in Game Design

Designing Good Free-To-Play Games

It’s pretty clear that free-to-play games are the way to go if you care about making money from your games. And don’t give me that line about being indie and not caring about the money. On the contrary, being able to make money from the games we love to make, allows us to keep doing what we’re passionate about.

I was having a discussion today about free games with other developers and I thought I would post here some random thoughts and open it up for discussion.Free-to-play (or freemium–even if they aren’t exactly the same, I’m bundling them all under the same category for this discussion), have have a fairly bad reputation, and they’ve been under fire recently from developers. It’s true that a lot of those games have been rather poor from a game design point of view, while raking in loads of money from players who are apparently happy to play them.

It’s important to separate the financial model (free with other ways for players to spend money in-game), and the quality of those early games or the intentions behind them. I am convinced that free games is the future of mass-market games (it’s already pretty much the present, so that’s not much of a stretch).

There’s no doubt that the financial model of game affects its design. Compare arcade games, retail console games, and subscription-based games just as an example. Free-to-play has a huge impact on the design as well.

Free-to-play games are in their infancy. Not only are they a relatively recent happening, but they were also wildly successful, which encouraged a lot of copying and not much innovation. So they’re stuck in a type of design that results in a local maximum of profit, while providing a not very satisfying experience for a lot of players. As game developers, we need to find out how to make great games while using the free-to-play model.

I’ve been going around this quite a bit recently, because I’m in the stages of deciding what my next game is going to be. The reality of the App Store are pushing me towards free-to-play, but I’m not interested in making a Farm/Store/Pet game.

These are my random thoughts on what we can charge for in a free game and how it affects game design:

  • Reduce delays. This is very effective, but feels cheap and somewhat manipulative (yes, this is coming from the guy who did Flower Garden… but that was before IAPs and the whole point of the game was the nurturing/waiting part). It also falls in the category of the question I often ask myself: If I remove this from the game, will it be better or worse? The answer is (almost) always “better” by removing those delays.
  • In-game currency. This is seems like a better approach as long as there’s no competitive multiplayer. However, it does wreck havoc with the game balance. Either it becomes too easy and not fun for those who paid, or boring and grindy for those who didn’t. Still, especially on mobile, it’s not a totally bad way to go. You’re letting people make a choice how they want their experience.
  • Extra content. That seems to be the traditional, developer-approved way to go. PC and console games have been doing that with DLCs for a long time. The main problem is that not many players want that content, the amount of content you can sell is limited, and it often requires a lot of extra effort to generate.
  • Extra choices. This includes different characters, clothes, weapons, etc. I see this as the sweet spot between the last two options. What you buy doesn’t completely throw off the game curve, but it’s also not just new levels or missions. Combine that with letting players earn credits to get those choices (by grinding if they want to, but it’s all optional) and it seems like a good way to go. You can also go the way of League of Legends (which I have yet to play!) and you can rotate in that extra content for limited amounts of time, so players get a taste and they have the option of buying them permanently.
  • Cheats. By cheats I mean more lives, rewind/replay, invulnerability, etc. It feels like a throwback to the arcade days. Some players will be put off by it (either by the fact it exists, or by the fact that they finished the game too quickly with the help of those cheats), but it can work in the right game. You’d probably want to do something about high scores, like putting players who used those cheats in a different leaderboard.

What are your thoughts on this? What are some other ways that players can pay for in free games and still allows us to make a great game?


  1. As both a player and designer I see “non-balance items” as the sweet spot indeed. Things like hats, mounts, etc that don’t impact the game balance but make you feel more attached to your character. The way I see it is if an item resonates with the player they will buy it because they like it, and like their character more because they bought it, kind of win-win.

    One other avenue I think is good is the “Effectively buying the game item”. Something that’s a one time purchase similar to what the game would otherwise cost and is more of a convenience item. On an iPhone game an item that costs say $2-5 dollars and gives something like extra inventory space, an item that opens a teleport, or speeds up your travel. I find this type of item is easy for someone who likes the game but isn’t really an IAP type person to justify buying. It feels like you’re paying for the game which you already know you like, thus supporting developers, and it makes the game more enjoyable.

