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The Design of Free-to-Play Games, Part 2

The rise of the free-to-play business model has drastically changed the landscape of game development, and in this feature, designer Pascal Luban takes a look at the design elements which free-to-play elements designers can address and looks at future trends.

Pascal Luban, Blogger

January 18, 2012

16 Min Read

[The rise of the free-to-play business model has drastically changed the landscape of game development. In his last feature, designer Pascal Luban described the conventional wisdom around the process. In this follow-up, he takes a deeper look at the design elements which free-to-play elements designers can address and looks at future trends.]

In the previous part of my feature, I described the business environment of free-to-play (F2P) games and I covered their design essentials. In this part, I will describe how they are monetized, and I will conclude with a few short-to-medium term trends I have spotted.

In the present state of the market, making money out of F2P game is both science and alchemy. Should basic rules be applied, they are largely implemented according to the developer's intuition and imagination.

Let's start by understanding what motivates 5 to 10 percent of players to make purchases in a free game.

Buyers' Motivations

Generally speaking, purchases in a "free" game are motivated by the following desires:

  • To speed up leveling or get access to new features. Many free-to-play games are designed to create never-ending needs. The game gives you enough resources to get started and to discover what it has to offer if you level up. But as you go further in the game, three trends kick in:

    • The new buildings, units, or customization items become increasingly expensive.

    • New challenges appear.

    • The opportunity tree opens up.

    The player faces a dizzying choice of items he wants or tasks he wants to get done. It becomes difficult to resist NOT using hard cash (in the form of in-game currency) to buy either in-game resources (gold, food, energy points, etc.) or the much-wanted items themselves. And of course, the real money cost of the first items you can buy is always very low, so it becomes very tempting to spend a few dollars or euros.

  • To access the full game. Several very successful "free" games like Club Penguin or Dofus use freemium or limited access business models. They are so well-designed that you have access to enough free stuff to give you a real taste of the game; this will lead you to pay a small amount to unlock the full experience.

  • To ease one's game experience. Many free-to-play games require players to connect regularly in order to do their “chores” like harvesting their crops. Feerik's Poney Vallée makes it more compelling to do your daily chores by decreasing your horses' performance if they don't get taken care of. The automation of such repetitive tasks is one of the items that can only be purchased with real money.

  • To feed one's ego. Games with a strong social dimension are showcases that players use to display themselves at their best, to show their personality, or to impress others. Those free-to-play games offer numerous possibilities to appear unique. In Playfish's Pet Society, players can purchase unique interior decorations and in Zynga's Empires & Allies, one can buy powerful military units available for a brief period of time. This is especially effective since a player can use those cool-looking and mighty units to attack his friends!

    Avatar-based games also offer numerous opportunities for customization. To push players to do that, some free-to-play games make it impossible to customize basic avatars, so newcomers are easily spotted; nobody wants to look like a newbie! And customizing one's avatar is not the only way to appear "different"; for instance, some free-to-play games let you change the display color of the player's name... for a price, of course.

  • To make gifts. According to Akio Tanaka from Infinity Ventures, 29 percent of males and 21 percent of female players buy items to make presents. In fact, many users play F2P games to flirt. The playful and virtual game dimension plays down the flirtation and makes it easier than in the real life.

  • To access advanced features. Certain free-to-play games offer the players the opportunity to customize their interface, to create or manage a guild, etc. These items mainly address hardcore players and should develop with the rise of action and strategy free-to-play games.

A current issue regarding the definition of items bought with hard money is whether they should give a competitive advantage to players or not. To begin with, note that this issue is essentially debated in the West. In Asia, many free-to-play games feature items that will openly give an edge to their owners. In the West, this is not necessarily the case -- but some games, including major ones, reward players that open up their wallet. However, thanks to smart design, this does not create unbearable imbalances in the games.

