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 5)
on Jun 01, 2012

Okay, I'll give you LoL. But I know that Vindictus has three aspects to it which break any potential for it to become Pay to Win anytime soon.

The first being that they balance out the gear pretty well. You can buy underwear (I'm not shitting you) that is very powerful, BUT it's a single item and most like to show it off by not wearing additional armor. Even if they did, level and repair restrictions on equipment usually keep you from building up some god awful strong suit, especially with repair costs for your tidy whiteys.

The second is that it's an action MMO. It's mostly co-op, so PvP is more for fun than anything. You have to manipulate each swipe, dodge, guard, etc. So when you see someone play well, they can take on a player with superior stats.

The third is the skill system. You can put skills into all sorts of stuff and AP (points that go toward skills) purchasing, while easy to do, is balanced out by AP bonuses you can just play for on a daily basis. And then where you put them can make all the difference. You get very different results if you put it toward an attack skill, armor proficiency (of which there are several classes), or bonuses to more mundane traits. If I pump my AP into armor so I can wear some of the bigger stuff, then I'm screwed in the power of my attacks.

Point is that there are games out there that balance cash versus effort pretty well. I will not argue that it's common or that it's even perfect, but at least someone is trying and doing a good job if making it something of a new concept for it. Old or new, I think it'll continue to do well and I sure hope so. I have to agree with you in that it feels like you have to dig through a whole lot of crap to find the good stuff.

on Jun 01, 2012

Can anyone think of any free 2 play games that aren't really pay 2 win or freemium games?

on Jun 01, 2012

I never played vindictus but a quick google search:

http://www.gamefaqs.com/boards/991388-vindictus/62544581

http://www.xvindictus.com/forums/showthread.php?p=2219514

Says it is pay to win.

Now, assuming your argument is 100% the people there are wrong, and it is extremely well balanced, then its "pay for a small advantage that will not be auto win but still give you an unfair advantage over other players".

on Jun 02, 2012

Well, it is and isn't valid. The second link is from 2010 and tokens are no longer part of the game. The devs decided they created too large a rift in the game. So they stepped back from the Pay to Win model in that sense.

The first article, I saw them saying that you can get the first half of armor upgrades (more like 5-10, not 1-10) easier with cash, but it takes too much and is worth too little to go beyond that. And one other pointed out that it's nice to fall back on, but you still die if you rely on it. And keep in mind that the armor system is not Armor A=Level 10. Your ability to acquire armor depends on your character level, armor proficiency and sometimes if you've completed a certain quest. You can then upgrade any given armor from level 1-20. So they're talking about enhancements.

I've taken on a higher level player with superior armor and gave him a pretty bloody nose before I went down. He and I were both surprised. Given that it plays like Soul Reaver, Defiance, or  McGee's Alice, you have a lot of control over the outcome of the fight.

Again, keep in mind that PvP is just little duels here and there. The game is about co-op PvE and you have access to every mission and 90% or more of the armor. Even if you still want to count this as Pay to Win, I think it's amazingly well balanced for Pay to Win.

on Jun 02, 2012

PvE does not mean that pay to win is ok.

And while the name people use is "pay to win"... many are just "pay for a small but unfair advantage". As balanced as you claim it is (which is a bit undermined by your story about fighting a superior player while you paid for advantage), this is still detrimental to gameplay.

I would rather pay actual money to play and have a level playing field.

It could also be resolved by having a "paid vs unpaid" server. But it isn't, what you have in such games is micro transactions to buy ever escalating amount of power.

on Jun 02, 2012

Draakjacht
I've taken on a higher level player with superior armor and gave him a pretty bloody nose before I went down.

I meant that he had superior armor. Sorry for the ambiguity.

I have never payed for anything and am moving up in the story and developing my character unabated. If someone does it slightly fast cause they spend money on things like resurrection (the most common purchase I've seen), then good for them. I'm still enjoying the game.

It boils down to this: I enjoy the game plenty for free and anyone can try it for free. I recommend people give it a shot rather than listening to others that have varying tastes.

on Jun 02, 2012

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

you can't buy runes in LoL with real money.  You can buy additional blank rune pages (not needed) for money.  I don't really think you understand the structure.  This means you have to play more games to get a nice rune page setup.  You make a decision.  Do you unlock characters for free or start building rune pages for free?  If you must have a champion immediately and don't have enough ip, you can pay for them. 

on Jun 03, 2012

Quoting taltamir, reply 60It takes 383 wins to earn enough to unlock rune pages. Or you can buy them for 20$.


you can't buy runes in LoL with real money.  You can buy additional blank rune pages

That is word for word exactly what I said.

on Jun 03, 2012

So is Sins 2 going to be F2P? 

 

 

on Jun 03, 2012

Never known F2P to work well with non-MMO strategy games. Don't see it happening, which is fine. There are some games I would just rather buy for a nominal amount and that be that.

on Jun 03, 2012

I can't believe it didn't occur to me sooner...

pay to win IS technically speaking really free to play. Its absolutely free to play but if you actually want to win instead of only losing then you gotta pay.

on Jun 03, 2012

taltamir
That is word for word exactly what I said.

