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Mad About Free-to-Play Video Games? Try Being Happy Instead.

"Anyone today looking for entertainment is a kid in a candy store where there's no price tag on anything."

i Am Other

The dominant business model in video games, particularly on mobile devices, is free to play; not everyone agrees that it should be called that, but the idea is simple: Pay nothing to download a game from a digital storefront like iTunes, and then optionally pay up later to buy in-game items, unlock new levels and so on.

Proponents say it’s the wave of the future as gamers shift to digital. Critics say free-to-play games disrupt game design, and not always in ways that benefit the end user.

At the Game Developers Conference earlier this month, a slew of speakers argued that the way to make the latter group happy is to do it from within the games. Treat players with a gentler, more respectful touch, and — maybe — they’ll turn from enemies of your business model into eager paying customers.

On its face, that might seem obvious. But even mega developers like Riot Games, which makes the blockbuster free-to-play game League of Legends, sometimes drop the ball.

“When you’re at the kind of size we are, when you make a mistake, a lot of people suffer,” said lead designer Ryan “Morello” Scott of the game, which made an estimated $1.3 billion in revenue from 80 million players last year, according to digital research firm SuperData. Scott said the “oil and water” of business and game design don’t mix at Riot, but the fact remains that he and his colleagues must convince League’s growing audience, who all pay nothing to start, to make a commitment rather than flit to some other free game.

“Let’s make cool stuff that people want to buy, and then they’ll want to buy it,” he said.

In a separate mobile-focused talk, Amazon developer evangelist Mike Hines said games should introduce the act of buying things in their tutorials, rather than springing the idea on players later in a game. Those that do, he said, turn more than twice as many players into payers.

And when developers do want players to make a purchase with their own money, he added, they should make sure it’s possible to buy something without exiting a level and losing progress.

“I want to buy what I need, right when I need it,” Hines said.

Perhaps the most candid free-to-play talk of the week was from Damion Schubert, a consulting design director for Boss Fight Entertainment who previously worked on EA’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, which doubled its revenue and added two million new players when it transitioned from paid to free.

Schubert said that although the old guard — including several developers at EA and elsewhere — may have to be sold on the idea, younger players are unhappy when they can’t get their entertainment for free. Developers must think of the free player as the normal player, he added.

“Anyone today looking for entertainment is a kid in a candy store where there’s no price tag on anything,” he said. “They only have to pay money if they have to emotionally commit to anything.”

To get there, Schubert cautioned developers away from asking players for money too quickly. He also rejected the industry term “whales,” common shorthand for a high-value player who spends a lot on a free-to-play game.

“That implies a fish to be caught,” he said. “These people are patrons, the kings and dukes who pay for art so that peasants might enjoy it. We can start by treating them with some fucking respect.”

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