"Looking at the success of the F2P model"
By NeoMc - May 14th, 2020
Something that continues to baffle me to this day is the f2p (free to play) model. Up until this decade, people just paid for things outright. Games were released with only one single paywall: the price to purchase the game itself. How did games like Fortnite take over YouTube? Why is Valorant streaming over 1.5M viewers on Twitch right now? How can mobile competitive games such as Brawl Stars afford to put on million dollar tournaments?! In this blog post, I want to take an in-depth look at several "famous" paid games, and compare them to some of the biggest F2P titles on the market to see exactly what makes them so appealing!
The objective of this blog is to highlight the potential of the F2P model, but my secondary objective is to get you thinking! Rewind a few decades ago and you will find that every game (well, there could have been a few F2P out there) released was just locked behind a single-purchase paywall. Here in 2020, F2P games are the biggest thing on the market. Why did this change? What makes the F2P model so powerful? And where else in the real world can the F2P model be implemented?
But before I dive deep into things, let me briefly summarize some factors I plan to talk about for each of the following games. So without further ado, let's get our hands dirty!
Common Game Design Factors:
- Accessibility: What is keeping a player from playing your game? Is it a rating (such as T for teen or M for mature)? Is the game locked behind a paywall?
- Longitivity: What about this game is going to keep it alive? What factors of this game can appeal towards viewers to keep your players interested? Does the game allow for some kind of "player creative input" for content creators?
- Replayability: What about this game keeps people playing? Is there some kind of system that makes each round of the game feel different? What sets apart each round of the game?
- Selling Point: What makes the game unique? What about the game is going to set it apart from the other games out there with active playerbases? How could they be convinced to join this game and stick around?
- Rewards: What kind of system exists to keep players playing? Is there an economy system like TF2, or a golden guns system?
- Monetization Model: How does this game make money? Is the income sustainable? Does this model damage the accessibility of players interested in playing the game?
- Social Model: Does the game support voice/text chat? Does it have some kind of friends and guilds system? Does it utilize some external platform such as the XBox App or Steam to fluidly incorporate friends into the interface?
During this blog post, I am going to talk about five different games (some F2P and some paid): Minecraft, Overwatch, Fortnite, Valorant, and Brawl Stars. At the end I will summarize what makes the F2P games stand out so much in this competitive games market!
Oh man, where do I even begin with Minecraft... Mojang AB released Minecraft back in 2009, and the game started out as a silly experiment produced by none other than Notch himself! Since launch, the game has been updated again and again to change the survival experience.
I will touch on both the game itself as produced by Mojang and the community's additions. Let's first start with the factors list.
Minecraft Factors List (Native Singleplayer):
- Accessibility: Minecraft has a basic game paywall, $26.95 USD. The game contains no other monetization models in itself. It also does not have any ESRB restriction and is listed as an E game.
- Longitivity: Minecraft has survived for 11 years so far solely because of its community. Natively the game contained nothing that could have "realistically" kept a playerbase coming back. Once you complete Singleplayer or Hardcore once, that's that (if you catch my drift).
- Replayability: Minecraft was not designed with replayability specifically in mind. The game's randomization of world seeds is the only "true replayability factor" in my mind (from the native game).
- Selling Point: Minecraft is incredibly unique by itself. It supported Multiplayer, had a one-of-a-kind experience, and showcased an infinite world in a blocky universe. The game since has become a stronger product as it continues to receive updates.
- Rewards: The satisfaction of completing the game by defeating the Ender Dragon on Hardcore.
- Monetization Model: There isn't one. The game was sold under a simple pricetag, just like a book or a toy.
- Social Model: Minecraft supports text chat as well as multiplayer gameplay.
As you can see, this game didn't have anything that should have kept it going. But Mojang decided to do one single thing that saved this game and took it to the moon and back! They left creative doors open...
Over the years, players have used the in-game additions to design custom worlds and servers to provide creative experiences Mojang could have never imagined! Mojang also listened to feedback over the years and integrated it into the game (that's how we got basic variables/scoreboard, gamerules, parameters, redstone mechanics, command blocks, etc.)!
By doing so, they increased the game's longetivity and replayability tenfold! Servers like Hypixel offered their own slew of rewards and took multiplayer farther and farther on (and even created some competitive gamemodes)! The customization also attracted the social attention of both YouTube and Twitch, cementing the game in infamy as one of the best-selling games of all time. What baffles me is how accessible the game is, even on a price tag of nearly $30! Minecraft (roughly) has sold over 180 MILLION COPIES across all of its platforms and now even supports partnered servers and companies through its Bedrock platform (Microsoft managed).
