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The Free Zone: Selling in Free to Play Games II

Column By Richard Aihoshi on July 16, 2013

Last time, I tried to make the point that F2P isn't nearly ask simple as a number of its more vocal detractors make it out to be. I had no expectation whatsoever that I'd get any of these individuals to re-evaluate. Rather, my hope was to encourage readers whose minds aren't yet fully made up to decide for yourselves based on actual information, not on the exaggerated, simplistic and thus inaccurate model too often presented by the naysayers. Since I didn't go into any real depth as to the methodology involved, I thought some more on this topic area might be helpful.

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As I said before, “there's no coercion involved.” If you disagree, you might as well stop reading now. The word is defined as the use of force or intimidation. Any consequences due to non-compliance are imposed by an external source. Peer pressure is clearly not the same thing. Neither is the desire, for whatever reasons, to be “competitive”. For both of these, the negatives associated with not conforming are primarily if not completely internal, possibly involving some form of unfavorable self-perception.

That said, a critical aspect of an F2P marketing manager's job is to encourage users to spend more than they would on their own. Whether this is objectionable is a matter of opinion. What's beyond dispute is that it's very widespread, even verging on universal. As a familiar example, take the question “Would you like fries with that?” It's mandatory for service staff in certain restaurant chains to ask this whenever a customer orders anything appropriate. I've yet to see this directly applied in a game, but I have observed many implementations of other basic techniques like volume pricing and buy one item and receive a discount on another.

Like other businesses and even the charity sector, F2P has moved beyond such relatively straightforward methods. Frankly, there's enough in this still rapidly expanding topic area to write a book, so I won't attempt to do more than offer a couple of examples. A key one flies in the face of the all too familiar straw man model in which a game is blatantly pay to win, requiring the purchase of costly items from the very start.

Actually, it's better to make the free players' experience pretty similar or even the same early on, and to introduce the differences that items can bridge in a gradual fashion. The basic concept is to have a pretty level playing field at the beginning, to keep free users playing long enough so their resistance to buying starts to soften, and to present easily affordable ways for them to make their initial purchases when that happens. Mixing in opportunities to spend more comes later and gradually.

It's possible to call this a form of marketing trickery. Whether you think so or not, however, such practices aren't limited to the F2P sector or even to the video game industry. They're pretty much everywhere. Consequently, when people object to them in F2Ps, I can't help but wonder if they speak up just as loudly whenever they're used with other products and services, including the ones they like.

To be clear, I don't take a blanket position either way on whether such practices are meant to trick people. I'm also not objecting to or defending them. Implementations can vary widely. As always, I believe each of you should form your own opinions case by case, preferably in a decently informed manner and within the context of the world we live in.

The second method I'll talk about is gating. This term refers to points in a game where the player is given an obvious choice to pay and move on or not. A simple example would be an area for which you have to buy access. It's not always so straightforward though. For instance, a gate can either be hard, meaning there's no way to progress past it without spending, or soft, in which case it's possible although probably quite difficult and/or time-consuming to keep going.

To me, transparency is especially important here. If anything unexpected lies beyond a gate, I expect to be made aware of it before I make my spending decision. For example, I'll be less than pleased if I find there's another gate soon after, the difficulty suddenly ramps up faster than I've been used to, or the prices of items appropriate to the location are inexplicably elevated.

F2P isn't for everyone. However, the sector has a lot more games, and thus a lot more opportunities to find some that you'll enjoy. And yes, more you won't as well. Regardless, I hope that by having a bit more information about some aspects of how selling in them works, each of you will be better positioned to think and decide for yourselves based on how the model is actually implemented in any given title that feel may be worth checking out. 


Check out the first part of this series:

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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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