Designer Bennett Foddy of QWOP
fame counts five major reasons why the free to play model doesn't work well in its current incarnation, but suggests that by being creative with microtransactions, designers have the chance to do better work.
1. They're pay not to play, really.
Foddy believes lots of freemium games give players the choice between paying or grinding -- "which suggests you might want to pay money to reduce the amount of time you spend playing the game," he notes. "Not playing the game is the 'luxury option'... [and] ultimately reduces the value players see in the game."
2. There's no level playing field.
If some players are playing with different rules and others, you can't meaningfully compare their experiences. "If somebody is buying progress, or advantages from the IAP store, they're just cheating," Foddy says. "It's like you're selling players steroids to cheat with."
3. It corrupts the experience.
Seeking real money from players during the gameplay breaks immersion, Foddy believes. "In my view, a really good game has a particular relationship with the player," he says. "In a freemium game, it's relating to you more as a vendor, or a drug dealer."
4. There's an irreconcilable conflict.
Designing games for real money transaction from the ground up balances two incompatible aims: Making the game fun and complete for non-payers, and making it complete for people who do pay. "You're caught between a rock and a hard place," he says. "
5. You miss opportunities to be creative.
"If you're selling hats, it's true you're not ruining the game for everybody, but even in that case you're still missing the opportunity to invent a way of charging people money... in a way that increases value and meaning in the game for everyone."
Some ideas that don't "totally suck"
People often defend free-to-play by comparing them to coin-op arcades, but very few people actually design games like arcades, where players pay for every life or play. "If you do that, you're charging them to pay more instead of less... and it also maintains a level playing field," Foddy suggests.
In a tournament you pay for the opportunity to log an official score -- that's another method that might work, he adds. And you can offer players rewards for playing with skills, for example: If you make a full-featured demo that stays free forever so long as you play with skill, although he admits that sort of approach might not play well among mobile apps.
"You could charge money for permanent changes to the game that apply to everybody," he says. What if everyone paying two dollars unlocks an extra difficulty level? While some of these ideas may not be allowed under Apple's terms and conditions, the goal of being creative within the free-to-play business model still applies, Foddy says.
"You're not confined to selling digital consumables to small children and idiots," he explains. "You can come up with your own thing."