TGDRT #21: Free to Play

Episode #21 is now live!

New occasional co-host David Heron rejoins the show to analyze the impact of Free to Play (F2P) from a business and design perspective. The group discusses the philosophical implications of F2P, along with real life examples that include Banner Saga: Factions, World of Tanks and League of Legends.

I’m not really a fan of F2P, although I do think it has a role to play, particularly in the mobile market. We’ll likely be exploring it with the iOS version of AtG, although it’s too early to say for sure what our plans there will be.

– Jon

12 thoughts on “TGDRT #21: Free to Play

  1. There are to my mind several current examples of Free to Play done right:
    – Path of Exile: it gives you access to the entire game for free, and is funded through people paying to get into the beta, to design unique items, and through the purchase of cosmetic items and minipets. In no way is a ‘free’ player inferior to a paying one, except looks.
    – Dota 2: similar story: every hero is available for free, though the beta is still closed. To make the playing field even more even, besides directly purchasing them for cash, players also get a chance at a free cosmetic item after each match.
    – League of Legends / Smite: a rotating selection of heroes is available for free; permanent access to a particular hero can be purchased for either money or in-game points (which are earned by playing games). Several of the more powerful heroes in League are available for as little as two or three games worth of points. It should be stressed that the *only* thing that is not available by investing some time in the game is cosmetic skins.

    I feel League was a bit misrepresented in your discussion:
    – not even remotely every champion is overpowered on release. Some have even received emergency buffs quite soon because they were so underwhelming. Balance in a game with as many variables as League has is a very tricky thing as I’m sure you are aware, so I’d say they are doing an OK job.
    – when a new champion comes out it is immediately possible to purchase it with points; no cash purchase needed. Everyone who is competitive enough that they feel they need to purchase the new champion right away is extremely likely to play so many games that they will have saved up more than enough points in the period between champion releases that they can just get it for ‘free’.
    – competitive play includes the banning of 6 champions in each match (3 bans for each team captain) so if a new champion does end up being overpowered briefly, this system greatly alleviates the problem.

  2. Great podcast guys! I’m also trying to delve into the space of f2p with a collectible tactics game, so it’s really interesting to hear your thoughts on the subject. Our game, CoreTechs: Tactics, is quite similar to Banner Saga Factions actually, so it was good to hear your thoughts on that game in particular.

    I really think there’s a lot of room for the a fair version of the f2p model, at least in the competitive multiplayer space. The biggest issue with most of those games is exactly what you guys talked about, those damn golden shells. That same thing pops ups all over the place, as you’re likely aware, it’s called pay-to-win. There’s a lot of debate over where that pay-to-win line is, though I don’t really want to get into that debate.

    Some companies, like the folks who made the new Tribes, have ‘solved’ the issue by only offering side-grades and not upgrades. The player is to trust that the game is truly balanced and that the side-grades are not empirically better. Once you play those types of games long enough, you realize that it’s not balanced at all, the side-grades are in fact far better, and you’ve been had. In my opinion anyway.

    I think it comes down to competitive games having two key components: player skill-level and character level. The latter encompasses things like upgraded equipment, higher-level characters, and those gold shells. The problem is that f2p games usually match players of widely varying character levels together, often ruining the experience for one of the players. It’s not a fair test of skill level at all, and defeats the whole purpose of competing in the first place.

    This is quite common in Banner Saga: Factions. I started the game fresh, and lost horribly to a player who’d upgraded all of his characters to really high-level. It was awful for me and boring for him. Sure he was ALSO far better than I was, but the obvious unfairness of the situation was incredibly off-putting.

    I think the key issue is that it is not HOW the person obtained the higher character level that matters at all. Whether they earned it through hours of play or he spent the money and outright bought it is irrelevant, at least to me. What matters is pitting players of equal character level together, and then having them test their skills. With a large enough player base, you should be able to then have a ranking system to try and give players the appropriate level of skill matchings.

