Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.

As a business model, I very much like free to play.

Free to Play is a direct response to the digitization of PC gaming. It’s no coincidence that free to play is a PC-centric phenomenon.  If we still had a handful of major PC game publications and a major retail presence, there’d be no free to play.  The market adapts, the consumer benefits.

Let’s define free to play:

Free To Play is software that is fully functional and useful/fun in its free form. It’s not a trial. It’s not a “Crippled” version.  It is, ultimately, freeware.  The difference here is that users also have the option, typically within the program itself, to add more features or content to the program. These features and content are completely optional and the user could go just fine without ever spending a cent. Well made freeware makes its premium features “nice to have” but not critical to the program itself.

Migration

Free to Play may have started out as a gaming phenomenon but it just as applicable to non-game software. About a year ago, I outlined to our software unit that all our software was going to migrate to a free to play model. You can see this with Tiles. Tiles is freeware but users can add features to it for small amounts. The base program is compelling on its own. The extras (premium) are clearly “nice to have” but not core to the program (skinning, extra tile filters, etc.).

This week, we’re releasing WindowFX 5, a program we’ve been making for over a decade.  The 5th generation version is free to play. That is, there is no Pro/Plus/Enhanced version. There is only WindowFX.  Users who want premium features can add them in the app for a nominal cost but the application itself is designed to be compelling on its own.

Meanwhile, our PC games are still pretty traditional. The upcoming Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is a $39.95 game. There will almost certainly be a demo version but it’ll be a traditional demo.  Digital does bring some benefits -- we can offer users of the original Sins of a Solar Empire series a $10 discount.  But we are very much looking at the F2P model when we are designing new titles.

Why is F2P taking over?

Simply put, the loss of a retail channel for selling software combined with the dilution of the software/gaming media has meant that publishers now have to rely, more than ever before, on word of mouth to generate revenue for their games.

Ten years ago, if I was publishing a PC game it went something like this:

Visit PC Gamer, Talk to Steve Bauman at Computer Games Magazine, Visit Computer Gaming World, Gamespot, IGN, GameSpy, a couple of others and you were pretty set on the marketing side.  Then you’d make sure your game was at EB, Best Buy, Gamestop, CompUSA, and a few others and you could expect great sales.

But today?

According to our surveys, most users are getting their information from various sources that boil down to word of mouth (Facebook friends, Twitter friends, Forums).  And retail? Good luck getting shelf space for your PC title. 

So what’s the best way to get word of mouth? Give it away. Give nearly all of it away.  Because it turns out that even if only 1% of the users contribute, you can make a killing as long as you have enough players – which is, ultimately, the challenge.  Because if you make it extremely well and give it away, people will talk about it. And that is what publishers are counting on.

So that’s why Free to Play works and will continue to become more and more dominant as time goes by.  In the meantime, I have to go buy a virtual hat and tweet a picture of my character with it…

//


Comments (Page 4)
on May 25, 2012

Murteas
LOTR Online

I remember when this happened, and I remember its forerunner, DnD Online.  I played a month of that when it first came out, and liked it, but not quite enough to keep paying monthly.  Turns out, most people thought the same way, and they couldn't turn a profit.  Then they went F2P as an experiment, and started making money hand over fist.  The trick was, the core game is all free.  Quests, the world, you can get it all.  The things you had to pay for were not essential to "the game".  I played for a while for free, and it was legitimately fun, and I bought a couple small upgrades, nothing big, but I feel like I got my money's worth.  After that, several other MMOs went to the same model, including LoTR, and both Everquests.

The model they went with works because I think a lot of people are like me in that they don't want to devote a huge portion of their time to a game like that, and paying $15 per month doesn't make sense in that case.  But playing every now and then, and paying a little here and there means it'a a better value, and it's easier to pay the amount you're getting out of it.  This causes a wider audience to come in, as they're not immediately blocked by something that isn't a good value for them.

It's not just 'Free-to-Play', it's an extension of the "pay what you think it's worth" model that has been so successful for things like music (Radiohead), stand-up comedy (Louis C.K., Jim Gaffigan), and indie games (Humble Bundle, Indie Royale).

on May 25, 2012

Rosco_P
I played for a while for free, and it was legitimately fun, and I bought a couple small upgrades, nothing big, but I feel like I got my money's worth.

