Home   >   Features

On F2P games' moral core, ability to unlock creative freedom and redistribute wealth

Our Monetizer Mavens lead the fightback
On F2P games' moral core, ability to unlock creative freedom and redistribute wealth
Stay Informed
Get Industry News In Your Inbox…
Sign Up Today

We've been running our weekly Mobile Mavens panel of industry experts who discuss the hot topics of the mobile games industry for a number of years.

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?

So, with that in mind, welcome the Monetizer Mavens.

This week, I was interested by two contrasting talks at GDC Next 2014.

Caryl Shaw (a F2P game producer ex-ngmoco and Kixeye, now making paid games with Telltale) is giving a talk entitled "Reclaiming My Soul: Why I Quit Making F2P Social Games".

Meanwhile, GREE's head of QA Chris Tabasa is talking about 'How Do I Keep My Players Happy?'.

So as F2P monetisation experts, I asked the Monetizer Mavens:

How do you view this seeming chasm in terms the justification of 2 game makers in terms of the now age-old paid-vs-F2P debate?

Or how is your soul currently doing?

Ben Cousins

Ben Cousins

Vice President, Studios at FRVR

I started in free-to-play way before there was any controversy or negativity associated with the model. Because of this (viewing the model for what it is rather than how others had described it beforehand), I've always had trouble getting worried that working on a model where 90%+ of the users get a completely free experience is in anyway soul-damaging.

I've always viewed games as products rather than art, even as a junior game designer fifteen years ago, so there's never been cognitive dissonance designing for monetization and engagement rather than just engagement.

My moderate views were only reinforced when I started interacting with F2P high spenders and recognised exactly the same mindset as I have towards my hobby of bicycling building and racing.

(I was due to do a counter-presentation to my dear old friend Caryl's at GDC Next but sadly clients got in the way.)

Mark Sorrell

Mark Sorrell


Again, my background is not in traditional boxed product gaming, so I've always designed to a business model, so have no problem with F2P. 

“Intense retention is less savoury in some respects than intense monetisation.”
Mark Sorrell

Again, most players get a free experience, so it's hard to see that as a bad thing. And as a World of Warcraft whale myself, I know that I bloody loved spending the grand or so I dropped on that game, so again, no problem there.

I'd suggest that intense retention is less savoury in some respects than intense monetisation; after all, time is a more precious resource than money. The time that some paid games have taken from me, I resent in ways that I don't resent having paid money on IAP.

So not only is my soul feeling fine, I'm not sure those who choose to go the paid route have the moral high ground.

Mitchell Smallman

Mitchell Smallman

Next Games

Another "never worked in anything but F2P" guy here.

One of the things that I can understand about the F2P backlash is that for the first time for many players, the product and business is showing through to the player while they play.

When playing a boxed product game, it's easy to forget what a large portion of the cost you paid went to marketing the game to get you to buy it. Once you have paid, once you start playing, that part is invisible. Free-to-play doesn't have the luxury of hiding the business. I can understand wanting to maintain that feeling.

Glu's Kim Kardashian: Hollywood - an example of hard but clear and very successful F2P monetisation
Glu's Kim Kardashian: Hollywood - an example of hard but clear and very successful F2P monetisation

But I also think that's why F2P is more easily picked up by people new to gaming. Everyone likes free, and in general, people understand that quality things cost money to make. Without nostalgia to compare it to, it seems a whole lot more reasonable.

“F2P does have a moral core. A solid F2P game earns its money from its players through good design.”
Mitchell Smallman

But one of the things I don't see talked about often in this age old debate is that F2P DOES have a moral core, even if there a lot of currently immoral (or more frequently just misguided) approaches to it.

A solid F2P game EARNS its money from its players through good design. It's why I always get people to track repeat spending in a game instead of just conversion.

Anyone can put a lot of pressure to make that first valuable purchase, but if the player regrets it, if they don't get enough value afterwords, the game will fail. It's just not a sustainable business. Well designed F2P to me is an incredibly ethical way for a game to make money, much more so than a fancy trailer that hypes you to open up your wallet. It earns its money.

