Category Archives: Free to Play

GTA Online – A Missed Free to Play Opportunity?

The next-gen (or is a year long enough to start calling the PS4 / Xbox One “current gen”, and relegate the older consoles to “last gen”?) version of GTA V was released this week, and by all accounts Rockstar have done themselves proud again.

GTA V was already an excellent game, but as well as the graphical improvements you would expect from a generational leap, they’ve also added a bunch of new content to help sell the idea of “double dipping” to people who already bought it 14 months ago.

As with most (or all?) next gen games, GTA V is also available to buy and download directly from PSN and Xbox Live, doing away with the need for a disc. What I am surprised by, is that Rockstar didn’t seize this opportunity to really try something very new for the franchise and allow players to download the multiplayer component, GTA Online, as a standalone free to play (F2P) title.

My reasons as to why this would have been a good idea are:

  • There’s a portion of the audience who are still going to be resistant to double dipping. Allowing them to see the graphical leap first hand could sway them. Essentially F2P GTA Online would be a huge demo for the single player improvements.
  • GTA Online already has in app purchases (IAP) of currency, and an economy of consumable items and vehicles. Having consumable IAP in a £55 game is a stance that never goes across entirely well with a core audience. Having them in a F2P title is expected.
  • It would allow the game to reach its largest possible audience – I doubt a single console owner would not download it – which strengthens the appeal of the game for those who would be willing to purchase IAP. Nothing kills an online title quicker than empty servers.
  • GTA Online has had 14 months “in the wild” during which Rockstar have stabilised servers, added content and tweaked their balancing based on analytics data. Essentially this makes the PS3 / Xbox 360 version a long “soft launch”.
  • Speaking of balancing, the current version of GTA Online makes it harder for players to earn money than it was when the game launched. It is clearly being positioned in a way that to get the very best kit in the title players are strongly encouraged to buy.
  • It would fully separate GTA Online as a title from GTA V. Though I believe this is Rockstar’s intention (hence it not being called GTA V Online), that its delivery system is “comes free with a copy of GTA V” means that the two are inevitably linked in the minds of players. Separating them completely makes GTA Online its own thing, that can run on as a game-as-a-service without any conceptual difficulty in the minds of players.

Best Fiends Design & Monetisation Teardown

Seriously is a company formed from a bit of a mobile gaming dream team. A couple of months ago when Best Fiends, their first game, had just released I predicted that although it’s very polished & fun to play, it would not break in to the top 100 grossing. So I thought I should probably go back and check to see if my fortune telling skills need work or not.

Was I right? Find out – You can see the full report embedded below, or download the PDF file.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Find Out What it Means to Free (to Play)

Originally I was going to be giving this talk at Develop Live, in Edinburgh. I offered to pull my session in order to help the organisers out when there was some criticism over the perceived lack of diversity in the speakers. Since I had the notes done already, I thought I may as well put them up here. It’s like a Web Talk – a Walk. Hmmm, no that doesn’t work does it? Anyway, the notes were written to be cues and aids for speaking, not as a basis for slides, so they’re quite informal and kind of broken English. Enjoy!

(Oh, if you’re a conference organiser and you want this talk at your event, let me know. I don’t consider it dead, and if anything I believe the issue is only going to get worse.) 


R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Find Out What it Means to Free (to Play)

  • Drinking game – if anyone’s got any alcohol with them, take a tiny sip any time I say the phrase “free to play”, and we’ll check back with you at the end of the talk and see how you’re doing.
  • Assumes everyone in the room wants f2p to survive long term as a business model.
  • At Develop in Brighton this year, Dr Richard Bartle said he thought there was a half-life for free to play, possibly around 10 years, but that it would happen that people would get tired of the tricks and mind games.
  • Put it to the room
    • Hands up for who agrees. Now who disagrees?
    • Well, you’re wrong.
    • Sorry, what I meant was I think you’re all wrong.
  • How the model is being used now, Richard’s right.
  • But I don’t think it’s inevitable.
  • If Free to Play was the movie Back to the Future 2, we’re at a point where we’ve just been given the Sports Almanac and hidden it in the sleeve of a copy of Oh La La.


