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The Free Zone: The Complexity of Selling in F2P Games

Column By Richard Aihoshi on July 02, 2013

For quite some time now, there has been a rather unfortunate tendency among certain observers who represent the F2P business model in a highly simplified manner. They typically call it pay to win and characterize it as built upon the greed of publishers who aim to trick or force players into spending large amounts of money. Such companies are said to prosper by selling items that are significantly better than the ones available in the course of normal play.

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I find this sad for at least a few reasons. Not the least of these is that what these individuals are doing is assailing a straw man. They ignore the full reality of the model they dislike. Instead, they substitute a distorted version, one that is easy to denigrate. However, there's a disconnection. Attacking an inaccurate representation of a position is simply not the same as criticizing the real thing.

Let me be clear that I'm not a fan of selling superior gear that non-paying players cannot obtain. My first experience of such a situation involved paying cash for a weapon. It's still easy to remember even though it happened long ago, back in the mid-1990s. I really didn't like being forced to choose between buying it or sticking with my inferior gear, and my feelings in this regard remain very much the same. That said, I object when I see people act as if nothing has changed in the ensuing span of nearly two decades.

In point of fact, F2P has evolved considerably during that time. Whether it was ever as simplistic as some still make it out to be is a matter of opinion; for what it's worth, I think it was in certain instances, but never close to across the board. No matter the extent to which you agree or disagree with my opinion, the business model has become deeper, with more layers, nuances, options and complexity.

As a very basic example, I can't remember the last time I saw a game without an intermediate currency. The reason is that when you pay for an item with gems, credits or whatever, it doesn't feel quite the same as laying out cash. It's easier because it's not real money. The underlying psychology may be similar to the reasons why casinos like us to use chips. Rationally, we know there's no difference in value... but that doesn't prevent most of us from betting and, over the long run, losing more.

Let's also be clear that there's no coercion involved. Even in games where the best items are only available in the cash shop, no one is obliged to purchase them. The argument is put forward that players must “in order to compete”. This condition conveniently forgets that the decisions to buy or not remain completely voluntary.

In addition, classifying games in a binary fashion, as pay to win or not, is overly simplistic. Publishers learned many years ago that in order to increase their long-term revenue, it's tremendously helpful to keep more players around for longer. This means it's actually counter-productive to present them with strong reasons to quit soon after they begin. 

What works far better is to increase the users' feeling of commitment. As a person puts more time into a game and derives more enjoyment from it, his or her reluctance to spend tends to drop. This generally happens in a gradual manner, not as a deluge. Accordingly, publishers don't - or at least shouldn't - sit around only focusing on how much they can charge for particular items. It's more important for them to make and to keep the perceived value equation palatable over time.

As a simplified illustration, I've never bought intermediate currency in a game before putting in well over 100 hours. The key to getting even a cent from me is obviously to keep me playing at least that long. Even then, it's not a case of opening the floodgates. At that point, I may be willing to spend $5, but not $100 or $50 or even $10. Accordingly, the publisher's next task is to figure out how to evolve the value equation so I'll open my wallet again and possibly reach in for a larger amount.

This is an area where companies have come a very long way. It's still far more an art than a science, but somewhat like game balancing, the decisions are based on more information than they used to be. The key example is that they compile and use metrics on various purchase behaviors, promotional interventions, resistance points, etc. Whether this constitutes tricking people is a matter of opinion. In my mind, it's an aspect of marketing.

The implementations can and do differ significantly from one publisher or even one title to the next, enough to fill multiple columns if not an entire book. For the moment, suffice it to say F2P is far more complex than the way it's sometimes represented, and not getting any simpler. As a consumer, being aware of this will, I hope, let you make better, more informed decisions about the MMOGs you choose to play, for how long, etc. 


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The Free Zone
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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