More than that, free-to-play is opening up gaming to a lot more people who didn't have access to games before. It's helped games become an industry for everyone, and not just people with enough disposable income to invest in a gaming specific device or PC.

In my experience good chunk of players who are part of the "95% that never spend" are also people for whom spending on video games isn't an option. I think it's great that F2P allows them to enjoy games when they couldn't before. I hope soon more people come to see that side of the F2P market.

I sleep well at night when good free games are made. Bad ones still haunt my dreams.

Mark Robinson

Mark Robinson

CEO at DeltaDNA

I feel this is confusing two very different things.

F2P is a business model not a game design system. You can make good F2P games and you can make very bad F2P games, just like you can with premium games.

There was some truly terrible premium games, especially in the PS2 era. If we think back to some of the licenses slapped on a terrible game design and sold for £40. How many people wasted a lot of money getting a game purely on the strength of the marketing without any ability to experience the game ahead of spending their hard earned cash?

“Games need to be aiming not to monetise 2% but 20%.”
Mark Robinson

F2P has given players the ability to get into the game before they start spending. This certainly doesn't mean there aren't bad F2P games, there are and lots of them but the really bad games don't generally last.

Where F2P games have problems is their focus on a very small spending user base, what as an industry we have found is that by giving a game away but making it addictive to a small group who are willing to spend it is possible to generate a large amount of money.

Unlike the bad premium games where everyone feels the pain of £40 wasted, in F2P some people spend a lot; many don't spend a penny

The challenge for F2P is to even out the value exchange and become less reliant on the whales.

So let's be clear about this, both approaches have good and bad aspects. A poor game is a poor game and addiction is something as an industry we need to be very careful about. F2P needs to builds not its player base, but its spender base.

Games need to be aiming not to monetise 2% but 20%.

We need to educate players that the experience is worthwhile, give them the ability to spend but avoid the over reliance on whales. There are some games that have done this extremely well: Hearthstone springs to mind as a well-structured F2P game that does a lot right.

<em>Hearthstone</em> - an examplar of F2P done right
Hearthstone - an examplar of F2P done right

This is about making fun experiences that give users value for money and choice, something neither F2P or Premium games have always done.

So let's get away from debating business models as if they are design methodologies. F2P has brought hundreds of millions of new players into our industry, it has opened up new genre. We should embrace it while addressing the issues.

Eric Seufert

Eric Seufert

UA consultant

I don't see this chasm as indicative of anything more than the impressive breadth of opportunities available in the gaming sector.

My professional introduction to the freemium business model was as an employee of Skype - if I had experienced the same profound sense of philosophical disquiet with my work there as the GDC presenter did, a transition to a non-freemium P2P VoiP company wouldn't have been a possibility.

Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas Lovell

Director at Gamesbrief

I think there is a deeper issue here.

I think that business is inherently creative. It's not that game designers are creative and business people are not, and hence game design has been infected by uncreative people.

Actually, even that's not true. It depends on the nature of the business. In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries defines a startup as being an organisation, no matter how big, that is searching for a product that gives customers what they want, repeatably and profitably.

In contrast, a corporation is an organisation that knows what it is doing, and doesn't need creativity because its primary job is to what it did last year but 5% better. It can be huge (like IBM) or tiny (like a local plumber, hairdresser or sandwich shop).

Lovell has consulted on games such as <em>Angry Birds Go</em> and his conscience is clean
Lovell has consulted on games such as Angry Birds Go and his conscience is clean

For ages, the business of games was pretty uncreative in many aspects. Devs made games, publishers manufactured, marketed and distributed them in known ways. That has all gone away now. F2P has made the business of games one of the more creative aspects of the industry, and that has led to the intertwining of game design creativity and business design creativity.

“ I love being in the F2P space.”
Nicholas Lovell

Some people don't like that. They want to be creative in a very particular way, selling games in a known, measured way. They want to work in corporations, doing the same thing in the same way they have always done. Other people want to be creative in a range of different ways, and F2P enables that.

