kritiqal is the pet project of nate Kiernan. Based out of Maryville, TN, Kritiqal seeks to explore games at the intersection of academia and mass-market entertainment.

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The problems with F2P and how Hearthstone solved them

The problems with F2P and how Hearthstone solved them

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I’ll be the first to admit that I cringe a bit anytime someone tells me about a free-to-play game. It’s a reaction I’ve seen among a lot of people lately, and it’s frustrating because I don’t think F2P as a monetization system is inherently bad. In fact, I feel it’s the inevitable and ideal future of a lot of games, allowing for greater financial success and longevity for developers, and the ability for players to try a game before spending a dime in a way demos can’t provide. But in its current popular implementation, F2P is broken. It’s exploitative, invasive, and maybe even insidious in some cases, seemingly clear in its goal of squeezing every last penny it can out of a player. There are exceptions to this, but F2P has become so widely known as being essentially against the player, that you’ll be lucky if you can even get to that point talking about your F2P game before your shutdown.

So let’s outline exactly what the problem might be, and a potential solution. Much of this is stuff that other studios have already done, but for whatever reason it’s failed to hit the majority of F2P games out there, whether through reluctance to change or contentment in their horrendous tactics.

CREATING PAYWALLS INSTEAD OF ECONOMIES

This is the most common issue I see, probably because it’s the easiest way to implement F2P but without actually giving your entire game away. Content becomes gated off, items locked under premium currency, and agonizing wait times for the game world to refresh glare eagerly at you prompting you to spend a few bucks to speed things up (at least until you have to do it again an hour later).

This, whether in appearance or literal mechanics, makes the free aspect of your game a renamed demo. You're only allowing people in for free up to a point, then forcing them to either pay up or twiddle their thumbs as timers cooldown. The reasons this is a bad idea are long and drawn out, but the most important one is that F2P in this model is going all or nothing on every player, either getting them to cough up the cash or kicking them out the door.

YOU WANT PLAYERS WHETHER THEY'RE PAYING ANYTHING OR NOT

If you’re building a game intended to last for years, and even more so if there’s a multiplayer component, you should never under any circumstances be knowingly driving players away. You want them there whether they’re paying you anything or not, because that means there’s interest in your game. People talk to people and suddenly that single non-paying player has turned into three players, and some of them might want to put a few dollars into the game. Suddenly there’s profit where before there was only frustration and uninstallation.

So how do you fix this? The answer is first, to actually commit to your game being free. No locking major mechanics behind a fee, no incessant badgering about paying to speed the grind up. You can have extra content that’s paid and the ability to pay for a progression boost, but your game needs to be effectively free in so far as people who aren’t paying don’t feel like they’re being locked out of everything cool.

Where you actually make money off of any of this is in creating a sustainable economy around your game, one that’s integrated heavily into its framework, but that allows for players to earn through gameplay the funds to buy anything in your game they want. The best example of this is Blizzard's Hearthstone and buying card packs. Though it’s possible to put a few dollars in to immediately purchase a pack, Hearthstone never puts pressure on you to do so, or prevents you earning the gold to buy them through gameplay.

300px-Todays_quests_only_the_mightyThe other brilliant addition to Hearthstone’s economy are the daily quests which are where you earn the bulk of your gold from. It keeps players in coming back every day, and makes the money they earn feel earned. On paper it sounds like Hearthstone would be impossible to make money off of. After all the entire game is free presented before you. But take a look at the number of players online at any given time or Blizzard’s financials and it’s clear that’s anything but the case.

Part of this is because Hearthstone is a great game, but the other half is because its F2P model makes people feel like the money they spend on it is their choice. They want to spend money because they enjoy the game, not because it’s required to enjoy the game. This is what you should be striving for: player devotion and retention through friendly monetization. There are a lot of things to be taking notes from Blizzard on, but their Hearthstone F2P model might be the most important right now, and yet one that seems to be eluding the vast majority of the market.

You shouldn’t be forcing people to grind for currency or pay to jump through hoops to get at the content they want. Don’t play the short game of squeezing the player and then letting your game die as they get fed up with your tactics. Cater to them and make them fall in love with your game before asking them to spend money. Because in most cases you won’t need to ask at that point, which is how it should be.

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