Tobold's Blog
Friday, May 02, 2014
Separating the players from their money

The discussion on whether Free2Play games are good or evil is still going on, and on, and on, and on. But this week yet another MMO went Free2Play, and anybody hoping that this new business model is going away is clearly in denial. What I find a lot more interesting is what exactly people are spending money on, both in terms of which games and what items in games. Because obviously that is going to have a big influence on future game design.

If you look at the top 10 money-making Free2Play games, either in terms of average revenue per player or in terms of millions of dollars of revenue, you will find that the overwhelming majority is games in which players fight each other. In fact if you consider that the MMORPGs on the list all also have a PvP part, *all* of the top money-making games at least have elements of players directly competing against each other. There is a lot of psychology behind explaining why the most successful games are those that allow you to kill somebody else, and not cooperative or single-player games. Basically it allows people to feel superior to others in a video game, which is something they might especially crave if they are lacking success in the real world.

Thus it is not a surprise that people spend millions of dollars on cheats in video games. And if downright cheating is a huge money-maker, you can imagine how much more popular it is to buy things legally in a video game which gives you a slight advantage. Note that in spite of all the talk about whales and wallet warriors, the actual expenses per player are low: The cheat program costs $10.95 per month, the highest average revenue per player in a Free2Play game is $4.51. If you think that paying to win involves millionaires paying suitcases full of money to win a video game, you are wrong. First of all, the millionaire probably doesn't need a video game to feel superior, his Ferrari will do that for him. And then the games that sell you a better shot at success need to be more clever at selling stuff, because selling outright wins just drives the losers away.

People don't pay to win, they pay to do slightly better. Some companies managed to pull the wool over the eyes of their players so well that the players who don't pay to do better even deny that others pay to do better. You can have endless discussions how much exactly of an advantage is buying a champion or buying a gold tank compared to somebody who doesn't. But even if the advantage is tiny, people are motivated to buy for those small advantages. If you don't believe that, you would have to believe that in a world in which people pirate humble bundles, suddenly millions of players decide to give money to a game company for nothing.

The financial success of "paying for superiority" games suggests that we will see more and more of them. The competitive gene is strong in most video game players. You might not be able to make them pull out their wallet to pay for additional content in a non-competitive single-player game. But it appears rather easy to make them pay small sums to do better in a competitive environment.

I do believe that such a world exists. It's not even a hard thing to believe, because it turns out that not every person is the same. Some people can steal just because they can while others want to legitimately support things they enjoy. Because those people are _different people_. One person being a thief does not make all people thieves.

Skins really do provide no advantage and they really are what people spend money for in League of Legends.
Skins really do provide no advantage and they really are what people spend money for in League of Legends.

Show me the data! People spend money for champions and runes, which aren't just cosmetic. Where is your proof that people primarily spend money for skins?
I said on another topic that I spend more on Rift than WoW despite the former being free.

I bought mounts, cosmetic gear, op Leveling gear, race changes, bags /slots (even though I didn't need then) and some of those things you can sell on the AH for gold. Id buy XP boosts if I didn't seem to get so many for free.

As the cash shop currency can be bought on the AH you can argue that everything I buy can be earned by grinding gold so I am simply using money to save time.

As long as all the items could be purchased with gold then even when I buy op Leveling gear I am not buying power over others, I am just buying time.

Of course if that AH item to convert shop currency to gold and visa versa didn't exist it would be different.

Of course only PVP arena based games could survive on cosmetics alone as they have lower Dev costs than PVE games where content is consumed and regular updates are required.
I managed to flog 3 blog posts, multiple graphs and about 1,500 words on the impact of buying decks in Hearthstone (Final post here -

My final conclusion was incredably fuzzy except that spending money boosts gives you an imemdiate boost to your win ratio that slowly declines over time.

When I spend money on games it is normally because I've been tricked into it by a short term special offer. The appeal of getting a limited time availability skin or pet or anything completely outways that if I thought logically about it I wouldn't buy the item for he offer price either.
World of Tanks really concerns me with regards to this. Before WoT, I would have assumed games needed to be very subtle about the advantages you sell to players. For instance, selling runes and champions that are also available for free with IP (the in-game currency), or selling xp or IP boosts. All of this sends a strong message that a player who pays nothing can be just as strong...eventually.

Before WoT, I was certain players would overwhelmingly reject games that appeared "unfair" for free players.

But WoT is one of the more blatant pay-to-win games out there, and is perfectly popular with the highest ARPU (more than 3 times what LoL is pulling in per player). It worries me that while this isn't the best strategy to get my money, it may be optimal for enough players that many more games will evolve in this direction.
The genius of WoT is the averaging effect of playing with 29 other people in random matches.

