Sunday, 13 April 2014

Why free to play games are inherently less fun

Designing a free to play game with microtransactions is a huge challenge. It is incredibly difficult to find the perfect balance between giving players a strong incentive to pay something while still making the free experience good enough that they keep playing. This challenge is crippling to the game itself. It is impossible to make a game as fun as it could be for both paying and non-paying players. At least one of those groups gets a game that is less fun.

Game design is all about making a certain concept as much fun as possible. By tweaking things like difficulty, flow, reward systems, variation and complexity the game designer tries to create the best experience possible. This "best experience" is an invisible target: you can never know whether you have reached it, or whether tweaking some things would make the game slightly better. It is also something that differs depending on the target audience. Some players like a challenge, others like a more relaxed experience. Some players want to drown all their time in a virtual world, others want a short and condensed experience.

The amount of "fun" in a game can be envisioned as a graph. Design the game in a certain way and you are at the very top of the graph, at the most fun experience. During development you try to tweak the game to get closer and closer to that very top, to that ultimate game. This is of course a theoretical graph: you can never know exactly how it runs. Also, there are many peaks, for the many different game concepts possible and for many different target audiences.



When designing a free to play game, the game designer looks for the best experience, just like when designing a 'normal' paid game. However, when designing for free to play the game designer needs to juggle two balls: some players pay money, others do not, and both groups need to get a good game. Especially the progress and reward structures in the game become very different for paying players. Non-paying players usually get very slow progress, while if you pay you immediately jump ahead. For example, in The Simpsons: Tapped Out you can wait many hours for a building to complete, or pay some real money to have it finished immediately.

Designing a good progress and reward structure is very important for most games. A good RPG usually becomes much less fun if you unlock new skills at half the speed, since it becomes too much of a slow grind. Unlocking things twice as fast does not make a good RPG better either: the player will feel less satisfaction when getting something new, will care less about each new item and might not even try a lot of them because they unlock so quickly. More rewards is not automatically better. There is a perfect rate of progress: not too fast, not too slow.

In most free to play games, the paying players get rewards much faster than the non-paying players. It is impossible that they are both at the top of the "fun" curve. So the designer gets a choice: make them both a bit less fun, or make one of them the ultimate experience and the other a lot less fun. In other words: it is impossible for a free to play game to make both paying and non-paying players have the ultimate experience.

This argument is not just valid for reward structures. It also works for all other aspects of the game: whenever gameplay is sold with real money, it is impossible to make that gameplay perfect for both non-paying and paying players.



The second reason why free to play games cannot achieve the best experience possible is that they are constantly nudging the player towards doing something they don't want to do. Players want to play a game, they don't want to spend money. They might be willing to spend money, but most players would rather not.

This means that the average free to play game is full of things that try to push the player away from doing what he wants to do, pushing the player towards paying real money. This can again be seen in an example from The Simpsons: Tapped Out: when you try to build something with in-game currency, the game often first lists all the items that you can only build with real money. You need to scroll through long lists of things you cannot build, until you get to the things that you can. In a 'normal' game, the game designer would design these menus to help you find what you want to build as quickly as possible. Here the game does the very opposite because it needs to tease you with all these items that it wants you to pay real money for.

Of course the player needs to pay for paid games as well, but in a paid game she pays up front, outside the game. After that the game tries to give here the best experience it can, instead of all the time trying to sell her something.



The above arguments do not mean that free to play games cannot be fun. I imagine that some readers might want to counter my arguments by giving examples of free to play games that are fun. However, my point is not that free to play games cannot be fun. My point is that free to play games could be more fun if they were not damaged by the free to play design.

Despite these problems free to play can still sometimes be a good idea. Especially multiplayer games can sometimes benefit greatly from free to play. This is because multiplayer games automatically become more fun when more people play them. The more players there are, the better the game can match players of similar skill to play together. The more players, the better lag can be reduced by matching those who are geographically close to each other and the higher the chance that your friends are also playing so you can play together with friends instead of strangers. With more players the game can also offer more game modes while still making sure everyone immediately finds opponents to play with.

In short: multiplayer games are better when more people play them. Free to play generally draws a larger crowd and thus often improves the game. So despite that the free to play model damages the game itself, the improvement from having more players might mean that the total effect of free to play can be a plus to such games.



Free to play and microtransactions are also sometimes needed purely from a business perspective. In some game genres and on some platforms players are so used to free to play that many simply refuse to pay upfront for a good game, even if it is a better game. In that case free to play might be the only way to make a successful game. Another business reason to include microtransactions might be that support, running servers and developing patches are all expensive to do. The developer might simply need the additional income from microtransactions to be able to keep supporting the game after launch.

