So you want to make a free to play game

South Park Freemium Cycle

Making a game is something you put your heart and soul into, yet in the end, to do so at a professional level instead of as a hobby requires that someone foots the bill for food, shelter, heating and so on. It’d be nice if we could just get the best people to make the best games, but reality dictates that we need to pay our employees. There are a lot of ways to do so, from subscription based games like WoW or FF14, who can funnel that money into further development of their games. Other options are single-time fee payments such as Guild Wars 2 or The Secret World. A growing number of games, however, are relying upon a free to play model instead.


What does that mean? How do you get money by making a game that’s… free to play? Clearly you have to get money back somehow, right? Where’s it coming from?

Today we’ll be covering the dos and don’ts of free to play games. How to set up ways to encourage players to pay for stuff without ramming it down their throats, how to ensure good gameplay without bogging it down with annoying mechanics for a quick buck, and how to make your average player actually want to give you money because they feel it’s a good deal instead of relying solely upon the addictive personality to feed you thousands of dollars like most Korean style grindfest MMORPGs.

This will focus heavily on MMORPGs and MOBAs, but goes for all F2P games to some degree or another. More than anything, we’ll be focusing on how to be able to sustain a F2P model without sacrificing the quality of the game in the process as so many others have failed before. We’ll be looking at examples from many different payment models to see how they work and how they can be converted and applied to F2P in an effective manner so that players want to pay for the services rendered out of desire to support good design, rather than feeling like it’s a burden they have no choice in.


Free to Play VS Subscription

So, first and foremost, let’s begin with fun. The subscription based games, such as MMORPGs, tend to be pretty enjoyable! Is it because they’re higher quality? Well, to a degree, yes. All that extra money doesn’t go to server maintenance: it largely goes to hiring some pretty awesome designers to make sure you have fun mechanics.

There’s a darker side to this, though.

More than just getting money, the standard F2P model of MMOs these days comes with a catch: the quick and easy way to make a buck is to decide what would be fun, and then to intentionally make the game not fun, and charge people a premium fee for their game to be fun again.

The most obvious example of this is leveling experience: set the EXP gain and level grind so slow and monotonous that players become bored to tears. Once the game is suitably mind-numbingly boring, you then charge them for EXP boosts which double or triple the EXP gain!

NO! Bad developer! BAD! Don’t make me break out the rolled up newspaper!

Already the first rule of game design philosophy has been broken: games should be fun. You’ve actively created a mechanic that is intentionally not fun so that you can get paid for fixing the artificial problem. This is bad design, and your players know it. They know for a fact that you intentionally slowed the EXP gain to a crawl so you could milk them for more money. Most of them will be disgusted by this, and most will refuse to pay for it because it’s an artificially induced problem. Yes, you’ll get a few sales, but not enough to warrant the cost to your reputation.

The mechanics for any game must be intended to be fun from the very base level for it to be a good game. While “fun” is a bit of a vague term, hence why I have an entire article series dedicated to asking what makes a game fun, the idea of “not fun” is pretty obvious here: if you make the player crawl through content, forcing them to grind constantly at a snail’s pace, then your players are going to hate you for it. They’re not going to give beaming reviews about your game, they’re not nearly as likely to encourage their friends to play, and the standard method of pyramid scheming for players getting bonuses for inviting other players… well, it’s a pyramid scheme. It’s blatantly obvious and impresses no one. Yes, I know WoW and FF14 do it, all the cool kids are doing it, but it’s still bad design and you can do better than that while still making a generous and healthy profit along the way.

So how do we do this? Free to play games, by their very nature imply that we need to make players pay for content that otherwise would be free! Why would anyone want to do that unless we force them to?

