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Free-to-Play Games: Three Key Trade-Offs (thezvi.wordpress.com)
72 points by fremden 9 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments

Path of Exile, which is mentioned in the article, stands out as one of the only, and from my viewpoint the best way to do free-to-play. The only things that affect gameplay are specific stash tabs which offer additional storage, with the rest of the microtransactions being cosmetics. Even the lootboxes are time-exclusive, with all of the items moving to the store individually a few months after the box comes out.

People look at POE and see the $30 wings and complain about the prices, but they ignore the fact that Chris Wilson and GGG have consistently put out excellent content (with a few exceptions) every 3 months since the game came out in ~2011. This is the way to do F2P correctly.

If you approach it as a casual single-player game, it is certainly a wholesome free-to-play model. For everyone else, microtransaction tabs are 100% mandatory to progress without spending inordinate amounts of time managing scarce inventory space.

Since 2.4, many of the 3-month content updates (which are always either good content or at least good-faith mistakes) have introduced mechanics which effectively require more microtransaction purchases (see 2.4, 2.5/3.7, 3.1).

Sure, you can technically play through all the content without microtransactions, but have fun organizing the 159 different maps, 104 essences, 42 (ordinary) currencies, endless cards, and all your actual items with the four default 12x12 tabs. Even then, your best bet for listing items for sale without premium tabs is to use a 3rd-party tool to generate a forum thread.

Not to say that PoE isn't one of the better F2P models out there, but GGG shouldn't get away with pretending to be a small indie studio when they have >100 employees and sold a controlling share to Tencent for >100M NZ$. They have (rightfully earned) one of the best reputations among game developers, but their insistence on selling (what should be) standard game features as $15 microtransactions is absurd.

Looking through the store now, what I would consider to be "mandatory" for someone investing significant time into the game comes out to about $70. The free trial is wonderful though!

I see your point but I don't really see this as a problem.

If you're going to play this game for a significant amount of time, I think it is only fair that you pay it. The question is then if it's worth $70, which I would guess it is.

The only problem I see is that usually if you buy a game for $70 it doesn't have (seemingly intentionally) all the gear designed in a way that looks extremely bland to get you to spend another $70+ in skins.

When I recommend this game to friends, I introduce it as a $70 game with a pay-as-you-go model.

My point is not that it makes the game bad, but that it's disingenuous to assert that the microtransactions are purely cosmetic or unnecessary. For my case at least, I would prefer if I could just buy the game for $70 and not have to buy more microtransactions if/when some future patch makes them advantageous.

I survived with a $20 premium stash bundle for most of my over a thousand hours in the game, and there have been leagues where the first player to reach max level has done it with just the basic storage. I can agree that they've added a lot of stackable items, and the 4 tabs may not be enough for serious players, but at that point $20 gets you most, if not all, the way to being fine.

I'd similarly call out Warframe for this. No required buy ins, but their premium currency can be used for inventory expansion, crafting instant completion (although you can simultaneously craft as much as you want), or trading with other players. Meanwhile they continually improve the game. The trading component also means people with time but not money can still get premium currency just by trading valued loot.

Warframe is pretty guilty of the many resources trade off, and starting out the game you're basically forced to pay for more warframe slots because you don't really have good enough loot to grind the good loot that people will trade plat for. It's a strange design decision because one of the main draws is how fun/different the different frames and weapons are. I'm hopeful they will address that in the future new player experience rework because I believe they make the majority of their money from the primes and cosmetics.

They support the hell out of their game though. I just started playing again and there's so much new stuff to do.

I dunno. Warframe feels "cool" from the start, while PoE requires $50 to not walk around with tin pot on your head and bad renfest garb at max level, even though the level 3 next to you is creating and destroying dazzling universes of light because they paid $250.

> although you can simultaneously craft as much as you want

Weird, I played ~70 hours earlier this year and I couldn't craft more than one item at once.

Warframe is a grind designed to make you spend money.

If you like grind then it's free, if you hate grind and won't spend money the game is bad.

The game didn’t feel like a grind until about a thousand hours in, when I quit. Up until then it was a fun series of learning curves and minmaxing builds. It’s a grind from day 1 if the gameplay doesn’t interest you.

