Reconciling Free-To-Play Monetization And Skill-Based Gameplay

Reconciling Free-To-Play Monetization And Skill-Based Gameplay

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Since the introduction of the Free-To-Play (F2P) model, many multiplayer games have struggled with the task of creating compelling gameplay in light of their monetization requirements. Strictly speaking, the monetization always interferes with the gameplay design in one way or another because it provides the game’s lifeline and is therefore more important for the business.

Traditionally, monetization was of no consequence to game design as the customer bought the game wholesale with all elements and system available without additional economical requirements. This is of course ignoring the need to first sell your game to a publisher and make it seem desirable; however that’s a topic for another time. In the F2P model this freedom from monetization is no longer applicable as the content is necessarily portioned away for the benefit of monetization while maintaining an illusion of gameplay-progression.

Free-To-Play Monetization

For any monetization scheme to work, an item sold for real money must be desirable enough for the customer to pony up their hard-earned real-life cash. Many methods exist to make an item desirable for the player, from prestige to cool-factor to power.

Prestige items might offer a unique customization for a character or item not obtainable by players that do not pay money, or a specific status within the community. They may even grant access to specific areas not accessible to other non-paying players.

Cool-factor items just make things look cool. This can, again, be a customization that a specific player finds desirable for aesthetic reasons, or a custom action, like the ability to use a horn on your vehicle in Planetside 2, or custom idle animations in Warframe.

Nonetheless, most real money items opt to increase a player’s “quality of life”. This includes products such as experience boosters that make progression faster, or item-loadout slots that make it easier and more convenient to select a set of items for your character. Glyph pages in League Of Legends, for example, fulfill that role.

Power, however, is the most desirable of products a F2P game can offer, and will universally be desired by players. This includes items that give players an “edge” over non-paying players. We then call games which use this form of monetization as “Pay-To-Win” (P2W). While many games since have developed semi-fair models of F2P monetization, the best product one can sell in a F2P game (economically speaking) is power. This stands in direct opposition to skill-based gameplay as real money, instead of proficiency in the game’s mechanics, would provide advantages leading to an unfair playing-field. Selling power is generally frowned upon in the gaming community, and rightfully so in the context of their applications we have seen.

Moving Forward

The problem with current F2P games comes from the close relationship of gameplay and money. Gameplay is exclusively build around the real money store and monetization, instead of applying game mechanics first and monetization later. Many games, for example, are built to create very tedious or monotonous gameplay on purpose to entice players to purchase “quality of life” improvements, like boosters or slots, just to make the game bearable.

Think about this for a moment: A product is intentionally designed to be bad. That’s the definition of insanity if I ever heard one. For the first time, we have a situation where economy directly dictates design, and look what it does. It is dangerous as designers are taught to create systems where “work” (time) equals achievement, a bad test if there ever was one.

However, not all is lost; the F2P model can work, just not in the way we are currently designing.

The partitioning of content in itself is not necessarily a bad thing and can be used to great effect in episodic games. Similarly, the monetization of said content isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as the content is partitioned after the design is complete.

Suggestions have been made in the past about how to craft a “fair” F2P model. However, these suggestions always included ways of building systems around the monetization. What if we saw monetization differently, separately, from gameplay? What if we could apply monetization differently?

Monetization And Free-To-Play as Teaching Tools

In certain complex games, the partition of content or available tools can be a valuable asset in teaching mechanics. Lets consider a player versus player game like Star Conflict.

Star Conflict’s game mechanics being complex, the player has to learn the abilities of his ship, understand when to use them, as well as understand the relationships of damage-types, resistances, effective weapon-distance, turn-rate, projectile acceleration, UI, loadouts and hitboxes to effectively compete in the game. Introducing content-tiers in this case wouldn’t be a bad thing, slowly easing the player into these systems.

At Tier 1 a player might only be able to equip a very basic loadout to his ship and not be exposed to damage-types or other strategic and tactical metagame decisions. They have an opportunity to learn the game in a simplified state, learning how to control their ship, what abilities the ship has, and getting a feel for the kinaesthetics. At this point a challenge goal could be set (win X matches, kill X opponents with Y maneuver, etc.) to give the player an opportunity to understand and learn the mechanics, controls and game-modes before throwing him into deeper waters.

