How to do free-to-play right

Warframe is a decent little third-person action game, but – assuming things haven’t changed from when I played the beta – you get to pick one class for free, and it’s rather tricky to level that up to its full extent without dropping cash. (Edit: The comments below this piece indicate that either this has changed, or I was rather unlucky with drops.) And if you like the game? Welp, a starter pack (and I’d like to emphasise “starter”, there) will cost you £30. The Tenno pack is a frankly ludicrous £76. I can’t think of many games I’d consider to be worth £76, if I’m honest.

On the other side of the coin, Tribes: Ascend does things in a reasonable way. It has the usual guff about playing the game to unlock new classes and weapons and blah blah blah, or paying to get access to them more quickly, but it also offers one more option: pay one fee (£28, right now) and get everything.

Tribes Ascend

Tribes: Ascend bucks the trend by not only offering a “full” version of the game for a reasonable one-off payment, but by refusing to limit free-to-players overmuch.

If the game is balanced incorrectly, then – with this – it becomes pay-to-win and takes a step towards complete shittiness. If it’s balanced correctly, then this pretty much just offers… well, a full game. Quite honestly, if Warframe offered me access to every class for £28, I would at least consider it.

But let’s apply that logic to Marvel Heroes, since the microtransactions in that have been a bone of contention lately. Let’s assume that the current free-to-play mechanics are kept pretty much the way they are – you get a selection of five heroes from the start, more drop at an incredibly low rate, costumes are locked away behind microtransactions, and you basically get access to the full campaign for free. Now drop the price of heroes significantly – let’s say between £2 to £5 for each hero. Then release a “complete” pack giving access to every single hero, for £20 or £30 or whatever.

Free players can still get a taste of the game. Those who just want to play as Spider-Man or Deadpool can do so at an impulse-buy price, and may wind up buying costumes or more heroes at a later date if they like the game. Those who enjoy the game can pretty much unlock everything that impacts gameplay in one fell swoop. I admit that this still has a whiff of cynicism around it, as there’s still a lot of actual game-changing stuff locked away, but it wouldn’t seem quite so criminally overpriced as it does now.

Planetside 2

I didn’t actually talk about Planetside 2 much in this piece, but ye gods it’s pretty. And fairly unique, too, rather than just being a bog-standard FPS!

(That said: I have no idea how much money Gazillion actually needs in order to keep the game running and their staff employed, so this might not be financially feasible, but I’d bet that a few more people would be willing to make impulse purchases with something like this. Of course, this sort of change now would probably just piss off the pre-order playerbase.)

Another example of a decent F2P system is Dota 2. Dota 2 is, as far as I can tell, totally free. The actual game will never, ever change, no matter how much or how little money you spend on it. You always have access to the same heroes. They’re always of the same power level. You have access to the same maps and the same servers and the same everything. The only things you can buy are completely cosmetic, or are passes to watch tournaments.

The funny thing is that this is actually making money. There are no hard figures on this, because videogames and detailed sales figures get along like humans without spacesuits and the moon, but a pretty good barometer is the success of the Compendium that’s currently on sale for $10. This basically offers stats and information on the upcoming International tournament, with each sale increasing the prize pool for the tournament’s eventual victor by $2.50. It also offers a couple of cosmetic tweaks to the game, and gives you a temporary bonus to the experience your profile earns (which does nothing but guarantee you a cosmetic item at every level up).

At the time of writing, the prize pool is at $2,394,757. And has since gone up between my writing the piece and my putting it online, as the screenshot below shows.


Yes, I bought one. Don’t look at me like that. I’ve played Dota 2 for far too many hours; I wanted to give something back to Valve. NO, I AM NOT JUSTIFYING IT TO MYSELF. Oh, leave me alone.

Two-point-three-nine million. For a virtual book and some cosmetic tweaks. Assuming the prize pool started at one million dollars (and that I can do maths at 6am) that means there have been around 560,000 sales so far. $2.50 of those sales goes to the prize pool, so if we assume Valve pocket the other $7.49, they’ve made somewhere in the region of $4.2 million. On a virtual book and some cosmetic tweaks.