Minecraft has done well. Very well. How much better could it have been though if they had offered Bedrock edition for free and simply left the Marketplace open as a revenue source? Could that have been even more profitable? We may never know!
The game was an international phenomenon. Based off of the F2P shooter Team Fortress 2, Overwatch boasted a new generation of ability-based shooter games using teamwork and teamplay to win! The game was one of the most desired games of 2016... So what happened to it? I have some answers as well as evidence to show where things went wrong. But first, here is the trend graph according to Google.
Launch day was the 100 trend peak. The game truly was something else, but where did the players go? What happened? I may have some insights. Let's lay out the factors.
Overwatch Factors List:
- Accessibility: Game is locked behind a paywall of (currently) $20 USD on PC. I recall the game costing $60 when I bought it in 2017, and I got it during a sale for about $35. The game also sells lootboxes (which can be earned through gameplay) for the variety of events they run throughout the year.
- Longitivity: Overwatch wasn't designed to specifically be "lasting." They hoped the game had enough content in it to keep players around. The dev team also worked to continue releasing new maps and heroes post-launch to the community, which does temporarily bring buzz back.
- Replayability: Overwatch boasts an incredible cosmetics model with thousands of unlocks! I'm a gold border and I just now finished unlocking all non-event skins! They also have a golden-gun system (very satisfying I might add) for competitive players. The game also has such a wide variety of maps and heroes in the cast that no two rounds of the game ever feel similar!
- Selling Point: The uniqueness of Overwatch is definitely the selling point. What other game brings this kind of teamplay to a 3D shooter? What other game demands a massive iron knight to shield a team of DPS players with a support angel and a famous musician healing the team?!
- Rewards: As mentioned earlier, golden guns and cosmetics for the heroes.
- Monetization Model: Game costs a raw price, and there is also a "collector's edition" for another $20. They also sell lootboxes to let players dodge hours of gameplay to earn them organically.
- Social Model: Overwatch supports grouping, parties, friends, text chat, and team voice chat.
So what happened to Overwatch exactly? Two things mainly: the nature of the game and the lack of customization. Overwatch is a hectic game and can be quite difficult to follow! Think of it as an extremely fast-acting chess match with players moving out of turn. Second, Overwatch was just... Overwatch. You couldn't make custom gamemodes during the game's peak. You couldn't design a gamemode that emulates COD zombies or make a mode where players morph into Thomas the Tank and "Reinhardt Charge" at each other (this is how you get views in today's YouTube). Overwatch did introduce a workshop mode... but it was years too late!
The vast majority of players also dipped due to the nature that abilities can superceede skill. Overwatch is a game filled with crowd control abilities, which do ruin the experience for the other players. You only have to face a bunker-style shield comp harboring a Bastion once before you decide Fortnite is less toxic...
Overwatch is a game locked behind a paywall that has been getting constant updates over the years (like Minecraft). The lack of customization and expressive creativity killed the game, as well as general distaste at the crowd control in the game. Could Overwatch have survived if they had a F2P model? Well there may be some good news...
Some initial evidence has suggested that OW2 may follow a F2P battlepass model! This is quite exciting to think about, especially since a lot of people wouldn't "buy Overwatch to play with their friends." Developer interviews have suggested the game might find other creative ways to make money. But offering the game for free already raises their potential audience tenfold... We may just have to wait and see what they come up with.
Now we will move on to the F2P games, and I've decided to start with... this... game. Fortnut is a game that has undeniably taken the world by storm. A cartoony F2P shooter in a world with Minecraft's color scheme? Tons of creative and colorful skins? BUILDING AND 90s?! Sign me up (said everyone).
The game has peaked, yet it still is holding its own. Why? Well, let me just open the trending page of YouTube... Fortnite Creative has taken the game to new heights, but how? What sets this game apart from Minecraft? Well, let's measure the success by looking at Fortnite's factors.
Fortnite Factors List:
- Accessibility: Game is free. Anyone can download it at any time. It "should" be locked to a Teen audience thanks to its ESRB rating, but there is little to no enforcement of that.
- Longitivity: The game was dying, but then they released Fortnite Creative Islands and introduced sharing codes. They essentially replicated Minecraft's mapmaking concept, but integrated it into the game to avoid any complications. No searching for game save file data, no complications of game save versions, everything is backwards compatible... Truly a perfect system.
