The Magic of Free to Play

I was thinking about Free to Play models recently. I have been carrying an idea with me for some time. It’s about how to implement a Free to Play model more naturally into a game.

World of Tanks Gold System

Status Quo: Gold and Silver coins. Silver Coins can be earned in-game. Gold coins can be bought. The rest is a shop. I think game designers can do more.

I have been praising the Free to Play model of World of Tanks. In some ways, it’s a bold implementation. It gives paying players a clear advantage over non-paying players. It associates payments with important functions. Compared to this, most Free to Play implementations are tame. The players pay for superficial styling (customize your avatar) or to reduce nuisances which are artificially introduced by the game designers in the first place.

The reason for this careful approach is understandable. There are serious concerns with using payment to affect gameplay in a competitive context. It seems unfair if players can buy themselves an advantage. It eliminates the level playground that we seem to take for granted in a fair competition. But even in single-player games, using payments as an integral part of gameplay can be even more questionable in some regard. The Visa Crucible seems even more like a scam if instead of being used against real players, it can only slay hollow, disposable computer enemies.

It seems like a the Free to Play model is a moral dead-end. But perhaps this is only a question of framing and implementation. I was thinking that perhaps it may be a good idea to look at models outside of video games to see how they work. Trading card games like Magic: The Gathering come to mind. In this game, you need to pay for cards. You use the cards to build decks. You use the decks to battle other players. More cards don’t necessary lead to a better deck. But in order to have the right cards for your deck, having a wider selection of cards to start out with will be an indirect advantage.

I’m mentioning this because I noticed that during my short career as a Magic enthusiast, I have spent a lot of money on cards and never felt like I was cheated. I participated in frequent booster draft tournaments – events that sound like the wet dream of a Free to Play game developer. They were tournaments where you would need to buy 3 booster packs of cards in order to participate. There was a tournament every week. And we all considered it a very good deal.

So it’s worth to see how Magic worked in order to gain some lessons for digital Free to Play games. This isn’t a proper analysis so I can’t really go into details at this point. But superficially I can see 3 major points.

  1. Rewards are Tangible and Permanent – Magic cards are tangible. You can hold them in your hand and sell them if you get bored of them. This is a huge advantage over all digital games indeed. Because they are tangible, they seem so much more valuable from the get go. But there is at least some aspects that may be important for digital games as well. Magic cards are not only tangible but also permanent. They don’t get used up. You can keep using the same card over and over again. Powerful cards don’t get weaker with time either. The lesson is that you don’t need to put artificial expiration dates on digital goods in order to keep players interested in buying more of them. In fact, making them permanent may very well satisfy a collector’s reflex and lead to increased interest in more.

  2. Rewards are Random – You can’t buy a specific Magic card. At least not officially. There is a gray market of Magic card traders but the official way to get cards is to buy booster packs. The packs contain a random selection of cards from a current set. To ensure that players can expect to get their money’s worth, there is always a specific amount of “Rare” and “Uncommon” cards in every booster. If I was a cynic, I would call this a variable ratio reward schedule Operant Conditioning. There is certainly some of that here. But it’s also a good way to disengage the purchase of new cards from specific advantages. Players have a much harder time getting a specific card, so they can’t exploit the system quite as easily. Finally, there is always a sense of mystery with each booster pack. Which brings me to the next point….

  3. Rewards are New Content – This is probably the most important aspect. Each purchase in Magic exposes the players to NEW CONTENT. In fact, that’s how you explore the world of Magic – you buy it piece by piece. Buying a new booster isn’t thrilling just because you get more cards. It’s thrilling because there is a good chance you will find new cards you have never encountered before. In Magic, the quality of that the content is substantial. The cards are beautiful and often contain some intricate mechanics. Having an opportunity to enjoy more of that content seems valuable in itself. Of course, a few experienced players would read things like “card spoilers” and know most cards by heart. But the same players would buy entire boxes of boosters anyway.

