Sep 022013

The Power of Free

For the longest time, marketeers and behavioural experts have known that one of the most powerful ways to get consumers to part with inordinate sums of cash is to give them something for free.
On the face of it this sounds completely illogical. Why would you spend on something which is free to begin with? Dan Ariely’s excellent introduction to behavioural economics, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces Which Shape Our Behaviour (a copy of this should be on every F2P designer’s desk) devotes an entire chapter to this topic, titled The Cost of Zero: Why We Pay Too Much When We Pay Nothing. In it he uses various studies to demonstrate that zero cost provokes an emotional reaction in people, which in turn can be manipulated to make consumers do things they wouldn’t normally do.

Examples of this include:

  • People queuing in line for hours for a free product which they wouldn’t normally buy.
  • In studies, customers opted for a “free” service with an inferior offering and greater long-term cost over a superior offering with a nominal cost (free vs.7 dollars). When the price for both increased by one dollar (one dollar vs. 8 dollars), almost three quarters then opted for the more expensive (but better value) option.
  • Customers will buy more than initially intended in exchange for “free” gifts or services. The classic example being Amazon’s “free” shipping service.

Zero is not just another discount, zero is a different place.

“Free” can be more expensive over time, lower quality, not really what we want, less convenient and yet we fall for it time and time again. When dealing with “free”, conventional logic and reason go out the window. This failure to apply common sense thinking when confronted with the word “free” is at the core of why F2P has become so successful, and the reason why games with ludicrous monetisation models continue to to extract inordinate sums of money out of players (often tens of times what a retail game would cost), whereas “fairer” games (where the user is under less pressure to spend) frequently fail. This assumption that players are “logical” and will rationalise and behave in the same way that a developer (who understands the mechanics) might, is in my experience the single most common reason for monetisation models failing in games.

In the first part of this post (here), I stated that gamers are not price sensitive. The argument I made is that when it comes to in-game purchases users are in fact proposition sensitive. As one of the commenters rightly pointed out that users may not be price sensitive with in-game content, but they are in fact extremely price sensitive when it comes to their initial decision to try a new game.

And what better price is there than free?

You know you want it…

I Can’t Stand Losing You

This emotional reaction toward the concept of free goes some way toward explaining the strength of player feeling around F2P. The excitement a user gets out of legally getting something genuinely enjoyable for free is great. Ironically, it’s because they haven’t invested that they become so fiercely protective over it. Any change to the game or its systems (especially around monetisation) is construed as an attempt to “take” the free game away from them.

All you need do is look at the forums for any F2P game after a change, for an indication as to the strength of feeling that users have at the prospect having the “free” thing taken away from them and the fear of it transforming into a “paid” thing. It’s as if the whole basis for enjoyment is the fact it is free, rather than the actual game itself. This despite the fact that the game will almost certainly not be going Pay2Play (I’m yet to hear of a F2P game going Pay2Play), and the users are likely to be people who would normally not think twice about paying for a retail game.

In recent times the gaming press has been shocked at a spate of stories around high-profile game developers receiving abuse and death threats over changes they made to big games. In F2P we’ve been dealing with this for years. Over the past 4 or so years I’ve been subjected to numerous threats, abuse and the like because gamers are scared they will either lose, or see the value diminish of something which cost them nothing to begin with and in all likelihood (as over 90% typically don’t pay) will never invest in.


Great Expectations

Perhaps part of the problem is that gamers approach F2P with a certain set of assumptions and expectations, which we as an industry are at times responsible for fostering. The most common ones I’ve encountered being:

“This game is supposed to be free. Therefore, everything should be available to me for free.”
“Paying is cheating.”
“Because this game is free, it’s probably not very good/has quality issues” (Though this is changing thanks to the likes of DoTA, LoL, Planetside, GRO, etc.)

The first two are interesting because they convey a certain naïvety about the nature of business. Users will happily accept free apps with a reduced featureset, but the element of competition in games makes many users feel that placing certain items behind a paywall is unfair. In some instances the higher-level items are not even behind a paywall, they just take time to get to if you don’t want to pay. Even in these cases some users will scream “PAY2WIN!”, which is a bit like complaining your free thing isn’t cheap enough. There are some ludicrous exceptions to this; we once analysed a game and calculated it would take an average user (1-2 hours a day) in excess of 300 years to unlock everything without paying!

On the cheating argument, most users don’t ever consider that even free games usually cost hundreds of thousands (if not millions) to make and maintain. If people don’t pay, the game gets shut down. I’m stating the obvious but it’s not a point which seems to ever cross most players’ minds.

The quality argument was true for a long time. The power of “free” is so strong that throughout the 2000s F2P games didn’t have to be any good to have an engaged community, and developers knew this. With the rise of AAA F2P this is no longer the case. Users are being given more and now demand better as a consequence. The age of unplayable Flash-based shovelware is over.


Would I Lie To You Baby?

As an industry, are we being dishonest when it comes to F2P? I would say that this feeling is the real cause as to why users really lose their shit in F2P games.
Some developers pitch games as being “free” but hide the best parts behind a paywall, others make it impossible to compete, whilst others make the user feel powerful and then suddenly take everything away from the user and try and charge them to get the original free offering back. Whether or not these games are still “free” is a question of semantics but some of these practices are disingenuous at best.

What seems to irk players is telling them they’re getting something for free and once they start playing trying to squeeze as much money as possible out of them. I can’t help but shake the feeling that if we spent more time evangelising the qualities of the games we make and less time pushing the “free” element we could shift the debate and get more users onside. Let’s not push games based on what they’re not; there are no free games – games without paying users get shut down. Instead we should focus on selling great games based on what they really are. This is what Riot and Valve have done this well, talking about features and content rather than hammering the “free” message. They primarily make great games which just happen to be F2P, all their communication and presentation is directed at highlighting how awesome their games are rather than focusing their efforts on a message (“this game is free!”) which depending on the F2P game can range all the way from being slightly dubious to an outright lie.

There’s no doubt that “free” is the best way of getting players to try something new. The power of zero cost is indisputable, but with it come strong feelings. If we’re to gain users’ goodwill (and if we’re being totally business-minded)  their willingness to invest, we need to be more transparent about the offerings we do have rather than the initial investment.  If more developers were open and honest about the business model, fewer users would have this reticence to pay for “free” games, as the expectation of it being entirely “free” wouldn’t be there to begin with. By shifting the debate entirely we will end up with users focused on the content we create and more willing to pay for in-game items as a show of support for the game and the developers.

Even if the only goal (for some) is getting to users’ wallets, the quickest and most sustainable way to for all of us to get there is by first giving them something they love and winning over their hearts and minds.