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Free to Play Design has attracted many gamers and developers to it for its low cost of entry. But for today, we're going to talk about the cost that keeps people playing them to the point of manipulation.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

August 6, 2020

7 Min Read

In my last post on free to play and mobile design, I talked about gacha and lootbox design. I also mentioned trying the game Arknights and how I was still in the honeymoon period…well, that is over, and it did not end well. For today, we are going to discuss the real wall of playing free to play games.

What Free to Play Values

As everyone knows, the lack of a paywall to get into a free to play game is a major attraction for people to try them out. Without it, designers need to find a way to generate revenue through the player base itself. Even though many mobile games will use ads, that is not the same as gacha and lootbox design as a way of keeping someone invested in playing.

The more addictive games know that if you want to keep someone playing (and hopefully turn them into whale) you need to get them invested, and to do that, you need to create value. A free to play game is not the same as a retail title whose initial paywall covers the investment on the player’s part. Obviously, we are ignoring retail games that have microtransactions for this discussion.

There are only two areas that are left to create investment in free to play games: Time and Money. Many years ago, Valve gave a talk at GDC about the two aspects when it came to Team Fortress 2 and how the game went free to play and generated revenue via the Mann Co store.

In that presentation, they spoke about the concepts of time and money, and how every player values them differently. For one person, they could play a game for hundreds of hours and will rebuke spending even one dollar to buy something; just as someone will happily spend hundreds of dollars if it means accomplishing months of tasks within minutes.

F2P designers have been courting both personalities for years. You can see similar elements across mobile titles: a massive in-game store and banners for people who value time; designing progress around repetitive tasks and grinding for those who value money.

There is nothing “stupid” or “lazy” as gamers have said about developers who make use of these tactics, they know what they are doing, and it is about generating the sunk cost fallacy.

Sunk Cost Fallacy

The sunk cost fallacy is a term used to describe that tendency for someone to keep investing in something due to already having done it before, hence the sunk cost. Free to play designers know that the goal is to get someone to spend money one time—even if it is just a dollar. Once someone has invested into a free to play game, they are more willing to do it again, and more importantly, keep playing.

When we usually talk about the sunk cost fallacy it has to do with spending money, as that is the popular interpretation, but this can also apply to time. For someone who does not want to spend money, there is always the option of spending time. Resources can be earned by repeating content already done, or constantly logging in to repeat a task.

In Arknights, characters require multiple resources to upgrade their various traits. If you do not spend money, you are going to have to repeat missions again and again for those items. Even putting the game at 2X speed, you are still waiting anywhere from one to four minutes watching a map on autopilot to collect said resources. Even though that does not sound like a long time, all those minutes do add up. Again, you are going to be doing this constantly, as said resources are not guaranteed drops, and you have at minimum 11 characters to do this for.

Every F2P game starts out easy to progress, but then puts up this wall as kind of a test to see if the player is invested in continuing to play (or pay). As we talked about in the piece on gacha design, it never truly ends.

From One Wall to the Next

Supporters of F2P design will often say that skilled players do not need to spend money or are good enough at the game to make progress. Another aspect of F2P design not often discussed are the multiple walls of progress. Once you have spent enough money or time on a game to get past that initial wall, many basic tasks or challenges become easier.

During my time in Marvel Strike Force, I routinely earned free materials because my team was high enough to complete special challenges. Arknights features a similar philosophy with daily events whose reward goes up the harder the version you clear.

Breaking through that first wall of progress is like getting a massive weight off your shoulders, and is often that point where players become committed to a game. The sunk cost fallacy is in full effect: “I can’t stop playing, look at how far I’ve come.” And when the player gets committed to one aspect of a game, chances are they are going to commit to everything.

Unfortunately, here is the dirty secret around monetized F2P design—there is always another wall. To keep making progress, you are going to need more resources and higher up characters, which, you guessed it, means more grinding or spending money.

A F2P game that runs out of grinding to do is a dead game, and why they are designed around long-term play and continued updates.

The beauty about scaling content is that there is no such thing as running out of numbers. Every free to play game imaginable has some system that could be extended indefinitely. In Marvel Strike Force, during my time playing the developers kept the rarity system, but raised the max level of characters to 75 instead of 70. Those five additional levels would cost about a million in terms of in-game currency to make that jump.

Not only that but for character-driven games there can be further grinding to unlock a character, and then restarting the grind for each new character the player unlocks.

Gameplay Hostage

What frustrates me as someone who understands game design is how many of the F2P games I’ve looked at have legitimately great systems to them, but as I said in my last post: A game that lives by its gacha design, can also die because of it.

The elements that I complain about: the grind, the repetitive nature, the lack of evolving game systems, those are intentional by the designers. With Arknights, I really like the idea of a character-driven tower defense game, but the elements surrounding that lead to frustration. What hurts the most is that these games are so tethered to their monetization systems, there is no way to make a “retail version” without requiring an entire redesign.

As I said in the previous piece that game titles that are tied to gacha or heavy monetization can live or die because of it. Somewhere, there must be a middle ground between a retail experience and the traditional monetized mobile games. After catching the developers of Arknights in a lie with how they give out premium currency, I have no intention of ever spending money in the game, and possibly just deleting it.

Before the pandemic scuttled all plans in 2020, there were talks about governments cracking down on F2P games in terms of their addictive nature. I have made a promise to myself that I outright refuse to play any videogame that demands my constant time or money to enjoy it. Personally, I think it is a matter of when, not if, for governments to talk about this again, and when that day comes, a lot of games (and their consumers) are going to be left scrambling.

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About the Author(s)

Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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