Going Free to Play (And Avoiding a Journey to the Dark Side)

3D and UX Design for Games, VR and Animation

Going Free to Play (And Avoiding a Journey to the Dark Side)

September 20, 2012 Uncategorized 3

[This is a guest post by Dan Toose of Surprise Attack]

One thing that’s become apparent in recent times looking at the indie dev scene is the widespread disdain for the free-to-play (F2P) monetisation model. Some folks have gone so far as to call it ‘evil’, typically comparing it to poker machines, crack or other addictive wrongness. Considering what we’ve seen companies like Zynga do, that’s understandable.

It’s very clear some of the game design techniques and philosophies employed in various F2P games are very consciously geared to play on human weakness and simply extract money from people.

However, when you also consider the realities of what’s going on with how the public are acquiring and playing games (show a great preference for F2P), this should be a call for designers to rally behind finding ethical approaches to utilising this monetisation model. Hopefully this piece on implementing F2P design strategies will both alleviate some fears in those apprehensive about the model, and also spark some discussion about other opportunities game developers can adopt to make F2P both viable and ethical.


This isn’t evil – It’s just unfamiliar


I’ve got a bunch of good books on game design, and not one of them touches on how to work with in-app-purchases (IAP). None of the game design ‘Bibles’ have a chapter on this, and this is not something any of us grew up enjoying or wanting to see added in games. Frankly, this FP2/IAP stuff is a relatively alien concept for game designers who have spent the last umpteen years with a simple ‘Make it more fun’ directive, leaving the suits to deal with all the dirty ‘asking for the money’ part of the business. Now, games designers must get involved in the monetisation as well, and as we’ve seen, it’s easy to get this wrong… And even easier to mistake the act of finding a means to make money as wrong or as ‘evil’.

An attitude of resistance makes small hurdles seem large, but it isn’t actually difficult to find ways to include IAP monetisation that focuses on giving the player value, and also avoids jarring experiences and unethical practices. Let’s take a look at:

  • What types of IAP can be brought to a game
  • How IAP should be worked into the design pipeline
  • Things to avoid to ensure your IAP is welcome and ethical


Basic types of IAP to use in F2P games


This is perhaps the clearest piece of the puzzle, as it is very easy to see what sorts of things other developers have tried to attach to IAP in the monetisation for F2P games. There is nothing inherently wrong with charging players for the option to have these things, as players will only take up the offer if they see value in it.


Developers are already finding success with:

Pay for more tactical options

Lets say your game has guns or cars. You can make some extra guns available that suit certain styles of play, or vehicles with different handling and acceleration. The extra content must still be balanced – They will simply create more diverse player approaches in game, enriching the experience.

Pay for time saving

Some folks do not have as much time to game as they would like, or they may simply be dying to progress faster than they normally could. Offer them game resources, or the ability to earn game resources (cash, experience, etc) faster, in exchange for cash. You can even do this as a lifelong benefit, which is great for those players who simply want to know how to cap their overall spending, and also providing blatantly obvious value to a player who feels they will spend time on the game.

Do not confuse paying to save time with making the player pay to continue playing now – That will have a very different effect on your audience (see below).

Pay for cosmetic options

Some people really love visual customisation. Offer them more options here, and you may make them happy about their new ability to express themselves. This is particularly useful in MP games, where players can be seen by others. It can work in single-player games too, but will probably be limited to folks who have a thing for outfit collection and such.

Offer non-exclusive rewards for inviting friends

Players that invite friends to the game can be given rewards. Note, it is extremely important that these NOT be exclusive rewards, or that the player can only progress in the game some way by doing this – Once you do that, you are forcing players who are completionists to hassle their friends because they will feel they have no option but to do so… And this enters the realms of poor ethics. Don’t prompt your supporters to become annoying asshats.

Pay for more content

This needs no real explanation – There have been DLC level packs, episodic expansions and the like for games for many years. Be mindful that if this content is not available when the player completes a game, their chances of noticing it become available drop dramatically unless they are made aware of it via some means external to the game.


Fitting IAP into your development plans


Despite the fact many people within the games industry are suggesting that good IAP is designed into the game from outset, it must also be noted that it is very possible to ruin a game by thinking about monestisation too early. That does not mean you shouldn’t plan to have IAP from the beginning, but it is important not to connect it into your design too early, or what you’ll have a game that’s about supporting transactions, rather than transactions that support your game. The former may sound good fiscally, but the best chance to success in F2P comes from having customer retention due to enjoying your product. Approach your IAP planning and implementation in this order:

Start with a focus on retaining players, and not the IAP

In pre-production, stay focused on what would make people interested in your game, period, and do not get too distracted about how you’re going to ask for money. If you can build a massive, happy player base, then the money will follow.


Add your IAP plans once your game is fun

Once your game prototypes are fun, and are highlighting what things are of value to the player in your game, THIS is the first time where thinking about IAP won’t railroad your project. By starting at this later time, you have avoided corrupting the raw fun of your game, but have also now considered IAP before you’ve gone into full production so it’s not a total afterthought.


Find the natural pauses in the game where the IAP’s value can be made apparent

You’ve identified what’s of value to the player, and what you can sell – Now consider when that value will be apparent. For example, if you’re going to providing them a screen that debriefs the player on their results, and you have IAP can that improve these results, you could highlight that here, including a link to sale. Another viable alternative may be at a point where the player is customising their loadout for a game mission that they have failed before, with a link to better equipment or upgrades than they currently have through IAP.

Both of these examples increases the profile of the IAP, without creating a hard sell moment that breaks up the player’s game.


Check if you have set a spending ceiling – Know it! 

