Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Free2Play cost structures

Everybody knows that “Free2Play” games aren’t free to play, at least not for everybody. As I spent quite some time this year with various “Free2Play” browser games, I observed some interesting differences in the cost structure for different games.

I already mentioned once the Browser game The Settlers Online, still in beta, having a curious front-loaded cost structure: The first 50 bucks you spend on the game give you a huge and permanent advantage, but after that you are limited to buying temporary advantages at a much lower bang to buck ratio. Thus paying players have a big advantage over non-paying players; but players are discouraged from spending too much, and you don’t have to pay over and over for the same stuff. Other games that work with a similar structure are online games simulating collectible card games: You need to spend a stash of money to get a decent collection to really be able to play, but higher spending suffers from strongly diminishing returns.

A very different model from that are games which have a hidden subscription cost structure: To play the game comfortably, you need to constantly pay. That isn’t necessarily bad, if the monthly fee you derive at is low enough. For example in Shakes & Fidget, a simple Progressquest-like game, a mount that doubles your adventuring speed costs around 1€ for two weeks, which I find quite reasonable. Echo Bazaar is a bit more expensive, about 5€ per month for having twice as many actions as a player who pays nothing.

Far more common are games in which you pay for things which help you mostly in the short term. Thus if you play a lot, you come across lots of moments where paying would give you an advantage. But as long as you don’t play, you aren’t paying for anything. While there is some inherent fairness and logic behind that, the overall effect is often that you end up feeling nickeled-and-dimed. One main problem here is games in which the so-called “micro-“ payments are generally too expensive, and quickly add up to more than one would pay for a much better game.

One particularly interesting case I came across is DDTank, a colorful “Worms”-like multiplayer browser shooting game. A typical purchase in that game would be an energy stone which gives you a chance to upgrade your weapon, costing 1500 “coins”, which can only be purchased for real money. But DDTank is offered by different distributors, and some of them offer 100 coins for $1, while others give you 300 coins for $1. So while I’d say $5 to upgrade your weapon is expensive, $15 for the same action is certainly outrageously overpriced. DDTank is also annoying because all the gear you can get in game disappears after a few days, and you need to spend a lot of money to buy permanent items. So while the game itself is fun enough, the cost structure is driving people away.

The worst game I’ve come across cost-wise is Warstory – Europe in Flames, a browser strategy game. Again gameplay itself isn’t all bad. But the game literally asks you for a payment after every single action you do. You want to move your troops, and the game tells you to either wait 2 hours or pay. You fight, and the game tells you to either wait 1 hour for the troops to rest afterwards or pay. In between frequently advertisements pop up asking you to pay for some special offer. And the game makes it very clear that “winning” is very much a matter of outspending the competition. That all annoyed me so much that I quickly abandoned the game, although I liked their approach to browser strategy gaming much more than the same old “build a city and attack your neighbors” approach everybody else has.

A single-player game on the PC costs anywhere between 5€ and 60€. Many MMORPGs have an initial payment for the box and one free month, followed by usually around 10 to 15 € or $ monthly fee. Browser games are a lot cheaper to make, so I expect to pay less for them than for a big budget PC game or MMORPG. But I do support the general idea that at least some of the players of a Free2Play game should pay something, so that the developers get a salary and the game company can afford to run the game and develop new ones. The tricky thing is to evaluate what you’d end up paying if you play such a Free2Play game in reasonable comfort. Not only does the cost structure make it often far more difficult to see in advance what such games cost; but experience shows that there is a huge range from fairly priced games to complete rip-offs out there. It’s buyers beware, I guess.

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