F2P has become the “next frontier" for a lot of developers looking to cash in with a monetized idea. This is either by porting mobile games to the PC or just releasing a F2P game on the PC market. The problem is that the F2P market has become saturated with games designed for profit first/gameplay second, causing the confidence among educated or hardcore gamers to disappear.
To develop a successful F2P game that doesn't rely on whales, you must understand what has driven these gamers away and what is the core experience of your game.
The Core Market:
"Core gamers" is the hardest group to get behind a F2P game. These are the men and women who may or may not play social games, but everything out there. If they like a game, they will try to get their friends to play and help spread awareness for you. But if your game drives them away, they will make sure that their friends keep away as well.
There are two factors that make it hard to convince a core gamer to even play your game, much less spend any money. First has to do with any kind of repeated purchases such as micro transactions and it has to do with ownership.
Being able to buy something and have it considered yours is a big deal and something that has been declining with the rise of digital distribution. Most games these days you don't actually own, you own a license to play that game which can be taken back at any time.
And F2P games are the epitome of this concept as everything there exists at the whim of the developer and can be taken away. F2P games designed around repeated monetization such as speed ups, premium currency or pay to win raise the cost of playing a F2P to areas where core gamers are not comfortable with spending.
An AAA retail game costs around $60 with AA and Indie below that. However, a F2P game can have enough purchases to easily go over $100 dollars and then some. None of that by the way, gives the player any ownership over the experience and is akin to the arcade era of having hundreds of arcade tokens that can only be used in one place.
The second problem is the market itself, as mentioned earlier you are not just competing with other F2P games but everything on the market. And core gamers are educated on what's out there: From Indie hits like FTL to the success of Dark Souls.
This means there are always numerous games vying for their attention and all it takes is one poor monetized element or problem with the design to send them off to another game, never to come back to yours again.
While many core gamers don't like F2P design, that doesn't mean they don't play F2P games, with Team Fortress 2 and League of Legends often cited as the two most played games and well received among core gamers. And leads many designers to ask: What's their secret?
Defining the Core Experience:
The secret sounds insane, especially for people making a F2P game -- A successful F2P game for core gamers is not built around monetization. That must sound crazy and a lot of you are thinking right now that to build a F2P game that isn't about making money doesn't make sense. Especially since both TF2 and LOL have monetized elements to them. However, this is where the concept of a core experience comes in and the trick to get core gamers to try your game.
The core experience for this piece will be defined as the following:
The main gameplay systems or mechanics that are divorced from any monetization
This is the center of your gameplay, the baseline of the experience, the hook that pulls gamers in to trying it out. More importantly, the core experience is where there should be no pressure to spend any money on your game: No ads, no pop-ups, just the gameplay.
In essence, the core experience is where gamers will decide what value your game has and whether or not it is worth it to keep playing and it's where many people draw the line between good and bad F2P design.
Card Hunter -- The F2P browser game released last year had a core experience of a full length RPG. Both TF2 and LOL have easily hundreds of hours of play through competitive or public games without the need to spend money. On the other hand, F2P games like Farmville, Candy Crush Saga and so on, hit the player with monetized elements within minutes of play.
Card Hunter's monetization deals mainly with cosmetic options and avoids any claims of Pay to Win.
Defining your core experience is simple: What's left of your game if all the monetized elements were removed? What separates a good F2P game from the rest is that without monetization, the gameplay still works and can be enjoyed. League of Legends is still a highly competitive game with or without having to buy premium skins, but a game like Farmville would fall apart due to the repetitive nature and pay walls.
Having that core experience defined and removed from the monetization also makes it easier to expand the game with more content. If you've already given so much of the game for free, people will be more willing to pay for more content on top of that.
A F2P game designed around the whales is the opposite of what pulls core gamers in. By understanding and developing a core experience, it will allow you to create a more appealing game in the eyes of core gamers and develop a fan base that will be more likely to stick around and support your game.