  • If your players knew what you were doing and why, would they support you?
  • Terms:
    • Not “greedy / generous” – will talk about those terms later.
    • Not “ethical / unethical” – strongly emotive, people stop listening if you say they’re making “unethical f2p”.
    • Gentle / aggressive?
  • Undergoing a gold-rush mentality.
  • A lot of money coming in to f2p because the potential ROI is huge.
  • But looking for short term results, and cashing out – treating games like day trading.
  • Product managers tweak for retention & revenue in their current titles.
    • If you make a game, it becomes a habit for a player for a while (how long a while is largely up to the skill of you and your dev team), and then you use your knowledge to tweak variables and squeeze them for money.
    • When they do kick your game’s habit, will they regret playing it? Or will they seek out your other games?
    • Finding local peaks, but not considering long term effect.
  • As a quick example. Who here would be sad if you were earning the money of League of Legends?
  • At GDC Europe Teut Weidemann gave a talk where he claimed he could double its revenue.
  • Would be happy with losing 60% of the non-paying player base to squeeze payers more.
  • No concern for how that would have affected the game (or Riot’s) wider popularity.


  • If your players knew what you were doing and why, would they support you?
  • Games engineered to be habit-forming products, but the habits aren’t intended for the player’s benefit.
  • One dev deliberately won’t use “addictive” when talking about their games, they use “compelling”. But use it in the same way. Their thinking was literally “if we say compelling then we can get away with giving this to kids, but if we say it’s addictive we might end up with legal bother”.
  • Zynga used a lot of “dark patterns” – crops dying if you don’t come back, hassling social graph, obligation.
  • Used them instead of fun game core, didn’t work out long term, company now shifting.
  • King following same pattern? Having to do a lot of paid UA – dropping a lot of players, people aren’t transferring from one game to the next.
  • Suggests low brand loyalty, even for casual players – why?
  • Can also see brand damage on EA, greedy launch of Dungeon Keeper.
    • Affected company’s standing in the eyes of fans.
    • Affected future viability of classic IP f2p projects.
      • Alternate reality where DK had launched with gentle f2p.
        • People enjoy it, still spend (but over longer term).
        • EA announce f2p “Sim City BuildIt”, initial reaction is better past experience.
        • (Rather than the actual reaction, which is predictably negative)


  • If your players knew what you were doing and why, would they support you?
  • “We made this item more expensive deliberately because we want you not to buy it, but we know it tweaks a little bit in your brain that up sells a certain %age of you to spend more than you otherwise would.”
  • “We phrased this as you losing status, rather than boosting, because we know you’re more afraid of losing something.”
  • Bubble Witch 2 Saga.
    • Deliberately paced to have “blocker” levels you’ll struggle to beat, followed by nice levels to make it up to you.
    • Basically a game designed using the pattern of an abusive relationship.
  • Super monkey ball bounce
    • Pachinko / Peggle game
    • Levels that are effectively impossible without using boosts.


  • If your players knew what you were doing and why, would they support you?
  • Generosity in games – personal beef: term “Reciprocity” abused, if there’s no return action (reciprocation) then you’re just trying to sound clever.
  • Eventually people do get sick of it.
  • Tupperware did well with reciprocity, but…
  • Imagine if you had a friend who invited you over for a party. They gave you some free drink & food, you had a fun hour, then they started the hard sell. “Buy this stuff.”
  • Next time they invite you to a party, would you go?
  • How many times would you endure a hard sell before you stopped taking this friend’s calls?
  • These effects have diminishing returns.


  • If your players knew what you were doing and why, would they support you?
  • Because of the actions of some developers now seeing more serious bodies getting involved.
  • The European Commission’s f2p ruling …
  • Advertising Standards Authority’s ruling that Dungeon Keeper can’t be advertised as “free”.
  • These are serious non-gamer bodies turning their focus on us because of the actions of some developers going for the cash grab as hard as they can.
  • Don’t expect this is the end of the legal regulation we’ll see. i.e. very specific laws in the UK regulating the use of the word “sale”, that a lot of f2p games are violating. (Yay for having a parent who worked in trading standards for decades)
  • Saying used to be that it took 2 bad games to kill a franchise.
  • The 1st bad game doesn’t put people off completely, they’ll give a series 1 more chance.
  • Take that line of thinking in to f2p.
  • How many aggressive games to kill your business?


  • If your players knew what you were doing and why, would they support you?

