For a while now I’ve been thinking about games using the free to play business model. When I read Marcus “Notch” Persson’s thoughts on the subject on his tumblr and more recently in relation to his new game announcement in which he states that free to play is a “scam”. He thinks that free to play should be called “as expensive as you want it to be” since it essentially puts no cap on how much a player can spend. Now all of that is essentially true, but I’m one of those people who think that free to play could be a good thing for both developers and players, IF done properly.
Now while gathering my thoughts on this topic I realized that it is too big to cover in one post, so I’ll try to break it down a little. So for today I’ll talk about the engine in the free to play machine, Micro transactions. Cause let’s face it, developers need to eat too. Micro transactions are those little payments you make in-game on various things like items, characters, extra content…etc (lets call them “items” from now on) . What makes micro transactions good or bad is what you sell, how it affects the game and how much it costs.
The general guide line for using micro transactions well is to sell items that are purely cosmetic and don’t sell items that give players advantage over others. You don’t want to split your player base into people who pay and people who don’t. Getting into a pay to win situation is something all games should avoid. Take Flight Control Rocket for example. The game offers you to continue your game if you pay for it, so you can get as high a score as you want provided you can pay for it. If you wanna read more about how that game tries to take your money, read this article by Ben Kuchera. Another pitfall is implementing micro transactions in a finished game by simply locking content and offering the players the option to buy it. What this does is give the entry level player -who doesn’t want to pay yet- an incomplete game, which makes them feel forced to buy something. That’s not a good way to get people into your game.
Lets take a look at a game that used this system successfully and see how they did it. League of Legends is the game I chose since it seems to be quite popular these days, and I’ve played it enough to understand how it works. for those of you who aren’t familiar with the game, League of Legends or LoL by Riot Games (I know it’s ridiculous) is a Defense of the Ancients-style online multiplayer RTS that uses micro transactions as a source of revenue. I believe they went the free to play way because they wanted to convert players of the original DOTA who haven’t payed for that game since they bought Warcraft 3 (DOTA was a custom map in WC3). Here’s a gameplay video.
The game uses two currencies: Influence points or IP, which you gain by playing matches (you get more for winning), and Riot points or RP, which you buy with money. What the game offers for purchase are 4 things:
- Permanent access to in-game champions.
- Cosmetic Skins for the champions.
- Runes that very slightly enhance your stats or abilities.
- Boosters that allow you to gain IP faster or to level up faster for a period of time.
Lets take the champions first. The fact that there are many champions to choose from is one of the game’s core features, but it is also one of the things that makes it hard for beginners to pick up the game. LoL makes a pool of 10 champions available to play for free at any given time, and changes them every week. This make the choice of champion easier for new players and allows them to get familiar with the champions. The player can then decide to buy any champion he wants to play whenever he wants for a certain amount of IP or RP. The skins can only be purchased with RP. This makes the paying players feel distinguished without giving advantage, thus keeping the free player happy as well.
Runes can be purchased for RP or IP, but their use is based on your level which is determined by the number of games you’ve played. What this means is that even if you can pay for them, you have to earn the right to use them. As far as the boosters go, they just help you earn the points or level up at a higher rate to be able to use the runes, but you still need to play the game to get the benefit of the boost.
Now this system works well for many reasons. The rotation of locked champions becomes a way to ease the players into the game without being a feature locked behind a required payment. It allows players to customize without breaking the balance of the game. Most importantly it unites the players by giving them the freedom to choose if they want to invest their time or their money in the game. I mean let’s face it the people who can afford to pay extra for games are usually people who don’t have much time on their hands to play, but still want to get a match or 2 in at the end of the day.
What “business people” sometimes fail to understand is that online multiplayer games rely on a strong community of players to keep it fun and appealing (Not to mention opening up the e-sport possibility). That’s where even the free players come in as an asset to the game and it’s continuity. You don’t need to make money off every player to turn a profit. I’m out!