Even if there are players who "buys" an advantage such as gold ammo, each side gets *on average* the same number of players using gold ammo and players who don't. So overall, the win/loss ratio is not affected so much.

Sometime you get crushed by a team with gold ammo users, another times they are on your side. The effective negative bias for a non paying player is 1/15 or 6.7% time the % of people playing with gold ammo so eventually only a few % hedge lost away.
"Games in which people fight each other are the most successful kind of FtP games but FtP doesn't mean PtW". Some might say that that's a better example of denial than hoping FtP will go away (which isn't denial at all, though *believing* it will go away might be.)
Who are these people spending money on runes? I simply don't believe they exist. The simple fact is you earn enough IP while playing the game to buy the runes you want. You can't even use the high end runes until you've played a lot of games, and during those games you'll have earned the IP to buy what you need. I've spend hundreds and I love to find any edge to win and I've never even considered buying an IP boost to get more runes because it simply wouldn't do anything.

I'm also not sure what kind of data you want me to supply? Anecdotes shouldn't be good enough even though every person I've ever talked to who spend money on LoL spent it in skins, not runes.

Do you want me to screenshot the loading screen for every game I play to show you just how many people have skins? I've been paying cursory attention since the last time you made one of these ludicrous claims and it blew my conservative napkin math out of the water. Every single game had skins and most have several people with skins. And once you consider how many champions there are and how apt you are to play one you don't own a skin for the odds of that happening are pretty slim if a lot of people hadn't bought a fair number of skins.

Is a new player going to spend money on skins? No. But a new player isn't going to spend money on anything. That's not how their business model is set up!

I don't think Riot has ever posted a breakdown (I certainly couldn't find one) but their president posted about their philosophy here:

The key bit being "And guess what else? Most game businesses focus on metrics like ARPU (average revenue per user) and try to build their entire companies and organizations around optimizing for driving to a sale (think Zynga). We do the OPPOSITE. We train our entire company to drive towards ENGAGEMENT. Meaning, MAKE COOL SHIT and deliver VALUE and if people PLAY enough because they love what we do, then they will WANT to spend money. Our focus is entirely different."

I mean, it's not like you have the data showing people are spending all their money on runes either. If we're willing to just accept the words of people on the internet then you might want to read something like .

Or maybe Forbes is more to your liking? They also explicitly call out how League of Legends is decided _not_ 'pay 2 win'.
I don't think Riot has ever posted a breakdown

Now imagine the company we were talking about was not Riot but EA. Wouldn't you be pretty certain that the reason they don't post that breakdown is exactly the one I wrote: That people in reality buy mostly the things that give them some (even if temporary or small) advantage?

Your expressed beliefs to me are only a reflection of the great PR of Riot, not necessarily of any reality.
I wish I could adequately explain it, but I have a serious mental issue with paying for even the most trivial item in a F2P game. In fact, I've played quite a few of them, and have never spent a dime. Nor have I stuck with any of them beyond the first month or so. Conversely I have relatively no problem paying $15/month for a subscription based game.

Why is this? Maybe it's because I view F2P purchases as a spigot I don't want to open, and I'm afraid that if I start buying items I'll be in the hundreds of dollars before I know it. Or maybe it's because as an explorer/completion-ist I need to know that everyone else in the game is playing by the same rules; i.e. no one is able to simply buy their way past any time sink.

With more and more games going F2P, apparently I'm in the minority. It's somewhat disheartening, because I know I'll never buy into the F2P model, either figuratively or literally.
Samus, I have to disagree pretty strongly with you on World of Tanks.

It's actually one of the fairest games out there. Sure, you can spend money to advance faster, or use slightly superior ammunition, but that's it. Since you play people in matches that are weighted for skill as well as tank levels, it's a far squarer deal than you would get in old school WoW PVP where you might get thrown in with a bunch of new-60s OR a bunch of people slamming it in Naxx gear.

Premium tanks are not a battlefield advantage, like, at all. The only reason to play them is they make lots of cash and so can reduce the time spent grinding, but since the matches are weighted this is an advantage that is irrelevant to winning.

WoT is successful precisely because it handles F2P so well. Hell, the major problem players seem to have is that they get cranky and get pissed because they can't seem to grasp the mathematical reality that the greatest player will lose 40-45% of pub matches where he isn't bringing in a bunch of ringers.
I disagree on the connection between free to play and competitive gaming. I think that as there is greater acceptance of free to play, it'll expand to cover a proportional amount of non-competitive gaming. People simply aren't as accustomed to it, and so you see a lot of hybrid models for single player content.