- Replayability: Every game of Fortnite is different. The actual BR modes have so much character to the world that it isn't possible to fully bore yourself of it. They also release constant updates to tweak the map and frequent balance changes.
- Selling Point: The building. 100% the building sets this game apart from other BR games. Fortnite is the MOST aggressive game in the BR genre, rewarding daring and aggressive plays over camping. 9 out of 10 times the winning player/team was the one that took the risks and rushed enemies. They also incorporate tournaments to give players a reason to keep logging back on to potentially have a chance at winning money.
- Rewards: Gameplay rewards. They offer back blings, pickaxes, and other cosmetics as rare free gifts to players.
- Monetization Model: Skins skins skins. Fortnite sells skins and other cosmetic items ranging from about $5 to $20 each. There is also a battle pass offered each season with 7 custom skins, loads of emotes, and tons more.
- Social Model: Friends and parties. There is no text chat, and this is probably for the best.
Why has Fortnite survived so far? Well first of all, it is a free game. Anyone can download it at any time, and the game receives a slew of updates every month. Not to mention YouTube is absolutely flooded with Fortnite content that continues to pull more and more viewers...
Fortnite makes some stupid money on their cosmetics... They give out their game for free, so their audience is basically the entire planet (I know right... insane). Yes they have to translate the game to different languages to cross that diversity barrier, but translation costs are usually cheap.
Epic Games has soared thanks to their Fortnite sales. The company launched their own game platform with the intent to rival Valve's Steam and other big game platforms. They also have an INSANE revenue share, letting game devs keep 88% of all sales!
Truth be told, Valorant is a unique game. The developers announced this game only a few months ago under the psuedoname "Project A," later renamed to Valorant. All of the sudden, poof: Game is out and in closed beta! Not only did the game seem to be developed in only a year, but Riot has put their full support behind this game. Riot offers 128 tick servers (for comparison, Minecraft runs at 20 ticks per second. That's over 6x quicker!) and tons of features other games cannot compare to such as a kernel-level anticheat (I have a list of complaints against Vanguard) and ping protection (your crappy ping can't save you now!).
Valorant hasn't been released yet, so this is a review and analysis based on initial impressions.
Valorant Factors List:
- Accessibility: Game is free to play. However, the game is under a closed beta. In order to gain access, players have to engage with Twitch streamers playing the game to have a chance of randomly being given an invite.
- Longitivity: Hard to say, but Riot has managed to keep LoL a big thing for well over a decade. A F2P Counter-Strike remake does have potential.
- Replayability: Game is in closed beta, so it is a bit early to make a judgement. There currently are 10 agents and an exp system designed to give you some neat exclusive items for helping support the beta.
- Selling Point: It's a combination of Counter-Strike and Overwatch. Time will tell if players appreciate this. Riot also states the game will always come down to raw skill, being a shooter-based game with abilities (rather than the contrary with Overwatch).
- Rewards: Right now you can activate contracts to collect exp to unlock the 3 agents you didn't select after playing your first few games. Riot is also handing out some closed beta cosmetics like gun buddies as a thank-you to the community for playing the beta.
- Monetization Model: Skins. It is unclear if the agents will get skins, but at the moment the store sells skins for your guns and knives. They are also running a clever promotion that will return all the cosmetic currency to you (plus some) as a thank you for supporting the closed beta. If you paid them $30 for skins now, they will give you that $30 back in bonus points when the game launches plus a little extra.
- Social Model: Uses Riot system to connect friends from other games like LoL, and parties.
I'll refrain from talking too much more about the game while it is in closed beta, but it has the potential to be big. Riot is a huge company with the knowledge and potential to take this game as high as Fortnite... Get good at it while you still can!
This game isn't quite as large as the rest, but it still is interesting to see a successful Supercell mobile game doing well with a F2P model this effective. I figured I'd cover this game as well.
The game isn't as large as the PC games are, but think of the accessibility. Nearly everyone owns a smartphone in 2020. Your audience is potentially even LARGER than consoles and home PCs can reach! Now let's look at the factors.
Brawl Stars Factors List:
- Accessibility: Game is free to play. You could play the game and never spend a penny.
- Longitivity: Not too great, but the game is being updated so frequently that the audience is still present.