The game felt like a grind from the 10th hour. Playing in public, people don't even play the game, they jump-dash through the entire level, kill a boss, and head to the end, over and over and over, every three minutes, all day. What's the point?

How about Dota 2? There's nothing you can buy that can affect gameplay. Steam Workshop is used by community artists to submit their cosmetics, which gets voted into the game by the players. Steam Marketplace where players can buy, sell and trade their cosmetics. 25% of all Battle Pass[0] spending goes directly towards the prize pool of the yearly The International[1] esports tournament, with this year's tournament boasting a $34,330,068 USD prize pool, the largest to date[2].

[0]: https://www.dota2.com/international2019/battlepass/

[1]: https://www.dota2.com/international/overview

[2]: https://www.esportsearnings.com/tournaments

if anything its basicallay pay to lose as some of the purchaseable interactive items are distracting to the user like those balloons and treasures

I'd counter that some cosmetics that modify skill graphics effects to precisely show their AoE are a little pay to win.

They show their AoE area to the enemies, so more like pay to lose. But you use them anyway because the effects are shiny.

Are you talking about the cosmetic for the Lina second spell ? Doesn't the cursor show the Stun range when you're about to cast it ? (the only broken cosmetic is the one that make Nyx Assassin look like Sand King)

That Mirana arrow is definitely pay to lose xD

Also Wind Ranger, Spectre, Disruptor, Pugna, Elder Titan, Medusa, Nature's Prophet, IO...

I have ~80 hours in PoE and started because it looked fun and the microtransaction system seemed reasonable. I stopped because it's pretty clear that what their system lacks in straight gambling mechanics, it more than makes up for in sly psychological tricks.

PoE's "micro"transaction system is much closer to a paid mod or DLC model. Yes, they're mostly cosmetic and QoL items for sale, but they certainly don't feel optional if you've ever played any other RPG or loot-heavy game. Like you mentioned, prices are stupid high and there's nothing "micro" when decent cosmetics run $40+ and a single full effects set is $150+.

The main story takes 20-40 hours, and pretty early on you'll almost HAVE to buy additional loot storage. It's a loot heavy game with no easy way to sell loot that doesn't require storing it (no gold or credits), so they're banking on people getting annoyed by their stash system (which really sucks) and purchasing the added storage. Rolling a new character uses that same storage, so you feel the pinch at each playthrough.

And even if you complete the story, store bought armor at level 2 looks infinitely better than anything you can actually earn through skill or play time. I mean, they already sell "supporter packs" with effects/pets/etc you can't buy a la carte or earn, so the whole facade of these cosmetics "paying to support the game" is already cracked.

They also play that game where you have to buy a custom currency (points) in $5 increments and the vast majority of the items are priced at odd increments, so you're almost always leaving money on the table.

They could offer multiple monetization schemes, like an unlock with each expansion to allow earning some variation of the nice skins and additional storage, while still keeping the game F2P (though I'd love to see them lock applying purchased cosmetics behind a level requirement). I'd be happy to pay $60 for the game and $30-40 per expansion, but I'm not going to just start dumping money into a game to get past the artificial stash constraints or rent worthless digital paint jobs.

There are too many sneaky little quirks that just happen to favor spending money for me to feel good about the game.

> store bought armor at level 2 looks infinitely better than anything you can actually earn through skill or play time

You touch on the two things that make me hate free to play games. It seeps into the design philosophy in a way that makes the experience worse for everybody because they need to incentivize buying stuff. A lot of people like playing dress-up, but there's no way to do that in PoE without paying crazy amounts of money.

Like the halo 3 days where the "cool" looking armor was because you completed difficult challenges, or you could dress up however you want, without spending $150

Firstly, if you run out of 4 stash tabs during the story you're picking up way too much. Easy mistake to make, but POE drops way too much loot and most of it is useless. If you're attempting to sell what you've found in the story you're also just wasting space.

