Free To Play and Game Design Corruption

I seem to sow a lot of confusion when I attempt to communicate what it is about Free To Play games I don’t like, and so I felt it was finally time to lay out my thoughts and fears, explain exactly what it is that bothers me, and detail the reasoning which informs my opinions.

There is an implicit contract between a gamer and a game designer, which is that in exchange for the gamer’s patronage, the game designer will do his or her best to make the game as good as possible. The designer will look at every system, every input, and do the very best to make them reflect the game they are trying to make as closely as possible. For some games, this means making sure that every moment is fun and engaging, for others, it means crafting the mechanics such that they evoke an emotion, or an impression. But what is common for all of them is the unambiguous honesty with which the designer approaches the business of designing the game. Call this ‘pure’ game design, if you will.

When a game is provided with no expectation (or method) of remuneration, you know with certainty that the design is pure, and the intentions conscientious. The designer wants to give an experience, or communicate a thought, and there are no other considerations to interfere with the design.

If a game is sold at an up front cost, you know that while the designer may be trying to reach as wide an audience as possible, their goal is still to provide the best experience they can, within the bounds of their abilities and limitations. We can still expect that game design to be ‘pure’. After all, what use would there be to design in any other way, after you already have the gamer’s dollar? The design may stray towards questionable psychological mechanics to keep a player playing, but there is still nothing between the player and the game which would betray the implicit contract.

In politics, an implicit contract between the politician and the public is not enough, so there are rules of conduct, ethics guidelines, and laws. Conflict of interest laws exist because it is not possible to know whether a particular action was one of corruption, or if it was an action that would have happened regardless of the conflict of interest.

If a politician receives a donation to a fund he runs, and eventually awards a contract to a business owned by the individual or business who made that donation, was it corruption? Was it coincidence? Was it actually the best choice? The problem is that we cannot know an individual’s intention, but when it comes to financial gain, it’s not hard to assume the worst. The people involved may swear it wasn’t corruption, but it is impossible to actually know as fact. So rules exist so that we do not have to struggle with understanding a person’s intentions, and we can attempt to curb corruption.

We can see that simply the expectation of corruption is enough to require a modification of behaviors, so that it can not only be avoided, but the accusations of corruption can be equally avoided.

If a game is Free To Play, and the available game purchases are not informed by game mechanics, and do not influence game mechanics, then you can assume that the design is pure. League of Legends is a good example of this. It is competitive, and F2P, but purchases do not affect the balance of the game. You can buy skins, and you can unlock new champions, but the mechanics do not change, and your purchases do not give you an edge. Being a competitive game, the design must be pure, or it couldn’t be so popular. (You can, apparently, speed up your XP acquisition rate, which allows you to buy more runes, but I have been informed that runes are trivially cheap and that this is not functionality which could give someone an edge).

If you can pay money in order to win at a Free To Play game, either as points in leaderboards, or in direct victory over an opponent, then the game design has implicitly been corrupted, and we need not visit it further. After all, you have enabled a system where a player who pays money will easily triumph over a player who does not. At the very least, this kind of action requires an unbalanced time investment from the non-paying player, which is not honest game design.

However, if a game is Free To Play, and the available game purchases alter the game mechanics, or the game experience, we are in the terrible position of suspecting corruption. Design decisions for the game could be a product of pure game design, or they could be made based on metrics that suggest slowing advancement by a perfect percentage would convert more users to paid players. Like a politician who awards a contract to a donor, we can never truly know if the result was deserved, coincidence, or corruption. A designer has absolutely no incentive to be honest about their motivations, and so we can never know if the game design was pure.

However, it is even more complex than that. We cannot know how much the knowledge that it was a F2P game influenced the designer, even if subconsciously. To go even deeper, I don’t believe that any designer worth the name would ever design a game ignoring what it is supposed to be. So now we are stuck in an unfortunate paradox, where I don’t believe it’s possible for a design of certain F2P games to be pure, despite best intentions, and that even given those best intentions, I cannot help but believe that any game designed with certain F2P methods in mind would have been a better game if it were not designed to be F2P.

I am trying to be fair. Were I in a position of designing a F2P game, I would do my best to design a good F2P game. I would keep my design as pure as possible, but it would still, in all likelihood, be corrupt. My goal with the mechanics, like it or not, would be to encourage the player to spend money as part of the gameplay, instead of just delivering an engaging experience.

