The UX challenges of free-to-play games

By Philip Morton

The dominant business model for videogames is to pay once up front, usually £40 for a new console title, and then perhaps again for additional content months later.

But there’s another business model around: free-to-play. There’s no cost up front, but content of various forms is then available for small amounts within the game. This has been the standard for many PC and social games like Planetside and Farmville for a while and is slowly becoming the norm for games on iOS and Android.

Free-to-play is interesting because it relies much more on the quality of the initial user experience. Get it wrong and you’ll end up with many players leaving the game almost immediately, before they buy any of your virtual guns or crops.

At this year’s E3 trade show, I spoke to Chris Cook of Wargaming about the challenges of making games using the free-to-play business model.

The stigma of free-to-play

At the Microsoft press conference on the first day of the trade show, Wargaming were given a spot on stage to announce that their popular PC game, World of Tanks, would make its first console appearance on the Xbox 360. This will make it one of the first games of its kind on consoles.

One of the reasons why free-to-play games have taken so long to appear on consoles is the stigma attached to them. Cook explained, “There’s a stigma that the games are cheap, that it’s where cookie-cutter Chinese knock-off MMOs [Massively Multiplayer Online games] come from. Probably the most damning of all, is that it’s all pay to win, that with enough money you can go into a free-to-play and dominate. And in some games that’s true: some guy can go and buy a $400 sword in a Chinese MMO, run around and one-hit kill everyone. He’s having a blast, but no-one else is.”

A couple of weeks before E3, Wargaming announced a change of policy to combat this stigma: “We’re spearheading what we call free-to-win, and the core tenet of free-to-win is that you remove all possibilities for players to purchase advantage. In World of Tanks, we have things like gold rounds, which have slightly better armour penetration. So we’ve made it so that anyone can purchase them with credits, which are the main currency earned in game, just through regular play. We then turned the real world money transactions into things like camouflage, skins, add-ons for your tank, premium tanks, all of which give you no advantage in combat.”

The importance of the first time experience

The second major challenge when using free-to-play is the first-time user experience. Because players haven’t invested any time or money up front, their tolerance for poor games is very low, and they can quit with no real cost. This means that getting the UX right is even more important than a game which relies on a more traditional business model.

Cook explained their attitude towards UX: “We listen to [player] feedback and incorporate that into the game itself. I think we do a really good job of putting stuff into content updates that the community ask for directly. It’s all about listening to the player. I know a lot of people say that, ‘the customer is king, blah, blah, blah’, but it’s really true. Especially for a company like ours where there really is not initial investment apart from your time. We need to make doubly sure, triply sure, that the first experience and the experience from that point on for the player is as good as it can be.”

The future of free-to-play

It seems inevitable that free-to-play games will continue to proliferate, but that will only happen if players learn that the user experience can be as good as traditionally priced games.

Cook reflected: “Personally I hope we see the further legitimacy of free-to-play… that it doesn’t have to be about the $60 boxed product. It can be about something else that is just as fun, just as well produced, just as engaging, but it doesn’t cost anything to play up front.”

Philip Morton

I help businesses create better products and services by putting customer insight at the heart of the design process. In the last six years, I've worked with the likes of Sony PlayStation, HSBC, Sega, Tesco and TSB. In that time, I've seen our research, design and strategy work improve both the experience for customers and commercial outcomes for clients.

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