    I’m not a huge wargamer, but it seems that this particular things has been dealt with with starting point totals in games like Warhammer 40k. It’s a simple approach and it seems to work. I’m sure there are still issues – I’ve not actually tried the game before – but it seems like a step in the right direction. If you drop $10,000 on an extreme army, then you’ll only be able to play the whole thing by gathering an entire village of warhammer-ers to defeat you.

    By that same token, if there are people in Tribes or World of Tanks with huge upgrades, then the designers shouldn’t ignore those character boosts. It’s a team game, shuffle those guys around similar to how ‘XP shuffle’ works. Or maybe making killing them grant the lower characters more rewards, or something. I say bring it into the game design where it can be tweaked and balanced properly.

    And to your point osmosisch . I agree that those are some good examples of fair and good f2p, although I’m still in noob-hood in most of them to be honest.


  3. Great thoughts guys.

    It’s also tough for me to comment on specific games, since my experience with F2P is quite limited and pretty much confined to the “not games” that make everyone cringe.

    I know my podcast-mates disagreed, but based on what I know I do still feel that LoL has been by far the best example. Not only does its business model completely sidestep the dubious psychology-manipulation, but it’s also the type of game perfectly suited for F2P.

    The Tribes example with “sidegrades” is interesting, and I could see it working (if done honestly). But it’s also unexplored territory, and very risky. There’s a chance it doesn’t really grab people, pulls in basically nothing, and torpedoes both the game and your company.


    So having thought about it some more since we recorded the episode, I see two big problems with F2P:

    The first is that the difference between engaging in a fully-exploitive model and one that is fair to players can be several orders of magnitude. If Facebook games didn’t have time/progress gates that you could pay into, would they have made nearly as much money? There’s no way to say for certain, but all evidence points to “no.” So there’s a natural

    The other problem is that few games are actually even SUITED for F2P. LoL is one of the rare cases where the fit is ideal. The rest of the time it’s shoe-horned in and either gets in the way of design, or is too PERIPHERAL to it and fails to bring in much revenue.


    This is pretty unfortunate, as I can envision a future where all software is service/F2P-based. I’m an avid user of Google’s suite of software, and you know how much I’ve paid for that? Zilch. When you’re a corporation at the scale of Google you can afford to make your money through more circuitous means, but small studios like my own have no such option.

    We could always adopt the approach of giving out the base game basically as a free demo and then charging for factions, maps, etc., but it’s unlikely we’d make anywhere near as much revenue. Strategy gamers have shown time and time again that they vastly prefer making a single purchase and getting the entire game. It’s no coincidence that Civ 5 stopped pumping out paid DLC and shifted back to the more traditional expansion pack model. When you don’t have a ton of money in the bank or a big publisher behind you, adopting an unpopular approach such as this is… well… risky business.

    – Jon

  4. Thanks for the reply Jon.

    I wanted to express that I think it’s more than just the side-grade example that I mentioned. A better example would be MTG, which was part of my inspiration to make fairness one of the design pillars for CoreTechs: Tactics.

    Back when I was playing MTG in university tournaments, I was pretty hooked. The fact that I ended up with a $200 deck to compete was ridiculous, and awful really. Sure I had a deck that could actually compete. Now we could finally test our skills as players instead of deck-makers and deck-buyers. Great, but now I’d alienated my casual friends and their $20 decks. If I played that deck, I would win against them nearly every time. The idea of competition is destroyed by the very design of the game, at least at that skill level and price bracket.

    Again, as a proposed solution. If the dollar values of the decks were totaled and then like-valued decks were pitted against each other, I think it would really go a long way towards a better player experience. There are many ways to obtain a deck-value, but you get the idea.

    I think that F2P itself is not really the big problem in competitive games these days. There are many models that have exactly the same issues, but they do seem to crop up in F2P the most often. I guess the real question is are designers ignoring those issues, are they oblivious to them, or are they simply trying to pull a fast one while making a quick buck?

  5. The problem is typically foisted upon the designers from on high. And that’s the biggest reason for my dislike of F2P in general: it’s often completely in opposition to good game design, and the ability to make more money ALWAYS wins out. It’s no coincidence that you need a $200 deck to win a Magic tournament – and there’s nothing the designers are allowed to do to change that.