One day I expect I will be faced with this problem, and I don’t look forward to it. Until that time, I will continue to make games as pure as possible, and when that time comes, I will be forced to make some very hard decisions. Above all, I believe in games as an art, and I have yet to see art created such that the experience changes with continued addition of money.

Of course, as I mentioned above, there are certain Free To Play mechanics which aren’t corrupt. If a player can identify exactly what he will get, and what value the purchase provides, then it is a much more pure mechanic. Unlocking new play styles, new levels, or anything that doesn’t directly affect the ability to progress in what you already have access to are all equally benign. The gamer can predict the value of what it is they can purchase.

The problem with a lot of F2P games, especially ones where you purchase a special game currency, is that the player cannot predict the balance curves of new purchases and forward progress. 1000 Gamecentz might seem like a lot, when it costs you 10 Gamecentz to build your first few Magic Foozles, but will it seem like a lot when your next few cost 200? If a gamer cannot predict the value he is getting out of his or her purchase, then it is inherently corrupt.

Beyond these issues, there are the questions that F2P games raise in my mind while I play. How can I know that I am not being manipulated? If I am playing the game, but it gets grindy, and there are purchases which will alleviate the grind, what were the reasons for the grind in the first place? Did the designer believe that the grind was the optimal path for the game to be engaging, or was the designer making conscious decisions based on conversion metrics?

I know that Free to Play is here to stay, so I can only hope that developers swing towards choosing pure design methods. But a lot of them won’t, consciously or not. As long as that is the case, I will never be able to shake the idea that when I dislike or grow tired of a game, that it is because of the Free To Play system; that the designer, freed from the need to coerce the player to pay more money, would have made a superior game.

3 thoughts on “Free To Play and Game Design Corruption

  1. George Buckenham

    This is kind of a tangential response, but: I find it quite rare to play a commercial paid-for game which felt like a pure expression of intent. Generally, there’s all kinds of corrupting forces acting on a game: does it screenshot well? Are the in-progress builds satisfying for the publisher? How much needs to be cut back to meet the scope? What features were originally promised, and now can’t be cut because the studio is contractually obliged to deliver them? Does the concept sound good as an elevator pitch? Even in free games, this pressure can be felt: a game that panders to what Tigsource wants, or a game that exists because someone wanted an excuse to use their level gen tech.

    Adding F2P compounds that, makes that task a lot harder.

    Personally, I’m mainly suspicious of F2P models, but I’m not entirely dismissive of them. As an indie, if I wanted to make a multiplayer-only game, I would absolutely make it F2P. Because it gives you a much better chance of getting enough of an audience to keep the game alive. The design might be purer if it wasn’t F2P, but having people to play against matters more. For that kind of game, at least.

    I guess my main point here is that: you can’t analyse the design of a game in isolation. Games are played within commercial and social contexts. And you can design for those, too, and the needs of them can override pure design considerations. But if you design a game without consideration for them, then you’re just rolling the dice and hoping you get lucky.

  2. Alan Vallely

    You’ve done a good job elaborating on what questions are raised on F2P. I do find myself immediately skeptical when presented with a F2P game, because I’m presented with the question of “how are they going to make their money?” A game that has to integrate its profitability into the game itself walks a very fine line with the balance with the manipulation of game mechanics to achieve its goals. While there are ways it can work without detriment, it seems unnecessarily-complicated.

    To introduce another of F2P, I find it “distracting”. I often find F2P elements are disruptive to my engagement with and focus on the game, much as commercial breaks disrupt the Saturday afternoon movie. If I’m in the midst of a game session and I’m required to think about how real world currency can be used to augment my game, I’ve been pulled out of that escapism and back into the world. It’s probably why I prefer that “pay once, then play” model, where I can get into a game world and stay as long as I want, with (hopefully) as few real-world distractions as possible.

    Thanks for sharing your insight!

  3. M

    Interesting post, and perfectly explains why I’ve abandoned the few casual F2P games I’ve played which were clearly designed to have a sudden difficulty/time intensiveness curve that required cash purchases for the game to be any fun at all. It’s different with games that convert to F2P though, like the handful of MMOs that have done so. Games where I’d willingly paid a monthly fee before the conversion, but now I was suddenly content with a modified experience I didn’t have to pay for, while wondering what subtle changes were happening to the gameplay to try to get money out of me again. I know the changes were made to expand the player base, especially with those MMOs in danger of collapsing, but I also feel like the social environment changed with the influx of new freeps (despite me being one of them).

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