Supporter packs aren't there for value, they are there as a "supporter pack". You buy it to give money to the dev, and you get some cosmetics, as well as most of the price of the pack as premium currency, which you can spend on more cosmetics, or stash tabs. I'd argue that character MTX isn't even worth spending money on given the amount of flashy skills and effects there are, that obscure your character, but that's a different argument.

If you're happy to pay $60 up-front for the game, why not just buy the stash tabs and be happy? $60 buys you more than you'll ever fill up.

As someone who played for ~3 years before dropping a dime on the game, I have to say I don't see the "quirks" other than stash space. The only other incentive is the regular "spend points to get a free box" where everyone just spends the equivalent of $0.50 on a bug to get theirs, using up the leftover points they had.

There is no good way to do F2P. Developers need to be paid, and it makes sense for someone to buy a game. F2P is trying to get people hooked, and then extract money from them somehow. Because the developers need to be paid.

What can be fair is a shop where you can buy cosmetic items. For me, Guild Wars 2 seems like a fair way to do it. The latest content costs money. Cosmetic items do nothing, but cost money. A few convenience items here and there, but no P2W.

GW2 became F2P? They weren't F2P when I got it at release IIRC. Since GW1 the approach was to sell extra expansions which seems to have worked for them.

I should run GW1 again, wonder if someone is still on there :P

GW2 base is F2P. At release, it was paid. So they changed model. However, the latest expansion and the additional content (living story content; sortof like a DLC) costs money. If you look at it from that PoV then it remained the same as GW1 (as during release, the complete game was the latest content).

Which, I believe, is fair enough. I'd prefer they not have convenience items up for sale, but compared to a WoW sub (which also makes you feel guilty when you don't use it) it feels fair and less stressful.

Yeah I always disliked the WoW model. It's quite amazing that they still make money this way. I played WoW during a time of really casual playing, at some point I would only play during weekends. As you mentioned, you just start feeling guilty for paying something you hardly use. So I quit entirely and played a lot more GW1.

This is a good article, and I very much agree that the second trade-off is the really dangerous one. I play Clash Royale, and I enjoy the game, but it does strongly exhibit these qualities, I definitely notice that ladder play is consistently irritating, because (being a decent player) I'm always stacked up against players with higher level cards at the same ladder level as me. So, most of the games I lose are against less skilled players with stronger cards, which is frustrating, and most of the games I win are vs less skilled players as well, which is better than losing, but not as much fun as winning against an equally skilled opponent. The only way around this is to reach the 'top' of ladder, where everyone has maxed out decks, which requires a lot of grinding or spending money. Tradeoff one in action.

More pernicious is tradeoff two though. There are myriad timers in the game to unlock various rewards; if you want to take advantage of everything you're playing something like an hour to 90 minutes a day on average, but it's spread out in little 3-6 minute chunks so it feels like less—but you're having to log into the game very regularly. This aspect is not fun, and it can tend to keep it back of mind all the time, just like the article describes.

I deal with it by just not worrying too much about optimizing everything, but that's mildly irritating too. If it gets too much so, I'll likely just stop playing. Really do miss the pre-FTP days though, when you bought a game and then you owned it and could get the full experience without any of this bullshit.

Back in my high school days myself and a few of my classmates used to play OGame - a poor man's 4X space MMO in a browser, or more accurately, a glorified rock-paper-scissors with a ton of timers (previously we also played AstroWars, which was the same, but simpler - the HN vs Reddit UX way of simpler).

Since construction, research and fleet navigation were all "click, wait 30 minutes to couple hours for completion", every break we'd rush down to the computer room to log in and manage our space empires. We were also playing during computer lessons, and of course at home. The game was extremely addictive but also grindy; it was fun primarily because we could talk about it together and compete against each other.

Now to my point. That was all before the iPhone, and it was already significantly affecting our school and after-school life[0]. I can imagine how much worse it would have been if we had Internet-connected smartphones with OGame on it, and if the game would send us push notifications about finished timers. This is, however, the reality today's high schoolers find themselves in. I wonder how disruptive timer-based games are to their education.


[0] - At that time, we though it cool that our friend from one class up had once stayed up to 02:00 AM just to log in to AstroWars and send his fleet somewhere. Subsequently, many of our nights were disrupted by very late or very early actions in AW/OG.

oGame, so many memories. I kinda wish there was an app based version to play in closed universe with friends.