    This is the reason why I’m such a big fan of the draft format, as it eliminates the need to buy boxes and boxes of packs, or go card hunting online or at shops. Of course, if you play regularly then you’re probably pumping $10-15 a week into the habit. Well, unless you’re really good and finish near the top and can put it towards store credit for the following week. 🙂

    – Jon

  6. That’s a great point. Thanks for the insight.

    Hopefully being the designer and CEO will help me build something structurally fair.

    Looking forward to your next podcast.


  7. Hey Jon, just wanted to comment that the design blog is really awesome and it’s quickly becoming a daily habit to scour old posts.

    Today I was reading your breakdown of Civ 5 and I’m hoping you could answer a question that it raised. When discussing 1UpT, you share your reservations of a few alternatives. One intriguing alternative that isn’t discussed is the concept of limited stacking, where a it would be possible to group up to (As an arbitrary example) 3 separate units onto a tile Combat could then be modified to accommodate limited stacking in a number of different ways from there (My personal favorite would involve a punishingcollateral damage system akin to Alpha Centurai with the army system of Civ 3). I’m wondering what considerations you had with that kind of system.

    Regardless, 1UpT combat mixed with hexagons, while problematic, was in my mind the most important evolution from the old Civs.

    1. Good question Flavorfish, and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading the blog!

      Allowing for more units to stack in a single tile was something I thought about, and I rejected it. My reasoning can be boiled down to a wishy-washy term game designers like to call “elegance.” So what does that actually mean?

      No game is truly realistic, and they all incorporate abstraction to some extent. Building a coherent universe that resonates with players is a major factor in whether a title succeeds or fails both critically and commercial.

      Tim Schafer’s adventure games are beloved, but none of them have been big hits. Why? Partially because they’re, well, just plain weird. That doesn’t make his games bad, but there’s no doubt that his worlds and stories have failed to resonate with a large audience. So how does that tie into 1UPT?

      Piling an infinite number of units in a tile is obviously an abstraction, but it seems like a fairly natural feature to most of us now due to twenty-five plus years of precedent. 1UPT is also familiar, mainly thanks to a countless number of classic games such as go, chess, checkers, etc. These two extremes “make sense” to people.

      The vast majority of people who play a game quit within the first hour. This is a frightening fact that few people think about, even on the development side. It’s crucial that your game works right off the get-go and offers a world that meets expectations and “feels right.”

      Limited stacking is a half-measure that doesn’t make sense realistically, breaks with convention and screams, “We couldn’t figure out the right way to bridge this gap, so we just used duct tape to fill it in!” And it does so because that’s exactly what it is.

      Any time you’re looking at a feature of medium to large importance and ask, “Why it this way?” and the answer is, “Because of balance” – you’re going to lose a ton of people. I know that whenever I see an ability that increases strength by +0.24% for 6 seconds I roll my eyes. A game/feature needs to evoke a powerful theme and grab your interest long before balance comes into play.

      The other major issue with limited stacking is that it dilutes the importance of said limit. My very first article analyzed this in depth:

      A cap of 1 unit per tile has major implications on strategy. A cap of 100 units per tile is basically irrelevant. Every step in between those two extremes reduces the strategic impact of the system, while still adding many of the costs that naturally come with a stacking limit of any size.

      Any form of half-measure also forces new interface challenges upon you – 1UPT is the easiest to convey, and infinite requires some extra management but is still intuitive and doesn’t get in the player’s way. But limited stacks mean the game has to clearly and effectively convey how close each tile is to its cap. This isn’t insurmountable, but it does add even more work on top of everything else a designer must already consider.

      So limited stacking comes with a potentially hefty pricetag. Are the benefits worth it? I don’t think so, but there’s no doubt some players would have preferred it that way. Each person has their own unique taste though, and the job of a designer is to balance the multitude of factors and produce the best game they can. Sometimes it works, sometimes not as much.