Once you are done, now look at the metrics of what you have set up, and examine what a player can spend on your game. If you discover you have set a sales ceiling, either find ways to keep adding more IAP over time, or ensure there are some very expensive purchases on offer.

Do not mistake setting a spending ceiling on your game for an act of nobility – It is an act of financial suicide. If you can create IAP that your players come back for or see great value in, do not prevent these people from supporting your excellent product.


Note that you can absolutely add IAP to a game after the point. Just be aware that retro-fitting IAP into a game later can be clunky if you don’t have natural and obvious ways to integrate this into your game experience smoothly. Focus on the point above about finding the ‘natural pauses’, and the value of the IAP will be connected to what’s happening for the player. Also, ensure that you’ve analysed what your players find of value, and make sure that’s what you’re offering. Your own in-game analytics can tell you what will sell more effectively than anything else.


How to avoid ruining your game with IAP


It may be easier for some developers to realise F2P can be done ethically and enjoyably simply by knowing what NOT to do. Here are three design rules that are really obvious once considered, that will allow you to include IAP in your games without compromising your game experience at all:


Rule #1: Never allow IAP to fundamentally imbalance the multiplayer – Protect your core audience!

It’s fine to let a player ‘get ahead’ via IAP, so long as other players can get to the same point without spending money. This effectively means you have given players a choice of investing time or money to get to the same point.

However, the moment you ensure that it is mathematically harder for a player who has not spent money to beat a player who has, THAT is when you are ruining the multiplayer aspect of your game. Don’t do this, or you risk players declaring your game is in the “Pay to win” bracket, and this may result in your competitive community abandoning your game.

It may be necessary to attach a level limit on some IAP, to help ensure it does not upset the balance of your game. Just be sure to factor this into your expectations of the uptake of your IAP, as you are reducing your viable customer base by doing so.


Rule #2: Never make a player spend money to continue or be able to take action – It’s evil

This is the gaming equivalent of having the police throw you in jail suddenly, and tell you that you can either go free in the morning, or pay them a bribe now to leave immediately. Frankly, it’s no longer free-to-play – In fact, this mechanic results in a scenario where by someone who wants to enjoy the game long term can spend an endless amount of money purely to avoid waiting to play – Just like a drug user returns to the dealer to keep getting their fix to avoid not having the experience.

If comparing this to drug addiction seems extreme, consider that it has been proven that ‘appointment gaming’ makes some people feel compelled to come back due to the time invested already – This is called ‘escalation of commitments’, and is a recognised psychological form of manipulation. Now combine this with a time delay, and you have players left with a feeling of anxiety, waiting to commit more time to the game. IAP to shorten this time is a ‘fix’ to alleviate anxiety.


Rule #3: Never stop the player just to ask them for money – The hard sell is off-putting

Have you ever had a friend who got into a pyramid scheme like Amway or such try and ask to catch up with you, only to front up suggesting you buy some product they’re selling? It’s awful, and can really test the friendship – Any time a game exclusively prompts a player that they can buy things, they are putting them through this experience.

It’s fine for the player to have the option to spend, just don’t stop them and force them to consider it. You might be able to find a way to suggest a purchase if you isolate a very specific need for the player based on their actions and situation, but it this is something to do with great care, ensuring the player is shown why this may be of value to them.

Look at games that have had huge success with IAP such as Jetpack Joyride or Team Fortress 2. Both started without IAP, and added it afterwards unobtrusively via the front end menu. You don’t need to grab the player and stop them to tell them they can spend money on you – If your game is good enough to keep playing, unless you hide it, they’ll notice.


The one thing that shouldn’t need too much more analysis to dismiss is the notion of F2P being evil. The fact a company like Zynga has tried on the dark side is not an excuse to boo-hoo the whole concept of F2P or IAP monetization at all. Nobody out there is being duped by Team Fortress 2, Tribes Ascend or Jetpack Joyride – All very successful, and all making money due to player satisfaction. They all took different approaches to get their IAP driven model, and none of them involved doing anything dubious.

Looking at some of the approaches above that are rooted in fair ethics, and being mindful not to play on human weakness should underline it’s all about the execution. If you can think of other F2P approaches, or things to avoid, please respond and add to the discussion.


[Dan is a passionate games industry veteran of 17 years. Starting as a journalist in 1995 Dan went on to edit numerous games publications in Australia including Hyper, PC Games Addict, Edge Australia and Official PlayStation Magazine as well as writing for many more. In 2005 Dan transitioned into development, accepting a design position at Creative Assembly to work on Medieval II: Total War. After nearly seven years at the developer, Dan left in early 2012 and joined Surprise Attack shortly after. Dan works on PR for their independent developer clients and also provides design evaluation and consultation. You can find Dan’s profile on LinkedIn.]

3 Responses

  1. Thanks very much! I definitely need some help thinking about this stuff, and it’s great to have the collected thoughts of someone who’s given it a bunch of thought. Great!

    I want to design my next game to include some In App Purchases, but really want it to add to the game, not detract from it.

    I’m a fairly traditional gamer, growing up in the 80’s. So giving out a freeware copy of the game, and letting someone buy the remainder of the levels, for example, makes sense. But selling people powerups is harder for me to accept. But I think you just need to get creative with it! This article is a good launching point, cheers!


  2. AdrianH says:

    Nice post! It’s been a while since I’ve been looking detailed information about how to implement IAP in games and what should be avoided when doing it.
    It really amazes me that this topic is almost ignored in the entire game developer community, so your entry is really appreciated and I hope it will lead to an entire study of this new and popular game mechanic.


  3. Dan Toose says:

    Glad to have been of assistance!

    Regardless whether you’re indie, or working for a big publisher, F2P is something everyone is going to have to learn to deal with.

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