets that can be purchased with in-game currency. The game is fully playable without them, but each time the player is able to use them during gameplay, the result is a satisfying performance boost. Temple Run works in a similar way, offering unlockable goals and multipliers that provide added gameplay incentive.
3. Don't make microtransactions a substitute for playing your game. Some free-to-play titles sell perks that basically act as shortcuts to goals that could be reached during free gameplay. Be careful not to overdo this; purchases should complement your game, not replace the need to play it. If players take shortcuts through your game, why should they continue to give you money once they run out of goals to achieve?
Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride smartly limit purchases to in-game currency, rather than allowing players to buy perks outright. This also adds perceived value to the currency that players earn during gameplay.
4. Your game should be balanced. The "pay-to-win" model sucks. Don't use it. The upgrades in Jetpack Joyride and Temple Run give temporary boosts, but they're hardly game-breaking, and players still need to possess some degree of skill in order to make the most of them. If an optional purchase eliminates the need for player skill, your game is effectively broken.
Cassandra Khaw: Free to Play games are interesting because they're sort of tolerated but loathed all at the same time. Thanks to companies like Zynga, they've pretty much become commonplace these days. That said, there are certain things that you can do to make the idea of an F2P game more palatable to your audience.
First and foremost? Don't be absurd. It's amazing as to how many people can forget that. Don't call it a 'free' game but make levelling almost impossible without a cash purchase. Want to advance to level 5? Great. Reiterate the first four levels three hundred times. Don't want to sit through all the drudgery? Hand over your wallet. This sucks. It tends to make people angry and reviewers livid. I do a lot of iOS games reviewing and this drives me insane when I run into it.
A good example of a company that has done it right is Nimblebit. It's a nice balance of things. You get stuff that you can use to speed up construction and things. You don't really have to purchase anything. You can just get sucked into it. At the same time, because it's so charming, well-tailored, and happily bereft of BUG YOUR FRIENDS TO PLAY IN EXCHANGE FOR NOT HAVING TO PAY MONEY' messages, it's likely to inspire the urge to purchase something as a show of support anyway.
Alternatively, you could do a Valve and give your audience everything they want (and just a little bit more). In DOTA 2, there's always the chance to get something after every match. Mythical items? Sure? Common items? Definitely. You can get almost everything in the store for free. However, there's also the chance that you might win chests and chests can only be opened with keys which, in turn, can only be purchased. It's basically baiting the gamer's inner curiosity and it works massively well.
John Polson: The F2P model and games I play haven't mixed much; I instead see a lot of DLC (ugh). I don't mind browser or iDevice games with ads (even billboards in game scenery), as long as they stay unobtrusive.
F2P games that offer skip functions or boost-assists are also fine by me, as long as challenges without them are fair and tasks aren't too time-consuming. However, pay-to-win just feels off-putting. Make me love your design decisions (artistic and narrative) so I want to buy your virtual merchandise, as opposed to pressuring me into purchases or preventing me from reaching end credits.
I hope indies experiment in the F2P area more, like cross-promoting with real world or virtual items. An F2P with "real world" AR trading cards for my Vita? Yes, please! An F2P with plushies? I bet Cass is with me here! I also think a Meat Boy or Isaac virtual skin would help more than hurt sales. It seems to work for non-Valve games with Team Fortress 2 content.
How about Free2Rent? Restrict me by letting me sample what something does and get attached to how it enhances my experience. And how about blending F2P games with paid-purchase games? F2P items purchased in one game could contain the key to unlocking one or more DLC in another game. This tactic could work across the library of just one developer or with cross-promoting another developer's game.
If all else fails, hire an economist.
Do you have a question that you'd like the IndieGames editors to tackle? Email EIC John Polson at johnpolsonfl at gmail dot com. [image source]