Easy. We entice them with stuff they want that isn’t part of the core game mechanics required to have fun. We put out the stuff that they want to buy on display: not by waving it in front of their face and saying “You should buy this. Buy it now. It’s only $3.99!” – the hard sell seriously only attracts a tiny portion of your audience. Forcing quests to be done where a player has to go to the shop to buy a tattoo or haircut is ramming it into their face. They know there’s a shop, and they know they can buy stuff there, the quest is just a blatant attempt to make them buy stuff. Yes, the player doesn’t realize the psychological effect being used is that they’re performing an action wherein they get paid free points so that they’re more likely to do so again with their own money later, but trust me, they know you’re just trying to get them to pay for stuff.

There are better ways. Ways which encourage the player without ramming it down their throat.


Show me don’t tell me

One of the biggest flaws with the whole idea of forcing players to go to the cash shop for a quest, or by throwing popups at them incessantly, is that you’re only telling them of the services you have. It’s like a commercial: it’s a nuisance. It’s irritating. It distracts from the game. It does all the things that makes a player want to stop playing entirely rather than desire to buy your stuff.

League of Legends is one of the largest multiplayer games in the world, and the largest free to play one. How do they do it? Why, by showing the player what they could have had.

At the start of every match of LoL, players get to see the skins other players bought. Even the bots in their Co-op VS AI mode wear skins so that players are constantly shown what they themselves could be wearing. They don’t need to point to the cash shop, they just need to say that what they’re seeing is Battle Bunny Riven, and the players who want that skin will be shown how awesome it is and be reminded to grab a copy for themselves.

Notice how each character has their skin on display and the name of the skin listed.

Notice how each character has their skin on display and the name of the skin listed.

LoL could go a step further here, though. Players will be most enticed to buy on the spot with impulse purchases such as this, but instead they have to play through the game instead. A simple ability to click on the image of the character skin to bookmark it for later browsing of things they want to buy would help keep it fresh in the player’s mind and prevent them from forgetting about it when they get a few bucks burning a hole in their pocket.

Since not all game formats work that way, however, such may not work for your game. Maybe you have an MMORPG. What’s a good way to get players to want to buy stuff in a case such as this?

Show me don’t tell me, all over again.

Let’s take a look at the action RPG Warframe for a moment, shall we?

Nice poses! Could be utilized better for sales, but the base concept is good.

Nice poses! Could be utilized better for sales, but the base concept is good.

Space ninjas! Garsp! Heeey, wait a second, during the loading screen for their mission they put the player’s characters into sweet, smexy poses. This has the nice feature of having a character show up visually for the whole team and shows off any pretty bling they have attached to their allies.

First off, this means the player wants to look good since everyone can see them. You don’t show up in jeans and a t-shirt to a murder party, after all. No, you bring your best suit of armour and fanciest weapon available. This encourages players to want to look good in the first place.

The second aspect of this is that the players are not just feeling good about looking dead smexy to their friends, but their friends are seeing that blinged out armour firsthand and going “oooh, I want that…”

To do a better job of this, it’d be ideal if the player could use the mouse to manipulate the scene to get a better look at something that holds their interest. Scroll wheel to zoom in/out, left mouse to rotate, right mouse to pan camera. Let the players get a good, clean look of the item in question that has their attention. Give them a “ready” button which is less about being ready and more about them having to say they’re done drooling over the armour. Let them mouse over armour pieces and give a popup to say where the armour came from, be it an achievement, part of an expansion pack, or from the cash shop. Let them know exactly where to get the stuff of their heart’s desire.

The key here is to show off stuff the player may not have known they wanted, and then to show them where to get it. Let them bookmark it for later so that, after the game is over, they can go grab a copy for themselves.

There’s two main things players want when it comes to pretty stuff. First off, they want to show their blinged out armour to their friends and other players. Loading screens are great for this, as is riding your oversized mount around the major hub city. What good is getting the prettiest top-tier raiding gear on an MMORPG server if you can’t show it off to everyone in between raids? WoW made the horrible mistake in WoD of segregating the population off, isolating them from each other by cramming them into tiny instanced zones where they never see each other. A lot of the incentive to get good gear dropped off when the players couldn’t show it off to others anymore and had no reason to travel. If you have no reason to leave your zone, then there’s no reason to earn a fancy mount that’s akin to buying a ferrari for a middle aged man.

