[In this opinion piece originally published in Game Developer magazine's May 2011 issue, EIC Brandon Sheffield argues that developers shouldn't fight against the free-to-play model even though it might feel "wrong" at first.]
In Game Developer
's May design column, Soren Johnson discussed free-to-play game design. He recently completed work on Dragon Age Legends
, an F2P realization of the Dragon Age
world for Facebook.
He mentioned several successful implementations of the F2P design aesthetic, wherein designers must keep players interested and engaged on a moment-to-moment level, but also provide them with compelling reasons to spend money.
The reason this topic is so valid is that a lot of designers, myself included, just get plain old queasy when we think about creating games this way.
Some people feel threatened by the model. There’s a perception that the powerful metrics and feedback provided by these platforms turns designers into spreadsheet managers.
Though it may feel that way on some level, it’s not totally true, since you have to devise the systems in the first place, then test them extensively. It’s like getting the ultimate feedback loop, and if your goal is to please players, there’s nothing better than instantly knowing whether your new system is a success.
More than that, one of the stickier issues is the idea of paying to unlock the “fun” of the game. Whether that’s what’s really happening or not, it’s easy to view it that way. In League of Legends
, for instance, the character roster rotates weekly, and if you want to specialize in one of them, you have to either pay real money to keep it unlocked, or play long enough to save up in-game-money to unlock that character.
There’s nothing inherently bad about this! But just thinking about it makes me feel like it’s “wrong.” My gut tells me that all characters should be available from the get-go, and players should have a choice of who to use. It makes me even more uncomfortable to know that you can buy an item with real money that helps you gain in-game money faster. But you know what? I’m sort of wrong to feel this way.
First of all, a rotating roster inspires players to try out characters they might otherwise never touch. When presented with some 72 characters at once, it’s difficult to know where to start, and one is less inclined to experiment. In that sense, the designers have made a choice to showcase all their characters more directly, because otherwise a good percentage of them may have gone unused.
It’s also a question of perspective. You could view it as a roster of 72 characters from which you’re constrained to only pick 10, chosen at random by the game every week. Alternately, you can look at it as a well-balanced game that offers you 10 new characters every week. I think that some of us feel designers of these games build a complete experience, and then decide what they can chop out to make people pay for.
That’s not how the most successful games are designed, necessarily. They take a core experience that has the idea of payment integrated into it as it’s designed. The preceding sentence made me uncomfortable even as I typed it, but all commercial games are paid experiences somehow or other. Whereas many of us still make a game and sell it once, these games keep on selling – but the idea of selling our games to customers stands firm in both cases.
It’s important to remember that the best among these games really are free. You could play League of Legends
for free forever, if you had the time to invest. Almost everything except the visual flair items is purchasable with in-game money, earned by playing over time. This is just like the “unlocks” we’ve been building in games for decades. But the player never had to pay, and they never pirated the software.
In most cases, paying enhances the experience for players by making it more convenient. But I think that’s another troublesome point. If the designers know how to make a game more accessible, more fun, and more convenient for players, why should that be behind the pay wall?
The answer is that if you don’t, nobody will pay. And if your game is subscription-based, it will probably slowly bleed subscribers over time. And if it’s a one-time purchase, there’s a real good chance a very large percentage of your players will be pirating your software, giving you nothing in the first place. But there’s no way around the queasiness some of us feel knowing we’re withholding convenience that could have been built into the game natively.
Give The People What They Want
I’ve been casually following the F2P industry for nearly as long as it’s been around. I started paying attention to the Korean industry back in 2001, and the seeds planted then have taken fruit worldwide. Free-to-play is quite simply one of the most lucrative business models, if not the most, in games today. This has expanded to include much greater Western appreciation, and looks to become a dominant model for online games here as well.
I mention all this because it’s important to note that these games aren’t just being forced onto us by a bunch of executives. I’ve watched the industry grow, and these games are succeeding because players are paying for them. They’re voting with their wallets and showing us that they like these games. This is, in fact, something they want to play, and a payment method they feel good about. Those who dissent and rail against this change are a vocal minority.
I don’t think the rise of free-to-play means the death of the single player designed narrative experience. Free-to-play doesn’t have to be in every game. You may not get as many Fallouts
or Deus Exes
. But look at a game like Amnesia
. That was made by a small team, presents a unique single-player experience with contemporary graphics, and has done quite well for its creators.
I would love to see more artistry and narrative design in the free-to-play market, but we have to forge that possibility. If you want to create a guided narrative in a traditional setting, there will continue to be a way for you to make a comfortable living doing so. But really, those of us who don’t like this change, those of us who want to preserve guided narrative and traditional gameplay, it’s up to us to find ways to make the F2P model work on our terms.
Customers want to play this way. If we want to preserve narrative, we are going to have to meet them halfway.