Yeah - that's the beauty of it.  While you could get by spending nothing on many of these games, eventually you will most likely want to spend some money (be it for an exp boost, unlocking content faster, you name it).  And at that point, you generally actually feel good about making the purchase because the initial cost to you was zero and you feel like you are supporting a game you love. Now, if you really do the math here, though, that's where it gets a little scary.  Someone calculated the cost in real money of everything in league of legends.  And the total was anywhere between $2,000 and $5,000.  Seems a little insane, no?  But that said, you could still play completely for free if you wanted to and still get all of the content you wanted for free (except for character skins).  But its pretty easy to see how the f2p model is amazing for generating revenue.

on May 25, 2012

Rosco_P

Quoting Murteas, reply 35LOTR Online

I remember when this happened, and I remember its forerunner, DnD Online.  I played a month of that when it first came out, and liked it, but not quite enough to keep paying monthly.  Turns out, most people thought the same way, and they couldn't turn a profit.  Then they went F2P as an experiment, and started making money hand over fist.  The trick was, the core game is all free.  Quests, the world, you can get it all.  The things you had to pay for were not essential to "the game".  I played for a while for free, and it was legitimately fun, and I bought a couple small upgrades, nothing big, but I feel like I got my money's worth.  After that, several other MMOs went to the same model, including LoTR, and both Everquests.

The model they went with works because I think a lot of people are like me in that they don't want to devote a huge portion of their time to a game like that, and paying $15 per month doesn't make sense in that case.  But playing every now and then, and paying a little here and there means it'a a better value, and it's easier to pay the amount you're getting out of it.  This causes a wider audience to come in, as they're not immediately blocked by something that isn't a good value for them.

It's not just 'Free-to-Play', it's an extension of the "pay what you think it's worth" model that has been so successful for things like music (Radiohead), stand-up comedy (Louis C.K., Jim Gaffigan), and indie games (Humble Bundle, Indie Royale).

I think they still had a successful biz with monthly.  It just drained a bit quarter by quarter.

I had a lifetime account.  Probably the only time I'm ever going to do that.  It's worth the money if the game's that good, but it's still a huge unnecessary investment.

on May 25, 2012

I play a online shooter game called, World of Tanks. You basically drive World War II tanks around and kill each other.

http://worldoftanks.com/

 

Anyway, it also a F2P game. You can play normally, but to own a greater number of tanks, or buy premium tanks, etc requires money to be spent. I personally love the game, and while I have spent money, it was gift money intended for the game.

on May 26, 2012

I must have spent between 500 and 1,000 USD on World of Tanks in my "career" in that game. The thing about WoT is that to "enjoy" the "end tiers" (tanks are separated into tiers based on strength, and matchmaking is based on these tiers, but the lower tiers get stomped on by the high tiers a lot) you either must grind for game currency in the lower tiers as they cost less to maintain, pay up for a "premium" service, or be extremely skilled. So it was almost a subscription, even, on top of the FtP model of real money giving conveniences.

 

Funny thing is, for me, I moved back away from World of Tanks (my first FtP game) to Tera (my first subscription game) and I feel like I'm saving money. What I see is what I get, you could say, outside of cosmetics and what appears to be character change services. 

on May 30, 2012

I have played many FTP games. I totally agree that is the way to go. Even though most F2P game sI end up getting the "premium account" anyways.

 

However it needs a good balance for the Pay to play aspect. Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons online have a nice P2P system.  You can play the game without it costing you anything and you are not quite crippled. Star Trek Online has probably one of the worst P@P sytems. They took it too far. Especially once they introduced a new loot sytem that required buying a key to unlock. It cost $1 per key and you received mostly garbage. If you want anythign extra at all in game be prepared to hand over money for CP. Yes you cna get CP through an in game market using an in game currency. However you may as well got get a part time job instead for the time it takes. I have also supsected that Perfect World floods the market in order to keep CP at a high value. I bought alifetime subscription when it came out, regreted it ever since, the new F2P system increased the hatred.

