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The Pros & Cons of Free-to-Play

General Articles By David Georgeson on March 04, 2015

The Pros & Cons of Free-to-Play

In the past 5-7 years, “free-to-play” (F2P) became a popularly-supported business model, especially for MMOs. The basic concept behind F2P is that you can download the game for free and keep playing it for free for as long as you want. The devs then work to create attractive, but not game-breaking options that you find as you play. This revenue helps keep the servers running and the devs get paid enough to keep supporting this game and making more games in the future.

The traditional “pay wall” (pay a single price and play forever) or subscription (pay an up-front cost plus a monthly maintenance fee) models are every bit as valid and stable as free-to-play, but there are plusses and minuses to each of the models. To compare them, let’s outline the pros and cons for free-to-play and discuss the others as we go.

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Pros for F2P

  • The player doesn’t have to pay before trying the game. This gives the game a much better chance at first-month critical mass. When it comes to types of gamers, “free” players are pretty much the same people as “paying” players. Gamers are gamers, whether they’re free, subscribers, or just occasionally buying something on the marketplace. There are just as many passionate free gamers as there are passionate subscribers. So more gamers is more gamers, and you want as many as you can to give critical mass its best chance to occur. (See my last article for a talk about critical mass.)
  • F2P means that the curious or the friend-recommended can easily download and try the game without risk. “Fresh blood” for the community on a constant basis is a very important thing as it staves off stagnation.
    • Side note: Try-before-buy (trial periods) don’t have quite the same effect as going fully F2P. Lots of theories get discussed as to why, but trials don’t seem to work as well as F2P. It probably has a lot to do with the player’s attitude toward the game. Trial periods are a “toe in the water” mental attitude whereas F2P allows players to just dive in.
  • Generally increased game revenue. The results are in for short-term (3-5 years), but the jury is still out for results beyond that due to lack of data. From data and projecting some existing theory forward, it’s easy to believe that total revenue for F2P and subscription games equalize out at some distant horizon (five or more years after launch), but that F2P does significantly better in the short term (first few years). This is a positive thing for F2P. Early gains make a game more successful and more obviously worth supporting for the long-term. This is a win for players and devs alike.


Image source: GamesIndustry.biz

Cons for F2P

  • Visual brags within the game often become less meaningful. Before F2P, if someone had cool armor or weapons, it was because they did something meaningful within the game. Now, it might mean that they purchased something in the marketplace instead, thus lessening the impact of visual brags because you’re not sure whether they were earned or not. (You might recognize this as the issue of “newbs look just as amazing as vets”.)
  • Completionist gamers sometimes are annoyed by the idea that they can’t gain every item within the game, having to buy some items from the marketplace if they want to feel they own everything the game has to offer. (NOTE: This is usually only a problem with games in a well-established genre. New games, or unusual games, don’t usually face this same issue or at least at a lesser degree.)
  • Free-to-play is a lot of work. The items, promotions, code to handle account differences, membership privileges and everything is a lot of constant noise and takes 5-10% of your team’s available time and focus. This is obviously worth it if it makes your business successful, but every team has finite resources. That mind share has to come from somewhere.
  • Even when done well, if people are noticing your pay options, then at that moment, and very briefly, they’re thinking about whether to spend money instead of just enjoying the game. It’s not a perfect system. Subtle, but not invisible. Easily seen, but not annoying. It’s tricky to do well.
  • Hidden company costs are largely undocumented and untracked but they somewhat counteract some of the gains you’re making by going F2P. (Marketing promos, platform support, constant inter-departmental organizational meetings, etc.) New departments are even created to support it like analysis groups and promotional departments. It’s a drain on your company’s internal resources to maintain over time.
  • Trolls. Free-to-play accounts means it’s easy for the yahoos of the world to make lots and lots of accounts to mess around inside your game. This is a technical challenge regarding account restrictions and is readily minimized. It shouldn’t affect your business decision, but you absolutely must plan for it.

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