Me, I'm fascinated by the intersection of art and commerce, of entertainment and commerce, of people and the things that people want to spend money on. That is why I love being in the F2P space. I am comfortable with my soul.

Jon Walsh

Jon Walsh

President at Upsight

There is definitely a 'dark side' to freemium gaming. There is, however, also a 'light side'.

At their best, freemium games can deliver on the huge potential of allowing players to not only pay as they go, but also to choose how to pay (with their time (grind), their attention (ads) or their cash (IAPs)). At their worst, freemium games present players with nothing more than a gussied up Skinner Box that inevitably leaves players feeling tricked and ripped off. All freemium games sit somewhere on this spectrum.

To me what differentiates the good from the bad is the idea of entertainment value. Providing players with a great game experience at a fair price is ultimately the right answer and should be the guiding principle in modern freemium game design.

The great advantage of freemium is that the 'fair price' idea is ultimately up to the player. A few people in this group have admitted to putting a lot of money into a specific game and being completely happy with it. That's where the whole idea really works.

“The great advantage of freemium is that the 'fair price' idea is ultimately up to the player.”
Jon Walsh

Relying on addictive compulsion loops that drive an extremely small percentage of players to spend ridiculous amounts of money (they often can't afford) is a practice that should leave publishers feeling soulless and is the real issue that the industry is being criticized for.

Freemium games are evolving into what us old school gamers consider 'real games'. These are games with high production values, compelling narratives/worlds and actual gameplay where players must make choices, strategize or employ some sort of skill to master.

I'm very optimistic about the future of freemium and expect to see a lot more real games providing real entertainment value to players as we continue to evolve. I think the publishers that get this mix right will be producing ridiculously successful games on a scale we haven't seen yet.

Dimitar Draganov

Dimitar Draganov

Director Product at BoomBit Games

Freemium is not good or evil in itself, it's all in the eyes of the beholder.

Yes, there are cases where children and even adults who couldn't afford to, did spend tens of thousands on a F2P game only to later realize how sorry they are. Whether it's media hype or their personal understanding of the world, some designers and producers in F2P tend to forget that these cases are in fact the exceptions.

The majority of spenders and whales in particular are perfectly rational human beings who are getting a service for their money and the act of making multiple purchases over a multiple-months period, something you would find in any successful freemium title, shows that there is a healthy demand for a good service.

“F2P helps redistribute wealth from the richest.”
Dimitar Draganov

Coming from an economics and social sciences background, for me freemium games are beneficial for society, not just for the amazing fun and experience they provide as a service, but also in their function of redistributing wealth.

The fact that all freemium revenues are driven by whales points to the fact that disregarding the relatively small scale this takes place on, F2P helps redistribute wealth from the richest top 1-5% of society to the much lower in that hierarchy game developers.

On top of that, the process also takes place on a global scale where wealth inequality is even worse. The only question for me then isn't if freemium is good or evil, but how do we come up with more businesses that can do that?

Tom Farrell

Tom Farrell

Marketing director at Swrve

As someone who consume games of all types, but isn't directly involved in the development of free-to-play games, I find some of the 'moral panic' a little misguided. I think it's a central fact of life that some people will always spend more money than they really should on certain hobbies, and free-to-play is no different.

“Smart games developers are able to find great balance and deliver great experiences that can make free-to-play work for everyone involved. ”
Tom Farrell

Similarly the sometimes (not in this conversation) glib dismissal of FTP games as 'Skinner boxes' begs a further question - what's wrong with that?

The whole point of the 'Skinner box' as an experiment is to make us ask questions around how much of our own behavior is conditioned in the same way. Extremists would say 'all of it', but for whatever reason we don't question people who do jigsaw puzzles or go to football games to get their dose of 'fun'. Should games be considered differently?

