The Magic of Free to Play
By Krystian Majewski
I was thinking about Free to Play models recently. I have been carrying an idea with me for some time. It’s about how to implement a Free to Play model more naturally into a game.
I have been praising the Free to Play model of World of Tanks. In some ways, it’s a bold implementation. It gives paying players a clear advantage over non-paying players. It associates payments with important functions. Compared to this, most Free to Play implementations are tame. The players pay for superficial styling (customize your avatar) or to reduce nuisances which are artificially introduced by the game designers in the first place.
The reason for this careful approach is understandable. There are serious concerns with using payment to affect gameplay in a competitive context. It seems unfair if players can buy themselves an advantage. It eliminates the level playground that we seem to take for granted in a fair competition. But even in single-player games, using payments as an integral part of gameplay can be even more questionable in some regard. The Visa Crucible seems even more like a scam if instead of being used against real players, it can only slay hollow, disposable computer enemies.
It seems like a the Free to Play model is a moral dead-end. But perhaps this is only a question of framing and implementation. I was thinking that perhaps it may be a good idea to look at models outside of video games to see how they work. Trading card games like Magic: The Gathering come to mind. In this game, you need to pay for cards. You use the cards to build decks. You use the decks to battle other players. More cards don’t necessary lead to a better deck. But in order to have the right cards for your deck, having a wider selection of cards to start out with will be an indirect advantage.
I’m mentioning this because I noticed that during my short career as a Magic enthusiast, I have spent a lot of money on cards and never felt like I was cheated. I participated in frequent booster draft tournaments–events that sound like the wet dream of a Free to Play game developer. They were tournaments where you would need to buy 3 booster packs of cards in order to participate. There was a tournament every week. And we all considered it a very good deal.
So it’s worth to see how Magic worked in order to gain some lessons for digital Free to Play games. This isn’t a proper analysis so I can’t really go into details at this point. But superficially I can see 3 major points.
1.Rewards are Tangible and Permanent–Magic cards are tangible. You can hold them in your hand and sell them if you get bored of them. This is a huge advantage over all digital games indeed. Because they are tangible, they seem so much more valuable from the get go. But there is at least some aspects that may be important for digital games as well. Magic cards are not only tangible but also permanent. They don’t get used up. You can keep using the same card over and over again. Powerful cards don’t get weaker with time either. The lesson is that you don’t need to put artificial expiration dates on digital goods in order to keep players interested in buying more of them. In fact, making them permanent may very well satisfy a collector’s reflex and lead to increased interest in more.
2.Rewards are Random–You can’t buy a specific Magic card. At least not officially. There is a gray market of Magic card traders but the official way to get cards is to buy booster packs. The packs contain a random selection of cards from a current set. To ensure that players can expect to get their money’s worth, there is always a specific amount of “Rare” and “Uncommon” cards in every booster. If I was a cynic, I would call this a variable ratio reward schedule Operant Conditioning. There is certainly some of that here. But it’s also a good way to disengage the purchase of new cards from specific advantages. Players have a much harder time getting a specific card, so they can’t exploit the system quite as easily. Finally, there is always a sense of mystery with each booster pack. Which brings me to the next point….
3.Rewards are New Content–This is probably the most important aspect. Each purchase in Magic exposes the players to NEW CONTENT. In fact, that’s how you explore the world of Magic–you buy it piece by piece. Buying a new booster isn’t thrilling just because you get more cards. It’s thrilling because there is a good chance you will find new cards you have never encountered before. In Magic, the quality of that the content is substantial. The cards are beautiful and often contain some intricate mechanics. Having an opportunity to enjoy more of that content seems valuable in itself. Of course, a few experienced players would read things like “card spoilers” and know most cards by heart. But the same players would buy entire boxes of boosters anyway.
Consider how different a game like World of Tanks works compared to this. A lot of the things you get in World of Tanks expires–premium memberships, consumable goods, experience points. Even the tanks themselves get obsolete over time. They get replaced with stronger tanks. Players can buy items and tanks for money but they are buying it in a store and know exactly what they are going to get. Finally, players aren’t exposed to any new content at any point. They just gain access to content they already saw previously.
Or imagine a Trading Card game where the cards are printed with an ink that fades away over time. You don’t get the cards in boosters but you buy individual cards in a store, were you can see and read any card before you even buy anything.
Of course not all mechanics from trading cards have to necessarily work in the digital realm. I already mentioned that the tangible aspect is something that can hardly be reproduced in games. However, it’s striking how the above aspects are hardly ever utilized in digital Free to Play games. I sense that there is a lot more developers and designers can experiment with. Doing so, they might arrive at much more effective and morally less ambiguous systems. This would help establishing a healthier, more robust trust relationship between the game developers and the players.
Finally, if you are interested in more info about World of Tanks, we recently made a small podcast about it. Here is the first episode. Enjoy!（source:gamedesignreviews）