  2. See Tony Downey essay ‘Designing to Succeed’ he talks about 3 levels of monetization categories (in order):
    1) Power ups.
    2) Wearables.
    3) Additional content.

    Some notes from (ex) Zynga’s Roger Dickey (.com), talking about Mafia Wars, Fishville, and Farmville
    What do people pay for (in no order):
    – Rarity (illusion of short supply)
    – Fun (extra minigames)
    – Exclusive features (illusion of short supply)
    – Vanity (show off, show status)
    – Competition (competitive edge)
    – Social Value (gift to other players?)
    – Convenience (tool to acomplish in 1 click what used to take 4)
    – Chance (chance is just fun – see mouse studies)
    – Decoration 
    – Identity 
    – Stat progress
    – Primacy 
    – Obligation 

    Roger noted that for his games, players seemed pretty happy with some people paying for competitive advantage, there was not a big backlash against ‘cheaters’. But facebook games may have a different context for this than other games? Or maybe us games designers are just super sensitive to the issue because we’ve all been disappointed by cheaters using bots aiming in multiplayer FPS? How well these factors monetize all depend on the vibe of the game, how social it is, how competitive it is, etc. Secret to monetization is ‘Fun Pain’. A balance between fun and pain, where with the right balance everyone finds it fun, and some % who are willing to spend will pay to reduce pain. 

    There are lots of things we can learn from behavioral economics that help optimize monetization, like fallacy of false conflict, limited supply, bundles, loss carries more emotion than gain, etc. I especially love the book ‘Priceless: The Myth of Fair Market Value’ for these topics.

    One last thought, I just saw a post today about the ‘Ethics of free to play games’. IMHO stuff about ‘ethics’ in freemium games is nonsense. Ethics is for issues like ‘should we be at war?’, or ‘people in my town are homeless’ Not ‘Should my iPhone game be free or can 1% of my players volunteer to pay me $1 for doing my job and entertaining them.

    • I agree that discussion about the ethics of freemium games is not productive in any way, so I’m totally sidestepping that and concentrating on what I think can be improved.

      However, just because people are willing to pay for something that they feel compelled to (avoiding losing something for example), it doesn’t mean it’s good game design or creating an overall good experience with the game. I’d like to think more along the lines of “how can we make this even more fun” rather than “how can we extract even more money”? I think that, in the long term, the first approach is even more lucrative.

      • I hear you, but when is paying for things ever fun when free is the alternative? Anything that makes the game more fun would be still be more fun whether free or paid? 

        I’ve also been thinking a lot about the competitiveness case and RPG style leveling up (after playing Borderlands a lot). You can pay to level up faster, getting a competitive advantage, but as you level up the game matches you against other players of the same level. This means you never buy your way to a win, because paying to level up brings no real advantage as you get matched against people at your same level. But players do love to level up and see what new content they can get at higher levels. I myself really enjoy this in Borderlands. Its fun to level up and use a more powerful gun. Its a ‘red queen’ race – higher level and better gun means you just face higher enemies with better guns. But its still fun.

        How about the gifting case? I play game and make good progress, and ‘earn’ a better car, which is more fun. The game asks if I’d to form a ‘gang’ and invite you to play, and I can send you the better car to start off with for 99c. You get the better car for free, you appreciate that I bought it for you, and you can join my better car gang right away. Maybe this would not be so much fun if it was free, because you wouldn’t value my invitation so highly?

      • I think people place a higher “value” on things they paid for versus things they got for free.

        E.g., You might take better care of a car you bought yourself than one that was given to you for free.

        Beyond that, people often place an even higher value on things that they feel they have earned.

            Free < Paid For < Earned

        Not sure where the case of getting something for free as a gift fits into that equation.

  3. The design group I’m a part of had a very in-depth discussion about this, I recorded our conclusions here:

    Our conversation wandered, but there are thoughts in there about models, what is being payed for, morality, and so forth. I hope it is useful!

  4. As a hobbyist I’m not sure. I can see that free-to-play is A future, but it’s not the only future.

    I understand the difficulty when trying to create a business from indie games but when your a hobbyist, to me at least, monetisation is boring, painful, and besides the point! I know I’m missing the detail but I’m starting to not care.