This means that your F2P game needs to show off a player’s bling as often as possible to other people. Any time they’re loading into a dungeon, any time they’re walking around town, any excuse you can make for players to interact with each other and see how epic each other looks. Cutscenes galore! Use in-game graphics, animate the players in their gear, show off that snazzy suit! Let them drool over each other’s armour sets and bonus particle effects and they’ll thank you for it.

I said there were two main things, though. The other is that players tend to be very vain themselves, as well. They want to see themselves in their pretty new armour. After Warlords of Draenor was released, it was pretty blatantly obvious players were meh over not getting to show off their gear to other people, and so the selfie camera was added so players could at least show off to themselves.

FF14 did a much better job of this in that the main story quest shows off your character constantly.

Note the use of showing the character model in cutscenes and the application of emotional attachment to the character through the story text.

Note the use of showing the character model in cutscenes and the application of emotional attachment to the character through the story text.

And damn, do I look good.

I mean, er, well that’s the point. Making a character look good to the player and letting the player see their character constantly in cutscenes helps to emotionally attach the player to the character. It also makes the player want to make their character look as good as possible so they can feel that sense of pride every time they accomplish something.


Snazzing it up

So now that we know that players love to look good, and how to showcase it so players can buy it, how do we work it into the game’s mechanics?

It’s more than just the cash shop, here, and this is very important to note. Players like to earn their stuff more than buy it. Buying stuff comes with a degree of shame attached to such. Sure, you may look pretty, but everyone knows you just paid for it with real money – you didn’t EARN it.

Fortunately, there are ways around this which still involve players paying for the privilege of looking good.

Center stage: DLC and micro-expansion content.

Consider that players don’t want to pay for that pretty pink unicorn that barfs rainbows. Oh sure, they want it: they want to show it off, they want to prance about with it and press spacebar constantly so it pukes up glitter all over the place, but they don’t want other people to think of them as just someone who paid $20 for a pretty mount.

On the other hand… players get mad respect for doing something difficult. Hrm, what’s that? You can attach rewards to achievements you say…? Yes. Yes you can. You can do exactly that. Rather than selling the glittery unicorn and having only a few people buy it, you can do so much better and get the bulk of your playerbase to buy it.

Rather than trying to sell the mount directly, which won’t get many sales, let’s attach it to a bit of DLC akin to Payday 2.

the diamond

Instead of releasing your dungeons free of charge, which comes with a subscription game like WoW or FF14, releasing them in smaller packages works quite well. $5 for a dungeon, a quest chain, a few cinematic sequences, and some achievements that lead to armour or mounts are a great way to handle this.

Instead of just giving the player their unicorn for the money upfront, you let the player buy the DLC and if they unlock the achievement of being the last boss of the dungeon on the hardest difficulty, THEN they get their unicorn… well, suddenly they’re no longer whoring themselves out for pretty unicornness, they’re earning that unicorn with blood, sweat and tears.

Armour sets? Same thing. Complete the dungeon on normal difficulty, maybe get gloves and boots out of it. Hard? Shirt and pants. Nightmare or equivalent difficulty? Weapon skins and a fancy new hat. Beat the last boss with a severe handicap or without ever getting hit by AoE? Freaking glitterpony.

The reason this works is that the players now feel like they earned it, rather than selling out. Other players can look at them with awe rather than turning their noses up at them, and it’s all totally legit.

Ah, but then we run into the problem of the DLC in the first place… oh how people hate DLC!

No, they don’t. Your players love DLC, they just hate being charged for stuff that should be in the game already. You see, people in general are fine with paying for stuff they want, so long as they think it’s a good deal. The problem comes in when you force your players to pay for stuff they feel is owed to them.

