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The Kingdom of Loathing's model seems to do pretty well. (And they've been at it for 10 years now, well before "free to play" was a thing.) You can pay for in-game items, but you can also buy them with in-game currency[1].

So you could let players pay to get the special items/upgrades instantly, but still let hardcore players get them without paying through some sort of grinding. So long as you don't have to exchange too much time to be maximally powerful without paying for the privilege, players don't seem to mind in practice. (You will get people loudly bitching about things no matter what you do -- this is the internet.) So: you make it so that players only have a few of the upgrades active at a time, then you can introduce new items in a regular stream without unbalancing things.

1. Well, in KoL you can only buy them from other players with regular currency. Unless your game plans to have a full fledged economy, I guess you'd want to sell them directly.

Thanks for the KoL tip. My game is really rather simple card game strategy, with strict rules and requires skill to play, no luck involved. Players don't have "decks", they all share the same deck of cards. Basically, it plays like chess, all players are equal. So, there's no room for in-game economy between players.

Currently I'm considering the following models:

1. pay for some additional units (cards) which would basically mean that some players who pay have additional strategies available (not necessarily more powerful, but rather more diverse).

2. pay to play more. Amount of duels per day would be limited, and thus the player's progress. The game will feature a ranking system with levels, so paying players could advance faster.

The second one seems closer to KoL model. Which now gives me an idea. I could separate the rankings system (leaderboard) from the player leveling system, so that leaderboard is limited to, say, first 5 matches each day, while you could still play additional duels to level-up faster. Although, leveling-up has no effect on the gameplay, it's purely cosmetic.

I'm still not sure if 1. or 2. would make more money, but making more money is not my primary concern. I just want the game to be sustainable and attract as many players as possible.

I believe many indie developers like me are facing the same questions themselves, esp. when they read that Supercell is making gazilions.

Avoid #2 at all costs. Nothing drives me away from games faster than "Please wait X time (or pay more money) before you can continue playing," whether it's a daily action limit, or some kind of "endurance" hack, or whatnot.

You want people to invest themselves in your game, and being multiplayer having more players online at once is only ever a good thing. Turning away players is counter-productive.

Notably, the designers of KoL have also abided by that -- your actions per day are limited, but there's no way to directly turn real world money into more turns. (There are indirect ways, but you can almost always get them cheaply with in-game currency as well.)

I've had some of the same thoughts about my own card game. Here's one adjustment you could make to your option 1: if one player has purchased the additional units (cards), then both players get to use them. This is what Blizzard has just enabled for Starcraft II, and is what Goko (sigh) did for Dominion. (please do not use Goko as a model overall however - I can't stand the UX)

This is a fairly common model. One of the best examples I've encountered lately is League of Legends. The game is a MOBA (coined: Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) for team fights on a map that is similar to Defense of the Ancients from Warcraft III. The core of the game is that you learn how to play champions, of which there are over 100, and you boost them up a bit with runes. The game has two currencies: Riot Points and Influence Points. Here's how they handle maintaining balance and rewarding payment with acceleration:

- You start with a few Riot Points. Enough to buy a starter champion, but not much else.

- Riot Points can be purchased.

- Influence points are earned along with experience by playing matches.

- Champions can be purchased with either currency. However, most of them take far more Influence Points, so you can achieve instant gratification through cash outlay or you can play for fun over time and pick up a few more advanced champions.

- Runes can only be purchased with Influence Points. Therefore, you cannot simply drop cash and get the best runes, then have an edge over other players. You earn them by playing. You can earn them faster by getting Influence Point boost periods by paying Riot Points, which of course is cash for acceleration, but not instant gratification since it still encourages you to play and practice the game.

- Every week, there is a free rotation of a set of champions. If you are patient enough, you can try out tons of different champions before spending a dime. If you like one enough to want to keep playing it after it rotates back out, you can drop cash to buy it or spend a giant pile of Influence Points that you've earned. Or, you can simply play with them for fun, endlessly, and enjoy the variety.

- The only "pay to play" thing I've found is that you can purchase extra pages for rune configurations. This can't be earned any other way. It's not overly expensive, it's not mandatory, but it seems like you probably need to do it for any serious competitive play in order to be efficient and prepared for different matches and roles. I wasn't put off by this.

I thought this was a pretty good implementation. I've spent a reasonable, tolerable amount of money so far on the game and have more champions than I probably should have right now, due to enjoying them. The experience felt very much not "pay to win" and that it scaled very well with your interest. The one thing I really liked is that even paying to accelerate your experience was always still contingent on you playing lots of games and therefore getting better and trying out lots of roles and champions. That felt very smart because it doesn't burn you out but invests you further.

If you're researching this kind of model, I would highly suggest trying the game out to get a feel for what the customer experience is like. It seems like a good reference implementation that could be adjusted to match games that aren't based on this champion asset model.

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