Free-to-play games are here to stay. There’s no denying the impact they have had on the North American MMO scene over the past five years. Then, of course, there are the free-to-play mobile games and apps that do the best to occupy your time with even more things to click and explore. Of course, we all know by now that free-to-play is a misnomer, a game can’t be entirely free or else how would the company stay in business? The game needs to monetize somehow. It needs to get players to be presented with a point where they feel that giving the game their money is a sound and solid investment.
Having been on both sides of the free-to-play game experience, I really look closely on what makes me crack open my wallet and decide to give a game my hard earned cash, especially if I already gave it some with an upfront purchase cost. Having thought about it my own experience breaks down in this order:
Now many will say that 1 and 4 are the same thing. Any time a game sells a convenience, they are also selling power. This is technically true but in reality true selling of power is making something powerful that is solely available through the cash-shop ONLY. If World of Warcraft sold a mount on their cash shop that was faster than any other mount in the game available by any other means, that would be selling power. Now if a game has a mechanic where you can buy store-only options through other means, like an auction house, or converting in-game currencies into the cash-shop ones, then we move back into the convenience column. You can get the item by spending zero dollars, if you are willing to put in the effort.
Why is convenience number one for me? Well, simply put, my time is valuable. I may love a game and play it to death, but I will always want to play it more than I truly can afford. If I can get accelerated XP or acquire a weapon faster than grinding through a reputation system, then yes, there is a chance I will do it, as long as the price is reasonable. For a lot of games, the prices aren’t reasonable (to me). I put that caveat of “to me” in there because to a lot of players those prices are reasonable. If a company sells an item at a price and that price never goes down and the price of subsequent items is on par with it, you can bet that a majority of people think that price is perfectly reasonable. Your opinion is probably in the minority.
Vanity is the next biggest area I go into when I monetize. I love looking cool in MMOs: one of the best moves Warhammer Online made was showing all the classes in their top-tier gear on the character generation screen, so you got to see what you would eventually look like. This, more than any other factor, played into the characters made in that game. Of course, if the game is single player there is pretty much a zero chance I will buy any vanity items. If you can’t show off your cool vanity item to other people, what’s the point really?
The last area I am going to talk about is worthiness. There have been games that I have played a ton of and found myself never, ever, monetizing. Either I figured out a system that got me everything that I wanted or there simply was nothing I desired in the cash shop. Eventually I would come to a realization that I have spent an inordinate amount of time playing the game, I should throw some money the developer’s way. I may not ever use or need what I buy, but at least I am letting the developer know they did a good job and deserve some of my money for the time I invested in their product.
What makes you monetize or buy into into a F2P game? Have you ever bought a microtransaction and felt you paid too much? Better yet, was there ever a microtransaction you thought was undervalued for what you got? I’m interested in what you have to say on the subject.
Matt Miller / Matt Miller is a 22 year veteran of the computer game industry and columnist for MMORPG.com. He was Lead Designer for City of Heroes over five years, and has "seen it all" when it comes to MMOs (but still learns something new every day). You can always reach him on twitter @MMODesigner.