Zynga's Empires & Allies

In Empires & Allies, units of increasing power are made available as you level up. For instance, the player unlocks the light aircraft carrier at a low level and the medium one at a higher level. Each unit features a unique figure that summarizes its strength. The player can upgrade his units with resources obtained in-game.

However, the last upgrade for each unit can only be purchased with hard money. And this last upgrade is a big one; for the light aircraft carrier, it will give it the same strength as the medium aircraft carrier, which the player knows is further away in the game. Thus, a player can easily boost its combat effectiveness by spending real money, and get an edge against the other players he decides to attack.

This is a very smart way to give a sizable advantage to a player that spends real money without upsetting other players who can obtain the same result by playing the game longer.

Allowing a player to "buy" an edge in a competitive game is very effective from the monetization point of view because the essence of the game pushes players to out-perform others. It is possible to do it without alienating the majority of the players but it requires a very precise game design.

Monetization Techniques

Five techniques are used to generate revenues:

  • Item-purchasing

  • Affiliate marketing

  • Advertising

  • Freemium

  • Restricted access

According to eMarketer, revenues for social games in 2012 for the U.S. should break up in the following way: Item selling (60 percent), advertising (20 percent) and affiliate marketing (20 percent). Note that this study does not include revenues generated by freemium and restricted access business models.


The Principle

This is the main revenue source of free-to-play games -- between 50 and 90 percent. A F2P game uses two types of currency: a so-called soft currency, and a hard one. The former is earned in-game by completing tasks, but the latter can only be obtained by spending real money -- dollars, euros, whatever.

Why two currencies? The main reason is that it allows the game publisher to control the monetization of the game. If any item could be bought with money earned in-game, players could eventually buy the whole game without spending a dime. Another advantage of this dual-money system is that it gives a premium value to whatever can only be bought with hard money.

Note that in many games, there is some gateway to convert between the two currencies, allowing players with different resources (time and cash) to exchange them.

The Major Families of Items

The imagination of developers is unlimited, and monetization is no exception. New item ideas will emerge. Meanwhile, here is a list of item families that are currently sold in free-to-play games:

  • Game resources. Found in many free-to-play games. They allow a player to play longer (Treasure Madness), to get raw materials to build units or buildings (Empires & Allies), to speed up time (Edgeworld). Note that there are free-to-play games (such as Battlefield Heroes) which sell items that allow the player to double his gains, such as experience points, for a short period of time.

  • Customization items. Most free-to-play games offer some degree of customization. Management games sell unique and cool-looking items to customize your territory, home or store (CityVille, Pet Society). Strategy games let you buy unique weapons (Mobster, Empires & Allies). In avatar-based games, the avatars of non-paying players are designed to look bland and boring. Their customization quickly becomes a "must" that has to be paid for. Battlefield Heroes' shop is largely made up of that stuff.

  • Comfort items. They make it unnecessary to feed an animal (Poney Vallée) or water a garden every day. They can enable the player to delete certain avatar features or to go back to the character creation interface (IMVU). Advertising can be removed in Who Has The Biggest Brain? Comfort items also apply to action games. In SAS - Zombie Assault 2, an item allows the player to respawn near the point where he has been killed. In Battlefield Heroes, another item makes it possible to display the health of teammates. Note that some items can be specifically targeted at hardcore players, like the ability to name a game session (War Rock).

  • Game modules. You can sell new maps or quests, but they are not well adapted to the F2P model because these cannot be sold for a small amount, because of the amount of work needed to develop them. An intermediary solution is implemented in League of Legends, where players buy heroes. However, I expect such items to grow in popularity as traditional console games (sports, FPS, action-adventure, etc.) increasingly embed DLC in their design.

  • Collectible items. They contribute nothing to the game, but give the players the opportunity to make collections and exchange items with other players. The social dimension of free-to-play games is never far away. Treasure Madness pushed this system very far.

  • Affiliation items. These allow players to highlight their being a member of a guild, a nationality etc.

