What's So "Free" About Free to Play?

Putting a price on virtual goods

What's So "Free" About Free to Play?

I've been checking out mobile games since I finished my book, which means having to do not only the onboarding for mobile games, but rerolling accounts to try to get the best possible start. As I sit here thinking about the time spent playing/nonplaying these games, there's a discussion that I think the game industry needs to have that no one wants to -- what is the actual value of this content?

Price gouging by design

I spoke about a lot of the ethics behind free-to-play (F2P) games in my upcoming book, and there's one point that I made there that I want to focus on for this post. Every mobile/F2P game that has gacha, lootboxes, "surprise mechanics," etc..., contains a form of gambling, full stop.

If someone is spending X amount of money with the promise of something great with an unknown cost (and unspecified reward), that is the entire point of slot machines. Developers will argue is that the person is not getting money out of the deal, but something of value - a new cosmetic, a new character, equipment, etc... However, we're not talking about buying something at a store, where the price has been set competitively and based on factors like cost of development.

With every game that features microtransactions, the developer is not only free to come up with the cost of currency, but also the cost of "pulling" (the actual chance of getting it), and if there is any backup system or "pity" to get it. If this was a casino, it would be the most abusive kind on the market - where the owner is deciding everything without oversight to be at least somewhat fair to the consumer.

As I said in my book, it is fair for a developer to earn money from the content they develop for a game, but here's the question: how much is that content actually worth?

Six star deal

In what seems like a lifetime ago, gamers were up in arms over The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion when the developer wanted to charge $2.50 for horse armor in the game. Today, people are spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars on new characters in gacha games, cosmetic skins sometimes being more than $10, and of course - buying gacha currency itself.

If I wanted to get a new character in a competitively driven game like Dead by Daylight, I can buy an entire chapter of content for $6.99 normally; that comes with a new killer and survivor and their perks. For League of Legends, buying a new champion with premium currency is about $20. Both games are built around casual and competitive play, so at the end of the day, it pays for players to get everything. These games can also have sales on their packages and bundles to make it easier to acquire them. The same goes for fighting games like MK11, Street Fighter 5 and so on. These characters add different options and change the meta, but it's more important to have them for competitive play compared to casual.

Let's move to mobile games: how much does a six-star or SSR character cost in a game like Genshin Impact or Arknights, or any other gacha or lootbox-style game? The answer is that we don't know. You cannot directly buy any character or gacha-driven gear in games like this normally (more on that in a second). You must pull on their respective banners and use their currency. In Arknights it is about $3.30 a pull, meaning a ten-pull is 33.00. If a banner has a "pity" at 150 pulls, a six-star character's cost to "buy" it would be $495. And remember, not every gacha game has a pity system, and each game also has different rates when it comes to pulls, let alone the "rate up" for a character banner. And for that pity, some games only give you a pity on a high-rated pull, not the banner reward.

And if you're wondering if these games have sales, they do, but it's not that simple. For their anniversary events, Arknights will typically have the option to purchase a six-star unit of your choice at around $30.00, which of course sounds good when compared to the alternative.

We must again ask the question, what are you really getting by spending money and acquiring this content? Having a different character in a competitive game means more options, and they have to be balanced and weighed against everything else in the game. For gacha games, there is no limit or set rules for the powerset of these characters and options. In fact, the allure of these games is acquiring unique characters with utility all their own.

The design of these gacha systems is that it's "fair" that no one can just spend money and get the best characters in the game. In one of the gacha games I played, I got four six-star characters in one ten-pull, thus using up all my luck for the rest of this decade in one fell swoop. I have just as much luck getting a six-star character in a game spending very little, or not at all, compared to someone who puts down several thousand dollars for a single banner. However, that person with more money inherently has greater odds of getting these characters compared to someone who doesn't.