Comment acknowledging that I typo'ed a comma in place of a period above, and sadly can no longer fix it.

I'm trying to figure out what the (presumably bad/unpleasant) f2p game trade-offs described in the article actually are; I think they are:

1. Fun vs. money (you can pay less money, but then the game is less fun)

2. Game success vs. wasted real life focus/time and constant worry/interruptions (if you don't constantly babysit the game and grind daily tasks then the game punishes you harshly)

3. Spending time/money on one game task/resource vs. another; this seems like an intrinsic trade-off, but segmented, non-tradable tokens and currencies increase the penalties for making a "wrong" decision

Out of the three, I greatly dislike 1 and 2. 3 is tolerable if the game is reasonably transparent about cost/time vs. reward The issue of a game surprising you with awful grinding/spending roadblocks seems like a special case of 2/1.

I think 3 really boils down to the same thing as 1 - it's a fun vs. money trade-off. Going the wrong path due to inexperience and having to grind your way back is just not fun.

2 is what worries me most, primarily because constant interruptions and distractions are disastrous to player's mental faculties, which are usually needed elsewhere (school, job, relationships, etc.).

Asymmetric's Kingdom of Loathing is free-to-play, with paid premiums. The pay-premium items generally translate into being the first to access new game content, and obviate any need to collect the in-game currency to access it.

The developers explicitly set a goal that all game content would be accessible by spending only in-game currency, which is usually accomplished by those players who paid real money selling their unlock items for in-game currency via the trade/market/mall system. For instance, when visiting "That 70s Volcano" via a permanent pass, the paid player can collect "volcoino" tokens, trade some of them for a single-day ticket to the zone, and sell that in the mall for meat. The unpaid player buys the ticket with meat, uses it (consuming the item), and can visit "That 70s Volcano" for one day.

There are no timers. Every day, at a specific time, everyone gets a quantum of "adventures", which are kept if not spent, up to a cap of 200. Certain actions in the game can add additional adventures. You spend your adventures, at any time you please, and then you're done until the next day.

This system has been the best free-to-play game setup I have ever experienced. The devs actively try to avoid pay-to-win. It's mainly pay-for-convenience and pay-for-prestige/fashion. Everything you can buy for real-world cash can be bought for meat, and a lot of the items that were attainable for real-world cash in the past can still be bought for [more] meat. It intentionally avoids all three of the three trade-offs in the article.

The daily limit on adventures is an example of trade-off #2. Their implementation is generous (40 adventures per day to a max of 200 means you need to check in every 5 days) but it still means that you can't take a full week off the game without losing adventures. The more +Adventure stuff you have, the sooner you hit that max.

Having a daily limit means that play sessions are artificially shortened, which prevents playing until satisfied. It encourages players to spend the time until next refresh planning how to use their adventures effectively.

You don't have to spend the adventures. If you absolutely cannot stand to miss the opportunity, there is a mechanism to spend multiple adventures in one action. There's a job board in town that uses 5 adventures at a time, and you can work at the bar for N adventures. You can straight up trade adventures for meat in one click. Log in from your phone, spend all your adventures at once, then log off. Or write a script that will log in and spend all your adventures for you, without bothering you at all. It's all https requests.

The 40 rollover adventures combine with daily consumption limits to give you an easily attainable 200 adventures per day per character. That's about 3 hours of play, if you aren't using automation aids. If you accumulate adventures to the cap, and then play them all the next day, you can use about 360 adventures. At the risk of the statement haunting me later, 200-360 should be enough for anybody. If you want to play more adventures, you can always play more than one character. Or, as you mentioned, if you want to play for more time, you can spend more time playing each adventure, to be more optimal.

You can't ever escape tradeoff #2 if your personality is susceptible to obsessing over things. If you play Tetris too long, you might dream about falling tetromino blocks. The important thing is the Asymmetric folks aren't trying to profit from obsessive player behaviors by throwing wildly non-synchronized countdown timers on everything.

