Detailed explanations of free-to-play video game monetisation strategies
How do F2P games work and the methods you should watch out for that developers use to get you spending money.
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Is anything truly free? One of the biggest movements in commercial video games over the last few years has been the arrival of “free” games. As the title free-to-play (F2P) suggests, all you need to do is download these titles to your game playing device and off you go: zero investment. It’s a fantastic way to get a large audience and to give you a taste of what a game is like. But the developer, of course, needs to make money to survive, so you can bet that somehow this game is going to make its owner revenue. The question you need to ask is, how?
The monetisation of a free game - as in, how the developer makes money after giving the product away for free - is a science. And it’s evolving at an incredible pace. As these games exist in a digital environment, every action users take can be tracked and the data sent back to the developer. This allows the creator to quickly establish what is working and what isn’t, and exactly how gamers are interacting with the title, then make changes accordingly. Sometimes it can literally happen overnight.
As you can imagine, over time the most successful developers have got the science of monetisation down to a fine art, manipulating the user into spending money in ways that are enjoyable enough to be welcomed by the player. But not all developers are so skilled, or happy to let you keep having a good time for free. Your best defence against their tactics is knowledge: being empowered to know when you are being driven towards spending money and if you’re having enough fun to accept that fate willingly.
So here are your classic F2P monetisation models: please note that the very best - and we use that term with tongue firmly in cheek - monetisation strategies apply one or more of the below at the same time.
Pay for additional content
Arguably the most straightforward F2P system is the one in which you can buy additional content for the game if you like the base experience. This could come in the form of aesthetic customisation options (like a new costume for your character), or elements more intimately linked to the gameplay such as new levels, extra characters, fresh items, and so forth.
One of the more painful models restricts you to only playing a certain amount of a game before you are required to wait out a set period for a timer to refill. At this point you can continue until the timer runs dry again. The strategy here is that you can choose to pay with real money to nullify that waiting time – alternatively, you will have to go and do something else for an hour, or many hours, and come back later. It’s a very popular system with developers as it preys on human impatience and our time-limited modern lives, but few things are as disruptive as a game telling you to stop when you don’t want to.
Perhaps the most traditional model – especially for those who have watched a lot of network TV or frequently surf the Internet – is advertisements. These games will usually reserve some of the screen real estate to a banner (or other-sized) advertisement that is served via a third-party company through the internet. The system’s big benefit is that it is not invasive to gameplay – it’s just takes up an annoying amount of screen real estate. And many titles do offer an option to pay a fee to have the ads removed, which you can always opt for if you intend to play a lot.
Free to Try
Occasionally games masquerading as “free” will instead be glorified demos. These titles will allow you to have a certain number of attempts, or let you play a level or two, and then stop you in your tracks unless you upgrade to the full version. In most cases you can keep replaying the same section for as long as you want, but the intent here is clear. These titles separate themselves from traditional demos in that you do not have to make another download or start again if you get the full game – you just keep on playing as if it was the full title from the outset.
Share with friends
For many developers, getting exposure is as good as earning a dollar, and they may allow you access to key features of a game if you are willing to share its existence with friends over your social network. Often this system ties in with other monetisation systems – for example, you may be able to refill your timer by sharing news about the game on Facebook, thus avoiding the cost of having it be reset, at the expense of annoying your friends.
Multiple In-game currencies
Another common and quite frustrating free-to-play model sees a title have multiple in-game currencies. By “currency” we don’t necessarily mean coins or dollars – it could be carrots or petrol or gems or whatever makes sense in the game’s world – but ultimately you will be able to spend this currency to acquire important objects or progress into new areas. Generally, the base currency is easily accumulated while playing, but holds little value - so the price of the items you wish to buy can seem well out of reach. Other purchases may require you to have X amount of one currency, and Y of another harder to earn currency, meaning you may be short on one and unsure how long it will take to get it through normal play.
Aren’t you lucky then that you can artificially top up your bank balance using real-world cash? Frequently a third or even fourth, currency will sit in-between – this is done to confuse the user as to what the value of a real-world purchase is worth and to lull people into spending more than they may intend.
A less common, but hopefully growing, way to enjoy free games is when they act as a smaller part of a grander transmedia project. For example, perhaps the game simply exists to help promote an upcoming film. Or you get a free copy of the game when you buy a book or a comic or a DVD. Perhaps playing the free version of the game might unlock activities in a full-priced game on another format. In these instances, the game is effectively a marketing tool and justifies its existence not in revenue, but in brand awareness.
Give us your details
Depending on how you feel about getting random deals sent to your inbox, the approach of buying a game with your details may seem suitable. Not particularly common, but this model is all about database collection – the developer charges you nothing to play their game, but they do charge advertisers a stack of money to send out emails to all the gamers’ details they have collected.
Technically this technique covers most of those above in some fashion, but here we will focus in on the use of difficulty ramping to entice you to purchase something. Coined “fun pain,” the theory is that if you inflict some sort of pain on the gamer and then offer them a purchase that will end that pain, then they are enticed to take it. Things like timers, mentioned above, fall into this category. But another trick developers use is sudden difficulty spikes. By escalating the challenge in the game suddenly, the developer can put the gamer in a state of “pain” that they may wish to buy their way out through a teased in-app purchase, like a stronger weapon or extra health.
What they giveth, they taketh away
This particularly cunning F2P tactic involves providing the player with plenty of rewards for in-game play, and then threatening to take them all away at a pivotal moment. This could be built into the actual game framework as a risk vs. reward moment that makes sense - for example, you could go through many dungeons, acquire all these great items, and then have to face a boss battle where, if defeated, you might lose everything you have acquired. For many, the risk is such that they may spend on things that can improve their chances in the coming battle.
Soft and hard boosts
The in-app purchases you can buy that directly impact gameplay are often broken into soft boost and hard boost categories. Soft boosts are one-time buys - for example, a health refill or a powerful magic spell - and as such once they are used, if you want to use it again, you have to buy it again. They are often relatively cheap, so the developer hopes to make you comfortable with the idea of buying these boosts when you’re in trouble. Hard boosts, on the other hand, are more expensive purchases that do not disappear after use. These appear to be good value for money as they make the game easier or more fun, but watch out - the more of these you buy, the more invested (financially and emotionally) you become with the game. This makes it harder for you to let it go, plus hard boosts are tiered so that the next best thing is always slightly more expensive than the last, dragging you deeper into investing with the game.
The documentary below, Free to Play by videogame publisher Steam, provides an educational insight into the highs and lows of competitive free-to-play gaming.
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