Mobile Mavens

On the balance F2P designers tread between encouraging players to pay and manipulation

The Monetisation Maven ponder ethical boundaries

On the balance F2P designers tread between encouraging players to pay and manipulation

We've been running our Mobile Mavens panel for a number of years.

It's a group of industry experts who discuss the hot topics of the mobile games industry on a weekly basis.

But how about going really deep into one of the key and ongoing subjects faced by all free-to-play game designers and operators - monetisation?

It is about the money

So, with that thought in mind, I've added another string to our regular Monetizer column, with the formation of the Monetization Mavens.

This week, we expanded on a current hot topic.

In the UK, EA's has been found to have run a misleading ad campaign in terms of the free-to-play elements in Dungeon Keeper.

This follows on from a wide range of global legislation including a hard cap on IAP spending for minors in Japan, the banning of 'total gacha', detailed recommendations about IAPs and children in the UK, and the COPPA laws in terms of holding data on children in the US.

So, given it's likely this sort of governmental scrutiny of the F2P business is likely to increase, How do you think game designers should react?

Are there specific monetisation techniques we now shouldn't be using?


Ben Cousins CEO ISBIT Games

Ben is a 15-year veteran of the games industry - he's worked as a senior executive, studio head, project lead, creative director and game designer at companies like DeNA, EA, Sony and Lionhead.

He started working on traditional games, but has been focussed on the free-to-play business model since 2006 - an extremely long time by western standards. During that time He's worked on a total of ten separate free-to-play games across five different platforms reaching over 50 million users.

The OFT promised to clamp down on apps that didn't follow its guidance by April 1st. What happened? I've heard nothing.

Ethan Levy Monetization design consultant, writer of

In the general case, I am not a huge fan of government oversight of artistic expression, which I consider game design to be.

My primary rule of monetization design is "players not users, people not wallets".
Ethan Levy

However, when the OFT issued its guidelines I wrote a personal (and non-legal) analysis and concluded that overall, following these principles would lead to better game design by enforcing rules that are respectful of players.

My primary rule of monetization design is "players not users, people not wallets" by which I mean you have to respect your players first and foremost when designing for F2P.

I am by no means a legal expert, but I have not seen anything that has curbed my personal design of F2P game systems.

I think so long as designers treat their players with respect by designing good features and clear, transparent UI, they will remain within the boundaries of the law.

Justin Stolzenberg Director, Product & Monetization Flaregames

Personally I find this ban on Dungeon Keeper  advertising as a “free game” ridiculous. Nobody is forced to pay or significantly invest time in the game based on the ad. If somebody doesn’t like the game – delete it, rate it 1 star.

Not as a reaction to some government action, but out of principal game designers should treat players fairly – fully second Ethan here.

To build communities, we need to make games that a lot of non-payers like, otherwise the few people willing to pay will not stick around, too.

Now, what’s fair obviously is a fine line. IMO it’s okay to have a balancing that makes the non-payer experience more and more grindy over time. It’s okay to have pay-to-win components in your game.

Why not run events where as a non-payer you don’t really have a chance to reach the highest reward tier? And when you only show special offers to people who have a small amount of premium currency left, that’s a fair sales strategy.

So I wouldn’t classify Dungeon Keeper  as unfair – yet, disappointing commercial performance indicates it does things that don’t resonate with many players.

Off limits, IMO: hidden subscriptions, abusive gambling mechanisms, targeting minors in the same way as grownups, cheating about what a player will actually get for his money.

Mark Sorrell Consultant

I'm in broad agreement here. I think the ASA were wrong to make the decision they did and that EA were wrong in the decisions they made about the design of Dungeon Keeper.

Not lying or deliberately misleading your players is the golden rule, surely?
Mark Sorrell

It's badly designed (or was when it was released, I haven't played it since) but the advert isn't misleading and the game is bad, not wrong.

Not lying or deliberately misleading your players is the golden rule,   surely?

Encouraging people to play or pay by using good design and honest presentation is always fine.

There's a bit in the middle which some might find grey where behavioural economics can make things look more appealing than rational breakdown would suggest, but separating that from good design is impossible.

Humans are not as rational as we like to think we are, so we can be manipulated, so we will be. As I'm fond of reminding people - these effects are present and will work wether the designer knows they are there or not.

As such - clever design is fair game, lying/abusing isn't.

Mark Robinson CEO DeltaDNA

With over 15 years’ data mining experience, Mark co-founded deltaDNA, formerly GamesAnalytics, to unlock big data to drive player understanding, introducing the concept of Player Relationship Management to build better games.

The issue here is that if people feel they are being manipulated or misled then we start to disenfranchise our customers. I’m using customers on purpose as it makes us think about the nature of the relationship.

Players are now getting used to the value exchange inherent the free-to-play model.

You get the game for free – that’s not sustainable – so either you invite more players, consume some ads or buy inventory ... that’s the players’ part of the bargain.

The purchase needs to aspirational.
Mark Robinson

But oftentimes monetization is too harsh or clunky. Blockers are used instead of creating desire.

Just like my wife shopping for shoes – half the fun is showing them to her friends. It’s the same in games. The purchase needs to aspirational.

I think there is a role for our trade bodies to draw up player management best practices and for the games industry to take the first steps in defining acceptable behaviors.

Bad behavior harms us all and it would be better for us to self manage than government to step in.

Mikkel Celinder Owner,

We, as an industry, are still trying to find the balance, in the F2P business model, more specifically the monetization strategies, and maybe more specifically, the ethics of same strategies.

Some will misstep and get the unwanted attention for it. I personally think that some existing games should not be on the app store, but that's more from an ethical point of view, and not due to a specific type of monetization strategy.

We need define a line between what is ethically not ok, and what should be banned or made illegal.

Apple/Google should take care of the ethical part, being their platform, and though a game like Dungeon Keeper  is a lousy experience, like Mark Sorrell says, the ad is not misleading.

My advice for game designers; Don't imitate your average street-corner con-artist and you'll be fine.

Instead of killing yourself trying to force or cheat people into spending, try allowing people to love your game, and they'll surely reward you for it.

It'll be interesting to see how Fates Forever  does, being this week's App Store featured game. It looks promising, but it is quite telling that they are advertising the game through the lack of others, with 'no timer' and 'no speed ups'.

Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.