I often see free-to-play game designs where every interaction is a potential monetisation path. These games want to sell energy, buffs, character unlocks, aesthetic items, rule adjustments, experience points and so on. Usually this is because their developers are trying to make the business cases for their games. By showing that all roads lead to cash, the hope is that the project will be signed off.
Creating many roads to monetisation might sound good but there's a point beyond which it becomes pay-to-win. At that point the game loses a reason to be played, and players sense it. You can sell a lot within a game, but its important to always have at least one dimension of it that can't be bought as that ensures the motivation to play. So I've created the Free-to-Play Triangle, which you can hopefully use to sanity-check your economy.
Pay-to-Cheat or Pay-to-Win
There's a big difference between a cheat and an exploit. A cheat is an out-of-context influence that subverts a game, leading to one or more players winning all (or almost all) of the time. Cheats are considered unfair and rob the player of a reason to play. Cheats also tend to break the magic-circle, making the frame naked for all to see and destroying the game's ability to be thaumatic.
An exploit, on the other hand, is an in-context influence. Exploits are quirky consequences of rules, unexpected outcomes of experimentation and emergent compound effects. Since the play brain is largely wired to decode and master game systems, exploits are often considered good as long as they don't lead to dominant tactics. In a sense, interesting game systems are built with the intent of being exploited.
Good free-to-play design can be described as "pay-to-exploit", whereas bad free-to-play design could be called "pay-to-cheat" or "pay-to-win". Pay-to-exploit gives the player an economic path to getting ahead of the curve in a way that feels in-context. Whereas pay-to-cheat simply breaks the game.
In paying to exploit the player is not removing the challenge of the game. He may buy more Poker chips but he still has to play to win. That bigger sword may make fights easier, but he still has to actually fight. The sources of fascination, pressure and the need to solve (which collectively I call "urgency") remain. So the game's dynamic stays intact.
The typical pay-to-exploit involves paying for a resource that you do not have rather than slogging through gameplay to get it. Usually this is done via the intermediary of a hard currency - such as "cash" or "gold" - easy to buy but tough to earn. So the goal is to encourage some exploit behaviours for money, but for the game to still be fun. Most developers understand this in principle, however they design a pay-to-cheat economy anyway.
This happens in three ways:
The first is a simple failure of game balance. They might sell a kind of weapon so totally out of whack with the rest of the game, or has a use case which the designer never foresaw, that results in a dominant tactic. These kinds of pay-to-cheats are easy to spot and not hard to fix. However they can lead to pretty bad customer service issues if many of your top players have invested in the item before it is corrected.
The second kind occurs when multiple kinds of purchase stack upon one another, leading to a pay-to-win. Suppose you can pay to get the better sword, but also to beat the big boss that you would use it on. Or you can get the big sword and also buy the experience points that you need to level up so that the fight becomes trivial. And suppose you can do that repeatedly. This is how the game loses its fun.
The final kind of pay-to-cheat economy is the deliberately-created one. In this scenario, the developer purposefully attaches a money tax to as many actions as possible. Interestingly this is often phrased as a matter of player choice. So what, says the developer, big deal if they can buy their way through? It's their choice, their game, their play time, right?
These defences of pay-to-cheat last up until the moment that metrics show a lack of retention. If you make a game that is nothing but elastic customisations for the player to buy then it loses that sense of being a game. A game is played to be entertained - and that requires delivering some genuine value to the player, not rationalising it away.
Fun is (as I have often said) "the joy of winning while mastering fair game dynamics". It's only one of many joys that players can feel (exploration, delight, beauty, thrill, empathy, etc) but it is the foundational one. For any game to be played over the medium or long term it has to be fun. No exceptions.
To some economists, charging for everything seems entirely reasonable, a way to attract "whale" players and have them keep spending. If every part of the game is chargeable then every part of the game will be bought. However the game designer understands that if all sources of urgency are solvable with cash, then for most whale or minnow players the fun disappears.
Well-designed fun is multi-dimensional. It permits tactics through the interplay of different kinds of interaction, leading to emergent outcomes and strategies. Games which are uni-dimensional tend to only be fun if they are motivated by a big prize (lotteries) or require the extreme application of a physical skill (many athletic events). The key to finding fun is determining whether the application of multi-dimensional interaction to overcome urgency is worth doing.
