Project Choice in the Free to Play World

Ace PatrolWhile most discussions about Free to Play (F2P) games revolve around the ethics of microtransactions versus up-front purchase costs, from a game developer’s point of view one of the biggest effects that F2P is having on the games industry is its influence in the types of titles that are built.

Games that work successfully as F2P are often not the types that would work as up-front purchases, and the opposite is generally even more true. The pivot from boxed retail purchases to free games with revenue generated as the player plays appears to be causing trouble for many in the industry that have had a great deal of success with the high-value box purchase model. In a lot of the games I look at it seems that traditional game design practices are being applied, and creating interesting games, but that the monetisation side appears quite weak. As a simple contrast, its hard to imagine Sid Meier making Clash of Clans and enforcing a strict energy mechanic. To me, Sid’s flight-based game Ace Patrol has all the signs of being a well-designed game from a traditional standpoint but with in-app purchases bolted on.

photo (1)The free version of the game comes with a few missions and planes. Once you’ve worked your way through those then more can be unlocked for a couple of pounds each time. There are also a range of planes available to buy. The problem is that, once I’ve unlocked a couple of missions, I really can’t see why I would spend money on the planes. The game plays really well without them, so why should I? Contrast this with the successful F2P games that present the player with a highly throttled version and offer significant short-term power-ups in return for real money. And note the short-term aspec: buying some gems in Clash of Clans does not give a great deal of benefit; if you want to climb the leaderboards you need to be in the whale category and spend hundreds a month. Somehow, I just can’t see Sid Meier ever stooping to do that.

Rather than get into any debate over ethics (yet again), I think the issue lies more in the choice of game just as much as the specific implementation itself. In short, to make a lot of money in the free-to-play world then a game needs to have consumables, and Ace Patrol just doesn’t have that. Sure, it has a lot of in-app purchases, and given how well-designed it is it’s got a great chance of converting a large proportion of players into one-time purchasers of mission-packs, but the maths of F2P mean that making a couple of dollars per paying user just isn’t enough: if only 2% of your players are going to turn into payers, then you need to make sure that the money you make from the 2% covers the other 98%.

As a corollary, it may mean the death (or certainly reduction) in a lot of game types and the growth of those with consumables and grind, but that seems to be where the forces of industry (aka “people who spend money”) are going.

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  1. By Ace Patrol on Steam Store for PC on August 30, 2013 at 10:41 am

    […] while back I wrote about Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol and how it’s difficult to make the transition from boxed retail game design to free-to-play […]

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