I see.  Here's why I was confused.  You mentioned something that gives absolutely no real advantage in game that can be purchased for $20 or X number of wins. It's an extra blank rune page - and even if you felt like you were "low" on rune pages, you can always create 1 before the match (eg you don't even need extra rune pages, its just more convenient.  And then you go on to talk about pay to win saying this:

taltamir
...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...

...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.

All of that said, I think we will just disagree on this. I'm not disagreeing by saying that quite a bit of revenue comes to the game by folks buying characters with real money.  I'm saying the game is structured in a way where the only thing you absolutely would have to pay for is skins.  Period.  I also completely disagree about any sort of pay to win concept with the game.  Consider this, you pay for any single character you want.  Do you suddenly win or have an advantage over anyone?  Or do you instead have a character that you likely have no idea how to play and must grind away in games to get the experience needed to play well?  The one and only thing that would give you a true leg up would be if you were able to buy actual runes for money.  But you cannot. 

Anyway, everyone has to grind out levels and play many games to unlock runes.  Everyone can play many games to unlock characters for free or spend money to get the immediately.  Every week there is a new set of free to play characters for anyone to use without purchasing.  And you can buy skins for real money.  The only thing in the game you can buy for only real money is skins.  And the last factor is that you cannot play competitive ranked games until you hit level 30 - which means you have played hundreds of games to even get to the competitive level.  And by then you've likely learned to play a few roles well and have various characters unlocked. 

on Jun 03, 2012

http://www.ign.com/articles/2012/06/01/dota-2-microtransaction-system-revealed

Now that looks interesting.

Valve states that it “will not be a pay-to-win game,” and that “all the items in the store are cosmetic, and don’t affect gameplay.”

Additionally, Valve will not sell individual heroes -- all will be free

Valve is opening up the a Steam Workshop for Dota 2 so fans can submit designs and, if approved by Valve, will be cut into the profits when the designs go live on the store.

So, I guess this is the elusive 5th element err... category of free to play games. The one that is a truly free to play game where all revenue comes from cosmetics. (personally, I would have included yearly video engine upgrades with ever increasing bells and whistles)

on Jun 07, 2012

taltamir
http://www.ign.com/articles/2012/06/01/dota-2-microtransaction-system-revealed

Now that looks interesting.


Valve states that it “will not be a pay-to-win game,” and that “all the items in the store are cosmetic, and don’t affect gameplay.”

Additionally, Valve will not sell individual heroes -- all will be free



Valve is opening up the a Steam Workshop for Dota 2 so fans can submit designs and, if approved by Valve, will be cut into the profits when the designs go live on the store.

So, I guess this is the elusive 5th element err... category of free to play games. The one that is a truly free to play game where all revenue comes from cosmetics. (personally, I would have included yearly video engine upgrades with ever increasing bells and whistles)

Go check out Team Fortress 2 and Path of Exile for your examples of Free to play but not pay to win, your so called 5th category.

on Jun 07, 2012

1) Vindictus suffers from korean MMO syndrome: Gambling on item upgrades. You can play the whole game for free, but part of the end-game fun is upgrading items. If you upgrade your weapon to +10, then it gets a nice stat and attack speed boost.  The attack speed is really important since it enables you to get in hits on an enemy when normally there would be no opening.  The chance of getting a +10 item normally is 1 in a million since there is a chance for it to lose levels or even be destroyed.  They also added a scroll system which has a random chance to break your item while adding an enhancement. They sell very expensive protection stones protect you from breaking your item. Again, many korean mmo's have this, and it is pay to win even if its not a PVP game.  

2) I think the best F2P system lets you get all the content for an up front price, has an optional subscription for dlc/expansions, and lets you buy things a-la-carte.

3) Pay to Win is not necesarily bad, as long as the game is designed around that. Some F2P games make most of their money off a small minority of players who spend rediculous amounts of money. Why arent' there any games where the entire game is about spending money, and whoever spends the most wins? I realize this sounds ludicrous without context but I think there will be a niche of games that do really well by providing an avenue for competition with players relying as much on money as with skill in a pvp arena.

4) Marketing and distributing a F2P game is very difficult. It is improving over time, but my F2P game tried to launch in October 2011 and we could not get anybody to play it. We could not get any review sites to write about it. I could barely even get a few forum people to download it. There are so many TV shows, Movies, Books, Video Games, and other things that getting someone to play a free game is very difficult.

Many services like Steam are not friendly to F2P games, they are even more picky than with digital downloads. F2P games have many more concerns than traditional games, especially dealing with Stolen Credit cards and fraud. So I think for small/independant studios, F2P is very difficult to do. So theres alot more to choosing a buisiness model than simply worrying about profits and customer approval.