Free-To-Play: Is it right for my game?

I’m here to take a serious look at the Free-To-Play model for new games, both personally for OPifex but also as a general shout-out to indie developers looking to dig their pockets into the current F2P buzz. What I want at the end of this post is a checklist or some guidelines for developers to follow when deciding on F2P business models for their game.
What I’m going to do is analyze a handful of current F2P games, see what kind of models they have in place, and give them scores based on:
How good it is for business (+-B)
How happy it keeps the player base (+-H)
I’m going to base this on a statistic I read about that said that only about 20% of people that play a F2P game actually pay for something in the game. This means that to do good business, the different aspects of your F2P model should keep one fifth of the players paying, and four fifths of the community playing.
Lets take a look at the obvious first: Farmville, Mafia Wars, and other Facebook games like them.
Time-based system allows players to pay to keep playing. This rakes in cash from those paying customers who don’t mind paying to continue playing, but it can frustrate those who don’t want to. +2 B, -1H
Peer-to-peer sharing of quests, items, and general help. This is the key to facebook’s success, and would be hard to reproduce without the already implemented and popular social network in place. +3B, +2H
Small/Low cost transactions. It may not make a lot of money on its own, but do it a couple thousand times… +1B, +1H
Overall, a +6B/+2H game in my analysis. It is obvious that the real key here is facebook itself, but you have to look at the largest success story and take what you can from it. The important thing to note is that the social network aspect isn’t the only thing these developers are doing right.
Next lets look at an older game that as of this writing has a very small, dying player base: CrimeCraft: Gang Wars. This game was a great idea, an excellent shooter, and an awful MMORPG. Besides the horrible AI, unusable interface, and boring quests, lets take a look at what they had to offer in terms of their F2P model.
Allows players to buy upgrades for guns and characters. This bodes well for those who will pay for the upgrades, but disapoints the F2P players by giving them a natural disadvantage. +1B, –1H
Allow players to buy upgraded levels for character classes. This is worse than a slightly-better gun, when someone can just buy-in to the highest level in a game, ALL players feel like none of their grind is actually an accomplishment. +1B, –2H
In-game market allows F2P players to buy paid-for items with in-game currency. This keeps the players happy, as they have access to otherwise inaccessible items, but it is inherently bad for business. -1B, +2H
Overall, a +1B/-1H is no surprise , and neither is the lack of a player base. CrimeCraft made enough money for two expansions, so some sort of business must of have been there, but the game will not last, and neither will the cash flow.
Next up is another huge success story. With over 2 million players, League of Legends makes good money.
New free-to-use content updated weekly. The weekly rotation of champions in LOL is what keeps most players playing. It encourages players to try new characters and also play more when character’s they like are up to bat. +1H
All game “content”, meaning champions, are within a free player’s reach. This is great for the players, but deters from someone actually paying money. -1B, +2H
There are variable rates at which content can be unlocked. There are champions unlockable within the first few games, and there are champions that would take weeks to grind up the money for. This type of leveled system is exactly what gamers want. +1H
You cannot pay for “better” items, or more levels, or anything that would put you ahead of a free player. Since everyone thinks this is fair, its unlikely that this would effect business. +1H
Players can unlock the content of the game that would otherwise take forever by paying money. This is unfortunate for some, but very very good for business. +2B, –1H
Players are able to buy neat alternate skins for their champions, that do not effect the gameplay at all. Players want to look different, to stand out, and they are willing to pay for it. +2B
LoL comes in at an awesome +3B/+4H. This is one hell of a money-maker. Comparing it to its top competitor Heroes of Newerth, LoL picked the larger audience (casual gamers vs. HoN’s hardcore community) and introduced them nicely to a previously underground genre. HoN’s initial business model was all unlocked content (++H), at a one-time fee (+B), which probably would have worked (standard game for sale) if not for the well-planned and well-timed LoL machine.
Lets take a look at a smaller example, Tactics Arena Online. In the game, players start with free human units, and can unlock a small set of units after that, but paying players have access to the game’s main content, which is the many different (and usually better) units from other races.
Advertises as a F2P, but delivers more of a trial-version. This means paying customers are constantly beating up on newer players, discouraging many from playing the game. –1H
Unlockable units for winning games. This is a fun system for players, and keeps them enthralled and excited to win. +1H
Buyable units both look and play differently. This is great for business but leaves those 80% of players feeling left out. +1, –1H
A separate server for paying customers. Normally we have learned that separating your paying customers from your player base is a bad thing (Extra Credit), but I’d like to point out that in this special case, it not only encourages people to buy-in, but it keeps both sets of players happier. +1B,+1H
A final score of +1B/+0H leaves me wondering how this game is still around, but it is really fun, and like all games, that counts for more than anything.
Lastly I’d like to take a look at a very unique business model that more or less morphed into a F2P simply because it stirred up more business. Battleforge is an incredibly brilliant system for getting players to both play the game and to pay money.
Card-like game content (units/spells) come in “card packs” which can be bought for money. These random assortments of cards are mysterious and intriguing. Many people like the random system, but most also feel slightly ripped off when pack after pack they are getting all of the same cards and nothing new or rare. But they just keep buying, and they want to! +2B
Player marketplace coupled with in-game currency distributed per day means that a free player can earn all the in-game content, if at an extremely low pace. I’m going to call business on this +1/-1, because while it deters from players buying, the slow pace of gaining higher-costing cards only further entices interested players to pay for a pack of cards. +1H
Player marketplace allows players to sell their unwanted content. +1H
Its pretty simple to see a solid +2B/+2H in this game. Its not for everyone, but those who do play usually end up buying cards sooner or later.
There are many success stories, but also a whole lot of failed games, mostly indie, coming from the Free-To-Play business model. The reason for this is clear: in order to make money off of the 1/5 of people who are going to potentially play your game, you first have to have enough people who want to play it. This doesn’t bode well for indie developers, since advertising can be expensive without that already established fan base. But fear not! You simply have to create a game that’s so awesome that through word-of-mouth it will spread like a virus. That’s the idea anyway.
Alas, taking this all into account means that I’m ready to make my checklist. I will try to keep this updated with new ideas/thoughts from time to time.
What can I sell that players will want, that doesn’t alter the core experience for everyone else?
Am I separating the player base? (You generally want a no here!)
Can I do this without ruining the original intention of the game? (Example: Team Fortress has turned into a silly-hat fest, and while its drawing a large new crowd, its left a lot of veteran players looking the other way.)
Do I have small transactions available?
Do I have larger transactions available, and if so, is there a bonus for doing so?
Am I focusing my sales on the largest audience possible?
Am I letting grinders grind, giving them special bonuses you can’t buy (remember rule #1!)?
Am I letting buyers buy? Is there a limit to the amount they can purchase?
Am I setting a balanced pace for unlockables for the free players?
Am I making the players WANT to play my game, rather than feel any NEED to?
I hope this checklist helps aid you in whatever awesome game you are making. F2P models certainly have their benefits, but remember… its not for every game, so don’t try to force it. If the model fits, make the players happy, and let the cash flow voluntarily.