Free to play games are inherently less fun because paying and non-paying players cannot both get the best possible experience, and because making money purely through microtransactions requires constantly pushing the player towards doing something she does not want to do. In case of multiplayer games having more players might add more fun than is lost due to free to play, but that doesn't change the fact that designing a game around microtransactions always damages some of the fun.

20 comments:

  1. Some games like Dota 2 and Smite give non paying players about the same experience as paying players. Paying players can spend their money on cosmetics/audio.

    So I think that if the quality of the game is good enough, there will be enough people willing to support it by spending money on non gameplay related things. And then the free to play model doesn't have to damage the fun at all.

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    1. I totally agree that Dota2 has a very nice free to play model, but it does still damage the fun a little bit: it would be slightly more fun if those cosmetics and announcers could be unlocked as part of the normal game progress.

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    2. It can tough, players in dota2 can lvl up their accounts by playing, when through the process account become more and more elegible to win items at the end of the match, i for instance have arround 200 games played in dota 2 and i have the possibility (very very low) to get any item in the game no matter if it is worth $2 or $40 in the store.

      Sorry for my bad english

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  2. One thing about paying for an accelerator is that for a player who is getting off the peak experience due to boredom from waiting or frustration when the game is temporarily too difficult buying their way ahead might resolve the issue and actually improve the experience. If you didn't have to "pay" for the booster then it would make the whole game too easy. So it could be that it improves the experience in that case. However I agree that for most free to play games, especially on mobile, free to play is all about getting people engaged enough that when you throw up a pay wall or make them wait they just get impatient and but something. So the annoyance that is removed by paying is one deliberately added by the designer to get people to pay. That kind of thing is very common and does suck.

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  3. I disagree about it being so black and white that p2p is always good and f2p always bad for game design. Especially when it comes to games like LOL and DotA. Those developers are very motivated to create the ultimate core gameplay experience, because otherwise people wouldn't keep playing them. And without players, no revenue.

    Sure, the meta stuff gets slowed down, and that can frustrate. And the more a game is about those unlocks, the more it will hurt from the model. But in a game with a real core gameplay experience, that core gameplay needs to be at the best it can be for the model to work, more so than p2p games.

    Lots of p2p games contain game design flaws like poorly thought out mechanics, repetitiveness and difficulty spikes. Not all of them will try to give you the best experience they can. And they can still sell well because maybe they have a cool quirky new mechanic, amazing graphics or are tied to a strong IP. But since they are paid upfront, they can relatively care less about what happens afterwards. While if a f2p game contained those flaws, that would definitely impact revenue and the developer would continue to improve their core gameplay until those issues were fixed.

    So I don't think it's such a black and white situation. Developers and publishers are just exploring this new model, and some are too greedy in using it resulting in frustrating experiences. But users are catching on, competition is getting stronger and as a result the gaming industry will have to step up and make free to play games that are more fun for everyone.

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    1. "Lots of p2p games contain game design flaws like poorly thought out mechanics, repetitiveness and difficulty spikes. Not all of them will try to give you the best experience they can."

      That is because of a lack of skill in the game designer, or because of a lack of time to make the best possible product (or both). Both can happen anywhere, also in f2p.

      I do agree that in a sense f2p is even more punishing on bad game design and thus promotes better game design, but in practice f2p is only punishing on what makes you stop playing, NOT on actually making a deep experience.

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    2. That doesn't make sense, because in a lot of games it's the lack of depth that drives people to stop playing. If your game lacks depth or doesn't do it right, your f2p audience will move elsewhere.

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    3. Have you ever tried any free to play games on mobile or Facebook? Most lack depth completely, even the most successful ones.

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    4. Are you kidding? Some of the greatest f2p hits like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush have a lot of gameplay depth. I wonder if you've ever even tried these yourself.

      Sure, there's stuff like farmville and tapped out which basically have the same depth as cookie clicker. And sure, Clash of Clash and Candy Crush do slow down your progress too much for my taste. But saying most of them lack depth completely is a gross overgeneralisation and just not true.

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    5. Yes, I have tried Candy Crush, and I do NOT call what that has "depth". It is a super basic puzzle game. I suppose we have a very different definition of the word "depth".

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  4. I disagree. I feel that f2p design improves TF2 for example. Being killed by random weapons that I didn't know existed, but then have a chance of picking up on a random drop, or buying if I'm paying, is a really nice addition. Add to that the fact that there's always a community playing, something that a lot of smaller, but equally fun pay to play games have flopped for not having. I think f2p is harder to design for, but we're learning new tricks, and eventually the will be no fun difference in the top games.

