How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Free to Play


What is there to like about Free to Play? Why would anyone like making games that seem to employ tricks, blocks in play, obvious frustration and other mechanics to seemingly try to squeeze every last penny out of a player? 

There has been much debate among gamers, developers, designers and product people as to the merits or evils of free to play vs pay to play game development. As someone who has worked on pay to play games for consoles (Dreamcast, Xbox, PS2 and Gamecube) and mobile (Nokia and iPhone), as well as free to play games in browsers, I can say I truly love the free to play space. There is a potential there that is just wonderful to develop for and it comes down to a simple Order of Operations.

Order of operations for F2P

  • Step 1 - Figure out how to make a fun game that engages people.
  • Step 2 - Figure out how to get a reasonable amount of the player base to spend enough to sustain the business.

Order of operations for P2P

  • Step 1 - Figure out how you are going to get people's money.
  • Step 2 - Figure out how to give them entertainment value greater than or equal to the money they just spent.

As a product owner on a F2P game, I get to spend the bulk of my time focusing on making a great game, something that hooks people in and delights them as they experience it. That is not to say I can afford to ignore the other half of the equation, but it comes secondary to the first part in the order of operations. Without a great game it is very hard to make a sustainable business for it. Possible yes, but not easy and not without churning through tons and tons of new players in the process.

On the other hand, when making P2P games, the first thing I have to ask myself is, "how do I get someone to spend <n> amount on this game before they know that it is any good?" that is what I have to send hours, days and weeks looking to solve. In the order of operations, if I can't do that, I can't get to step two - make a fun game that engages people. This is the aspect most people forget about when they erroneously believe that pay to play game development is all about making fun games. The cold reality is, making the fun game is actually step two for anyone looking to sell games as a sustainable business.

To me this is the promise of the F2P era and the potential that it has to push the games industry in new and different ways, finding new game mechanics, business models and even ways in which games evolve over time with the direct interaction of players. Is there a lot of bad along the way? Of course there is, seeing games like Dungeon Keeper on iOS and Heroes of Dragon Age on iOS, make me wince a little every time I open them up to play, since they clearly are examples of the wrong order of operations in F2P. They took the route of, "I have this valuable IP, how do I squeeze more money out of it in this new F2P space?"

For anyone starting up in F2P or for people who have been making F2P games for years now, I implore you to think about this order of operations and solve step 1 - Figure out how to make a fun game that engages people. Step 2 becomes a whole lot easier and more satisfying after that.