Reconciling Free-To-Play Monetization And Skill-Based Gameplay


[Published on Gather Your Party on 20th September 2013]

Since the introduction of the Free-To-Play (F2P) model, many multiplayer games have struggled with the task of creating compelling gameplay in light of their monetization requirements. Strictly speaking, the monetization always interferes with the gameplay design in one way or another because it provides the game’s lifeline and is therefore more important for the business.

Traditionally, monetization was of no consequence to game design as the customer bought the game wholesale with all elements and system available without additional economical requirements. This is of course ignoring the need to first sell your game to a publisher and make it seem desirable; however that’s a topic for another time. In the F2P model this freedom from monetization is no longer applicable as the content is necessarily portioned away for the benefit of monetization while maintaining an illusion of gameplay-progression.
Free-To-Play Monetization

For any monetization scheme to work, an item sold for real money must be desirable enough for the customer to pony up their hard-earned real-life cash. Many methods exist to make an item desirable for the player, from prestige to cool-factor to power.

Prestige items might offer a unique customization for a character or item not obtainable by players that do not pay money, or a specific status within the community. They may even grant access to specific areas not accessible to other non-paying players.

Cool-factor items just make things look cool. This can, again, be a customization that a specific player finds desirable for aesthetic reasons, or a custom action, like the ability to use a horn on your vehicle in Planetside 2, or custom idle animations in Warframe.

Nonetheless, most real money items opt to increase a player’s “quality of life”. This includes products such as experience boosters that make progression faster, or item-loadout slots that make it easier and more convenient to select a set of items for your character. Glyph pages in League Of Legends, for example, fulfill that role.

Power, however, is the most desirable of products a F2P game can offer, and will universally be desired by players. This includes items that give players an “edge” over non-paying players. We then call games which use this form of monetization as “Pay-To-Win” (P2W). While many games since have developed semi-fair models of F2P monetization, the best product one can sell in a F2P game (economically speaking) is power. This stands in direct opposition to skill-based gameplay as real money, instead of proficiency in the game’s mechanics, would provide advantages leading to an unfair playing-field. Selling power is generally frowned upon in the gaming community, and rightfully so in the context of their applications we have seen.

Moving Forward

The problem with current F2P games comes from the close relationship of gameplay and money. Gameplay is exclusively build around the real money store and monetization, instead of applying game mechanics first and monetization later. Many games, for example, are built to create very tedious or monotonous gameplay on purpose to entice players to purchase “quality of life” improvements, like boosters or slots, just to make the game bearable.

Think about this for a moment: A product is intentionally designed to be bad. That’s the definition of insanity if I ever heard one. For the first time, we have a situation where economy directly dictates design, and look what it does. It is dangerous as designers are taught to create systems where “work” (time) equals achievement, a bad test if there ever was one.

However, not all is lost; the F2P model can work, just not in the way we are currently designing.

The partitioning of content in itself is not necessarily a bad thing and can be used to great effect in episodic games. Similarly, the monetization of said content isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as the content is partitioned after the design is complete.

Suggestions have been made in the past about how to craft a “fair” F2P model. However, these suggestions always included ways of building systems around the monetization. What if we saw monetization differently, separately, from gameplay? What if we could apply monetization differently?

Monetization And Free-To-Play as Teaching Tools

In certain complex games, the partition of content or available tools can be a valuable asset in teaching mechanics. Lets consider a player versus player game like Star Conflict.

Star Conflict’s game mechanics being complex, the player has to learn the abilities of his ship, understand when to use them, as well as understand the relationships of damage-types, resistances, effective weapon-distance, turn-rate, projectile acceleration, UI, loadouts and hitboxes to effectively compete in the game. Introducing content-tiers in this case wouldn’t be a bad thing, slowly easing the player into these systems.

At Tier 1 a player might only be able to equip a very basic loadout to his ship and not be exposed to damage-types or other strategic and tactical metagame decisions. They have an opportunity to learn the game in a simplified state, learning how to control their ship, what abilities the ship has, and getting a feel for the kinaesthetics. At this point a challenge goal could be set (win X matches, kill X opponents with Y maneuver, etc.) to give the player an opportunity to understand and learn the mechanics, controls and game-modes before throwing him into deeper waters.

