What You Ought To Know About Free-To-Play Games; Interview With David Fratto

January 23, 2015
David Fratto - NYFA Game Design Instructor
Photo provided by David Fratto.

David Fratto is a game executive who has worked as a developer and publisher for companies like Knowledge Adventure, Vivendi Games, Scholastic Media, and the BBC.  He currently teaches in the game design program at NYFA’s Los Angeles campus.

NYFA: We keep hearing about the “freemium” or “free-to-play” model for games.  What is it exactly?

David Fratto: When people talk about free-to-play these days, they’re talking about games – such as mobile games, MMOs, and Facebook games – that don’t require an up-front purchase to play them. Instead, players can choose when and if they want to pay. Usually, they’ll pay for extra powers, or extra content, or to help them out when they get stuck in the game. That’s how Candy Crush became so successful. When players get frustrated with not being able to complete a level, they can purchase power-ups to make the level easy enough for them to finish.

NYFA: Isn’t that kind of like cheating?

DF: I guess so, if that’s how you want to look at it.  But really this free-to-play model gives players a choice of how they want to play – easy or hard. In Candy Crush, free-to-play also let’s players by-pass some of the social hooks in the game, like requiring them to ask friends for tickets to unlock new narratives. If they don’t want to wait for that – or if they’re embarrassed to announce to the world that they’re actually playing the game – they can simply purchase their way to new content.

NYFA: Is that all there is to it, then?

DF: Not any longer. Over the past few years since free-to-play games have become so popular, game designers and producers are introducing lots of different ways to use purchases in the game. Originally, it was mostly purchasing energy, which allowed players to stay in the game for longer periods of time, or purchasing virtual currency to buy things in the game – like new characters, or weapons, or even decorations.

But now if you look at the Apple App Store or Google Play, pretty much all games are now free-to-play.  So the ways this model is used is becoming increasingly more varied. A lot of times, the point of free-to-play purchases are to help the player get through the game more quickly or more easily. But now free-to-play includes games like the Walking Dead games from Telltale, where players purchase additional episodes of the game, or puzzle games that start off with free content but require the player to purchase additional puzzles if they’re really enjoying the experience.

NYFA: So I take it you don’t think free-to-play games are evil?

DF: Yeah, I saw that episode of South Park, where the boys become addicted to a Terence and Phillip mobile game. It turned out that the game was developed by Satan, and free-to-play was just an evil scam. The show was very funny, but no, I don’t agree with it!  Instead, I see free-to-play games as a way of giving players more choice.  So with free-to-play models, players can try out a game, and if they like it, they can invest their hard-earned cash. If they don’t like it, well then, they can just stop playing, and they’re out nothing except the time they invested.

This of course has some downsides. For one thing, it means that players download a whole lot of games these days, but only stick with a very few of them. That’s very different from buying a console game. There, you might pay $50 or $60 for a game, so you have a lot more incentive to actually play it!  When you download a free game, on the other hand, if it doesn’t grab you immediately, you’re much more likely to just delete it from your phone. But frankly, lots of entertainment works that way. Television is free – at least network television – so producers need to make sure they capture their audience’s attention almost immediately, or at least enough for the viewer to come back next week. It’s pretty much the same for free-to-play games.

NYFA: But television succeeds because of advertising. A free-to-play game requires players to actually pull out their credit cards, no?

DF: Well, some free-to-play games now actually use advertising very effectively, to the point where they can succeed almost solely based on the revenue they generate via ads. But that’s a minority at this point, and anyway, a lot of gamers have a visceral reaction against anything that interrupts game flow, like ads popping up on their screen. So at this time, yes, most free-to-play games rely on purchases within the game to generate revenue. On that front, though, the model is very different from, say, a console game. Instead of everyone paying something, only a small percentage of players ever pay anything.  For most games, it’s less than 5% – and often, it’s a lot less.

NYFA: Just 5% of players actually pay? It must cost them a fortune!

DF: Some players can invest quite a bit of money into a single game – if they’re really enjoying it. But for free-to-play to be successful, it usually relies on a very large audience of players. So even if it’s just 5% who pay, that 5% is still a relatively large number. However, at least right now that’s proving to be a successful and sustainable model.

NYFA: It’s seems to me, then, that the challenge is to encourage enough players to pay, correct? If so, do you have any best practices you’d recommend to ensure that the game makes money?

DF:  Since free-to-play games are relatively new, they’re constantly evolving. That said, there are certainly ways to help – maybe not ensure – but at least give your game a fighting chance. First and foremost, of course, is quality – the game has to be good. Especially with players having so many choices, the game needs to keep their attention, and the best way to do that is to develop a good game. It’s also important that once a player sits down to play, they stay in the game. Long play sessions are one of the best ways to encourage players to monetize – to make a purchase. To that end, giving them lots of choices as to what they can purchase is important. Some players might want to bypass difficult parts of your game, others might want to purchase new content, still others might want to purchase clothes for their avatar. For free-to-play games, the game designer needs to understand the different types of people who will play their game, and they different ways they might be enticed to make a purchase.

It’s also true that free-to-play games are encroaching on more traditional game platforms, not just mobile. Even MMOs and console games are getting into the picture. So you really need to understand what motivates your audience – both to play and to pay.

NYFA: So you’re saying that if I’m an independent game developer, I can no longer charge people for my game? That it needs to be free-to-play?

DF: I wouldn’t go that far.  Certainly lots of successful games these days are free-to-play. And for an independent developer with a limited track record, free-to-play might be the path of least resistance since it’s easier to acquire new players. However, there are still successful games that use more conventional business models. Minecraft is one – you have to pay for it up-front. The new Monument Valley game is another – it’s been very successful over the past few months.

There’s also no question that there’s some backlash against free-to-play. I think a lot of that has to do with the amount of bad games that are released, and way too many copycats. But frankly, since free-to-play games really need to attract an enthusiastic audience to be successful – players won’t pay a dime if they’re not enjoying the experience – I expect that the number of mediocre games will gradually diminish as publishers realize that quality still matters, and even for free-to-play games, it matters a lot.