This, to my mind, is free-to-play done right. The game, and everything within, is free. You only spend money if you really want a different looking helmet, or if you want to reward the developers for offering such a substantial game for free. (Unless you bought one of the beta access kits, anyway, but Dota 2 keys aren’t really hard to come by. Also, £24 for a new head for Lina? Fuck off, Valve.)

A good argument can be made that only Valve really have the resources and public profile to do this – that most other companies trying something like this wouldn’t have the playerbase in place to actually pull it off, and probably wouldn’t have the finances to sit around poking at the game for however many ice ages it takes for Valve to get something to a state they’re happy with. This argument is possibly true, and more than a little sad.


Warframe is *also* really pretty. Free-to-play is surprisingly big business, even if you exclude bullshit like Farmville, and it’s not quite so hard to believe when you look at things like this.

I’d offer a counterpoint, though: if your game is good enough, people will come, and giving them the ability to try it out for free makes it even more likely. We’ve seen it happen a few times already: MMOs that were losing their playerbases went free-to-play and started offering microtransactions, and suddenly they’re boasting record player counts and increased profits. Turbine reckoned Lord of the Rings Online‘s profits tripled after they went free-to-play. There is clearly something in this.

If most free-to-play games are shareware, offering you a limited or slowed game experience, then Dota 2 is freeware, offering you the entire game but asking you to make a bit of a donation if you like it. Oh, and you get a virtual hat with that donation.

This is where we come back to trust. Valve, to a certain extent, trusts the community. They trust their developers. Most of all, though, they trust the quality of their product: their stance with Dota is basically them saying “We’ve made a wonderful game, and to prove it, we’re not even going to charge you an entry fee. We’re not going to hobble your experience. We’re going to give you the whole thing for free. If you like it, buy a hat.”


Did you really think I was going to give myself an opportunity to talk about Commander Keen and *not* add a screenshot? Pfft. Look, it was this or Peter Molyneux again.

We gamers treat free-to-play games with an understandable degree of suspicion and mistrust, and a large part of this is likely because it’s usually pretty clear that the game itself doesn’t trust us.

You want to know how to make a decent free-to-play game, with a decent free-to-play model? Two easy steps: first, make it decent. If it’s crap, you’re not fooling anyone; a cheap dog turd is still a dog turd. Second: have a little faith. We might just return the favour.

Don’t promise that the game will become good when we spend money. Don’t unnecessarily hobble the free players with heavy restrictions or glacial progression. Don’t imbalance the game in favour of paying players. Don’t create resentment or a surrogate class warfare between the free players and the paid players. Don’t bullshit us, in short, and – far more importantly – don’t let a desire for more money compromise the way the game works. Keep the playing field as even as you can.

The key to making a good free-to-play game is right there in the description: make it good, and actually make it free to play. It’s no guarantee of success – nothing is, in this industry – but if the alternative is to annoy or disgust your playerbase, then it’s hard to say that there is an alternative.


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  • clampdown

    Wow, really great article Tim. You’ve sort of encapsulated what I’ve felt every time I see another F2P title telling me how great life will be once I sink a few dollars in.

    Although, I’m sort of surprised you didn’t mention Path of Exile. It is free, and from what I can tell, the game is starting to get really popular (no idea what their sales are like from this model) and their microtransactions are purely cosmetic like Dota 2. It’s especially nice when you put that up against the pay-to-pwn model of D3 (not F2P obv, but IMO are guilty of what you mentioned with their RMAH).

    Anyway, great stuff! That really puts this new ‘trend’ in perspective. Cheers!

    • Tim McDonald

      Thank you very much! Always nice to read positive comments.