Another way to look at these challenges is as "pinch-points". A pinch-point occurs in any economy where concerns over supply lead to outsized changes of price. In free-to-play games the phrase is often used to describe high-priced economic transactions that the player finds preferable to alternatives.
Game challenges are also pinch-points: The player needs to master the difficult challenge for fun, and is willing to spend a high price in time, skill or resources to get there. If so then - for a free-to-play game to remain fun - at least one type of pinch-point needs to remain out-of-bounds to hard currency. This is where a triangle becomes useful.
In project management they say: "Fast, Cheap, Good. Pick Two."
Although every project is complicated, this simple phrase identifies the three common dimensions of all projects and stipulates that planning should only ever treat two of them as fixed. If you have a low budget and need it quick, don't expect many features. If you need great features and have a hard deadline, expect it to cost. That way, quality of delivery is ensured
In a similar vein, I've lately thought that free-to-play economies should use a triangle to ensure that the gameplay has some pinch-points which cannot be bought. If you restrict yourself to the triangle, the idea goes, you are less likely to create a pay-to-cheat economy.
It looks like this:
Boosters, Unlocks, Skips. Sell Two.
A booster is a temporary enhancement. It's a special weapon with only a few shots, a temporary invulnerability shield, a token which turns all of the blue jewels to red, etcetera. Boosters are a major feature of action/arcade games and are often used to extend the basic dynamic of the game for limited periods. Many games also encourage tactical usage, offering the player an inventory area in which to hold their boosters and use them at moments of their choosing.
Bejewelled Blitz, for example, allows the player to buy boosters using the game's hard currency. Using the boosters the player can clear rows, causing big changes in the game environment and enhance his score. However he still has to actually match 3 jewels repeatedly inside a minute. That's the gameplay pinch point.
Another example booster is the purchase of chips. In poker and slots, for instance, the player uses chips as a form of currency to make bets in the hope of winning more. As he starts to lose, he often buys more of the chips to boost his chances of getting back into the game and win. He might, but the extra chip effect could only ever be considered temporary.
While a booster is temporary, an unlock is permanent. The player gets access to an item or feature that she would otherwise have to play for, and this affects the rest of her game. In sim-style social games, for example, many of the items that the player would use to populate her environment are locked behind a level meter. She would have to play the game for a long period of time, amassing experience points, until those items became available. Alternatively she can often spend hard currency to get there early.
Unlocks cover many areas, from new cars (CSR Racing) to enhancements to the game world. Temple Run, for example, allows the player to buy upgrades to pickups (objects that she collects). She still has to collect those pickups though (a gameplay pinch-point of skill). Sim games commonly allow particular buildings to be unlocked early for a cash cost. Those buildings then go on to ease land or coin-generating issues that the player may have, but are still governed by the overall rules of population or territorial resources (the gameplay pinch-point).
The third kind of free-to-play sale is the skip: A very common example of a skip is "energy". The game meters the frequency of high-value actions (such as harvesting or building) over time, regenerating one point every X (commonly 5) minutes. It sells packs of energy to the player for small amounts of hard currency, which extend play time.
A second type of skip is the "social skip". In some social games there are specific activities that require the player to enroll the help of his friends. In essence the game presents a choice: get your friends to click on an advertisement for the game in your name (such as a Facebook request), or pay to skip this.
Neither energy nor social skips provide much value. Instead they simply say to the player "If you want to play some more, you must pay up or do something awkward". Skips are among the most cheated aspect of social games as a result. Social skips, for example, lead to the formation of groups of players who all friend each other. They are also why free-to-play games remain unpopular with self-described gamers, as they are pretty sleazy.
However there are better types of skip.
One is "wait time". In this case the player is able to interact as much as he likes with the game, but many of the actions that he takes are metered by a clock. The building has to be built, the egg hatched and so forth. Or you can pay a little hard currency to skip ahead. So paying feels like an exploit, which is the light side of the force. Another kind is the "solution skip": the game offers an option to skip a difficult chalenge with a hard currency spend. These are not yet common, but who knows?
What About Decorations?
The triangle intentionally ignores aesthetic items with no gameplay value, such as decorations or status items. While purely aesthetic objects can be a delightful part of any game experience (from wallpaper choices in Restaurant City to hats in Team Fortress), they do not affect the fun of the game. The fun is what the triangle seeks to protect, and as long as it is protected I see no reason why you can't sell as many decorations as you want.
Sometimes players like to give each other virtual Christmas trees in-game. Why not let them?