Free-to-play has always been the biggest lie you could find in a gaming term. There is nothing that takes developers, publishers, running servers, or downloads that can truly end up being free. Free-to-play is only a phrase that means the consumer does not have to pay for a game’s package, and gets it for free. Support is still available through advertisements, in-game purchases with real-world money, or sponsorship. That being said, it’s something like a trade-off between consumer base and consumer spending. With that bit of context down, it’s intriguing to read a blog by Frozen Synapse developer Ian Hardingham arguing that designing a F2P game around F2P is a bad idea. I’m here to offer the counterpoint—not only do developers need to think carefully about how you make your game F2P, but you also need to involve it in the design process from as early as possible.
Free to play has obvious benefits to the gamer and the developer alike—gamers don’t have to pay a dime to get access to the core features of the game, while developers stand to make passive income out of a very large player pool that may have been much smaller with a paid game service. By taking F2P designs into account from early on, this allows you to put together a game that minimizes on advertisements without becoming a loss for the development company.
In example, there are several android applications which have been forced to become free-to-play because of rampant piracy. Among these, most of them have advertisements assaulting you at every menu, loading screen, or transition: this severely distracts from the game and can even detract from it (as is the case with the menu screen). If the game designers had had a little more foresight, they would know how to display the ads in tandem with the rest of the game, in a way that balances out advertisement presence and game presence. It prevents F2P games from becoming distracting.
There are other, more common ways to make a F2P game profitable, and these require far more planning than figuring out where to place advertisements. Paid DLC that includes powerful items, level-up bonuses, or extra areas are very useful to gamers, so they can boost passive sales. However, these items can easily break the game. By planning your F2P well in advance and testing how to balance these elements, the game ends up more balanced overall and prevents the gamers who are actually paying for free from abandoning the game entirely. Item balance would be entirely impossible if you didn’t plan ahead for your game’s F2P features well in advance.
F2P has its obvious advantages, and that is a point Hardingham and I can agree. However, planning out F2P well in advance creates a better game overall for all parties involved—the gamer, the developer, and (probably) Google. Designing a game around F2P is a good strategy money-wise, and is what ultimately prevents the game from becoming entirely money-based. Yes, making the game should be a focus—but part of making that game is planning a way to support that in a way that doesn’t interfere with a game’s other aspects.