  5. Another option to consider is advertising.  The company behind Paper Toss has reported that their income is roughly divided 50/50 between ad revenue and those who purchase the ad-free versions.  Though I can see from your response to Mark that your looking for ideas that can enhance the overall experience of the game and I’m not sure if there is a way to do that with ads.

    Another thought I’ve been considering is paying for additional bandwidth.  Creating a networked multi-player game brings with it some costs to operate and maintain the back-end so I was thinking of doing something along the lines of ‘first ten network games per month are free’ with some sort of subscription model for heavier usage.  (Again not necessary something that ‘enhances’ the game play but ways to do it that have minimal negative impact on game play.)

    – Stephen

  6. Recently I notice a trend that many games start to integrate in-game currency purchase options via IAP. It seems a no-brainer decision, however, I see that few games design the gameplay with in-game currency from the root.In my opinion, I consider Tiny Tower as a brilliant case which is doing F2P right. My thoughts on Tiny Tower can be found here:’m currently developing an action/arcade game featuring a lot of stages and levels, and has struggled to stick on pay-up-front or to jump in F2P. I’m mostly concerned about whether the kind of “level-based” games can really adopt F2P model well.

  7. (Please remove my previous bad-formatted comment)

    Recently I notice a trend that many games start to integrate in-game currency purchase options via IAP. It seems a no-brainer decision, however, I see that few games design the gameplay with in-game currency from the root.

    In my opinion, I consider Tiny Tower as a brilliant case which is doing F2P right. My thoughts on Tiny Tower can be found here:

    I’m currently developing an action/arcade game featuring a lot of stages and levels, and has struggled to stick on pay-up-front or to jump in F2P. I’m mostly concerned about whether the kind of “level-based” games can really adopt F2P model well.

  8. I had a similar post a while back with some thoughts on what you can charge for:


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  10. Now that you brought that up, yes its very good that companies create F2P games because it gives the players to have a quick preview of how the game works and when the players are loving to play it more they can eventually pay for it  that includes the extra features and etc. For example a good game that both is called Runescape. This game lets you play for free exlcuding some of its features but its still a good game to try out and when you want to play for its extra features you can just simply upgrade and play with more maps, weapons, armor and etc.

  11. I think a neat work-around for cheats, is to make an Achievement for completing the game or a level without any cheats.  Then you can play the game through just to finish it and you have some replay-ability to try and do it again without cheating.  Not unlike completing a Casey’s level just to meet the objective and then completing it again to get all the stars.  As you know, completing a CC level without all three stars wasn’t an option for some gamers.  🙂

  12. Hi, Noel.

    I think the article you linked to is misleading. First, it’s a bit muddy about how they got the data. I assume they don’t have access to Apple’s numbers so it’s an estimation of some sort. Second, even if FTP games account for a larger share of profits it does not automatically mean that individual publishers win. What you might be seeing is a larger sum of money spread over a huge number of games.
    So if my latter speculation is true, then you really want to be a gatekeeper, not the seller. You want to make as many games as possible or you want to control the platform where the playing happens. (From what I hear Zynga is doing both of these things).

    There are also other questions about FTP models, such as: how will you deal with the inevitable conflict of interest (e.g. putting unnecessary limitations that players need to buy their way from, as opposed to selling content); dealing with market saturation (when more stuff is mostly free, with premium options, then more people will just switch from one free game to another and neither one will get the money).

    Also consider that the linked article talks about App Store and so it implies a very specific setting (think people playing on a bus), while certain games for other systems been collecting profits comparable to that of blockbuster movies. You can watch free cartoons on TV, yet people pay for the entertainment a movie theater provides. If you neglect these people somebody else will come and take their money.

    OK, I suppose that’s about enough. I actually came here to read what was advertised on another website as your review of unit testing frameworks. But their link was dead.

  13. I think IAP got justifiably a bad reputation. For the worst offenders see Jon Steward Daily Show item on tap fish, and there is that wheelbarrow of smurf berries abomination.

    But the distinction between good and evil is a bit easier to make if you use Apple’s terminology.
    Non consumable IAPs are never evil.
    Consumable IAPs often are.

    I wish iTunes would put this distinction not only in APIs but also IN THE FACES OF CONSUMERS. Make the consumable iap dialogue in flashing red, and keep non consumable IAPs in the current blue colour.

    Problem solved!

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