A Few Guidelines

  • A good rule to keep in mind is that you should design your game in such a way that you have a lot of room for new items. You want players to keep coming back, and a good way to achieve that objective is to introduce new stuff.

  • Don't sell items that are indispensable to play the game. A player must be able to play the full game without spending real money.

  • Avoid selling items that require other players to buy them. That's why the new maps introduced in Battlefield Heroes were free to download.

  • Don't sell items that players think should be integrated in the game by default. They will feel cheated.


Players easily accept advertising in a F2P game because they are aware that the developer has to earn his living in some way. However, advertising only has a marginal share in F2P revenues: between 0 and 20 percent.

Advertising is very easy to set up, and will generate revenue effortlessly for the publisher, but it will only attract advertisers if the game generates a lot of traffic. Don't count on that revenue model in the few first months after launch.

A key design rule is to make sure the ads will not interfere with the gaming experience.

Affiliate Marketing

This method consists in providing a player with hard money if he visits or registers on a partner site. For instance, We Rule, Ngmoco's iPhone F2P game, allows the player to win gold coins if he accesses a partner's homepage while in-game. This mechanism represents approximately 10 to 40 percent of F2P revenues.


The game is free, and players can carry out microtransactions to purchase items, but they can also opt for a subscription that gives them access to bonuses. It's the same principle as the exclusive lounges in airports which are reserved for business or first class travelers. All players play the same game, but certain players are VIPs.

It's the system adopted by SOE's Free Realms. Another example is Dungeons & Dragons Online - Eberron Unlimited, which started life as a premium subscription game. The player can buy quests one by one, as items, or subscribe to the freemium pack that grants access to all the quests, along with other benefits.

Freemium targets the three to five percent of players who are heavy consumers of a given game. It works best for very rich and involving games. There must be enough items to sell through microtransactions and room for an extra layer of features reserved to those who are willing to pay a monthly subscription. Needless to say, that those extra features must be really worthy! That's why we rarely seen this monetization model applied outside the MMO genre -- but this might change.

Restricted Access

The game is free but, contrary to the preponderance of F2P games, the player does not have access to the full game. If she wants to take on quests or develop her character, the player will have to pay for the access. Ankama, a leading French MMO publisher, uses this model exclusively for his hit, Dofus.

The game is free. A player can build his avatar, initiate quests, and access all social features. However, if she wants access to all dungeons and especially to be able to exchange items with other players, she needs to buy access to the full game for several months.

The main challenge with this monetization model is understanding which features to exclude from the free game. I have in mind a MMO game based on a widely popular IP, which utterly failed because it did not deliver enough in its free version.

Players could not get a taste of the full game, and some became angry at what they perceived as excessive greed from the publisher.

There are several ways to let a player get a good taste at a game without jeopardizing your chances to sell her a subscription:

  • To limit the scope of key features. In a strategy game, this limitation could apply to the number of units or buildings a player can own at a given time.

  • To limit the access to advanced features. This is the path followed by Dofus. Note that social features, like the ability to chat with other players, is part of the free package. This technique works best with MMOs, because of the modular nature of these games; quests can be seen as sub-games whose access can be controlled.

  • To offer the full game but for a limited amount of time. This technique is simply to implement and easy to tune; the free period can be easily extended or shortened. Its main problem is that it blocks all social interactions once the free period is over. Restricted access games are like all other F2P games: It is the social network of the player that drives the incentive to play. 

A Glimpse at What's Coming Next

I will conclude this series by describing a few short-to-medium term trends I have identified.

  • A saturated market. There are just too many F2P games coming over the horizon. A lot of them will fail because they'll be mere copies of existing ones. However, we have already seen that there is a premium in the market for games offering a genuine novelty, or which are built around a new theme. That's the key to success in the F2P or social game market: be creative, and don't be afraid to go for a niche audience.

