The room consisted of Cory Butler of Bioware, Gary Gattis and Jeff Petry of Spacetime Studios, and Matt Hemby of Boss Fight Entertainment. As they started for the nearly filled room, which seemed to be a surprise for the experienced gentlemen, Petry stood and addressed his audience.

“How many of you are in the gaming industry?” To which nearly the whole room raised their excited hands, feeling a quick and easy sense of camaraderie and belonging.

“How many of you are making free-to-play games?” Not as many raised their hand this time, but still more than expected.

“How many here have gotten rich from free to play games?”

Not a soul raised their hands, not even the speakers themselves.


When free-to-play games come to mind, it usually has a negative connotation. It’s something that is targeted to people with addictive personalities and meant to suck them in and empty their wallets. But is that actually the case? Is that how companies truly operate? Is that the mindset of developers when free-to-play games are in the works?

Let’s start with free-to-play in itself. Where did it come from? Most fingers do point toward the East, in places like China and Korea, where online gaming is often looked at as an epidemic. Here, internet cafes aren’t simple affairs, they are giant multileveled casinos, with games ranging from simple slot machines all the way up to the more complex like League of Legends and Starcraft. Experts have estimated that in China alone, nearly 4 million individuals have a serious addiction to online games.

To put it into perspective, most mobile games in the marketplace, if players were to buy every possible item made available to them would total anywhere from $100 to $1000, depending on the game. While in the East, if players were to purchase everything made available to them they would be totalling $20,000 to $40,000.

“I think we see a lot of these mechanics coming over originating from the East, and has made its way over here.” said Petry, “And one of the most common and very profitable things is a random box, like a loot box. And if you open this thing up you have a small chance of getting something good, and a pretty good chance of not. And what they’ll do now is combining two different boxes. So I open one box and I get the first item. Then I open the second box, and I have a better chance of getting something good. But then you combine these two things together. It’s incredibly powerful.”

This concept becomes less akin to paying to progress, which seems to be a trend with quite a few free-to-play platforms, and more like paying to win, which is far more tolerated in the East rather than in the West.

Hemby went on the elaborate on the slow immigration of the free-to-play concepts coming from the East. “We have seen game developers try a lot of things that they didn’t really know if it was going to work. And over time has started to solidify.”

But most people won’t actually give money to a free-to-play game, around 80% in fact. So that magical 20% that do contribute, those kind patrons, or “Whales” as they are sometimes referred to, are the game’s lifeblood. So what tactics do developers use to bring in these “Whales” and keep them hooked.

Often times a game won’t show its most high dollar items until a player has purchased something for the first time. This can have both negative and positive influences over players. On one hand, if a player were to immediately jump into a game, and have $100 items flashed before them, it might create sticker shock. They might come to the conclusion this game just wants to suck away their money and winning might be impossible without it, and they’ll turn the game off and never play again. Alternatively if the high dollar items aren’t shown in order to avoid said sticker shock until after the first or second purchase of lower cost items, they again might have a similar feeling. They began under the impression that paying for items is an option to help the game move faster for them, and these items are relatively cheap. But suddenly they see triple digits and they can feel discouraged, maybe even lied to, and once again they’ll shut the game off and put it out of their minds.

Another method which seems to have a great amount of success are systems which allow the player to pay for convenience. League of Legends, and more recently Hearthstone are great proprietors of this model. In the case of League of Legends, players take command of in game characters, called Champions, and group together with five other players to compete against another team of five. There are 123 current Champions to pick from, but they aren’t free. Players have access to a few different Champions that are free to use when they begin, and these free Champions change weekly. Win or lose player are rewarded with in game currency which they can use to permanently buy Champions of their choosing. But building up this in game currency can take a while, and if players don’t want to wait, they have the option to purchase in game currency with their real world money. Hearthstone uses the same idea. Players have decks they build from cards which they use in one on one matches with other players. Decks are comprised of cards that come from blind packs of cards paid for with in game currency won from participating in the game itself. But if players don’t want to wait, they can buy these blind packs with their real world money. The reason this works so well is because this is merely a matter of convenience. Players who pay with in game currency in League of Legends get the same Champion as those who pay with real world currency, no extra powers, no hidden incentives. Same with Hearthstone. The packs of cards are still blind, and no matter if you use the money in game or the money in your wallet, your chances of getting something great and getting something terrible are exactly the same.

Incentives are another popular method used in getting non-paying users to fork out some IRL cash. Some areas of games or items are blocked off to players who don’t contribute their real world money to the game, or alternatively, the best weapons and items are only made available to those who pay into the money pot. And even more controversial are games that put up walls, to a literal point. The idea is that players must pay money in order to progress, either in the form of paying to skip cutscenes or a paying to quite literally move forward in the game. Cory Butler was in the unique position of having been part of Bioware’s very ambitious MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic. The project began as a subscription MMO, in that players paid a monthly fee to participate in the game, akin to Blizzard’s MMO World of Warcraft. However not long after release, the game was changed to a free-to-play model. Then the challenge was finding ways to still give value to subscription based players.

“So much learning went on with that,” said Butler when asked about the switch. “And I think the big thing was how do we keep subscribers that want to stay subscribed, subscribed. Because we’re a free-to-play game now. That’s a massive chunk of revenue you’re giving up on day one. So the challenge was trying to find ways to keep value to the subscription while not penalizing the free-to-play player to the point where they’re not going to have a fun experience.” To this day the game continues to make millions in revenue, but they went through many attempts and several trial and error sessions trying to find the best way to monetize the game’s players.


Game developers are constantly experimenting, trying to find ways that will be fun for the player, while also making them money. The goal of these developers is to create a product that lasts. They want something that has a long shelf life, where players will keep coming back for months and years to the game, and they won’t do that if the game has no value to them. The key for this to work successfully is for players not only to constantly give feedback, but also for the developer to listen and take this criticism to heart. To ignore the games patrons is to kill the game itself.

“We talk in the studio about how disrespectful it is to call your top spenders, “Whales,” Hemby jumped in to say after a long discussion of how to keep players spending. “When we should be calling them, “Patrons,” right? These are the guys that are supporting your game. You look at the top games out there. They aren’t just about monetization. They aren’t just money grabs. People can smell that a mile away. Fundamentally it’s about building relationships with them. Listen to your players. They are the embassadors to your game.”

Free-to-play games are steadily growing in popularity. Nearly 700 new apps are introduced daily into the marketplace for all platforms. The market is extremely competitive, and soon we will see all genres reaching for the free-to-play pedestal. New and interesting tactics will be experimented with to bring more to the player while also increasing revenue. Some will win awards from their brilliance, while others will be fit only for the trash.

What will you be playing?


About The Author

Caitlin F
Staff Writer

Caitlin has two passions in life, writing and video games. Only seemed wise to combine the two. When she isn’t playing the latest title, she is partaking in other nerd endeavors online or at local comic shops.