As business models go, giving things away for free would seem counterintuitive on the face of it. Whether it would even count as ‘business’ on its own is a matter for debate, however as a tool employed wisely it can give incredible returns. There’s a good reason why supermarkets are willing to make buy one, get one free offers.
As a whole, though, the free-to-play system is named as such for good reason, as it has found its most prolific home in the world of gaming. While many services offer free trials of a month, three months, or more, video games are one of the few places where the entire experience can be enjoyed by the user for free, or at least the core part of it.
F2P is as much a marketing tool in the right hands as anything else, with the real business following in its wake. In this article, we’re going to look at all the ways that video games actually make their money from a F2P model.
The word gacha is a bit of a strange one if it’s your first time seeing it. It comes from the gacha machines of Japan, which are essentially randomized vending machines for collectibles like figurines or toys. A gacha game does the same system, giving out playable characters at random in exchange for in-game currency. Usually that currency can be gained naturally, if slowly, by playing the game, however players always have an option to purchase more via real money transactions.
This is the system behind the staggering success of Genshin Impact, a game that has surpassed $3 billion in revenue since launch. The game itself is entirely free for all of the core gameplay, however the ‘draws’ for new and more powerful characters are limited, with the rarest and most powerful closed behind extremely low drop rates.
These systems are extremely similar in design to the ‘loot box’ systems that have featured in titles such as FIFA and Star Wars: Battlefront 2, with mixed results to say the least thanks to inherently problematic models, although FIFA’s version still remains the game’s highest-earning feature. The key behind building such a system is keeping a fine balance; several previous attempts have received backlash due to drop rates and prices that were seen as unfair by the player base.
There are several risks involved in a game such as this, especially if item and character trading are enabled. Players can take advantage of offers that should be one-time bonuses by creating multiple accounts, however, there are ways to avoid this, such as an email verification software to confirm that players are not creating multiple accounts to game the system and fraudulently cheat it. Often cheating involes using VPN’s which makes it difficult to trace an account to a single player, VPN’s such as SurfShark make it difficult to identify culprits.
A relatively new concept from the past few years, a season pass system is generally a two-tiered progression bar, where players can unlock new items or cosmetics. All players can unlock items on the free tier, and then must pay a one-time fee to access items on the premium tier. This tier would usually have the more attractive, more unique, and more visually interesting items.
Each comes under its own unique name; Fortnite has the Battle Pass, Rocket League has the Rocket Pass and so on. They all function roughly the same though, and while they are not usually the sole source of revenue for a game, being paired up with a direct purchase item shop in many cases, they do act as a significant revenue stream.
It isn’t just new and trendy games that have gone on this route, either. Brands that are industry giants have taken up this model as well, including Halo Infinite and Call of Duty Warzone. Both are massive multiplayer titles which are supplementing a paid single-player campaign with a F2P multiplayer mode using season passes.
The key behind the appeal of the season pass is twofold. Firstly, having those extra items locked away, often with reminders about what you can get by upgrading your pass, is a big draw for gamers. Secondly, because the player still has to play the game enough to get all the items out of it, they inherently become more invested in the game and become recurring customers.
The Use of In-game Purchases in F2P Games
Sometimes the best route to take with business is the direct one, and for F2P games (often found on Steam), in-game purchases or microtransactions are the most direct there is. Most commonly found in casual mobile titles, these purchases can involve a whole host of things, such as in-game currency, packs of resources that are otherwise hard to gather, or even boosts to speed or game income depending on the exact nature of the game.
Major mobile games such as Clash of Clans use these systems extensively. These games rely on having an engaging premise that can keep the attention of players, so that when players feel stuck or otherwise don’t want to wait or put the effort in, then the option to speed things up is right at hand.
As we mentioned earlier, microtransactions are far from limited to mobile titles. Major PC and console titles are now rare without a shop feature of some description, and some titles like The Sims 4 entirely revolve around extra packs of content, either as individual pieces or wrapped up
in DLC bundles, while still remaining free-to-play.
There are of course pitfalls to this that developers and publishers still have to avoid. One of the
most unpleasant phrases in the world for many gamers is ‘pay-to-win’, or literally buying an advantage. Some fighting games in the past have suffered from this, with fighters that are not included in the original roster being seen as inherently more powerful than others. It’s the reason the majority of games stick to cosmetic purchases only.
The short version of all of this is that, between all of these revenue streams and more options besides, F2P looks set to be the standard practice at least for multiplayer games for a very long time to come.