Too often the free-to-play model is seen as cynical. That businesses are at war with “users” for their wallets. That users are like cattle to be herded in to the pen of your game and their teats hooked up to the IAP machine and *slurp-slurp-slurp*. If the cattle disobey then you prod them, whip them, do what you have to to get them milked.
This negative view of the model is enforced by some unfortunate rhetoric. Aggressives attitude towards monetisation is the completely wrong way of thinking about a sustainable long term business. Treating players like cattle leads at best to some reticent purchases and ultimate player exodus. Instead you, as a design or business person, should be thinking what’s the best deal for both the business and the player. Ultimately you want happy, returning players who are willing to spend repeatedly on an experience they enjoy.
In a design review of Twice Circled‘s Android game Ionage recently posted on GamesBrief designer and producer Benjamin Sipe, whilst making some great points on the design of Ionage, says on the titles lack of “delay mechanics”:
This is a win for players, but in my mind a loss for Twice Circled. We can argue about how terrible or annoying delay mechanics are as gamers, but you can’t argue against the revenue it generates.
If you have a profitable F2P studio without using delay mechanics, that’s great, but know that your happiness with user experience/immersion/whatever is coming at a cost.
Advocating a mechanic that you believe will annoy players because it will generate money? Well that seems at conflict. If you drive players away or at least disrupt their experience, how do you make money from them?
There’s a misunderstanding here. The reason why waits and delays are so effective is actually because they make some games better. Waits sets up the anticipation of gratification and give players reasons (and times) to return to the game. I’ve been playing Animal Crossing New Leaf on the Nintendo 3DS recently, a traditional paid cartridge game, where a lot of the time you’re waiting. Waiting for fruit to grow, waiting to for your house to get built, waiting for turnip prices to rise (really). I love it. Waits aren’t simply monetisation points that tell players to pay up or jog on and thinking like that is really detrimental.
But there’s another point to be made here: Checklist design. F2P games are complex and so when titles hit, everyone scrambles to dissect every element. This practice is great for our understanding, however such reviews generate “conventional wisdom” that can push everyone down a blind alley. Lots of games use and benefit from waits (Sipe suggests checking out the iOS top grossing chart), but that’s not always true and won’t always be true. Titles like Bejewelled Blitz and Temple Run are notable hits without explicit waits, for example.
There’s much more nuance that needs to be made here. Occasionally clients come to me asking for monetisation reviews and it would be easy to reel off a heap of these checklist design points, but really what they need is a better game. Their characters need redoing, they need to make the menu easier to navigate, they need to make the visuals brighter, they need to tighten up the controls or whatever is required to make the game something you want to play. Because without a good game, you’ll find players very unresponsive to your requests that they give you money. You aren’t at war for players’ wallets, they’re your allies.