Farmville 2, a free-to-play game by Zynga

Guest Post: Free to Play is Bad for Video Games

This guest post focuses on how free to play games can be bad for designers, players and the game industry itself.  CONSULGAMER has long championed the monetization benefits of free to play games, but it’s important to be aware that a counterpoint does exist, with a number of strong concerns. 

F2P: Bad for Designers, Bad for Players, Bad for Video Games

One of the most fascinating aspects of game design is the way it changes to match new business models. As the market changes, and new platforms gain market share, old business models no longer necessarily work, and new ones are developed to replace them.

Unfortunately for gamers and game designers, that process has led to the ubiquity of the “Free to Play” (F2P) business model. Although it has its advantages, the F2P model results in games that no longer follow the simple, proportional, entertainment-for-cash proposition that video games always have had in the past.

(Disclaimer: there are F2P games that rely only on the sale of hats, outfits, or other purely cosmetic items – but these are exceptions, as few games can be profitable this way. These aren’t the games I’m referring to when I use the term “F2P.”)

Let’s go over some brief background on the two dominant business models of the past:

Like the vast majority of F2P games, arcade games were typically simple, shallow, repetitive gameplay loops, although they used difficulty alone, and not “grindy” progression (among other things), to encourage spending. Furthermore, that spending almost always translated to extra playtime (continues, extra health), preserving the direct entertainment-for-cash proposition.

The next wave, PC and console games, allowed unlimited play for a 1-time purchase. These platforms allowed for the purest game design, as designers didn’t have to worry about getting players to continue playing and spending after the initial purchase. All they had to do was provide satisfying entertainment that players felt was worth the initial price.

While every business model has drawbacks, those of the F2P model are especially galling. Here are a few:

1. Games can never end.

While this is occasionally a good thing, it’s most certainly not a good thing for every game to be structured this way. Quick: name a F2P sequel that was more successful than its F2P predecessor! Not easy. F2P sequels like Mafia Wars 2 stumbled for several reasons, one of which is that when players leave a F2P game, they can’t do so because they finished it and were satisfied. Instead, they typically leave unsatisfied with the game’s level of entertainment or its value for money. And then, with a bad taste left in their mouths, they are far less likely to play the next game in the series when it arrives. These games run contrary to the entertainer’s maxim: “Always leave them wanting more.” Indeed, while “sequelitis” with the traditional buy-once model is problematic, overreliance on the appeal of familiarity is not nearly as mortal a sin as failing to keep your players entertained while they are playing your game and satisfied and looking forward to your next game after they are done.

Farmville 2, a free-to-play game by Zynga
Farmville 2, a free-to-play game by Zynga

2. Designers are now carney barkers.

Rather than providing the entertainment, designers now have to act as salesmen, crafting games that constantly prod the player to spend money, inciting greed, anger, desire for power, desire for social approval, etc. for this purpose. As a designer, I may of course choose for artistic reasons to craft experiences that incite these same reactions and emotions. But doing it to compel spending instead of to give the player a new experience (which is the essence of video games – new experiences in interactive form) that I think will provide them some type of value seems contrary to the ethos of a game designer.

3. Games are intentionally made to be less enjoyable for a large majority of their players.

Progression and rewards in F2P games are typically balanced in a way that makes the game less entertaining. In a game like Clash of Clans, where most types of progression can be purchased directly, paying players control the pace of their own advancement. Yes, players can do this with trainers and other types of cheats in regular games. But here, it’s as if there’s a big “Cheat!” button that the game itself shoves in players’ faces every 5 minutes. And if you don’t use it, the rewards and progression slow to a crawl after the initial honeymoon period that’s there to trick players into believing the game will be both fun and free in the long term.

As designers, we intentionally make games worse for free players in order to convert them into paying players. Let’s imagine two people with identical tastes and play styles are writing reviews of the same F2P game. One spends money freely; the other spends none. The one who spends money freely will certainly enjoy the game more and give it a much higher score than the player who spends none. That’s because we’ve slowed down progression and rewards for the free player, making the game worse. We’ve introduced inconveniences and limitations like energy meters and limited inventory space, making the game worse, and then offered to take them away for a cash payment. We’ve taken away access to content and live events, we’ve made them PvP fodder for paying players, we’ve made them market the game to their friends on our behalf, and all of this makes the game less enjoyable for the largest part of our audience. What designer wants to make a 40 Metacritic version of their 80 Metacritic game, much less have 85%+ of the audience playing the lesser version?

As a game designer, the idea that I am to create a bad version of my game that a large majority of the player base will experience is unthinkable. My goal should be to provide entertainment value in exchange for the players’ money, not to fool them with an initially enjoyable experience and then gradually take away their fun over time until they surrender their wallets. Demos with limitations? Sure, but in a demo those limitations are upfront and clear, not slowly and surreptitiously introduced, and a purchase permanently gives you access to the full, unfettered, maximally enjoyable experience, while buying something in a F2P game only gives you temporary relief until the so-called “fun pain” begins again. It’s my responsibility as a designer to find ways to provide as much entertainment as I can, not to find ways to strategically take it away and hold it for ransom.

A business model in which revenue increases with the intentional introduction of design flaws is not good for the game industry in the long term. But the same people who have basically killed social have spread their methods to mobile; they are our supposed luminaries. Their strip-mining of social and mobile markets for short-term gains, their dramatic missteps resulting from their metrics-induced conflation of player spending and player enjoyment, will damage video games as an entertainment medium in the eyes of players who are chronically disappointed by the games they play. And it will damage the ability of games that rely on other business models to survive, as Free becomes too low a price to compete against.

Count me out.

This guest post was written by Neil Sorens, a professional game designer with thirteen years of professional experience.  Neil can be reached at @neil_sorens.

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