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5 Ways to Fail Freemium

In this post we'll talk about popular mechanics/tactics that were used in Freemium, but will only become less and less acceptable (specifically on mobile) as the business model matures and players' expectations rise.

The freemium or free to play (F2P) business model is still new and in an immature state. There are some early adopters that have used exploits or tricks to squeeze money from their players, while others created what we call a “pay-to-win” experience where you’re almost  guaranteed to win if you pay money. While these tactics may have generated a lot of revenue for these developers, as the market, business model and player expectations mature, these tactics will become less and less accepted by players. They probably won’t go away all together, but it’s better to get ahead of the curve and start designing and executing smarter games today. Here are examples of 5 of these tactics:

Making players spam their friends

I know this was a popular tactic in Facebook games, but stop gating content based on the number of “friends” one has in the game! Things like “friending” or “making an in app purchase” (or IAP) should complement the experience and not be required. Don’t hold content back from me until I’ve recruited enough friends. My assumption was that developers understood that friend gating content would ultimately not work in mobile; however, I’m still seeing this in new mobile games that released in recent months so I’m compelled to include this on my list.

Start steering away from psychological tricks or hidden button placements

Decay or extinction mechanics are widely used in freemium gaming. Decay and delay can be natural fits depending on the subject matter, but players have started to dislike the extinction mechanic and it’s becoming less and less popular. Especially if they’re with something that you can create a bond with like a pet for example. How popular would Hay Day be if your animals died if you didn’t login to feed them?

Another mechanic, that if implemented may be considered a deceptive business practice, is making some buttons difficult to find or press. I’ve seen games try to hide X’s so people thought they had to purchase something or greyed buttons out so players thought they had to “share” on Facebook to get to the next screen. Are these tactics clever or misleading? There’s no right answer, but it probably feels less terrible if it doesn’t involve money. However, as a developer you have to ask yourself, do you want to increase monetization and k-factor from player mistakes and tricks, or through making an awesome game that people naturally want to share or pay money towards? The decision is up to you, but in a grey area, I would try to stay closer to what seems right or ethical in your players’ eyes.

Advertise Unintelligently

Stop using intrusive advertising solutions or being lazy with your implementation! I’m looking at you… banner ads. I understand the first argument a developer usually has is that adding advertisement solutions will cannibalize my IAP revenue. It’s true you can impact your IAP revenue, but only if you don’t advertise intelligently. W3i conducted a study and blogged about it earlier…. Take this screenshot for an example of how to advertise intelligently.

People who aren’t going to pay have another way of contributing towards the developer. Players who want to pay will continue to pay since they don’t care and/or aren’t looking for the advertising anyways. However if you obstruct their view or make things difficult then you’re driving players away and it could be both paying and non-paying players. That’s why I’m not a fan of the “paying to remove ads” feature. You’re spamming your players and admitting it to them. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Design a Free to Play Player vs. Player (F2P PvP) game to be pay-to-win

If you’re thinking, “but all F2P PvP games are pay-to-win,” I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. There’s pay to win and then there’s pay for competitive advantage. Take a look at this screenshot for example…

Attacks range from 3-12, and defenses 4-9 for grinding currency weapons, but for a premium weapon… well you get only 112 ATTACK AND 100 DEFENSE. This game is purely stat driven so buying this weapon clearly allows you to win over everyone else, and there’s nothing a non-paying player can do to win against paying players unless they pay too.

Now let’s look at another PvP F2P game called Planetside 2. It’s a first person shooter (FPS) that allows you to buy different weapons and vehicle upgrades with their premium currency (station cash) or you can grind to unlock them, but it’ll take some time.

Some are more powerful, some have faster/slower reload speeds, and some are more accurate or have lock-on capabilities for vehicles. However, just having a higher damage output doesn’t mean you’ll automatically win a battle. Same with fire rate, reload speed or any other characteristic because these stats only complement your natural ability to play the game. But wait… there’s more.

Each gun, class and weapon has specific upgrades that can do a magnitude of things like reduced recoil, grant more player health, improve class abilities, and add scopes to weapons or night vision. These class or weapon upgrades can only be purchased through the secondary currency (cert points) and these points cannot be purchased. You can pay to speed up the rate of earning these points but it’ll still take some considerable time to earn those points. Why is this important? Players can pay to get the guns that match their play style, but they can’t immediately deck out their guns or characters with enhancements. Regardless if you like the game or not it’s hard to argue against the fact that they executed a really solid F2P PvP experience.

Makes players pay to play

I recently downloaded a newer game on my tablet. I starting playing was enjoying the experience, but I ran out of energy and money (following the tutorial mind you) 1 minute and 30 seconds in. I had 3 quests and couldn’t complete any of them or complete any action in the game unless I converted. Delay mechanics, choke points, friction, whatever else you may call it, is a commonly used monetization mechanic in F2P games and I’m not here to tell you not to use them. However, the most brilliantly designed games don’t encourage the player to leave while they wait for these delays. Take Clash of Clans for example. In order to improve my town hall from level 2-6 it could maybe take 30 days. I can pay $5 for another builder and increase construction productivity so maybe it now takes 20 days, or I could drop $100 (or maybe $500) and get it now. They use the same delay mechanics, but the game isn’t just about building a city and reinforcing defenses. That’s only half of the battle. The other half is about raiding other villages. The actual battles last minutes and to train basic armies usually takes 20 minutes or less. More advanced units obviously take more time to train, but you can be out raiding other villages almost every 20 minutes if the player so chooses. This secondary mechanic or second core loop gives players something to do or goals to achieve while they wait for the days (or possibly) weeks it’ll take for a building upgrade to be completed.

Obviously the mechanics outlined here can be the main revenue/marketing driving mechanics of your game. I’m not here to say these will stop making you money. I’m simply saying that as a market matures, so will game design and players’ expectations along with it. It’s better to start making smarter designs today so you’re not scrambling to change or squeeze the last pennies out of your game tomorrow.

If you’d like to talk about these or other freemium ideas you can reach me at [email protected] or on Twitter @benjaminsipe.

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