Here's the problem, if one account gets the best characters or content at the start, they are going to be ahead of people who don't. It means they can spend less in the long run and do more compared to someone else. If your game has any kind of PvP action, that also provides an advantage. For every gacha-styled game, your ability to compete will always be based on the strength of your account, not your actual skill at the game. In Diablo Immortal, they literally give you a flat stat boost per every legendary gem you have equipped to your character for PvP. This kind of balance equals out when we talk about the late-game, and everyone having access to everything, but that still leaves out the people who can't get this content or can't afford to. Not only that, but it means that the people who spent money early on and managed to get ahead of everyone will oftentimes be the ones who get the most resources, making the rich getting richer.

"Fair" trade

When I talked about player-friendly design in my next book, it is about providing as fair of an experience for consumers while still allowing the developer to earn money from their games and content.

free to play
Rates and values for all high-class gacha pulls are entirely up to the designer.

To take this a step further, I do believe we as an industry need to come up with an acceptable standard of pricing for digital goods. How much should a piece of clothing cost, how about a costume or a full character? For too long, every studio has been able to operate with complete freedom and control over their content, the drop rates, and the pricing for it.

If your game is putting out content that really is valued at over $100, that should raise some red flags in terms of balance. I don't think there is any live service or F2P game out or will be out where the cost of content should be over $100 a purchase and that is the only way to access it.

We need to establish a fair price for "max spend per user" on content. Likewise, nothing should only be obtainable via a gacha, the gacha itself should be the alternative to buying the content. Returning to Team Fortress 2, this was the concept behind the Mann Co store when the game went F2P -- it was possible to unlock content through play or just buy it outright. For gacha games as an example, if there's a new banner for a character, the consumer's options should be to either roll the gacha or pay a one-time price to acquire it with that price being fair. It should be possible to regularly earn currency in a game and free players should be able to make at least a few ten-pulls a month.

Just as the gambling industry has a commission to provide oversight, there should honestly be something for the game industry when it comes to these kinds of purchases and designs. And if you would like to argue this point, I have heard enough stories of F2P games and their designs that are very much linked to the same pulls and attractions as gambling.

Free to play hypocrisy

A long time ago I had a moment playing WoW where I said to myself "why am I spending money on this?" and I uninstalled the game and never went back. While doing an account reroll and gacha pulls for some mobile games the other day, I had the same exact realization.

I've realized something about gacha games and their design: none of this content is really worth the price, or at least the price developers want to get out of it. For all the content creators who jump at any new banner, new gacha game, etc. saying that "this character you need to get" or "you must reroll for this" they are unknowingly or knowingly lying about the game, and here are the reasons why:

  1. There is never one character who will be purposely designed to break all a game's content. That would lead to damaging the meta and angering the fan base.
  2. For every character that "you must get" there is always a new one in the development wings ready to go, that's the entire point of gacha/hero collector design: there's always another OP character coming.
  3. Unless you are willing to spend money, or get lucky, there is no way you are going to be getting every OP character.
  4. You can say that lower-rarity characters will retain their value or get you far, but there will always come a point where they will be overshadowed by the higher-rated characters..

People who understand design and balance always know or are looking for ways to break the game and make do without getting the best characters. For every gacha game out there, I'm sure someone has done a "zero purchase" challenge. I've watched both for Marvel Contest of Champions and Arknights. For those players, they have hundreds of hours of playing the game and knowing the rules inside and out, but this isn't about them. This is about the people who feel that their game lives will be ruined if they don't get that limited-time character and games designed to explicitly condition people in some way to keep spending. These are the people who are the most susceptible to the pressures of gambling and addiction.

I have one final question that I want to see answered: for each one of the gacha games out there, how many people have collected everything and how much money did they spend if they did? I feel that to move forward with a healthier mobile space, and less abusive, we need to get away from games where it becomes statistically and financially almost impossible to collect every character.

For more on F2P and Mobile design, be sure to check out my next book Game Design Deep Dive: F2P, coming soon.

Let me know in the comments or on Twitter what do you think are fair prices for virtual goods?

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