In an MMORPG, this means you can’t really sell dungeons as content because WoW releases new dungeons all the time for free. Oh, wait, no they don’t, they charge you $15+ a month and miiiight release a dungeon that month. But that’s not what the player sees. The average player is only going to see WoW gives me dungeons for free, so F2P games should too!

No problem, we can get around this pretty easily.

The new dungeon is DLC, however players can queue to play the dungeon anyway even if they don’t have it. The trick is, the dungeon party has to have at least one player who owns the DLC… suddenly players feel happy that the one person in their party is giving everyone else free stuff! They all get the dungeon for free!

Consider that DPS characters are always stuck with long queues as well. Hrm, well that DPS just bought the DLC so they can make a dungeon group at will and BAM healer/tank instantly show up because they were waiting on someone with the DLC dungeon to start one. Instaqueue DPS? Your player base would pay out the wazoo for that, but would be pissed at anyone who actually “cheated” to get that faster queue… ah ah ah… unless you charge them for the DLC, not the queue time.

Isn’t player psychology fun? And profitable!

Now this leaves us with another problem. The player who bought the DLC dungeon now only gets the same stuff other people got. Well that sucks. Why would they buy the DLC at all, then?

Because you put bonus stuff in that only someone who owns the DLC can get, of course.

Gage Courier DLC

If a player in the game has the above DLC, then a bunch of packages randomly spawn around the map. Picking these packages up gives the players with the purchased DLC bonuses towards unlocking other content. For players who don’t have the DLC, however, picking up the packages at least gives them bonus EXP so that they’re thankful to the player who has the DLC, and still helps the player with the DLC out, and yet, even though the DLC player shares the EXP bonus with everyone in the game, players without the DLC are still encouraged to purchase it for the rest of the bonuses.

Toss in that at the end of the mission it shows how many packages were gotten and who got stuff for collecting them, and it again reinforces the show me don’t tell me method of letting players know they could’ve gotten something cool had they picked up the cheap $5 DLC pack.

In this manner of implementing DLC, the player is encouraged to get the DLC, and is admired for the hard work of getting the achievements. Another Payday 2 example would be the diamond heist; you only need one player to have the DLC to unlock what’s essentially an MMORPG dungeon, but only those with the DLC get the character, skins, new toys and of course the fancy masks from completing the achievements within the DLC, such as that smexy Anubis mask.

Other DLC and micro-expansion content can generate a lot of revenue as well. Why release expansions with entirely new areas, races, dungeons and classes when you can do those individually for smaller amounts?

In the past, the whole expansion dealie made sense, because people had to go to a store and pick up the actual physical copy then install it. It was simply not viable to do anything but release a $30-50 expansion back then. These days we have the power of DLC, and you know what? You can add a totally new player race as DLC easy.

For players who want to be a catgirl, which is damned near all of them if you check any MMORPG with them, from FF11/14 to Phantasy Star Online to Second Life, Wakfu, Tera Online, Guild Wars 2, Elder Scrolls online… yeah, I could go on like this all day. The point is, as much as people love to hate on furries, they also sure do love them some catgirls. Guys and girls alike, there’s something just appealing to the gamer about a character with cute fluffy ears and a tail.

FF14 Miqo'te Lounging

I can’t say they’re wrong.

The point is though, by releasing new races as DLC, only the players who want that race need to purchase the DLC, and who wouldn’t want to pay $5 to be a catgirl? Apparantly only about 20% of the population of any MMORPG out there. 80% player base sales is not something to scoff at.

To do this properly, the new race has to fit into the story in an intelligent manner, and if classes are shared between a character such as in FF14, then the player needs to also be given a free remake of their character’s appearance by purchasing the DLC so they can change over to the new race after buying it. In this manner, it looks like you’re giving the player something for free, when really you’re not, but they don’t care.