- Replayability: The game has seasons (after 2 weeks, your brawlers over a 575 trophies are dropped back towards 500 and you are given comp points), and you gradually earn brawler points to power up your heroes and make them stronger. The game can technically be played infinitely, yet reaching trophy heights does bring you into incredibly sweaty games.
- Selling Point: It's basically LoL on phones but with a slew of changes. The characters are all fun and bright, the game features a BR mode, and it has effective skill queuing to keep the sweats out of the new player games.
- Rewards: As of today, there is now a Battle Pass. Completing it yields coins, gems, brawler points, new brawlers, emotes, and more. The game gives you tokens for playing the gamemodes and you are able to tally them up to upgrade your brawlers! You can also save gems to spend on cosmetics like brawler skins.
- Monetization Model: Skins and the battlepass.
- Social Model: Friends and text chat. They also support clubs, which is a remake of the clans system they released for Clash of Clans and Clash Royale. This is a feature that is incredibly underrated in video games, and IMO has the potential to raise video games to higher levels!
Brawl Stars is an incredibly successful game. They have a (IMO) perfect F2P model being executed here, and I do hope the game continues to thrive. It is quite a lot of comedic fun, and very rarely do I actually find any aspect of the game irritating. The balance changes can be a bit strange at times, but otherwise the game is truly a product of an incredibly intelligent development team.
The power of the F2P model
Assuming you read/skimmed what I have spent three hours writing above, you have seen some of the ups and downs of paid games. Let me finish this article by outlining the aspects of a strong F2P game and some other comments I have.
A Solid F2P Game Factors List:
- Accessibility: Game is free to play. Preferably rated E for everyone as to allow for the maximum audience.
- Longitivity: Have an update model planned. Never assume a game can last forever if left alone. Listen to your community, they know best. Also, be sure to find ways to keep in touch with your community (whether it be dev update videos, blog posts, Discord communication in a game Discord, etc.). Try to find ways to allow your players to show their creative outlets, this will allow content creators to keep spinning the game in new ways.
- Replayability: Build a cosmetic model for your game. This is where the money is these days!
- Selling Point: Give your game something special to make it stand out from all the rest!
- Rewards: Build some reward system. It could be experience, tokens, in-game currency, etc. Make sure that every round a player plays of your game yields them something that makes their account different than the last.
- Monetization Model: A lot of games offer "quicker advancement" for purchase. Other games allow you to "buy your way" up the ladder, especially in economy-like games. But it all comes down to cosmetics and battlepass/roadmap concepts. This is how you make your money.
- Social Model: Friends system and parties are a must! Text chat can be optional depending on the game. I highly recommend making guilds systems to try to allow players to link together and create a community together. It also can improve the Multiplayer experience, especially in comp-heavy games.
The old paywall model worked back in the day, but it is time to update. F2P takes away every barrier stopping a player from checking out your game and opens the doors to everyone! Think of the games like GTA where you could imagine nights filled with car-smashing shenanigans... but your friends don't want to buy it. Imagine how much larger these games could have been, and how much higher the heights they could have reached if they were F2P and accessible to everyone!
To conclude, I also noticed one trend in many of the successful games that I find quite interesting. What do Fortnite, Overwatch, Minecraft, and Warframe have in common? I'll some it up in one single word: lore.
Overwatch built a universe. It created characters with lores, and wove them all together to create this massive story. A story of an agency that was brought together to fight against the evils of the world: Overwatch. Some drama happened, and a terrorist organization was formed by the name of Talon. The objective of Talon? To instill chaos into the world to force it to rise up and unite. Overwatch connects you with the heroes of their universe, and tries to make you feel for them. This is a similar strategy to what people do in movies and television shows...
Man, their OW2 announcement trailer "Zero Hour" actually drew tears from me. Winston recognized the futility of a fight against an onmic mega-bot after it blew an entire section of Paris down to rubble. He was ready to die for his friends, hoping they could escape to fight another day. But all of the sudden, Genji comes soaring down from a rooftop, deflecting a colossal blast of energy directly back at the behemoth. The music, the animation, and the conclusion pulls on your heart.
So my advice to any aspiring game devs out there? Build a game. Tell a story. Make it F2P and try to ask for cosmetic purchases in support. Above all, build a universe that people will remember. And don't be afraid to let people see it early in a closed beta.
Do you agree? Let me know, let's chat about this! Thanks for reading through, and let's keep pushing the limits of game design one large step at a time!
Michael - NeoMc
@NeoMcCreations on Twitter | discord.gg/neomc