How to convert your freemium-hating colleagues to F2P

MegaZebra's Matthew Laurence on challenging stigma

How to convert your freemium-hating colleagues to F2P

Matthew Laurence is a man with plenty of experience of free-to-play game design.

Currently Game Design Director at Munich studio MegaZebra, he has previously held positions at the likes of Rovio and iWin across a 10-year career.

"In that time, I've met with a number of emotions in relation to free-to-play - and a lot of internal resistance," he explains, introducing the motivation behind his talk at GDC Europe.

Despite now being established as a massive part of the modern games industry, Laurence reports that it's not just among the gaming public that a F2P stigma lingers - a number of those inside the industry remain loath to work with the model, too.

"The war's over, it's been over for years. It's the dominant model, [but] a lot of people are super un-pleased about that," he warns.

"Conversion of a different user"

So how should one deal with a team that's suspicious of, and negatively predisposed to, free-to-play?

"If you get your team on board with your business model, you can fundamentally change the way they work - by fundamentally changing the way they think," explains Laurence.

 First, he says, it's important to understand the root of these negative perceptions surrounding free-to-play

"It may be outdated now, but a lot of the early successes in free-to-play were also some of the darkest. They used psychological manipulation, were pay-to-win, and were all about hunting down whales," he recalls.

A lot of the early successes in free-to-play were also some of the darkest.
Matthew Laurence

"But those games don't really matter anymore... without fun gameplay, you have no hope of retaining users."

"Remember Dungeon Keeper? What good business sense does it make to be so disliked?"

Laurence's conclusion on the matter is simple: "Evil is not affordable, not becaue it's morally wrong, but because it's bad business." And this is something you should make clear to your colleagues.

Switching frames

So how have these outdated notions of free-to-play sustained, even among those in the games industry? A lot is about our natural distrust of change, Laurence posits, but also the way in which we frame concepts and experiences.

A particularly fitting (and frustrating) example for Laurence is Hearthstone, a game that seems exempt from much of the public's free-to-play cynicism. How do F2P naysayers justify such clear double standards? 

Laurence identifies the following responses:

  • Ignore - to maintain that free-to-play is still evil, regardless.
  • Reinterpret - to suggest that it wasn't made specifically for mobile, therefore reframing it.
  • Create - to find ways in which this specific free-to-play game is an exception that proves the rule.

Helping your more sceptical teammates to "see free-to-play for what it really is" should be your priority, he goes on.

Hearthstone appeals beyond the typical F2P audience

"Your product is morally neutral. It's neither evil nor good, you're just trying something different."

Concluding, he's keen to reaffirm the significance of these aforementioned frames. His key to changing perception, in a nutshell, is to "isolate the [frames] that undermine [free-to-play], and find new ones."

Features Editor

Matt is really bad at playing games, but hopefully a little better at writing about them. He's Features Editor for, and has also written for lesser publications such as IGN, VICE, and Paste Magazine.


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Gaming Unicorn Marketing Director
I think that the most important thing to do in order to get buy-in from people who have grown up playing traditional video games is to tackle the issue of cost obfuscation in F2P mobile games.

1. Customers should be able to easily understand the cost of any item/consumable in real dollars before they make an in-game purchase. One solution would be to allow players to toggle between the hard currency cost and the actual dollar cost for every purchase. The dollar rate presented would be based on the amount that the player has actually spent on hard currency. For example: power players who received a big discount on hard currency by buying a $99.99 pack would see a lower dollar conversion rate than somebody who purchased a non-discounted $4.99 currency pack.

2. Any mechanic using RNG/variable ratio schedules/etc. should ALWAYS provide drop rates. A player cannot make an informed purchasing decision if they don’t have this information. If this data is not provided, power players will try to figure it out on their own, and often, they will come up with (and share) rates that are actually more discouraging to players than the real drop rates.

3. Customers should be able to easily access a cumulative list of their purchases in-app. The Starbucks app does this, and it’s great for customers. I know I spend a lot on coffee. It’s worth it to me, so I’ll continue to do it. But it is nice to have easy access to the cumulative costs of this daily indulgence.

4. Customers should be able to contact customer support to request personal spend caps. If you are the type of player who deeply enjoys F2P games, but knows that you tend to go beyond your means when you purchase in the heat of the moment, you should be able to request daily/weekly/monthly caps, so you can comfortably participate without having to watch every penny.

5. Publishers should disclose the average lifetime spend of the top .15% of their spenders. We all know that we can start playing for free, but it would be helpful to understand the deep end of the swimming pool, too.

6. Players should be told clearly before making their first purchase that the game may be ‘sunset’ at any time, at the discretion of the publisher. This should be in big print, not small print. I am still surprised how many people I talk to still don't understand this part of the agreement before they spend.

Every customer should be able to clearly understand the value proposition that a game provides before spending. It’s only fair... particularly if you expect some of them to spend thousands of dollars. Traditional gamers take pricing transparency for granted, and find it ethically disconcerting when this fairness is not extended to the customers they are aiming to delight.
Matthew Laurence Game Design Director at MegaZebra
Great write-up - I'm really glad you enjoyed the presentation! One quick correction, though: I've only been in the gaming industry for about 10 years (I probably didn't enunciate "Nine-to-ten" very well at the start, sorry!). Other than that, thanks for the piece! Very cool.