I'm not wholly convinced that it's actually a problem. Collectible card games pretty consistently beat out living card games in popularity. Needing to grind, collect, and sometimes pay more for the things you want increases your investment in the game. I hear a lot of criticism about how these things exploit our natural desires, but isn't that sort of the point of games in general? Isn't creating an addictively fun game the goal? I sometimes feel like reducing our interactions with these things to their chemicals and base psychology ignores the human experience and the reasons we've spent so much time pursuing things that people will enjoy to the detriment of other things in their life. WoW seems like a good example. We have lots of stories of people who were unhealthily addicted to the game, but it seems like those are expected outliers for a game that could create such a passionate and invested playerbase.

> Isn't creating an addictively fun game the goal?

Addictively fun, yes. That is, the addiction is supposed to come from the fun you're having. Contrast that with the games criticized in the article - they have some fun aspects as a cover, but they're optimized for pure addictiveness through psychological trickery - which, as the article notes, often involves making them less fun.

The difference in the relationship between the two types of games and the player can be compared to a difference between wanting to be with someone because you love their personality and enjoy being together, vs. wanting to be with them because they're your heroin dealer.

It's hard to argue with the results. If it was less fun then fewer people would be playing them.

I'm necroposting, but this is aggressively missing the point. The problem described in the article is that many games advertise fun, but provide addiction. You can have tons of addicted players not really having fun, or putting in disproportionate effort relative to the fun.

> Isn't creating an addictively fun game the goal?

If you're making a GaaS, sure. I played Edith Finch twice and had infinitely more joy and fulfillment from those two playthroughs than I did playing any f2p game. I don't see how trying to make the game addictive would've made it any more enjoyable.

Gambling addiction is a serious and well known societal and human psychological problem that has touched every family I've ever known in some form.

To the point that gambling (used to be) strictly regulated for payouts and monitored by state gambling commissions. Either that or it was the purview of the mafia.

I notice you ignore any mention of money attached to the mechanisms you think "aren't a big deal" in your comment. That strikes me as willful disregard and intellectual dissonance. Are you a FtP games dev?

My experience with FtP/PtW was thankfully probably 100$ total. It was one of the Machine Zone games, final fantasy something or other.

Machine Zone games are some of the worst (and most popular!!!) of the genre, but certainly MZ is not the only bad actor here, and they did not break laws from what I saw...

But these games 100% need to be strictly regulated. Based on a couple others my girlfriend has played they are all gambling based in some ways with variant payouts (slot machine mechanics), enhanced with something even more nefarious: social rankings and status, and mechanisms that encourage you to pay to ascend the rankings of the specific subculture (or subculture shard usually) of the game.

I have no proof of MZ employees doing this since the game mechanics producing addicted whales could produce the equivalent behavior and overpowered accounts, but in an unregulated environment, MZ could easily seed each of the shard worlds with employees equipped with superuser accounts to prey on people that had not paid money to try to get them to buy packs and survive.

While this probably isn't racketeering in the legal sense, it sure as hell seemed like it.

Other tricks, such as fomenting conflict between "clans" and other tactics could easily have been "naturally" arising for the rules of the game, but without regulation any self-serving company would have provacateurs in each of the major clans starting wars and getting whale players to participate and pay out money.

All told it was a very creepy experience, topped off with a week-long "cold turkey quitting" psychological experience. Not that I had cold sweats or anything like that, but there was clearly addicted neurons that needed to wither away.

PtW needs careful regulation and oversight. The numerous levels of subconscious mechanisms and exploits in use are very concerning. It would be fascinating to take a group of psychologists and former CIA employees and let them play these games and get their perspectives.

This article would have been significantly easier to comprehend if the author had given the tradeoffs names instead of constantly referring to them by "first", "second", and "third" tradeoff. (Granted, he finally does so at the end of the article.)

I guess this is why I have free to play games sitting on my phone but never play them. They take me through a tutorial full of tasks and menus and resources and I subconsciously feel intimated by all the work.

Yeah, I've tried a few and after a while they feel like they're mainly aimed at returning players - you get pummeled by notifications, events, login bonuses, all kinds of terms that as a new player you're not yet familiar with. But that's the new player experience which they can just optimize if they choose to do so.

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