      In truth, I didn’t mention Path of Exile because I haven’t played that much of it – I participated in one or two open beta bits and bobs, but I wasn’t particularly analysing the store at that point. I know Paul’s mentioned that it has cosmetic stuff for sale, but I honestly had more than enough to write about without going into too many more titles 🙂 It’s far from the only one I either missed off or cut out, believe me.

      • clampdown

        Ah true, I’m sure there’s a lot to cover. And the Dota example was perfect for a functional, tangible f2p model.

  • skroob

    I think you need to take another look at Warframe. Have been playing this for the last couple of months after getting bored with WoW. I have spent £8 on in game currency, purely for cosmetic changes (an additional set of colours for my characters suits). I have 2 accounts, both of which started with the one free character (a choice of three given), but now both have 4 different characters (giving 8 different play styles, abilities, etc). All the extra suits are obtainable through playing the game, except one, the newest (Vauban) which you can get parts for from a daily logging in reward.

    I have tried many different F2P games eg – runescape, marvel heroes, SWTOR, Lotr online, even rift now it has gone f2p, but warframe is the one game i have stuck with. Its till in open beta.. things may change when it is actually released.. but definatley worth you taking another look methinks 😉

    • Tim McDonald

      Ah, you may have a point. I can’t remember how many hours I played it – 8 to 10, maybe, which is still a pretty good indication of quality for *any* game when it comes to my free time – but in that period I didn’t really get a great deal of drops, and the prices of things on the store kinda scared me.

      Might’ve been they’ve adjusted the drop rates, or it might’ve been I was just unlucky. It’s a rather entertaining game either way, though – certainly one of the better straight F2P games I’ve tried.

      I still think that labeling something that costs £30 as a “Starter Pack” is off-putting, but I’ll give the game another look when I get a bit of free time 🙂

  • fsj

    Have to make a comment on Marvel, otherwise I agree with pretty much everything. You get 3 heroes on 1 run through of the game but it’s possible to get everything from the store to drop in game, including all of the heroes and costumes, particularly at higher levels when laoded with special item find gear. To counterbalance, their store prices are pretty damn high though if you don’t have the patience to do a crapload of bossruns.

    I love DotA 2’s model, as I’ve mentioned before. To have nothing other than cosmetics on a F2P shop makes me happy.
    Cosmetic onl

    • fsj

      No idea what happened to the end of that. Should read Cosmetic only makes me happy. D’Oh!

  • HoseHead

    I like how you talk constantly about DOTA and never bring up league of legends, which has one of the biggest player bases in the world. It also offers you the entire game free of cost.

    • Kiroptus

      In League of Legends its not quite like that… You can still farm points for the champions but it takes a long time to do so, so much as to force you to finally buy your favorite heroes with cash.

      In MOBAs, heroes are something way too important to be locked-up in a cash-shop or a long grind designed to push you to the cash-shop, LoL can be as popular as ever but I dont agree with their F2P system at all, its more popular because it was the first moba to break free of the WC3 engine and used big marketing words as “From the creator of WC3 Dota!” which is false, since Guinsoo made a disgustinly imbalanced map and abadoned the game to play World of Warcraft, once Icefrog rebalanced the game and made it extremely popular it was when they came with the idea of creating LoL and bandwagon the momentum of WC3 Icefrog’s Dota.

      Again, LoL is a huge success but I wouldnt classify it as “clean and fair”, both on in-game policy and marketing.

  • sorudo

    F2P is done’ right when ppl can play the game without being limited by annoying systems, it’s also true F2P when there is no sub limiting the free part.
    LOTRO, SWToR, CO, STO, etc.. are freemium games, they offer a free part and limit that part unless you pay a monthly fee.
    true F2P games are games like tera, rift and such, they go F2P but don’t limit the free players just because there is a sub option, the sub option is more a way to pay in order to get allot more then the original game would offer.

    IMO any game the is more a freemium game then a F2P game are prety much P2W games, the only way you can stand a chance against subs is by becomming a sub and that’s just a horrible way to offer a free part.
    sure i understand they have to make money, but does that have to come at the cost of player enjoyment?