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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.