At Tier 2 a player might be introduced to other mechanics, more loadout variation, more strategic decisions, more abilities to account for. The pace might become faster and more decisions could be made at any given time. One could even introduce higher damage weaponry, creating a smaller window for failure and increasing the challenge. Similarly at Tier 3 a player might again be thrown more tools to play with and so on up until all elements of design have been introduced. This marries typical progression with learning and discovery of a skill-based system.

Where the monetization would come in is that a player could skip Tier X and go straight to Tier Y if he feels comfortable with it by paying for the privilege to do so. After all, different players learn at different speeds and a Tier 2 player might feel comfortable enough to compete at a higher level of skill without “qualifying” for it (win X matches, etc.).

Monetization in this case would be concerned not with skipping tedium, but rather skipping the learning process. It would create an environment in which everyone is fairly matched up in their respective tiers while providing the ability to “jump ahead”. In direct conflict their skill decides if they win or lose in their respective Tier, they are just not required to fulfill the arbitrary requirements of the “test” to be “qualified” for it.

The important part here would be to never let the tiers interact in direct challenge. If the game presents a territorial metagame (as Star Conflict does), then counting Tier 1 victories in a certain sector towards the meta-goal of capturing it is completely acceptable, but letting Tier X and Tier Y play in the same match would lead to an unfair playing-field (something that Star Conflict unfortunately drops the ball on).

If we consider content-tiers as scaling difficulties, it becomes a way to sell power without actually selling power. After all, everyone in the same content-tier has access to the same tools, but nobody is required to participate in higher tier play or to purchase higher tier options and matchups between “junior league” and “grandmaster” are not possible. This way we create a system of mechanics isolated from the economical requirements of the game and provide good gameplay without sacrificing monetization.

Many games can be partitioned like this, even those that do not rely on direct competition. It’s the decision to withhold content for reasons other than economy and rather for gameplay reasons that is the difference to “traditional” monetization applied in almost every other F2P game on the market.

Lets stop making bad games for the sake of monetization.



  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice model.
    Could work really well as long as the tiers don’t last too long and never get tedious, which could get people to quit erly. And as long as there aren’t so many of them that the player pool gets overly divided making matchmaking hard.
    Probably supplemented by comsetic stuff so people on max tier still have stuff to buy.

    I personally always liked the TF2 F2P model.
    Which is interesting because it was originally a normal game.
    But basically, items aren’t really upgrades, they are just different ways to play a class, and there are man ways to get them.
    Trades, drops, or buying it. And since there are so many of them they are all fun to try. I’ve only bought a few items I absolutely had to have and wasn’t willing to wait for a drop or bother with trades.

    • TF2 is actually a good example, since it wasn’t designed as a F2P game in mind we can see how a smart F2P model without alteration of mechanics can work in your favor, or at least be entirely neutral.

      • LymonRage says:

        I totally agree. It isn’t hard to get all the weapons, and to be honest after getting all the weapons I find myself still using the defaults (with exception of a few like the equalizer ect.). Any money I have ever put into the game was purely for cosmetics because I got all the weapons through drops.

  2. Mr.Bigglesworth says:

    F2P ruined MMOs forever, in my opinion.

  3. Aeiou says:

    I hate free to play, it’s an instant game kill for me.

    On a related note, remember when everyone was excited and loving tribes?

    ;_;

  4. serpen1 says:

    DotA’s system is pretty good.

    • Cameo says:

      because it was never designed as a game with transactions, hence valve decided to only add cosmetic items.
      I would probably be okay if you didn’t drop anything after the game, but that way I might sell my stuff for a bastion announcer somewhen.

  5. I'mnothere says:

    Path of exile for F2P, Dofus for subscription model.

  6. Pyroco says:

    This article shoulda been made before Tribes went to shit. It was the chosen one, god dammit!

  7. Inferring says:

    World of Tanks and Warthunder handle F2P extremely well (it took WoT a little while to get there, but it’s finally there).

  8. Jim says:

    You don’t have to buy the idle animations in Warframe, everyone just gets them. You buy color packs and scarves.

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