On Free to Play and Competitive Games

Something I’ve been thinking a lot about, mostly because of my work on Loadout, is the nature of free to play games and the nature of competitive games (in this case, arena shooters) and how those two natures might be fundamentally at odds with each other. Before I go on too far, full disclosure, it is entirely possible that my own financial livelihood depending on these two things has given me a biased perspective, and I may be guilty of rationalizing failures. I hope not, but there it is.

First off, I’d like to point to the fairly significant list of games which tried to be f2p pvp and failed to remain viable. In the last few years these have been games like Tribes Ascend, Hawken, Super Monday Night CombatNosgoth, and of course Loadout. I am using the steamcharts links here as a proxy for revenue, which while inaccurate in ways and not a perfect correlation nonetheless at least provides some basis of comparison. The common trend-line in the playerbase of all these games is an initial spike, then rapid decline, with minor spikes when updates occur. To be fair, this is also the trend-line in players for most pay-to-play (i.e. “normal”) games. The big difference of course with those is that the money is collected at the time of playing, meaning it doesn’t matter as much that players keep playing for long amounts of time, the developers already have their money. Of course extending that tail end of sales is always nice, and there are ways to prolong that, but the financial viability of the product as a whole is far less dependent on an ongoing player base that continues to monetize.

Compare now the steam charts figures for games like WarframePath of Exile, to say nothing of Valve’s own titles like TF2, CS:GO, and the juggernaut Dota 2, although given their ownership of the marketplace itself, that’s not exactly a fair comparison. All of these have steady (and generally growing) playerbases.

So what do I think the keys are? What do the successful ones do right, and the failures do wrong?

  • Something to offer players at all levels of competition
    • You wouldn’t expect a middle school football team to hold their own against an NFL team. If you want your game to be competitive, there should be something in the game that appeals to players of all skill, and ways to help players bridge any gaps. For us, on Loadout, that bet is PVE (though it remains to be seen how that strategy will pan out).
  • Frequent Updates
    • Players have to feel like the game is alive, whether through content updates, sponsored events, or even a mod community. League of Legends has this down well, as there are constantly new heroes, and constant shuffling of the available free heroes. Crowd-sourcing some content might be a good option for studios that lack that resources to quickly make their own stuff. Valve champions this production model quite well.
  • Reasons to stick around
    • This should be built into the game’s core design, as much as possible. It speaks to the fundamental pacing of the game, and when you expect to award new powers, ability, and content. A lot of this is just retention 101, which seems obvious, but my point is to embed these things into the core of the game. I think it’s a mistake we’ve made attempting to shoe-horn the f2p model into a game that wasn’t really designed for it, and I think if you’re going for that you have to start with that in mind.

I have more thoughts that I might post on this theme later.

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