Games where it's free to play part of the game, but you have to pay to unlock the full game have been around for decades. Free demos, open betas, expansions, all that.

WoW lets you play for free up to level 20, then you pay to unlock to level 60, then pay a bit more for each expansion till max level. Just like how in TSW you can pay to unlock quest packs. Or like in Lotro you can pay to get access to new zones/classes. Or any game with episodic content, like the walking dead. Or all those endless expansions to the Sims games.

These all seem very similar to how free2play games work, but you're not paying for a competitive advantage, you're paying more to get more content.

It seems a bit disingenuous to say that because the games that make the most money from selling a competitive advantage tend to be competitive games, then people aren't willing to pay microtransactions for non-competitive games. It's begging the question.
No, I wouldn't make any sweeping assumptions about a game made by EA. I'd actually look at what they offered and I'd talk to the people who admit to paying money in and see if I could apply some critical thinking to the situation to see what people are likely to be buying.

Everything I have ever read or heard from anyone who actually plays the game (and not people who just spew invective from afar) indicates that League of Legends does make its money off of skins.
I burned out my F2P goodwill in D&D Online. This post and the link to the top games in F2P has made me realize that I am not a F2P gamer and am avoiding them succesfully....of all those games only GW2 is one I've played (or even heard of) and I've never spent a cent on it (nor felt the need).

So.....I think while F2P is here to stay, sure, it doesn't get my money and I will hope that there are still devs out there willing to cater to my preferred brand of gaming and methodology of payment --and of course there are; there will always be games which don't spin off the F2P model because they know my demographic exists and has money, it just needs better tricks to motivate us to part with that cash.
On a side note...interesting that Defiance is going F2P. All it's really doing is removing that final $10 barrier to entry (since the game typically sells for around $10 now).
Everything I have ever read or heard from anyone who actually plays the game (and not people who just spew invective from afar) indicates that League of Legends does make its money off of skins.

Yeah, because those players are likely to be extremely forthcoming about having bought an advantage in a competitive game. Why should the buying behavior of players in ONE game be extremely different from the buying behavior of the same players in every other game?
I don't want to be too down on FtP games - if that's the model that works best these days, it's hard to blame the developers for taking advantage. Personally I'm the sort who can generally enjoy the free version and take it as a challenge that my character is objectively weaker.

However, I don't have to like it. I put $15 each into Card Hunter and Mush because I enjoy them and because they are different and I like to encourage that. But also, both have models that allow you to spend $10-15 and be, if not quite the first-class citizen who pays a LOT, a second-class citizen with advantages that don't expire.

I still would prefer if they were pay once, play always for everyone. (Obviously legitimate expansions are okay.) It's a simple fact that the FtP payment model has erosive effects on gameplay that subscriptions or one-off payments do not.

Has it advantages? One might argue that it allows weaker players with money to compete on better terms than they are used to. Or that they buy that epic sword more to help their friends than to demonstrate their ePeen, which is nice, I suppose. And for those who have no money, I guess the free option is good too if you get a decent amount of play for it. All the same, I hope better models evolve that encourage towards better games.
I always say this but why do F2P games have to be fair to the free players?

You don't get much more fair than being allowed to use software/a service for free that cost an awful lot to develop and even more to maintain.

So long as enough of those players keep playing and providing content for patrons then it is fair enough. Should also say that I believe the free players are not as important to the patrons as they like to believe. I think most of these games have far more free players than they need to provide the content.

PVP games have low running costs so can survive on skins, but PVE costs a lot more and you have to extract more from the patrons. There is surely a cap to how many free players will convert to patrons purely to buy cosmetics and a cap to how much patrons will pay for said cosmetics.

I believe in PVE games that require constant development of new content, you can only convert enough free players to patrons and extract enough money from them if you are selling power or the perception of power.

If you "don't need to pay" then too many people won't pay.

If the cost of remaining competitive is no more than the cost of a monthly subscription then what is the problem here?! Even if it costs 300 euros a month to be competitive with the richest players, that simply means the game is "expensive" rather than unfair.

No different to having to buy an expensive 144hz monitor and a powerful GPU to remain fully competitive in an FPS with a traditional payment model. Same applies to force feedback wheel and pedals for racing games and flight sticks for those online air combat simulators.

There is always a price if you want to be competitive and in that sense life will never be fair.
Because there is no possible advantage to buy.

I don't deny that people would pay money to get an edge. I absolutely know they would. What I'm saying is you can't do it. I know people aren't doing it because there is no way for them to be doing it.