At Tier 2 a player might be introduced to other mechanics, more loadout variation, more strategic decisions, more abilities to account for. The pace might become faster and more decisions could be made at any given time. One could even introduce higher damage weaponry, creating a smaller window for failure and increasing the challenge. Similarly at Tier 3 a player might again be thrown more tools to play with and so on up until all elements of design have been introduced. This marries typical progression with learning and discovery of a skill-based system.

Where the monetization would come in is that a player could skip Tier X and go straight to Tier Y if he feels comfortable with it by paying for the privilege to do so. After all, different players learn at different speeds and a Tier 2 player might feel comfortable enough to compete at a higher level of skill without “qualifying” for it (win X matches, etc.).

Monetization in this case would be concerned not with skipping tedium, but rather skipping the learning process. It would create an environment in which everyone is fairly matched up in their respective tiers while providing the ability to “jump ahead”. In direct conflict their skill decides if they win or lose in their respective Tier, they are just not required to fulfill the arbitrary requirements of the “test” to be “qualified” for it.

The important part here would be to never let the tiers interact in direct challenge. If the game presents a territorial metagame (as Star Conflict does), then counting Tier 1 victories in a certain sector towards the meta-goal of capturing it is completely acceptable, but letting Tier X and Tier Y play in the same match would lead to an unfair playing-field (something that Star Conflict unfortunately drops the ball on).

If we consider content-tiers as scaling difficulties, it becomes a way to sell power without actually selling power. After all, everyone in the same content-tier has access to the same tools, but nobody is required to participate in higher tier play or to purchase higher tier options and matchups between “junior league” and “grandmaster” are not possible. This way we create a system of mechanics isolated from the economical requirements of the game and provide good gameplay without sacrificing monetization.

Many games can be partitioned like this, even those that do not rely on direct competition. It’s the decision to withhold content for reasons other than economy and rather for gameplay reasons that is the difference to “traditional” monetization applied in almost every other F2P game on the market.

Lets stop making bad games for the sake of monetization.


One Response to Reconciling Free-To-Play Monetization And Skill-Based Gameplay

  1. Gnalvl says:

    I often wonder how attitudes towards Free-to-play would change if a well-respected series like Street Fighter were to launch that way. Imagine if the only free characters were Ken and Chun Li, and then you had to buy anyone else in the game you wanted to use. For the most part, this should be totally fair, since SF characters are supposed to all be equal and balanced – it shouldn’t equate to the “pay to win” bollocks pervading so many FTP games.

    Yet, of course, there would still be complaints. For starters, characters like Ken are already overwhelmingly prefferred by casual players. When Street Fighter IV first launched, all you could find online 75% of the time was matches against sloppy Ken players. The other ~20% of matches were Ryu and Sagat players, and then about 5% of the time you would actually get to fight one of the other ~27 characers in the game.

    Do we really want monetary reasons added for newbies to keep players the same 1-2 characters and avoid branching out? Surely a free-to-play SF game would consist of an even higher percentage of scrubby Ken players, and even smaller minority of players using more unique options.

    Then there’s the fact that character rosters in these games are never absolutely perfectly balanced, and the competitive scene always categorizes them into tiers within weeks of a fighting game’s release. Granted, compared to other games, playing a “low tier” vs “high tier” matchup in Street Fighter is vastly more fair and balanced than in conventional FTP games, particularly the RPG’s. By comparison, we could say that “progression” and balance in a fighting game is 99% horizontal and skill-based, as opposed to winning merely on the basis of having an objectively superior character. Unfortunately, the community always obsesses over that 1%, because 1% disparity can make a big difference in a skill-based game.

    For example, Ryu is almost always considered much higher-tier than Ken, even though they have the same moves and almost identical health/damage stats. If Ken is free and Ryu is payed-for, people will immediately complain the game is pay-to-win. Once the tiers are sussed out, no one will want to pay for the low-tier characters (i.e. in original SFIV: Guile, Vega), but if those characters are made free, it will only bolster claims that the game is pay to win. It would be a balancing nightmare, because the devs would constantly be responding to player feedback to balance characters, but by being so reactionary, would probably only succeed in shifting the imbalanced elsewhere, every time they change something.

    At the end of the day, a game like this would still be 1000 times more balanced and skill-based than your average MMO, where a higher XP character has exponentially higher stats in every category. It could work ok, offering a low cost way to get into a very challenging game, but it could also cause very negative attitudes in the community. I guess we’ll find out when the new Killer Instinct releases, since its taking this exact approach.

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