NZGDC14: Would you like fries with that? Part one
27 September 2014

This article originally appeared on  By Keith Barclay.

Two sessions delved in some depth into issues around monetisation in free to play games. First up, Gameloft’s Fawzi Mesmar spoke about what did and didn’t help players open their wallets. Later, Runaway’s Tim Nixon investigated the price of butterflies.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

Mesmar has worked on a bunch of well-known titles including Ice Age Adventures, My Little Pony – Friendship is Magic, Littlest Petshop, Wonder Zoo and Persona 3 Social for a bunch of companies including Gameloft, Atlus and Aranim on a bunch of platforms including PC, Xbox, Facebook, iOS and Android.

During that work he’s developed a pretty good sense of what cheers people up and what pisses them off while they’re playing games.

“How many of you have spent money in a free to play game?” he asked, smiling as hands crept up unwillingly. “That hesitation before you raised your hands is what were going to talk about today.”

His theory was that people are ashamed of paying for it when they’ve been led to think they’re going to get it for free. Which is not an unreasonable reaction, so Mesmar was all about reframing the environment so that people could enjoy playing – whether they played for free or payed to play.

The major reasons people felt like they were being cheated, he claimed, were

From a design perspective, what could be changed and how could it be changed?

One thing you can’t change, Mesmar reckoned, is that winning without spending a cent feels a whole lot better. There’ll always be people who stop playing when they reach a point where they “have to” pay. Sometimes “have to” really means “have to”, as in coming up against a paywall and having to make a definite choice: pay to play or don’t play and go home. Hitting a paywall is the biggest trigger for shedding users.

For whatever reason, 90% of a f2p game’s players spend zip, whether they try a game once or stick with it for a while. 90% of a developer’s income will come from 5% of players, and a substantial portion of that from a much smaller number, the “whales” addicted to your game.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that if a f2p game is going to become profitable, it needs a massive user base. It’s not the ideal territory in which to launch very targeted niche interest apps.

When PikPok recently announced that Into the Dead had achieved 30 million downloads, that sounded (and was) a massive achievement. But, from a business point of view, only 1.5 million of those people at most are doing anything helpful for the company’s bottom line.

If you’re going to work with a f2p model, and very few developers in the mobile space are doing anything else at present, then you need to be doing everything you can not to discourage people from spending money.

In terms of approach, those things include how you treat paying users and non-paying users; whether you allow pay to win; how well your paid elements are integrated into the game – both artistically and mechanically.

If you’re not doing those things right, Mesmar suggested, you’re missing out on opportunities to give users the best experience – and if you’re not giving them the best experience they’re even less likely to throw money at you.

Apart from paywalls, what annoys users?

Sometimes “have to pay” doesn’t really mean “have to”. It just means the fun is gone if you don’t. To use a common example, the refill time becomes so long that your interest in continuing to play has gone before the refill time has passed. Either way, the user is gone and, with them, the chance to take money from them.

Tinkering with refill times is possible, to find the points where more people decide it’s worth paying than either waiting it out or giving up.

Pay to win is certainly unpopular, except with people who are prepared to pay to win. The feeling that the only way to complete something is to part with money is not a good one in a game that’s been “sold” to you as f2p.

There’s a grey area rather than a fixed line separating pay to win from other times of upgrade. Speeding up isn’t regarded as pay to win, although you might need the patience of Job and Lotto-winning genes to live long enough to complete come games without paying to skate over the refill times.

However, in answer to a question about energy mechanics in f2p games, Mesmar noted they weren’t very popular on mobile games generally. They might help player retention, he said, but cautioned that with energy boosts a game can become boring and winning or advancing require very little effort – and therefore deliver little satisfaction. In his opinion, you might monetise once from offering energy, but not more often.

During the Q&A someone asked Mesmar, “Does f2p target lazy gamers?”

Diplomatically, he responded, “Convenience is the basis of f2p. As long as there’s a way to do it by grinding, it’s fair.”

There are plenty of ways in which to offer opportunities which enhance experience but don’t affect gameplay, such as so-called “vanity items”. Being able to individualise your playing character, by buying different items of clothing for example, is popular. It’s also endless, provided you’re willing to keep adding new clothes.

Pony Ma, CEO of Chinese online social network and game site Ten Cent, famously asked his game designers to make the clothes they had for sale ingame degrade if players performed actions like climbed trees or slid down gravel banks. He figured people would buy more clothes that way.

Things you could do to enhance user experience:

“How do you feel about monetising through merchandising and licensing?” was the last question for Mesmar. “What works best?”

“If I could predict that I’d be making my own games,” Mesmar answered. “But, if someone had told me about the idea for Skylanders five years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it would work.”

As he often does, Mesmar shared the slides from his presentation on his blog, Retro Gamer.