The Hubris of Teut Weidemann

“If they let me change League of Legends I could double its revenue”

This article is rather staggering. Apparently in a talk at GDC Europe, Weidemann claimed that he’d double the revenue of LoL, mainly by selling power to players. Though that’d annoy a lot of people who’d leave the game, the sums still turn in his favour (well, as long as they don’t lose more than 60% of the players, apparently).

This is apparently based on the assumption that selling exclusive premium champions wouldn’t harm the game more deeply, would convert well, that the loss of non-paying player-base wouldn’t make the game less attractive to payers, wouldn’t harm the game’s eSports popularity and revenue, and wouldn’t kill the game off in a couple of years of burning twice as bright.

This line of thinking is not healthy for anyone but those in it for a quick cash grab, Only Fools and Horses style. “This time next year, Rodders…” It’s not healthy for the industry, and it’s not healthy for Free to Play (F2P) as a way of making money. Very well timed comment though, as it’s just been announced I’m going to be doing a talk on exactly this at Develop Live this year.

The key recommendation at the end of Weidemann’s talk is good, though. You should not copy Riot. They have the player numbers. They don’t need to run paid user acquisition (UA). They spotted a game genre that was going to be popular, and got in early with a high quality title. You would be playing the fast follow game. But slowly.

(And as for his hubris, well – with a man this talented and capable of making money on staff, you have to wonder why Ubisoft’s not seen any notably huge F2P success.)

If You Hate Free to Play Then You Probably Hate Good Old Fashioned Honest Pubs

Premium games are like events with a free bar. You don’t really know what you’re getting when you pay once for admission, but all of the content is free.

Free to Play is like a pub. You can go in, see what drinks they have on offer, sit around and socialise for nothing. Some places will even give you little tasters of their beers gratis, in the hope you’ll buy more. If you’re willing to put the time and effort in to socialising you can probably get a few drinks for free before the paywall (your round) comes along, but it’s easier to just pay for your booze.

Modern AAA is like a nightclub. There is heavy advertising through leaflets and promo staff telling you how awesome it is, but the scene inside often bares scant resemblance to the promises. You won’t know that until you’ve shelled out to get in though, and once you are inside there are lots of extra charges for the content. It’s all very brash and loud, and you’ll probably only end up sticking with it for a few hours before it’s over, leaving your ears ringing.

A closed beta is like a wedding …

You know what, I’m going to stop there. Disclaimer: I don’t believe any of this nonsense, obviously.

Premium Currency vs Real Money Purchase

I’ve just written a reasonably long post on a LinkedIn group that I now realise only has 36 members. Since I think my Words and Opinions are Important, I wanted to share it to a slightly wider audience.

The question was on the use of virtual currencies vs real money in-app spending…

[Has] anyone run into any good public domain discussion of the tradeoffs involved in one approach rather than other, and how best to combine them?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a proper discussion around when to use hard currency and when to real money purchase (RMP).

I’ve read a few behavioural economics books that suggest that people feel the “sting” of a purchase less the further you can abstract it away from cash (why buying an expensive thing on card is less painful than counting out dozens of £20 notes). I think Predictably Irrational might be one of them, the other is Happy Money.

Another benefit of virtual currencies is the trick of selling currency in different denominations to the amount it’s used (for example selling a 1,000 Gold bundle, when the most expensive thing the player can buy is 900 Gold), leaving them with unused currency they feel they should use. Personally I think this is quite a dirty trick and I know certain audiences are very wise to it and turned off by it, but again I’ve never seen any research to suggest how negative a reaction this would get.

Yet another benefit would be that a currency transaction can complete without friction as long as the player has enough currency. Whereas a RMP will almost always go through some kind of “are you sure?” / password flow that would introduce friction (and depending on where the purchase is happening in your game could cause problems – for example in the middle of a multiplayer firefight you wouldn’t want to be asking for passwords).

Benefits of RMP would be that you’re guaranteeing a conversion (rather than players using stored up currency). This is the thinking behind “coin doubler” style purchases – they make sense as an investment for a grinding player who otherwise would’t spend.

Using RMP for bundles of in-game items, or “early bird” bundle sales also makes sense in terms of trying to encourage that important early conversion to switch the player’s self image over to “I’m the type of person who spends in this game”.