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    1. TF2 started as a p2p, they only made it f2p after the success of the game. It's easy when you are on a leading position, hard when you are just starting. Its hard to pull this off. Just because something is f2p does not mean that people will come, it does not mean that developers will be able to improve the content even if the game is great at the beginning. How do you plan for this? How can you promise you players that you will keep making the game better when you don't know what kind of revenue to expect? Its really sad to play a f2p which is great, better then most p2p and then it slowly fades because people are leaving. Why not take a measured hybrid approach - pay up front a little for a lot, and pay more as you go wit expansions. For a small developer, going f2p does not mean they will attract a lot of people even if their game is good. Everyone needs to tailor their approach of selling and marketing with designing the game. Things can go the wrong way easily when you are just starting out with f2p.

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  5. I disagree i think some F2P games are fun, i think what you mean is for the non-F2P games you pay for the privileged to be fun.
    When it comes out in couple of months time let me know what you think, we have been working on a F2P game: Pirates Online Rewritten

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    1. As I already wrote in my blogpost:

      "The above arguments do not mean that free to play games cannot be fun. I imagine that some readers might want to counter my arguments by giving examples of free to play games that are fun. However, my point is not that free to play games cannot be fun. My point is that free to play games could be more fun if they were not damaged by the free to play design."

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  6. Interesting read, but I think we need differentiate two big different concepts of f2p: The model, where you can buy things, which affect the gameplay experience (alá pay to win) and the model where you can just buy cosmetics for money. While the second one is totally fine imo the first one is what really kills the fun. But I ask myself, what does it mean for Awesomenauts? Awesomenauts is a mix of p2p and f2p. You buy a 9.99€ entrance ticket and you can spend money on cosmetics, which (luckily) do not affect the gameplay at all. This is very fair deal, but I would prefer to go totally f2p. I do not know how much Ronimo earns with the games sales and with skin sales, but I guess going f2p would make the playerbase clearly bigger, which as you said would make awesomenauts a better game (less lag, better matchmaking, more active community). Furthermore it would increase the amount of potential skins customers, so the increase of skin sales would (hopefully) compensate the missing game sales. F2p just fits the moba genre better imo. The only risk: Once the game is f2p there is no come back.

    Is there any chance that Awesomenauts will be f2p some day? Reducing the price gradually until f2p would sound like a good too me, but I can understand that you are afraid of going this step. I would not recommend f2p for every game, but for mobas a huge and active community is one of the most important things.

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  7. Very interesting analysis. I never really considered free to play games as inherently "less fun" but when I looked at things the way you put them, I realized that I really did find them less fun then they would be otherwise. Like in League of Legends, whenever I check out the shop, there's always the price listed in IP (in game currency) and in RP (real moneys), and I always think: "if I just put a few bucks on my account, I could get me one of those sweet skins. Ah well." I never really thought that was detracting from my enjoyment of the game, but when I take an honest look at it, it does. It's annoying. I don't want to spend money on that game, even though I like it, I don't like it enough to pay money for it if I don't have to, and the constant reminders, ads, and shameless plugs for a game I'm already playing do really become grating if I pay too much attention to them.

    On the flip side, thought, I find it far more annoying when a game that I actually have payed for pushes it's own content like this. With a free to play game, it's understandable. Ultimately the point, or at least part of it, is to make money, at least enough to keep the project moving, and if I didn't way for the game up front, then that money still has to come from somewhere. When I've already purchased a game though, I don't like being gouged for more moneys all the time. It's fine to let me know what I can get if I want to (like in Awesomenauts), but in game marketing has become rather invasive as of recent in many cases. Have you ever noticed any of the recent in-game advertising and if so, what do you think about it?

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    1. Yeah, with Plants vs Zombies 2 and Simpsons Tapped Out the constant marketing for paid things is really irritating. Plants vs Zombies 2 goes so far as to have paid cheating buttons big on the screen at all times. The gameplay is a lot of fun and I don't need those buttons, but having paid cheating buttons on the screen so big at all times is just really irritating.

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  8. Interesting subject. Although I agree with most of what you said, I do not agree with the statement in the title. I think it is a bit too broad.

    I would agree with you if you would only consider micro-transactions, but this is not the only thinkable F2P model. You could also have an optional subscription or an optional one time payment.

    With micro-transaction, the problem is not just that you're just juggling two balls (paying and non-paying players), you are actually juggling many balls (players paying various amounts of money). Even if you design your game to be optimal for a certain amount of money paid, only the minority that pays exactly that amount will get the optimal experience.

    With an optional subscription or one-time-payment, you only have two types to deal with. In these cases I think it is unfair to say that F2P is inherently less fun, because you can't deliver the optimal experience to both groups. The only other option is to exclude the non-playing players. If you also center the design around the paying players (giving the non-paying players incentive to pay), then I don't think the payment model would (necessarily) affect the fun all that much.

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    1. I agree with your point, I just don't happen to call those models "free-to-play". I call that selling a big expension (like the Starstorm DLC in Awesomenauts), or having a demo, or having a subscription model. And yeah, I agree with you that those don't have the problem described in this post. :)

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  9. I don't think some F2P games are fun :X

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