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What Does It Cost To Play For Free?

"Free to play" Battlefield Heroes inspires some thoughts about the impact of in-game spending on game design.

A few nights ago I was checking out Battlefield Heroes. Price of admission: just install a browser plug-in and create an account. It's a third-person rendition of good ol' Battlefield - two teams with multiple character classes running around capturing flags, crashing vehicles, and pwning each other. By current standards, it's quite a lot of game for free... which got me thinking about the "free to play" model for games.

"Free to play" is a funny expression. It sounds a lot like "Free shipping" or "Some sets not for use with some cars". It leaves you waiting for the other shoe to drop. Perhaps because so far it's been used more to describe games with hidden costs than games provided gratis. Going back to BFH, there are a variety of ways EA profits from the game, besides the brand loyalty and market share benefits it yields: a view of the sea from behind the turnstile

  • Players can pay to rent a server.
  • There are banners on most of the pre- and post-game screens. They are currently populated with BFH content, but screaming out for some back-to-school-laptop-deal banners.
  • The game's host gets a plug when the game starts ("This round hosted by YOUR DOMAIN HERE"). Presumably advertisers will pay for this too.
  • Players can pay for in-game accessories and upgrades.
Server rentals and the related hosting plugs are a cool idea. Ads are just as tacky as on the rest of the internet, but they're a price almost everyone is comfortable paying. The tricky one is in-game spending. Something about it doesn't sit well with me, and I've been trying to figure out what.

I think what I don't like about this model is that it has the potential to shift the focus away from designing good games to instead designing profitable spending systems.
 
The traditional model of making a game and then letting the market decide your reward does at least incentivize the creation of good games. The system is not ideal, it also rewards mediocre games with great marketing and penalizes games that can't get into the right distribution channels. Nonetheless, if you make a good game, you're at least  not paddling against the current.

Of course if you make a good game but use the in-game spending model, you can expect to be rewarded with a similar large player population. The catch is that your financial reward is not just a factor of how many people like your game, but also how much money you are able to get each of them to spend while playing.

If this is where all of your revenue comes from, then the spending imperative can easily run afoul of some of the qualities we think of as important in a good game, like balance and longevity. Designers are now encouraged to introduce intentional imbalances to create value for premium game items. Likewise, if the free parts of the game are fun and engaging for too long, it can undermine sales of add-on content.
 
With this model, it's more profitable to make a game where players regularly get bored with their content and want to buy more. It seems inescapable that some parts of the game will have to have these game design toll booths installed to be profitable. The problem is there's no synergy in this approach. The toll booths don't add anything to the game, but they can definitely detract from it.

BFH is not solely dependent on the sale of in-game items to pay the bills. From what I've seen so far you can enjoy the game just fine without spending any money, as long as you don't care too much about cool hats and have the patience to play to earn the points you need to access new items, rather than buying them.
 
This turns the in-game spending into more of a tip jar, rather than a toll booth - it's an optional part of the game. It will be interesting to see how other games will try to use in-game spending in the future. Kudos to EA for giving it a try with Battlefield Heroes.
   
Flickr photo by morberg.

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