Free To Pay and The Curve

Let’s face it, the new breed of games shouldn’t be thought of as Free-To-Play but Free-To-Pay.

Yes, they are free, but they are designed to cost you much more in the long-run – or short-run when you look at the price of some of those In-App Purchases (IAPs) – than if you’d paid your 69p up front.

I’ve been reading Nicholas Lovell’s The Curve, and his views on making money in an age of free got me thinking about video games. In essence, The Curve explains the theory that you don’t need lots of people to pay you, you just need a few people to pay you a lot. You can see this effect in Kickstarter campaigns, whereby backers can chose from a range of price points when backing their favourite campaigns. If revenue is broken down you can often find that although the lowest price point has the most backers, the higher price points generate proportionately more revenue.

Lovell says this is all about value and harnessing what people consider value and charging them for it appropriately. His repeated example of this is Trent Reznor’s Ghosts I-IV album, which came in a number of formats with varying price points beginning at free. This meant Reznor was able to generate $750,000 of revenue from just 300 sales of an Ultra-Deluxe Limited Edition. Reznor had created something of value for his fans and they responded.

Lovell goes on to say how this approach can translate to games and cites Supercell’s Clash of Clans and Hay Day as great examples. It’s at this point that I think his argument falls down.

Comparing Reznor’s Ghosts to Hay Day doesn’t stack up. The reason is to do with the design of the product. Ghosts was a music product and if you paid for the cheapest version you got the full album. You could spend more and get extras, but there was no “punishment” for not spending the extra.

Hay Day is a different beast entirely. It has been designed to include game-limiting devices that can either be endured or overcome more quickly by spending money on IAPs. Imagine if Reznor’s album came with all the tracks present but you could only listen to track 2 once you’d listened to track 1. If you wanted to listen to track 3 you’d have to listen to tracks 1 and 2 in sequence at least twice. And on and on, until eventually you’d “unlocked” all the tracks and could listen to them whenever. That is effectively what a game like Hay Day does. When you unlock new stuff it punishes the player with a long wait before the stuff can be used. Of course, you can spend real cash on an IAP to speed up the process. Lovell claims this is harnessing the power of the Curve to let people spend money on things of value. I’d argue that they are not things of value, but rather deliberately designed impediments to enjoying a thing of value.

The success of Hay Day style IAPs can’t be denied and if money-making is your sole goal then it’s clearly a great way to go. Not only does the game being free mean you’ll see an increased download rate, but you are giving your customers the option of paying you a little or a lot of money once they do download. The question is whether you want to design a game specifically to gouge a section of your audience.

And that’s a question I’ve been considering as I start the process of creating a new game. Lovell’s ideas are now at the forefront of my mind. But what I don’t want to do is change the design of my game specifically so I can incorporate IAPs to bypass those design elements.

This is now part of my design process: how best to harness the power of the Curve in a Free-to-Play game, while still incorporating IAPs that are valuable to those that want to pay.

Maybe it’s time I got creative in a new way and figured out cool ways of letting people pay without impacting those who value free above all?

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