 

Some people think that it does not work because you get players that never spend anything. People are forgeting the most important thing. They are playing your game. This gives players that do play and spend money someone to play with. Quite a few subscription game sbecome ghost towns every time something new comes out. Mostly because they canceled their ssubscription to purchase subscription with the new game. Having that F2P gives that player an easy way to get back into the game without a subscription. 

Also another note, any F2P game should have the option for a user to get an authenticator (like Blizzard) or a coin lock system (Trion's Rift - which locks your account if a different IP logs into it so nothing can be sold or traded.) The reason being if a player invests real money into the game they want it to be protected with adequate security so some account hacker can not log in and strip the account. The other reaosn being most F2P game will have very slow cusotmer service, if you are not require dto have a "premium account" to access cusotmer service.

 

As for the space on shelves in stores. Who cares? I stopped buying physcial copies years ago. Digital downloads the way to go. Never have to worry about losing your book with the serial number, never have to worry about losing a CD, loaning a gmae to a friend and never getting it back. Espcially the broken CD part, a few years ago my Xbox ate my Fallout game CD, I had to purchase the game a second time. Ever since then always digital.

on May 30, 2012

I have no problem with the F2P model, but only with games that require one to be online. I realize online gaming is where things are going, but being forced to have an Internet connection to play; i.e. Diablo 3; is against my principles. I'm an old school Personal Computer owner and gamer (TRS 80, 386, 486, and so on up the line). When I buy a new computer it must have a floppy drive. I like to have backup. When it comes to gaming, I don't mind buying online, digital only content, but I want a disk with all the stuff I've payed for and the codes that come with said stuff regardless (I've had accounts re-purposed by people I've never met. having the codes to prove ownership of my account has been valuable. Stardock/Impulse being one of the accounts tampered with, which is another problem with game/content being Internet only). If all of my content is on my online account, an option to have it put on disk and sent to me in the mail would not go amiss. I would have no problem paying for the game and little extra for this kind of option.

 

Relying on the Internet is a chair ready to be pulled out from under a person or, in my case particularly, a crutch that breaks about every thirty minutes to an hour. Some have argued, 'get better Internet'. The problem that most don't realize is that many areas, mine for instance, only have one to two providers and neither are very good. I could get satellite, but that is prohibitively expensive for a speed that does any good. The World Wide Web is far more fragile or limited than many want to believe. The infrastructure isn't what it's billed to be (Look at cell phone plans. The Verizon, AT&T, or which ever it was that finally said, 'We can't provide unlimited anymore, because it turns out that IT is limited.'). When Sky-net or zombies take over, I'm not the only one who's going to be upset when he can't sit in his bunker, start up the old backup generator, and play games.

 

I like not having to tote my game discs around with me when I travel. I use cracks so I don't have to carry around said disks (I own all of my games. Cracks for me are a tool of convenience, nothing more.). I like the option to buy more content for a game, which is why I don't have a major problem with DLC. I don't mind the requirement to be online if I want to keep track of my achievements, stats, play multi-player, register my game, or whatever. But I want the ability to play without an Internet connection being required (I'm looking down my nose at you again Diablo 3). Unless it's an MMO, but that goes without saying.

 

As far as F2P goes, I like it for the most part. I read an earlier comment about LOTRO, which I also play. I would agree that it is a viable and effective business model. I'm a lifetime subscriber to LOTRO and I get free points because of it, however, I still buy points because I never have enough. If they'd kept the old model, then I'd just buy the expansions like everyone else and be done with it. By making the game F2P they get a lot more money from someone who'd usually not be bothered. If WoW took the F2P model, which probably will never happen, I might go back to playing that. Another F2P model I like is Guild Wars. Buy the game and done, from the beginning. If you want more, buy the expansions. I also like how Guild Wars will let me out into the game world by myself or only my group. It cuts down on a lot of system resources and is, in my opinion, far more fun. I don't like having to camp for kills, listen to who knows what in chat, or put up with those who yell 'noob' at the slightest action that isn't in line with their younger, and therefore inferior, play style or ability, even if I prove that my way is better. Seriously, I've been playing games since before they were born, but I digress.