League of Legends isn't the only game I've played that refuses to sell power advantages. Path of Exile is pretty much the same way. They do sell some convenience items (more bank slots) on top of the vanity items, but they don't sell anything that makes you better at the game itself.
What I'm saying is you can't do it. I know people aren't doing it because there is no way for them to be doing it.

Let me quote a paragraph from the League of Legends Wikipedia entry for you:

Similar to masteries, runes affect gameplay in minor ways. Runes are categorized into Marks (offensive), Seals (defensive), Glyphs (magic) and Quintessences (utility). They must be unlocked in the Store; it is possible to own multiple copies of one rune. Summoners must arrange their runes in the Runebook to benefit from them. The Runebook has limited number of slots for each rune type, but more rune pages can be purchased from either Influence Points or Riot Points. Combining two equal-tier runes produces a random rune of the same tier, while combining 5 equal-tier runes produces a higher-tier rune.

The League of Legends Store allows players to purchase additional options through Riot Points (RP) and Influence Points (IP). Riot Points must be bought using real money, while Influence Points are earned by playing the game.

So what you are saying is simply not true. Players CAN buy an advantage for real money in the store, so they do. Besides runes, I always considered it an advantage to play with your owned champion instead of with an unknown one. Again, the advantage is tiny, but it is there. It is not *pure* fluff.
Again, those are things you acquire naturally over time. You earn enough IP to buy a full complement of runes and the champions you want just by playing the game.

Buying more runes increases your options but it does not increase your power.

Buying more champions increases your options but it does not increase your power.

A given champion might be 'overpowered' and you might feel you need to own that champion in order to be at maximum power. (Possibly true, but the champion is likely to be nerfed soon or banned anyway.) But even then if you've been playing games to know how 'overpowered' the champion is then you have enough IP to just buy them.

The fact is having runes definitely makes you better than not having runes. I don't deny that. What I deny is that you need to spend money to get runes. You get all the runes you need with time.

The bottom line is someone who spends money does not have any extra power compared to someone who doesn't spend money. The completely free player has the same in game power as the paying player.

I will never, ever play against an opponent who has an edge over me because he spent money. It simply cannot happen.
I will never, ever play against an opponent who has an edge over me because he spent money. It simply cannot happen.

Using your definition, League of Legends isn't special then. Even World of Tanks changed their gold ammo to be available to free players with enough time, so you will never play against an opponent who has the edge over you because he spent more money.

But most players don't see it like that. Arriving at a given level of power much earlier by the use of money feels like a definitive advantage to most people. People were outraged about the new Dungeon Keeper, and all it does is sell faster advancement, you can never get anything for money that a free player can't get for time.

Money for time is probably THE best-selling stuff in all Free2Play games.
I pay money in F2P games to get rid of irritations. For the most part I don't actually play PVP games, though, so the psychology is probably different.

One of the first things I'll do in any F2P game that I've deemed to be worth playing (for its mechanics/graphical quality) is to drop a few bucks on it to remove the most obnoxious wheel-clamps to your progress.

Mostly because you can count on them being there. That initial payment is usually what's required to get the 'intended experience', and hopefully reduce the number of times you'll see the game popping up to nag you with its hand out.

Nothing shits me off like frequent "Pay us!" nagging from a game, even when it does nothing to interrupt me. SWTOR has done a lot to re-vamp their model over the last year or so, but I personally still consider it 'unplayable' without being subscribed, purely because of the number of douche-bag notifications and wheel-clamps you get, pointing out you'd be having more fun and getting shinier things, subscribing.

Neverwinter is even worse, because it doesn't actually matter how much you pay, those fucking nagging, begging notifications and 'deals' aren't going anywhere. You can't pay to make them shut the fuck up and go away, they won't take an amount and walk away happy, they'll take what you give and ask for more. You can't make them shut up, so I don't play it anymore. Equally frustrating, it wants you to log in several times a day - playing 'optimally' requires a HUGE drain on your time.

But that's just the 'nag' factor. The BIGGEST turn-off is when there are gating mechanisms, such as energy bars to be replenished with cash.

It's one thing to get hassled by the homeless for your spare cash out front of the train station the same damn people, every damn day, but can you imagine if they were allowed to physically block your progress? Irritation would frequently turn to violence, which is kind of how I feel about energy bars. I don't just dismiss games that use them, I am actively hostile toward them.

This probably explains my extreme loathing of how Dungeon Keeper operates, beyond the pilfering and bastardization of my fond, nostalgic memories of the IP. I don't think I'm alone in the loathing of energy bars either, which is possibly part of why everyone ELSE got pissed off at Dungeon Keeper as well. (Besides baseline internet overreactions.)
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