Free-to-Play Done Right

Free apps account for 81% of the appli­ca­tion down­loads on the App Store. In regards to games, cur­rently 8 of the 10 top-grossing iPhone and 6 of the 10 top-grossing iPad games are free. The fact that there’s no entry bar­rier cou­pled with the addic­tive nature of most of these games make for an extremely prof­itable cat­e­gory and encour­age more and more peo­ple to enter the free-to-play (F2P) bandwagon.

I have noth­ing per­son­ally against these kinds of games but I’m put out by the fact that many of them keep bom­bard­ing the player with micro­trans­ac­tion offers and even go as far as cre­at­ing “pay walls” in which the player must pay at some moment to be able to achieve any progress. I feel that tak­ing some lessons from a few suc­cess­ful PC F2P games with friend­lier busi­ness mod­els wouldn’t hurt the iOS envi­ron­ment. In this post, I’ll men­tion some of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the model of two of these games.

League of Leg­ends is a game in the Moba/DotA genre, a kind of real-time strat­egy game in which instead of con­trol­ling an array of units, you con­trol a sin­gle cham­pion and must work along­side your team to destroy the oppos­ing team’s main struc­ture. Team Fortress 2 is a team-based mul­ti­player FPS that orig­i­nally cost $20 and after debut­ing an in-game store last year, turned F2P a few weeks ago. Both games are microtransaction-based and fea­ture many inter­est­ing ideas that could be used in most iOS F2P games to make the player expe­ri­ence much more enjoy­able. Here’s a few do’s and don’ts based on these ideas.


Don’t restrict the gameplay


League of Leg­ends fea­tures dozens of dif­fer­ent cham­pi­ons (units con­trolled by the player). Every week, there’s a new ros­ter of 10 of these cham­pi­ons that are avail­able to be freely cho­sen by any­one. To be able to choose a cham­pion out­side of the ros­ter, it must be unlocked by the player. Instead of mak­ing these out­side cham­pi­ons avail­able only through pay­ment, League of Leg­ends allows every char­ac­ter to be unlocked either by real money or by an inter­nal currency.

Once a game of League of Leg­ends is fin­ished, all play­ers that took part in the match receive a num­ber of Influ­ence Points (IPs). These points are the inter­nal cur­rency that allow play­ers to unlock a num­ber of things, from new cham­pi­ons to runes that give a vari­ety of boosts.

League of Legends Comic (Penny Arcade)

What hap­pens if you’re not careful!

Team Fortress 2 has many items. Nearly all of them can be ran­domly found by play­ing the game (there are a few excep­tions like hats with par­ti­cle effects), ensur­ing that every player can find the items they want given enough time. There’s absolutely no restric­tion of maps, game modes or classes. Everything’s avail­able to everyone.

In both games, the deci­sion of pay­ing for some­thing becomes a sim­ple mat­ter of time X money: play­ers that aren’t inter­ested in spend­ing money or can’t afford to do that can unlock what they want by play­ing the game long enough; play­ers that don’t have enough time or sim­ply don’t have patience to wait can unlock what they want right away by pay­ing real money.

I’d love to see more iOS F2P games adopt­ing this approach, since I believe that all facets of the game­play should be avail­able to all play­ers, with other aspects being mon­e­tized. Note that I’m talk­ing about stand­alone iOS F2P games here and not Lite ver­sions since the game­play restric­tions on these are more eas­ily jus­ti­fied, as they can be seen more as a demo instead of a full game.


Keep it fair


The most impor­tant con­se­quence of the pre­vi­ous high­lighted fea­ture is that every gameplay-altering ele­ment can be unlocked for free as long as the player spends enough time play­ing the game. This means that there are absolutely no in-game advan­tages for play­ers that choose to spend real money.

This doesn’t mean that the game can’t fea­ture exclu­sive items. In fact, both games men­tioned have unlocks that are avail­able only through real money. In League of Leg­ends, most of these con­sist of alter­nate skins that change the appear­ance of cham­pi­ons. There are also boosts that make the player receive IPs or expe­ri­ence points (XP) at a higher rate for a lim­ited time. These boosts serve only as a means to save time. They don’t give any game­play advan­tage since play­ers that don’t have the boosts can also receive the same num­ber of IPs or XP by play­ing the game longer.

Aside from the pre­vi­ously men­tioned hats with par­ti­cle effects that can only be unlocked by pay­ing (and luck), Team Fortress 2 also offers spe­cial themed hats that are avail­able only through pur­chase and for a lim­ited time, noise mak­ers, etc. New skins and hats are con­stantly added to League of Leg­ends and Team Fortress 2 so there’s always oppor­tu­nity for inter­ested play­ers to spend more money on these items and cus­tomize their expe­ri­ence even more.

Team Fortress 2 comic - Hats

Hard to keep track of so many new items.

