“Lessons” On How To Rip Off Customers: Free-To-Play Edition

Gamasutra has a very good piece by the developers of Monkey Drum, one of the brothers behind Flippfly. I’d never heard of either before today because I don’t really follow the free-to-play rigmarole, but the app itself is popular, and looks like it’s a good one for their target audience. Effectively, the article is a post-mortem, as Aaron San Filippo goes over the things he learned while putting the game out. Effectively, Monkey Drum was a good game, with very positive reviews and a lot of downloads, but it didn’t draw revenue first. The lessons he learned, for anyone used to the way video games have worked for over thirty years, are chilling; here is what they learned not to do (emphasis mine):

1. Fail to Give Users Great Reasons To Pay
2. Ignore the “Whale” Factor
3. Fail to Guide Users to Payment
4. Give Your Game an End

5. Make a Mediocre Game
6. Fail to Test and Iterate
7. Fail to Understand Your Audience

Let’s go into the bolded steps, one at a time.

Fail to Give Users Great Reasons To Pay – Maybe I’m an old fuddy-duddy, but I don’t like it when my games psychologically “give” me reasons to put money into them, during the game. That kind of pressure – which ties into everything else I emphasized – hangs over the head of the player every moment they play. “Hey, this is really hard… salvation is only $3 away…”, day after day, minute after minute, even after many $3 purchases have been made.

Ignore the “Whale” Factor – This is the major problem with free-to-play, mainly caused by Zynga’s massive success: the majority of successful games are largely funded off the backs of a few people with no impulse control. From a humanity and sociological perspective, it’s a pathetic tale; weak-willed people with more money than common sense dump their currency into money pits, unable to get it back and not even owning something tangible in the meantime – just virtual currency in a virtual game that can be disabled at any time – while publishers sit back and enjoy, on the “sucker born every minute” ticket.

On the one hand, it’s a positive indication on Aaron that having to cater to the whales. On the other, for every ethical publisher, ten more are not so scrupulous.

Fail to Guide Users to Payment – I mentioned above that I don’t like it when I always have real-world purchases hanging over my head. I especially don’t like it when I’m being “guided” into purchasing items with my cash. Aaron notes that Triple Town has it included in their tutorial; I would put Triple Town down that very instant, because I would know where the rest of the game was heading. This ties into…

Give Your Game an End – So let me get this straight: the lesson is to make it so your users cannot get around the huge, hanging “BUY ME” message during every moment of their game, and to top it off, they’re buying these things to repeat the same actions, over and over again? That’s not a game, that’s a chain gang.

Fail to Understand Your Audience – In the context of the article, Aaron stated that this meant that they set up a business plan that was meant for adults for children who don’t have the pocketbook, and therefore won’t spend the money necessary to make it a viable project. However, this, and the postscript to the entire article, give me hope:

Perhaps you’ve read through this list, and rather than identifying an action plan for your next F2P game, you’ve spotted some patterns that kind of turn you off. This was the case with us as well.

We don’t like the idea that “whales” are what we need to sustain our games. We don’t like the idea that only 3 percent or so of our users will ever experience our games in their fullest, and that the other 97 percent will probably be left wanting, if we’re “doing it right.”

We also don’t like the idea of spending a significant portion of our time analyzing and tuning our user flow towards an in-game store, rather than focusing on the game itself. And we especially don’t like the idea that even our paying customers will be nagged for additional money in a never-ending cycle of microtransactions that never quite satisfy. We want to build memorable and unique gaming experiences, and in-game monetization — in its most effective form — seems to always get in the way of that out of necessity.

The end result is that Flippfly is working on PC development, where customers are more willing to pay a forward price for a game, or as I like to call it, The Good Ol’ Days. I almost want to buy their next PC game based on that; they took an experiment with the free-to-play model, didn’t like it from any perspective, and decided to go back to what works.

The reason I’m positive about this is because I firmly believe the free-to-play model is either going to have to evolve (making it more of a demo/free trial system), or it’s going to be marginalized once people see how anti-consumer it is. There will always be a market not only for retro games, but retro buying systems, where someone goes “here’s a game, I’d like X”, and we go “jolly good idea, sport” and pay money for a full experience. The constant psychological pressure to buy things to make our games better – especially AAA games we already pay $60 for, as I couldn’t go through a menu in Sleeping Dogs without being reminded that I could buy a boost pack for whatever I was doing – stresses gamers out, and eventually, they’re going to get tired of that pressure. When they start voting with their wallets, improvements to the system will come, and we can put the freemium model in the graveyard along with its older brother, the paid subscription model.

Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.