 

To sum up, F2P is an excellent business model, but only to certain genre's of game-play. If I'm forced to have an active Internet connection to play, I get turned off. If I don't have the option to get a physical, hard-copy, disk in my hands I get turned off. If you want to get my money on a game that requires Internet, then it had better be good and offer new content at a later date; either DLC, add-ons, expansions, and the option to obtain all of them on a disk. If you only offer a game in an online digital format, then it had better be cheaper than if I was going to buy it in the store (I remember going and buying PC games for 40 and 50$ so I expect it to be cheaper than even this. Good job on the pricing for the new Sins of a Solar Empire.). I also remember shareware. That did ID Software and Doom a good turn. Many demos don't give me a large enough scope to definitively say, "I want this game." I still usually wait for a friend to play and tell me how good it is. I don't read or care about big name critics either. Many of my favorite games get torn apart. Kind of like my favorite movies and their reviews. If it gets a bad review then it's probably good.

 

One final note. If a game sells big, for years, because of it's style of play; i.e. Command and Conquer; don't change the game-play on the final installment. The reason it sold for all those years was because it worked the way it was. It wasn't broken. If you come up with a new style of play that is fun, which CnC4 play was, make a completely new game using the new style. I don't want to hear, "We're advancing the genre". If you want to advance it, fine. But with an independent game. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That goes for story too. I'm a soon to be published Sci-Fi writer and the last thing I want to hear is someone else on what they think, in their uninformed opinion of my story, is wrong with my work beyond grammar and spelling. Don't even get me started on the Mass Effect 3 ending.

 

Well, that's more than my 2 cents, for what it's worth.

on May 30, 2012

In my experience, in order to play F2P games, you must be very wealthy to be on a competitive level, that goes for online games though. I havent seen a F2P single player game as of yet (ie. found and played it, I am sure there are F2P single player games).

But, for a F2P to be compelling it must be extremly good to begin with, and the "fluff" stuff you can buy should not be superextraextremly good or gamebreaking or overpowered or anything like that.

I am quite sure that from a buisines standpoint F2P is good, but from a gamers viewpoint, its not. Not all gamers have the economic power to purchase those oh-so-nifty-thingies you "must" have. Take EverQuest2 that went F2P, it seems they are now focusing TOO much effort into bringing more overpriced items into the game than developing it, and it is too crippled in its current model.

No, stick to regular games. One pricetag, one full game. If the game is good enough, it WILL sell. Despite pirates et all.
(And yes, I am guilty of pirating games, I admit. But, if it is a good game, I will buy it. Take SpellCross (old game), I actually bought the game twice, just to support the developers (gave away one copy)).

on May 30, 2012

danniel1975
In my experience, in order to play F2P games, you must be very wealthy to be on a competitive level, that goes for online games though.

Fair enough based on your experience. A competitive f2p game like league of legends, though, does not require you to spend anything.  EG the only difference between me and a guy that spends 2k would be him have the exact same character as me with the same bonuses - BUT - he will have some cool looking skins for the character - which doesn't impact gameplay... or perhaps unlock a new character a few days faster than me. 

I am completely not a fan of any game that gives folks an unfair advantage because they shell out a few bucks. 

on May 30, 2012

Brad, I recall a number of years ago when I was just getting started as a virtual economist that you wrote that you didn't worry about putting copy protection on your software because you weren't trying to [monetize] those that could not or would not afford your products. The way you said it back then was very eloquent and made an impression on me. Whether you realized it or not then (or now), this is really when you started down the path of embracing the FTP philosophy even if it took you years to begin working it into your products. 

I remember installing OS2 back in the 20th Century to run the original GC, so I am one of your oldest fans. OS2 didn't last, but you did. You get the market, you get the consumer, and you are not afraid to adapt and survive. So you have. As many here are expressing their annoyance with the current state of FTP, this comes mainly down to poor designs that I often describe as "pay to win" or "free to die" models. As a virtual economist I mostly focus on the monetization model of these games these days and I came up with advanced versions of FTP monetization models for AAA titles starting back in 2009. That first alternative took me 4.5 years so it was not a casual thing. 