Another downside of RMP on a lot of devices you’re limited as to what values you can choose too – for example on iOS the cheapest an item could be is $0.99 – which could make them very bad value. I think this is why you rarely see RMP used for consumable items, whereas it’s used more for durables – the value proposition. Also running discounts on RMP is slightly more trouble, as you have to create two identical items with different costs and point players to the correct one, rather than just removing a different amount of currency.

Would love to hear there peoples’ thoughts on this stuff.

Angry Birds Go! Report

Last week I decided to fill in a bit of free time by compiling a brief report on the free to play (f2p) game Angry Birds Go!

I chose Angry Birds Go! mainly because I remember it getting a bit of flack on release for its heavy handed monetisation (primarily the expensive premium carts), yet since then it seems to have largely dropped off everyone’s radar. I thought this made it an interesting case – was the monetisation really too harsh, or were other issues stopping the game from achieving its potential?

You can see the full report embedded below, or download the PDF file (probably better, since Slideshare seems to have scuppered some of the fonts & graphics).

Free to Play and the European Commission

“The use of the word ‘free’ (or similar unequivocal terms) as such, and without any appropriate qualifications, should only be allowed for games which are indeed free in their entirety, or in other words which contain no possibility of making in-app purchases, not even on an optional basis”

Free With IAP SmallAs you may or may not know, the European Commission are meeting with mobile providers to discuss “free to play”. There’s a really nice write-up about it by Jas Purewal here, so go and read that for a lot more background detail than I’m going to repeat.

Free With IAP Single Page

Regarding the adverting of games as free, this is mostly down to Apple’s labelling. Some simple global text changes in the app store could solve this (as shown on the right).

They’d also need to change the “free app” chart to either only display apps with no IAP, or change the wording of that too.

Spotify - free? Of course, as Jas points out, the press release begins by talking about “apps” and then quickly moves on to “games”, which seems rather clear of the direction they intend to take this. There are many other products and apps in the world that use the “get it for free, but pay for more if you want to” model, I suspect they’ll be left un-touched. Spotify for example, specifically words its copy to position itself as a free service, despite the fact that I pay £9.99 a month for it. Apple’s own free iBooks app is another simple example of a non-game which “contains the possibility of making in-app purchases”.

My take on this? I absolutely agree with the concerns around the wording in apps aimed at children, and think evocative copy and calls to action should be restricted, as many other forms of advertising aimed at children are (Apple has recently made moves to address this by making a “kid friendly” section of the app store that has tighter restrictions on debs before their apps will be accepted).

However I absolutely disagree with the idea that apps that have optional payments shouldn’t be advertised as “free”. I’ve played a lot of free to play games, and I’ve spent money on maybe a dozen at most. The rest of them I’ve played … for free.

Some Things I Like About Dungeon Keeper

I was going to write a longer article about Dungeon Keeper, but to be honest the subject has been covered so much over the last week I don’t really have the energy. Go and read one of the other articles for either a scathing attack on free-to-play (f2p) as a business model, a valiant defence of f2p as a business model, or an actual article about the game itself (if you can find one).

I’ve been playing it over the last week, and it’s not all bad really. Sure it’s entirely the wrong IP for the game & model, sure it goes in far too hard & heavy with asking for money, sure the initial timers are often too long so it’s hard to build a connection to the game quickly, sure the first time user experience (FTUE) is pretty bad with a tutorial that goes on too long and still doesn’t clearly explain the whole thing.

But there are some things I do like that it does.

  • You can slap your minions (the game’s builders) and for the next half an hour they will work at double speed, effectively halving every build timer in the game. There’s no cool down on this, you can do it every 30 minutes. It’s a nice way of further encouraging players to return to your game regularly if they want to maximise their efficiency and drastically cut down those big timers. (I’d suggest that the 30 minutes is too short a time though, again it feels like the game is too desperate for your attention if it’s popping up scheduled notifications every half an hour).
  • For the space that it’s in (asynchronous player-vs-player tower-defense) it’d be very easy to just use the IP and reskin the units and structures of genre-leader Clash of Clans. This is what most of the other games in the genre do (at least for initial launch, the ones that see some success tend to quickly introduce their own unique takes and options), it’s very easy to see the mappings. Dungeon Keeper at least spins units and defences out in its own style, with unique strengths and weaknesses from the start.

I’m sure there was a third thing. I’ll edit it in if I remember it.

Oh well, not exactly a spirited defence of the game some sections of the web have been calling a games-industry killer, that I had hoped for.