A Free-To-Play Manifesto

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It pains me to see the gaming press groan and roll their blog-eyes each time a game announces that it will be free to play. But I don’t blame them; the free-to-play concept has been stretched and practically redefined in recent years, co-opted as a marketing tool and inappropriately used to describe all manner of monetization models that are kinda free to play, but not really. Not from the player’s perspective.

It’s time to take back “free to play,” to redefine what a customer can and should expect from such a game. In that spirit, we hold the following truths about free-to-play games to be self-evident:

1. “Free to play” is a contract. If we call our game free to play, it should be free to play – forever and without provisos. In our free-to-play games, you are not just welcome but cherished as a player for as long as you wish – whether money changes hands or not. By being honest with customers about the nature of our contract with them, we earn their trust and become partners rather than adversaries.

2. Our expectations should be in alignment with our design. If a game developer expects that only 10% of their players will ever consider paying them a nickel, why do their games work so hard to monetize the other 90%? Players are well-aware of the busy hands trying incessantly to access their goodies like a bad prom date, no matter how politely they brush them off. Constant, nagging sales pressure is fatiguing, it’s corrosive to the fourth wall, and it’s just un-fun.

Instead, we should strive to create a fun environment rich with possibilities, where we can demonstrate our premium value proposition to the 10% through experiences. Then, the offer of an upgrade is not only given consideration; it is welcome.

3. We ought to emulate toy stores, not crack dealers or the IRS. When players do make a purchase decision, we should leave them with the glee of having acquired an awesome new toy, rather than the shamed relief of having scored another hit or the grudging reluctance of having paid taxes.

Exploiting addiction neuropsychology works, but it doesn’t help us sleep well at night. Our goal is to create fun, not a generation of digital junkies.

4. Free does not mean “freeloader.” We should not fear players who never pay a cent. On the contrary, we should embrace them. Free players offer tremendous non-monetary value to our games and our business. It is the free players who populate our worlds with activity, variety, and community. It is their esteem that confers value on the rare virtual goods that we sell, and their aspirations for greatness that create a market for those virtual goods. Free players are the lifeblood of a free-to-play virtual world, and ought to be treated as such.

5. Our customers can handle the reality that a game is also a business. Part of the appeal of free-to-play games is the idea that you can get something for nothing. But the other side of that coin is that we’ve all been conditioned to be suspicious of anyone offering just that.

Honesty is the simplest and best way to allay such suspicion. We make money – proudly – by selling awesome virtual goods to a small percentage of our players who want to enhance their play experience and take it to the next level. This is how we stay in business and feed our families.

We’d love to become fantastically successful and wealthy some day, but that’s not why we do what we do. We do it because we love to create shared experiences where friends can interact, play, and achieve more together than they could alone. We do it because we love to create environments where people can meet, engage, laugh, quarrel, collaborate, triumph, and even compete with one another. And if your friends are like ours, some of them are able/willing to pay money for such games and some aren’t – but we still want to play with them. Because the most compelling, engaging, hilarious game experiences we remember were those we shared with friends, old and new. This is why we make games that are free to play.

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