If you or any of the old timers here would seriously like to do something innovative in the FTP arena, please look me up on LinkedIn where I have been very active the last 9 months or so. I have created solutions to almost every complaint I have read in this thread (and there are some really good inputs here), except perhaps the modding issues as you really have to keep your content secure and well defined for everything to work out when it comes to virtual economies and monetization. I do believe in modding, I think mods made Civ4 pretty awesome. I just honestly have not made any models to monetize user generated content, and probably won't since that feels wrong atm. 

 

Ramin Shokrizade

Applied Virtual Economist

on May 30, 2012

Free to play done right:

http://riseofflight.com/

The free game is fully functional and receives ongoing support/development; you can add more planes/campaigns/etc. as you see fit, and can get bundles of planes/campaigns/etc. for a reduced price.

 

 

 

 

on May 31, 2012

This whole "free to play" thing is nothing but marketing paint over 4 separate concepts, some old some new.

1. Demo (old as dirt): You are given a small portion of the game and have to buy the rest. Falsely advertised as free to play.

2. Extended Demo: You are given a complete game, then offered to buy what amounts to whole expansion packs. These can be pretty good; but I don't think they are necessary for publishers who could have sold the first game too using a regular demo. On the other hand, more time to hook people could increase sale of the expansions... on the downside people who get bored before finishing the first part who would have bought it never end up paying you anything. This is good policy for software but a bad one for games.

3. Pay to win (new concept, will never catch on): Competative games where its free to play, but you can choose to spend real money for in game benefits. Overwhelming benefits which make you win. Those games are fail.

4. Ad-supported: Old concept, not widely explored in games, this is "free" in that you don't pay money but you are still paying with your time. If they are in game ads they detract from the game, if they are out of game they do not (like the new service where you watch a 1 minute ad every time you play a game).

For #1 its just a lie about being free. #2 is great for software but I don't think it makes too much business sense for MOST (but not all) games. #3 is retarded and not worth your time playing. #4 might be good games but I would rather pay actual money and skip the ads... thankfully AFAIK services that do that allow you to do just that. I am actually playing some free with ads games for which I pay money to disable the ads. The key is in understanding that ad supported gratis content must remain an alternative to paying for content, rather then forcing everyone into the one size fits all payment scheme.

All of that being said, the article is very informative and I do not disagree with the concepts it raises, it seems to really focus on using #2 for software which I think is very sensible. So I agree with the article, I just disagree with its choice of terminology.

on May 31, 2012

I love F2P as a concept for MMO's and online games.  I'm not so sure when it comes to a "traditional" game like GalCiv or Elemental how it would work.

DDO (Dungeon and Dragons Online) is a great example of F2P.  My wife and I play this game on and off with a couple friends.  Game was nearly dead when they swung for the fences and went F2P which saved the game.  They also have a subscription available for $10 a month (or less).  The game itself is free to download and play and you get dozens of quests and content for free.  In game you can earn points to which you can buy stuff from fluff like armor kits to XP boost potions to full on quests that cost money.  If you grind enough you could buy all the premium quests without spending a dime.  But you can also buy points in the store and then buy quest packs, etc.  With the "VIP" sub you get all the quest packs included with the cost as well as some other perks like being able to open quests the first time on harder levels (thus more XP) and so forth.  We'll go VIP for a few months and when we burn out we drop it.  Can still play for free in the meantime until we decide to pick things back up.

Funny thing is I added up the other day how much I've spent on the "free" game and it was well north of $300 counting VIP subscription fees and buying extra points from time to time.  So much for "free".  LOL

But the F2P has been so successful they have more then doubled their developer staff and will release a full on expansion end of June.  This from a game that was basically dead 4 years ago.

So F2P can definitely work.

The new Tribes looks really cool and is F2P.  I've downloaded it but haven't installed it yet as I just haven't had time.

I have a harder time seeing how this would work in a traditional type single player game.  Take GalCiv for example.  How would you do F2P?  Would only say 4 races/factions be available F2P and if you wanted the others you buy them at $2 bucks a pop or something?  Pay for new ship models?  How about a game like Skyrim, same there?  Can only play a couple of the races unless you buy the others?  Not sure if I like that concept or not.  The upside certainly is you get a lot more people playing your game that wouldn't have otherwise and if you can get enough to plunk down $5 or $10 for a "all races pack" or something maybe you make more money then selling the whole game for $40 to a smaller audience?  

