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Can FTP have pay-to-progress without pay walls?

An examination and open question about difficulty spikes in Free-To-Play games

As I’m starting to design my first mobile game I’m attempting to grapple with the concept of Free To Play for the first time in my career.  (I’m an artist/designer, so this is a new world for me.) If I’m going to do it, (and from my research it seems at this point like a bad idea not to) I want to do it well, do it ethically, and from a design perspective; do it aesthetically.  In other words, I don’t want to shoehorn a business model on top of an existing game.  From what I’ve read, that always ends in tears.  


I’ve read every article and book on this subject that I could get my hands on, and that has been very helpful.  Especially the debates that always appear in the comments.  (I hope to get a good one here.)  But I haven’t really seen a good exploration of this one topic I’m stuck on.  To make it clear, let me provide an overview of my current plan.  My first project is pretty much a practice run with a very small scope just to get a pipeline established and run myself through the ringer of getting a product to market.  Hopefully I’ll make all my BIG mistakes on this one.  So it’s just a simple tilt-a-marble-through-a-maze game.  There’s about a thousand of them out there.  One thing I wanted to do differently than those I’ve played is to add a bit of a sense of exploration to the metagame.  Most of these games either has a boring tap-a-number level select or a linear path with nodes to tap.  I want to take my metagame map in a more literal direction, actually having continents to explore.  Each content will have a different theme and you’ll be unlocking levels on the map by getting enough points in the previous level.  But since I don’t want it to be linear there will be multiple exits on many of the levels so that the points you earn will be directed toward the next level that is associated with that exit.  


So that’s my teeny tiny innovation, and I’m happy enough with that for this practice game.  So here’s where my dilemma crops up.  I don’t like the idea of a pay wall.  I feel like that’s a little sleazy.  Not a LOT sleazy, because after all, no one’s forcing you to continue playing the game.  It just essentially turns the game into a demo that can be upgraded to a full game.  But if I’m handing out demos I want to be forthcoming with that description.  And that’s not what I want to do.  I want to make a game that the majority of people can play to completion without paying a cent.  I want any In-App-Purchases that happen to be because the player feels like paying for the aesthetic modifications available, or saving time/energy to bypass a tricky part, is worth it to them.  Did you spot the problem yet?


There’s a part of me that loves the idea of players being able to buy progress if they enjoy the game but are not enjoying a particularly challenging (ie frustrating) part of it.  I can imagine myself playing a free game of Mega Man or Castlevania and getting to a part where I’m just frustrated and annoyed, and feeling like I’m going to be missing out on the content AFTER this part, so it’s worth a buck to pass it.  But that seems like Pandora’s Box.  It’s all too easy to design difficulty spikes (or create them accidentally!) that put players in that position artificially.  I think that’s a good basic definition of a pay wall.


Ideally, we designers want to keep the player in the Flow channel...



Where they are not feeling anxiety or boredom.  A FTP pay wall is a difficulty spike that purposely breaks flow, pushing the player into the Anxiety area.  Some percent of players will stop playing due to the unpleasant experience.  Some percent will persevere and struggle and struggle and eventually get by it. (IF there actually IS a way to do so.)  And some percent will pay to get a powerup or workaround that breaks through the difficulty spike allowing them to continue the game.  


Because I want my design to be aesthetically pleasing I don’t want to make difficulty spikes.  But the perennial problem of game design is that every player has different skills so that one player’s perfect flow is another’s too-easy, boring experience, is another’s rage-inducing trauma.  It’s that latter group that troubles me.  It seems to me that IF the pay wall is a difficulty spike, and IF there are some players who are so bad at the game that even the simple stuff is hard for them, then there necessarily will be pay walls in a FTP game that sells any kind of game progression.  


So one way to fix this dilemma is to offer no game progression in the store.  Keep it purely aesthetic.  That does solve the problem but that doesn’t solve MY dilemma completely because the game will still exclude bad players.  Unlike physical sports, we video game designers have the blessed power to bring enjoyment to those who lack the skills that our games demand.  We have difficulty modes, cheats, walkthroughs, and yes, pay-to-win and pay-to-progress.  I make games mostly because I like giving people interesting experiences.  And I don’t want to exclude a bunch if there’s a way not to.  That is my attraction to pay-to-progress.  If an easy mode and walkthroughs aren’t enough, a really abysmally bad player can STILL get to enjoy the experience I’ve designed by just paying to blast through a difficulty spike that I never intended to BE a spike.  


So why not just add the same game progression mechanic but for free?  Because I know that will destroy the Flow for people of average-to-high skill.  It will just be too tempting to reach for that mechanic the moment a little healthy tension is built up.  I’m of the philosophy that a good game experience is a series of tension and release moments, so destroying that process is destroying the design aesthetic I’m striving for.  


So IS there a way to accomplish what I want in an ethical and fun way within a Free to Play framework?  Basically I’m just thinking out loud here.  I didn’t ask for this Free to Play revolution, but I sure want to make sure it doesn’t make me compromise my moral or aesthetic sensibilities. Please let me know what you think!  

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