Game Design: Free-To-Pay Games and Microtransactions

I’ve had a lot of friends ask me about what I think about free-to-play games, especially since I’m one of the few people I know who is willing to actually spend money on them. Admittedly, I come from the perspective of someone who grew up playing shareware games, so when I see a free-to-play game I consider them through much the same criteria, but here’s what I look at and the things that worry me about some modern free-to-play titles.

The first thing I look at when evaluating a free-to-play title is its “free” content. Just like how you could usually tell if a shareware game were good and/or lengthy based on its trial period or content, the same is true for most free-to-play games. There are good games, like the Avernum series’ demos which I could play for forty hours, and EV Nova whose trial period was basically thirty days of playing all but the tail halves of the campaigns, including exploring a large game world freely. Then there were not so great games, most of which have faded from my memory, which offered a first level and were only ten levels long and didn’t really introduce any amazing features or deep storyline elements either in the free trial or in the whole game. Similarly, you have games like Dungeons and Dragons Online and Anarchy Online, which offer basically a full launch package plus a few extras to their free-to-play players with the additional options of gaining access to more content by subscribing or paying micro-transactions.

On the other hand, you have a game like Dungeon Defenders, which, to be fair, isn’t free, but pushes DLC every fifteen seconds. When I buy a game and can’t get past the character selection screen without being told to buy DLC, it makes me mad; it’s one thing in a game like Borderlands 2 where there’s a full party of characters already, but another thing entirely when a game has 23 DLC packs that, combined, cost several times more than the game itself.

Marvel Heroes, for instance, lists $250 of DLC on Steam for a free-to-play game. This is borderline abusive from a consumer standpoint.

Now, I’m anti-microtransaction on principle here, but you should remember that I actually support microtransactions when they’re handled well. I wrote a game on StoryNexus that, had I gotten it more polished, would have had several microtransactions, but there’s a fair limit, I think, to what can be spent on a game, and it requires content as well as payment. I’m not huge in the modern shooters genre, and part of this is because fifteen minutes after release there’s a $10 map pack.

Let’s look at a game that does this relatively well, Tribes Ascend. It’s a game where you can outright buy everything for more or less the cost of a competitively priced shooter, but there’s still a free-to-play option for people who want to get stuff through play. This is the good sort of thing-it enables players who want to skip arbitrarily playing the game to reach goals to play the game how they want to.

On the other hand, you have something like Dungeon Defenders, which has bloated to several times its original size but also implemented an incredibly intrusive “Would you like to do this by buying some DLC?” system.

So what are some good ways to implement a free-to-play game?

Calculate the core experience. As I mentioned in my Marvel Heroes breakdown last week, the core experience seemed to be a Diablo-like where you can switch characters to overcome challenges by putting out your best hero; this would have been helped had there been ways to quickly acquire more heroes without resorting to the cash shop. The core experience of a free-to-play game should be free; this will entice users to play the game long enough to convert to a paid player as well as keep people from hating your game and telling their friends not to play it. Positive word of mouth and conversions are good, people downloading your client and walking away are bad (though distribution’s changed from the olden days).

Consider your microtransactions’ purposes. When you want to sell something, consider what the purpose behind it is. If your game is highly competitive, you probably shouldn’t sell stat boosts (even the temporary kind) as this will discourage free players. I’ve found that the majority of free-to-paid conversions come from people who have enjoyed their experience as a free player, not those who were jealous of others. Time savers are a popular option, and they don’t really ruin anyone’s experience, especially if they’re kept low-key. Cosmetics, of course, are wonderful for cash shops; free-to-play players don’t feel disadvantaged and serious players will often love them, but keep in mind that offering cosmetics in a shop is no excuse for making players hideous, and if your game focuses heavily on customization offering stuff only through cash shops can be bad (The Secret World toes the line on this; it has a cash shop with all sorts of awesome clothing, but I had to really work to get a good looking character without it). Consider DDO’s store, which sells useful things, but does so unobtrusively, merely suggesting that rather than leaving a dungeon mid-quest you could pick up a +2 sword or a healing potion from the shop.

Ask if a gamer who didn’t want to spend money would on your content, and why they would. If people only spend money on your game because their friends do, that’s not always horrible, but you would be best off to have a low entry barrier and a good incentive. For instance, offer something meaningful for $5. DDO has a minimum purchase of $8, but that’ll get you an adventure pack and some change. The most devious way to do this is actually also in DDO, which gives you some store points to help push you toward breaking down the barrier between free and premium.

Treat customers well, and keep your core content stable. Now, this can come in a variety of forms, but typically people who have paid for your game are looking for a way to pay again to get another high-quality experience. As I mentioned, I’m contemplating buying more points or VIP for DDO to boost through the somewhat painful free-to-play endgame. Warframe, however, has sort of lost me because of its guild implementation and the fact that they keep pushing stuff for crafting or purchasing with cash, which means that I see less return for my already invested time, since while I used to be end-game the constant balance changes and new “look, shiny stuff” means that my formerly potent Volt and Hek have become significantly less high-tier, and I’ll have to do a massive amount of grinding to get the tower keys to get the parts for some of the stuff I’m looking to assemble with materials I’ll have to grind to get. In short, Warframe sent me the vibe that they’re looking for obsessive players (and I’ve put in about a hundred hours, so I’m pretty well-traveled) or very social players, or preferably both in a single package, so I’m not as interested in it as I used to be when I could solo comfortably. As such, I’m unlikely to put more money in, in part because I felt that what I had didn’t go very far (I got the inventory slots, but buying a treat for myself is expensive), and only pushes me back into the grind race once the next thing comes out.

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