I think someone will have to stick their neck out and try it before it would catch on.  From what I know Stardock may be the company that can do that since games aren't their main revenue stream so they can take a chance and see if it works.

on Jun 01, 2012

taltamir
This whole "free to play" thing is nothing but marketing paint over 4 separate concepts, some old some new.

1. Demo (old as dirt): You are given a small portion of the game and have to buy the rest. Falsely advertised as free to play.

2. Extended Demo: You are given a complete game, then offered to buy what amounts to whole expansion packs. These can be pretty good; but I don't think they are necessary for publishers who could have sold the first game too using a regular demo. On the other hand, more time to hook people could increase sale of the expansions... on the downside people who get bored before finishing the first part who would have bought it never end up paying you anything. This is good policy for software but a bad one for games.

3. Pay to win (new concept, will never catch on): Competative games where its free to play, but you can choose to spend real money for in game benefits. Overwhelming benefits which make you win. Those games are fail.

4. Ad-supported: Old concept, not widely explored in games, this is "free" in that you don't pay money but you are still paying with your time. If they are in game ads they detract from the game, if they are out of game they do not (like the new service where you watch a 1 minute ad every time you play a game).

For #1 its just a lie about being free. #2 is great for software but I don't think it makes too much business sense for MOST (but not all) games. #3 is retarded and not worth your time playing. #4 might be good games but I would rather pay actual money and skip the ads... thankfully AFAIK services that do that allow you to do just that. I am actually playing some free with ads games for which I pay money to disable the ads. The key is in understanding that ad supported gratis content must remain an alternative to paying for content, rather then forcing everyone into the one size fits all payment scheme.

All of that being said, the article is very informative and I do not disagree with the concepts it raises, it seems to really focus on using #2 for software which I think is very sensible. So I agree with the article, I just disagree with its choice of terminology.

 

Missing a category. Vindictus or LoL where you can play the game the whole way through getting every item and defeating the big bad guys while interacting with others or going solo (some levels make the team play choice obvious). You can pay to get access to skins, pretty bobbles, moderately powerful items, or just to skip the chancier aspects of things like dying armor. Point is that you can have a F2P game without fitting into those few categories, but I find that just about any F2P game only seems to make sense as an MMO, seeing that server maintenance and the community are the services being provided. Otherwise you might as well just hand out CDs on the roadside.

And I've played two old-time extended demos, one of which I did buy the whole game (I admit though that the rest of the market didn't pick up on it). Pay to Win seems to be catching on well enough to keep a handful of games afloat, especially Facebook games. And Ad-Supported games were all the rage when solely online games were first picking up, but like ads on websites, they were gently reduced down to minimal notice or abandoned, but explored all the same.

on Jun 01, 2012

Draakjacht
Missing a category. Vindictus or LoL where you can play the game the whole way through getting every item and defeating the big bad guys while interacting with others or going solo (some levels make the team play choice obvious).

I don't know what vindictus is, but in LoL the "free to play" aspect is a combo of extended demo and pay to win.

You are given only a FEW of the characters which makes you really under-powered in what is purely a competitive online game, you CAN unlock those characters through in game grinding, I tried it, you need to grind for YEARS to unlock them all which is simply not realistic.

So the extended demo comes from having to pay to unlock most the content (the characters), and the pay to win is from having a competitive advantage in having unlocked those. There are other pay to win aspects in LoL like the rune pages:

http://na.leagueoflegends.com/board/showthread.php?t=1149013

It takes 383 wins to earn enough to unlock rune pages. Or you can buy them for 20$.

If LoL ONLY sold you skin packs (which do not affect gameplay) THEN it would have been fifth category of "An actually free to play game with revenue from eye candy". But I have never seen a game that is that for real, the eye candy DLCs are always in addition to the above categories not instead of. Don't know a single game that is surviving purely on eye candy DLCs.

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