Every single time you apply paid content to a free to pay game, you want to make absolute certain that the player feels like they’re being given something awesome that they want to buy, not an obligation or a bug fix for poor base design. Cutting the EXP in your game in half and then selling a double EXP booster is just asinine and you’re going to hemorrhage players if you try it. Giving players extra DLC quest lines that give EXP based on your level, however, means that players can start those quest chains at any point and feel like they got something out of doing it – it was THEIR idea to save that quest chain until level 44 when things start to slow down for the final stretch to reaching level 50. So long as the player thinks they were the clever one, and it was their idea, you can get them to do almost anything and they’ll be perfectly happy about it.

And you know what? That’s no big deal. We pride ourselves as humans (well, you do, on the internet no one knows I’m actually a cat.) on being intelligent, rationally thinking creatures. In reality, we run mostly off autopilot and instinct, rarely actually putting logical thought processes into motion. If we did, we’d never get anything done and even the simplest of decisions would take abnormal amounts of time and effort for little return. As such, we’re simply better suited to reality by running mostly on autopilot. By setting up easy choices for players so that you give them the option to do so instead of forcing them, they’ll be thankful for the option rather than angry they had no choice.

There are thousands of ways to make money from a free to play model, but the basic rule of thumb to follow is to simply ensure that you aren’t artificially adding problems that will be solved by paying for the fix, and that players shown via encouragement all the stuff they could want instead of held at gunpoint or nagged about it incessantly.

When it’s the player’s choice, or you just subtly walk them past the display window, they’ll thank you for letting them buy it. When you tell them they don’t have a choice and they MUST buy it, or keep pointing out they can buy it every five minutes, they’re going to hate you for it. Customers that hate you don’t encourage more customers to shop there, nor do they buy nearly as much from you.


Final Don’ts

For a final list of things not to do, avoid anything that involves a player gambling. If the player has to pay for a chance to win something they want, such as buying a crate with what MAY be the pretty unicorn mount they want inside, OR it might be absolute garbage, it’s BS and you know it. Yes, it generates some sales, but not enough to warrant your company looking bad for doing it.

Another major thing to avoid is charging people for power in games, doubly so for games with any sort of PvP component. Don’t sell weapons, don’t sell upgrades, don’t have players spend money on refining gear to +10 quality with a % failure chance where they have to pay real money for the chance to not fail, which nails both the previous point and this current one. Players will never respect a game where people can pay to win, and if you’re a PvP-heavy game, or even have it as an option, your PvP will be a sad, pathetic joke if players can win simply by paying more money.

Don’t be blatant in your advertising unless it’s tongue-in-cheek. Having a city where billboards actually advertise in-game items players can purchase with stylized silly commercials is perfectly fine. Showing a player the gear their allies are wearing during a loading screen is great. Forcing the player to do a tutorial quest which makes them open the cash shop and buy something is a bad idea. Throwing popups into the player’s face constantly which remind the player there’s a cash shop or having players complete 90% of a quest chain then have the last boss be locked behind a paywall is absolutely out, and you should smack yourself in the face if you even think about doing such seriously.

Remember, your players WANT to spend their money on stuff they enjoy. They don’t care that they’re spending money: they care that they’re getting value for the money they spend. They want stuff that makes them feel glad to have gotten it, not ashamed they spent money on something that would’ve been free elsewhere, or should’ve been built into the game from the start.

Just because you have a free to play game, it doesn’t mean you have to turn into a mediocre Korean-style MMO grind, nor do you need to turn into Candy Crush. There are, in fact, ways to make players want to support your game because they enjoy it, and to entice the average person to spend a bit because they want to, rather than relying on the addictive personalities to prop you up.

Seriously, check every single major non-mobile F2P game out there that did really well: they have always catered to the average player with encouragement rather than milking the tiny portion of the population that’s willing to spend thousands of dollars on DLC. It’s a much bigger market, and your game’s quality will be that much better for it.

Whatever you do, just don't do this.

Whatever you do, just don’t do this.

About Catreece MacLeod

Catreece MacLeod has worked as a writer, editor, video game designer, teacher, 3D artist and quite a few other roles. Her specialization is pre-production writing, most notably, world design and IP creation.
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