I agree wholeheartedly that it's all about how enjoyable the game is, independent of what monetization model is used. When games descend into an agonizing grind without payment, or worse when payment really just buys a moment's respite from that grind, then there's a problem.

But it's a problem of game design rather than something inherent in the model. Smart games developers are able to find great balance and deliver great experiences that can make free-to-play work for everyone involved.

Clash of Clans - a great balance between monetization and fun
Clash of Clans - a great balance between monetization and fun

Lastly I would echo the comments above around the previous model. I'd be more concerned about the souls of those game developers who used to pocket $50 for a sight-unseen movie tie-in turkey. Naming no names....

Mikkel Celinder

Mikkel Celinder


I understand the idea of wanting to reclaiming one's soul, if you feel you are treading waters creating the same, revenue-focused experiences packed up in a wrapper labelled 'Free Drops of Fun'. You might even be compelled to blame the wish for posting this bail for one's soul on the business model.

Personally, I don't buy into that. Developers should, in my opinion, wholeheartedly try to design for a great experience, independent of the business model - and F2P is definitely not an excuse not to do this - it's rather a tool that could ensure it.

I really want to echo Mark here, and express that developers should rather aim for the 20% and not settle for the big 2% - using the F2P business model as a tool alongside the game design and not let the desire to land a hook onto those whales make you abandon the game design entirely.

Adrian Crook

Adrian Crook


I produced and creative directed triple-A console games for 13 years before launching my freemium design consultancy, Adrian Crook & Associates, in January 2008.

For a couple of years before that, in 2006 and 2007, I'd been studying the emergence of free-to-play, blogging under and attending the first conferences such as Charles Hudson's Virtual Goods Summit. In 2008, I gave what was probably the first GDC presentation on free-to-play to about 400 people in San Francisco.

Freemium was immediately attractive to me as a developer. I'd always been more connected to web business practices than my industry peers and the closed, package product nature of the console games I'd developed until then didn't jibe with that.

It sucked launching an Xbox or PlayStation game after two years of development and just watching it sail out into the world, without any ability to rapidly iterate on it like you could with web or service-based games. So much of your product's success in core games fell to how well your marketing department could pre-commit the retail channel and hype up the press - often misrepresenting the game, purposely or accidentally, along the way.

The movie was bad but the $50 PlayStation 2 game <em>Catwoman</em> was even worse
The movie was bad but the $50 PlayStation 2 game Catwoman was even worse

The lack of a direct connection with players and the underlying metrics or revenue numbers of the game made it hard to judge the efficacy of your designs.

Freemium returned the power to game creators. With freemium, we threw open the doors to our product and invited people to enjoy it, stay and pay purely based on the product's merits. Gone was the console industry's "rental buster" development tactic - packing just enough gameplay in to preclude gamers from finishing the game in a weekend rental from Blockbuster.

There were no more fancy CG trailers or pack-ins to buff up a lacklustre product or add value where there wasn't enough. Now it was plainly evident what worked and what didn't, in real-time, and it was all in the game designer's hands to change.

“Our souls will be just fine as long as we remain committed to doing fun, profitable and ethical freemium games.”
Adrian Crook

The vitriol directed at freemium makes little sense to me. One can just as easily "lose their soul" slaving away for years on derivative console games. I know because I nearly did.

There is no completely altruistic business model, game genre or platform. But because freemium designers must simultaneously care for the game's player experience as well as the game's business health, it's often easy to screw up one or the other. As an industry, we're still the early days of minting designers who can do both these things well and mistakes will be made along the way.

It's easy to just give up and run back to core games, but freemium isn't going anywhere. We've consulted in freemium design for seven years now and seen the rise of sophisticated monetization methods, which are now giving way to a return to gameplay emphasis. As proof, we've had a few calls from big clients lately who've said, "We know how to do monetization - we need your help making our games fun."

This is why the #1 KPI we focus on improving for our clients is retention.

A fun game that retains can monetize. The inverse is not always true. Our souls will be just fine as long as we remain committed to doing fun, profitable and ethical freemium games for our clients.