      The ability for civilian and military units to stack on a tile was actually a concession that I wasn’t happy about either, but it was absolutely necessary to prevent the game from becoming frustrating for everyone. 1UPT is a cool concept, but it’s also a tough one to integrate into a game with as many knobs as Civ. It could have worked much better than it did, but to allow for that I think it would have required even more radical changes to other features. A new Civ game with a perfectly-integrated 1UPT system might be too much “new” and not enough “Civ” for many fans.

      Hmmm… This discussion gives me an idea for an article…

      – Jon

      1. Hey, thanks for the quality reply!

        While game design is full of terminology that can be tricky to methodically define, I hope I’ve interpreted you correctly in thinking that ‘elegance’ is about the marriage of accessibility, functionality and presentation.It would mean that a mechanic emerges intuitively from the game’s foundations so that the player will naturally create a conception of how the mechanic SHOULD work and feel before they engage with it. This would be like how in Portal you can retain your momentum, which is a mechanic that the player intuitively understands before they’ve used it.

        If I’ve got what you’re saying right, then I can see how limited stacking would likely feel unintuitive and mar the ‘elegance’ of the mechanic in it’s current incarnation. I think we can probably agree that creating mechanics that are incredibly elegant, even sometimes at the expense of depth and balance, is far more important for a popular title that breaks from the confines of it’s genre’s market like Civilization then it is for a niche title that hopes to push the envelope like At The Gates.

        When I rethink my suggestion with that in mind, I’ve got to agree with you. I think that what your breakdown really highlights is that you’ve planted the seeds for a systemic revolution in the Civ franchise. 1upT and hexes have made for huge improvements to the horrid combat system of the old Civ games (god bless ’em) and so there’s no turning back, but ironing out the kinks will require some pretty extensive retooling of the game’s combat mechanics.


        1. Yep, you summarized it well. Game design is a spectrum and no matter where you land some people will be happy and others unhappy. The only truly objective way to judge a game is to ask whether or not a coherent vision was established and held to – and that was my goal with Civ 5.

          – Jon

  8. Also, if you’ve got the time I started toying with another concept after thinking through your Civ 5 retrospective again, and I’d love a little feedback.

    You discussed the impact of 1UpT on production times, and how the constraints of the map produced a smaller cap on how many military units are ideal to manage, and how you coped with that by slowing production times.

    Whats your opinion on a system that allows you to ‘mobilize’ very quickly, but to face serious maintenance costs that effectively cap your army to a desired range that’s decided by your Civ’s income?

    The greatest benefits of the system I propose would be that it gives players greater flexibility while also pushing the player to explore more of the game’s mechanics. A serious issue with the slowed production times is that it forces the game to become far more military centric, which in turn pushes many of the game’s other mechanics into obscurity for novice players.

    The reason I attribute the military slant of Civ 5 to the slowed production times is because of how it changes the nature of creating an army; when at war with an invader the player’s ability to utilize his Civ’s superior production to make a sizable defense is suppressed, which amplifies and sustains the initial power imbalance between the two armies.

    What this really means is that the only way to ensure an adequate defense is to have a long term military production focus on creating an army comparable to your rivals; and like clockwork, this leads to a Prisoner’s Dilemma where the only way to ensure survival is to match your military production to that of the largest warmongerer. I’ve seen this gameplay trend obscure many of Civ 5’s other mechanics in game, like the excellent method of emulating border expansion..

    This is something I might try to learn some programming for so I can mod it in and see how it plays, which brings me to another part of your impact on Civ that I’ve got nothing but praise for! Supporting modding so extensively with an in game mod browser was not only brilliant forward thinking (Steam Workshop was still years away), but it’s also what allowed the game to grow on me during it’s patchy launch.


    1. That approach might very well be a better solution than slowing everything down. That having been said though, I don’t think there’s any guarantee of it being an improvement.

      The problem is that any small change to the economics can really mess with pacing, which is so important in an empire builder. It’s very possible that such a change transforms the game into a completely different experience. A lot of people, devs and players alike, underestimate this. This is actually the subject of an update I just posted this past week regarding AtG!

      – Jon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close