Mak­ing it so that only super­fi­cial items are exclu­sive for pay­ers gives a sense of fair­ness to the game and avoids the cre­ation of a rift between pay­ing and non-paying play­ers as there’s no “pay to win” men­tal­ity. The sense of fair­ness encour­ages play­ers to keep play­ing the game for more time and, in turn, makes it even more likely that a por­tion of them will become pay­ing users at some time.

Sell­ing cos­metic items is in my opin­ion the best kind of micro­trans­ac­tion for any F2P game. Cos­metic changes are a great reward for pay­ing play­ers, help­ing them stand out and show their sup­port for the game with­out harm­ing the expe­ri­ence of other play­ers. It has been already shown that peo­ple are will­ing to pay for these items and this a huge mar­ket to focus on.


Don’t be annoying


There’s no need to keep ask­ing play­ers to spend money in the game. If the game is appeal­ing and good enough, the play­ers will even­tu­ally pay for some­thing if only to sup­port the devel­op­ers that show respect to them. No player likes it when just after fin­ish­ing a match or round of any game they’re already being asked to pay for a given fea­ture. It feels cheap and, at least in my case, makes me less likely to pur­chase any­thing. If the game has qual­ity and the micro­trans­ac­tions offer some­thing of value to the play­ers, they will open their wal­let at the appro­pri­ate moment. There should be no need to act as an annoy­ing sales­man, espe­cially when it comes at the expense of the player’s fun.

When play­ing either League of Leg­ends or Team Fortress, I never feel pres­sured to pur­chase any­thing. The inter­est­ing side effect of this is that many play­ers end up pay­ing for some­thing in the game to help sup­port the devel­oper exactly because they don’t feel pres­sured at all! Being nice to your poten­tial cus­tomers can be a great strat­egy. Who would imag­ine that?

These are just a few things that I feel would make most F2P games much more enjoy­able and respect­ful to play­ers, while still bring­ing rev­enue to devel­op­ers. Riot Games, devel­oper of League of Leg­ends, has been recently bought for $400M due to their suc­cess and by all accounts is still doing very well. Valve has also seen tremen­dous suc­cess with Team Fortress 2’s micro­trans­ac­tions, even going as far as mak­ing the pre­vi­ously $20 game into a F2P, microtransaction-supported game. I’d love to see sim­i­lar things hap­pen­ing with iOS apps!

I don’t mean to imply that these games found suc­cess because of their approach to micro­trans­ac­tions. These are fan­tas­tic games that would be suc­cess­ful regard­less. My inten­tion is to show that these approaches are viable and that they won’t hurt any game that chooses to use them. The qual­ity of any game will always be its most impor­tant and defin­ing fea­ture, but respect­ing the play­ers and work­ing to ensure a fair envi­ron­ment should never be regarded as second-rate aspects.

Are there any iOS games that already fol­low sim­i­lar busi­ness mod­els? If so, please let me know in the com­ments. Also feel free to tell me what you think about the most com­mon F2P mod­els and what could be changed to make them better.

This post is part of iDe­vBlo­gA­Day, a group of indie iPhone devel­op­ment blogs fea­tur­ing two posts per day. You can keep up with iDe­vBlo­gA­Day through the web site, RSS feed, or Twit­ter.

5 Responses to “ “Free-to-Play Done Right”

  1. I very much agree with your stance on freemium games.

    It matches up with my plans for Uni­corn Rush as well.

    Play­ers can play the whole game for free if they spend the time, and the request to pur­chase in-app cur­rency will only be shown if the player attempts to do some­thing for which he/she does not have enough currency.

    Of course, the but­ton to buy cur­rency will always be avail­able, but it won’t be too in-your-face. :-)

  2. Matt says:

    I think on iOS Tiny Tower is doing things right as well. the game is addic­tive even with­out pay­ing money and every­thing you can buy with tower bux can be done by play­ing the game longer. How­ever there def­i­nitely is a fine line between mak­ing the game play fun and yet frus­trat­ing enough to pay money to speed things up, or cus­tomize the tower etc.

    That said, I would be inter­ested to see some more num­bers on whether the in-your-face sales vs. laid back no pres­sure approach to in-app-purchases results in more money in the pock­ets of the devel­op­ers who write these games.

    My first game is not F2P, but I’m work­ing on my sec­ond game and have been try­ing to find a way to make it F2P to test the concept.

  3. Thanks for this. It really seems like the age of pay-to-play games is over. I am sur­prised we don’t see more indie devel­op­ers going the F2P route yet.

    As you demon­strated, there is cer­tainly plenty of room in the model for good games to make a profit with­out exploit­ing their users.

    Pocket Leg­ends for iPhone does a pretty decent job of this too, I’m sur­prised it often gets overlooked.

    Although RoboArena isn’t cur­rently planned to be F2P, all our future games will be from the ground up, and we have some pretty excit­ing and unique mechan­ics we plan on using to make them stand apart from the pack!

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