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Free-to-play - a different approach

Just thinking about a new free-to-play model. And business models of MMOs in General.

Max Detroit

September 21, 2013

9 Min Read


I want to share my view about MMO business models with you, and maybe find a new one. So, let's start directly:

As massive multiplayer online games started years ago, most of them used the subscription model. Mainly with the excuse that servers and bandwith weren't cheap those days, and players also had to pay for maintenance. For a long time this was the dominant business model in the market. But nowadays the subscription-model seems to be outdated. The negative sides of this model are too obvious.

-  The subscription fee is still a huge obstacle for many players who aren't willing to pay 10 to 15 dollars a month - most of them won't even try out the game, even if there is a free trial

- Players feel forced to play the game, because they pay in advance for playtime, and if you don't play the game for two or three weeks, you feel you wasted your money

- On the other side, players can't spend more then the subscription fee for the game, even if they would like to. You get the same from every player, even if someone would be willing to pay more.

- You limit your playerbase only to paying customers. Massive multiplayer games need lots of online players to work, especially if you have a lot pvp going on.


So, Free-to-Play came along, quite suceesful, and solved a lot of problems that the subcription fee model had. There are no big obstacles to try out the game, you have a continuing stream of new players coming into your game. Nobody feels being forced to play, you can take a break for several weeks and join back in whenever you want to. And, especially, players can now spend nearly an unlimited amount of money for the game, sky is the limit. And many are willing to spend a lot of money for such a game. But this model also has it's downsides.

- The business model takes a real big influence on gamedesign. While in the subscription model you just have to add new content, to keep the players busy. Here you have to balance out the new content and always think about how you can persuade players to spend real money for the game within that new content.

- So, balancing the game is very hard. Much harder then balancing a subscription-based game. But you also don't want your game to mutate into a pay to win game. And you also don't want to get back to the pay to play model. You want to assure that playing the game for free, without spending any money, is still fun - at least for the first couple of hours, days or weeks. But you want players to spend money for your game, a lot of money. It's a walk on a tightrope.

- This ends up in a conflict between developers and the player base. The community wants new content, the producer wants to make money. Bringing out new free content is nice, will probably make the players happy, but when there isn't any new stuff to sell in that update, the producer gets mad. Other way round, if you just offer new stuff to buy, maybe your numbers look good, but the players will complain and tell you that you are a greedy mfsob. Again, it's a walk on a tightrope.

- Next problem is that you need to advertise your stuff ingame. That means having shop-offers, banners and happy hours in your game that will destroy the immersion for some players quite hard. Nothing is worse for an escapist then going down into a dark dunegoen, lighting your way with your torch, looking fearful around the next corner - just to see a big banner that tells you that light-cystals are on sale now.

Free-to-Play - a different approach

Now, trying to solve the problems of the current Free-to-Play model isn't easy. But it's possible if you take the advantages of the subscription-model, combine them with the advantages of Free-to-Play and think about the ongoing success of platforms like kickstarter or projects like the indie humble bundle. The solution is simple. The game is totally free to play, you can not spent any real money to buy ingame currencies or items. It's like a subscription-based game without the subscription.

But how do you get the money for developing the game? Here's the point. On your webside is a huge section where new possible content updates are presented. Like a new raid, a cool new dungeon, a new questing zone, or a new pvp zone, maybe a new class - anything cool your gamedesigners can think of. Maybe stuff where you already got some concept art for, or a tech demo, and that is possible to integrate into your game. You can even make a small video where the gamedesigner presents the feature, and how it should look like.

So, the next step is that players can go to this section, select a feature that they really like to see in the game, and then pledge money for this. It's like on kickstarter, you can plegde 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 or more dollar/euros to that feature. The rest is simple: the feature which got the most backers will be done with priority, and find it's way next into the game. It's a vote-with-your-wallet system. But, every feature has also a minimum amount of money that needs to be funded, so that it is even done at all. Features that don't get enough backers will stay in the list for a while, or get kicked out of the list after some months (wild guess: 6 months).

You can even start doing this during the development phase, when the game isn't launched yet (like a normal kickstarter project), but instead of switching to another model you just stay with it and let players continuously decide in which direction the project should go in future.


1. What type of game do you need for this model?

  •  A core-game that is actually fun to play and has a solid player base.

  •  You need to be able to expand the game in many different directions, gamedesign- and code-wise.

  • You need a very good concept artist

2. What are the positive effects of this model?

  • As said before, you got the best from both, subscription- (no pay-to-win, better to balance) and f2p-model (no entrance-obstacles, more players) and there are no limits on how much money a player can spend on the game

  • Further on, you develop only stuff the player base really wants, the players tell you directly what they want to see next.You don't have to check your player behavior with analytics, make polls on your forum or have to guess around anymore, it'a all there.

  • You really establish a very good customer-developer relationship, if you do it right.

  • Involving the players more into the development process will lead to much more customer loyality.

  • You don't have to think about your time-schedule so hard, what feature should be launched next, what features are superfluous - all those questions are answered in the process.

3. What can you do to make it more attractive for players to pledge money?

  • Obviously, establish a good visible link to the voting section inside your game.

  • Show a little ranking on the page which players pledged the most for what feature (top 10, only player names)

  • Here's a little compromise. I think you have to give away little ingame item-packages for pledging. Goodies and fan-stuff, depending on how much the player pledged for a feature. It should be just consumables and cosmetic stuff in my opinion. If you pledge a hundred dollars for a new raid, maybe you should get some nice potions that help for raiding and a new cosmetic cape that has something to do with the planned raid (would be nice if the stuff you get has something to do with the feature you backed). And the cosmetics can be unique, so everybody can see that you have backed a feature (e.g. if you wear that cape).

4. How transparent should the backing process be to the players?

  • You maybe shouldn't write down the exact numbers, how much money was pledged for each feature. A graph, a pie-chart, bars with percentages that just show which feature is leading and which features need more backup should suffice.

  • Maybe give players who pledged a good amount of money more insight into your numbers, this has to be checked by your legal dapertment, how much you have to tell them by law.

5. Shouldn't players also be able to decide how the features should look like in detail?

  • No. Because what players want, and what is really good for the game (challenge and fun) is sometimes something completely different. If players pledging thousends of dollars for the 'I win!'-Button, this maybe a good thing for one month, but after that you can shut your game down. Let your game designers decide what features make sense and how they should be offered to the playerbase, it's their job.

6. How big or small should a new feature be?

  • Try not to pack too much stuff into one feature. You really have to think about what can be done in reasonable time. More then two or three months development time for such a feature is far too long. Plan your new features right, and the way you present them, this will be the key to success. Do not describe each feature in every detail, leave some room for changes.The task of the producer will be to calculate the cost (man-days) and the minimum goal for the feature.

7. Should players get their money back if a feature has not enough backers and doesn't find it's way into the game?

  •  Honestly? No. You have to make that very clear when you describe the backing process to the players. Only features which reach the minimum goal will be relased, the feature with the most backers (money) will be released first, features that don't get enough money will not be released, the money spend on those features will be used for general game development.

8. What overall pitfalls are there?

  • You always have to think about features that players really want and present them tasty

  • If you promise too much, and you can't deliver, you have failed.

  • If players stop backing up your project, you will have to stop development as well. Then the project is dead.

9. Okay, why will this model work nevertheless?

  •  Because of the success of kickstarter and indie humble bundle. Players will appreciate the transparent development processs. I think being able to decide in which direction the game should go in future will give players the feeling of being part of the game and not just a simple paying customer. And they will pay money for that feeling, I am sure.

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