    David Edery, principal of consulting firm Fuzbi LLC, stated in early 2011 that "we're seeing that the smaller, more targeted games growing considerably faster than the 'big mommas' that appeal to the large, general audiences, like CityVille and FrontierVille. If you believe the statistics, the top five games seem to be losing users while the games ranked 51 to 175 are growing substantially over last year. If that game is designed correctly, if it is monetized correctly, it can make $200,000, $300,000, even $500,000 a year."

  • F2P on home consoles. It is already happening. SOE's Free Realms is the first F2P available on the PlayStation 3 -- via PSN. For the Xbox 360, Develop has reported last June that upcoming OS will soon support microtransactions. Microsoft is also, behind the scenes, discussing with developers on the introduction of F2P games on Xbox Live Arcade.

SOE's Free Realms

  • The embedding of F2P monetization techniques in traditional console games. I am not talking of the availability of F2P games on game consoles. I believe triple-A games we are currently buying at full price will add F2P features to their core design. Such techniques would allow a publisher to enjoy higher returns on investment, to allow a player to differentiate his experience and to create a continuous buzz around the game. Monetization techniques would also allow developers to continue to generate revenues by developing content to sell: maps, game modes, characters, accessories etc. – the list is unlimited.

    But the merging of two business models is yet to come. Gamers will refuse to pay for extras if they think these should be integrated in a game they purchased at a premium price. Traditional games that integrate this new economic model will have to be reconsidered from almost all angles: software architecture, gameplay, community management, marketing. This is what Activision is probably attempting to do with its Call of Duty Elite service. Elite subscribers are expected to receive downloadable content and add-ons to Call of Duty games. Non-subscribers can still purchase them via individual transactions.

  • The emergence of new markets. An easy way to expand the reach of a F2P game is to localize a game in order to adapt it to emerging markets: Brazil, Russia, Turkey, etc. Those countries are seen as "low-priority" markets for the console game industry but they are reaching parity with major Western markets when it comes to online social gaming. Bigpoint already operates 60 different games across 180 countries.

  • Games as services rather than stand-alone products. This is already happening with MMOs, but the novelty could be the adaptation of this business model to other genres. EA Sports boss Peter Moore has outlined an ambitious plan to transform FIFA from a franchise that relies on annual disc-based releases to a persistent online game that evolves on a continuing basis. Since most MMOs switched from subscription to F2P business model, we can see that F2P mechanisms and design principles could apply as well.

  • One step beyond: user-generated content. This could become an amazing evolution of the F2P business model: Players selling their own creations to other players... for real money. Sound crazy? Some games already offer the option to sell user-generated game items against in-game money.

    Habbo Hotel has set up a feature that allows players to develop their own mini-games and sell them to other members of the community. And let's not forget the example of Trackmania, the pioneer in user-generated content. Players can design tracks, publish them in the in-game store, and sell them for in-game credits. Blizzard is putting feelers into this concept with discussions of sales of mods on Battle.net.

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About the Author(s)

Pascal Luban


Pascal Luban is a freelance creative director and game designer based in France. He has been working in the game industry as a game or level designer since 1995 and has been commissioned by major studios and publishers including Activision, SCEE, Ubisoft and DICE. In particular, he was Lead Level Designer on the 'versus' multiplayer versions of both Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory, he designed CTF-Tornado, a UT3 mod multiplayer map built to showcase the applications of physics to gameplay, he was creative Director on Wanted – Weapons of Fate and lead game designer on Fighters Uncaged, the first combat game for Kinect. His first game for mobile platforms, The One Hope, was published in 2007 by the Irish publishers Gmedia and has received the Best In Gaming award at the 2009 Digital Media Awards of Dublin. Leveraging his design experience on console and PC titles, Pascal is also working on social and Free-to-Play games. He contributed to the game design of Kartoon, a Facebook game currently under development at Kadank, he did a design mission on Treasure Madness, zSlide's successful Free-to-Play game and completed several design missions for French and American clients. Pascal is content director for the video game program at CIFACOM, a French school focusing on the new media industry.

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