Consider how different a game like World of Tanks works compared to this. A lot of the things you get in World of Tanks expires – premium memberships, consumable goods, experience points. Even the tanks themselves get obsolete over time. They get replaced with stronger tanks. Players can buy items and tanks for money but they are buying it in a store and know exactly what they are going to get. Finally, players aren’t exposed to any new content at any point. They just gain access to content they already saw previously.

Or imagine a Trading Card game where the cards are printed with an ink that fades away over time. You don’t get the cards in boosters but you buy individual cards in a store, were you can see and read any card before you even buy anything.

Of course not all mechanics from trading cards have to necessarily work in the digital realm. I already mentioned that the tangible aspect is something that can hardly be reproduced in games. However, it’s striking how the above aspects are hardly ever utilized in digital Free to Play games. I sense that there is a lot more developers and designers can experiment with. Doing so, they might arrive at much more effective and morally less ambiguous systems. This would help establishing a healthier, more robust trust relationship between the game developers and the players.

Finally, if you are interested in more info about World of Tanks, we recently made a small podcast about it. Here is the first episode. Enjoy!

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

3 responses to “The Magic of Free to Play”

  1. sirleto

    great write up!

    its a very interesting and probably very necessary topic: how to earn money, being a developer ;)

    first: i dunno any examples, but am damn sure that there are more games (asian mmorpgs) where you can truly get something for money. i.e. kid with richest parents wins. nevertheless, as far as i know its fine, as people know that UPFRONT before doing first purchases. whoever dislikes it, leaves the game. there is enough competition and the games still run.

    now to magic booster: i hate them. really, i can’t understand how you might say “people are okay with that”. as far as i know, there is no alternative to magic. all 15+ trading card games i collected have not as good gameplay as magic. so if you are a bit older (17+ i guess) and want to play a really good, deep still fun trading card game, you will eventually end up with magic the gathering – and never leave it for another game.

    and because we are not talking about software but about a hardware thing (i.e. cards, they need to have the whole printing process, randomizing of boosters, etc.) its unlikely for much competition to show up – without the money to make all details of the game great, too. (closes to magic may be the wow card game, and they have money of course). and to me it is the hardware (cards) that make the game great, too. playing it in software never felt nice to me. paying for cards in software? never understood how people could do that.

    here – with us video/computer game developers … in software – basically there is so much competition, that i would doubt that people would be willing to pay small amounts (cents) for “booster” packs. and then get random stuff.

    i always shed tears, what crappy cards i got. and for that high price even. i remember how many cards i have, and i know that most of them where bought for cheap. used cards. buying rares i wanted. buying at the cheapest rate, huge packages over internet for 100 euros (instead of 130+ euros in normal shops).

    and i also remember how much i liked the pre-designed decks. there you would not get random cards, but instead you’d get actually working sets. quickly i understood that the sets where rather weak, and i wished they would sell stronger decks with the greater cards.

    nevertheless, just buying random booster was as annoying as possible.

    my 2 cents.

    PS: remember that magic is also about collecting each set.

    PPS: because i did not mention it, i guess you mean to apply this kind of buying random goods for small prices also on all kinds of other contents. i.e. the game world (levels, regions, map areas, access to towns, etc.). even then i would not like it. and especially then i would be puzzled how much content a game would need, when getting doublettes is totaly useless. atleast each deck in magic could be made of 4 identical cards. but additionally a player can have multiple decks, each re-using cards. nevertheless, every player has hundreds of euros in never-to-be used stupid-fuck-shit cheap cards. :)

    PPPS: i guess, its like always: if you do a game close to being perfect and great for the players (much money invested, much time invested, no mistakes) – then every payment model works. and you can choose which one delivers the most money for you while still keeping the most fair product-pice ratio for the players.

  2. Krystian Majewski

    Hey Daniel. Thanks for the comment. You raised a lot of points so it’s kinda difficult to answer properly. Let me try to address some of them anyway.

    - I acknowledge that not everybody would enjoy this kind of system. It’s only a hypothesis anyway. I enjoyed the randomness of boosters a lot. I remember that the game got less interesting when I started buying cards. Sure, my decks got better. But the cards didn’t feel so special anymore. I believe that the randomness of boosters is an important factor in the success of Magic.

    - If you said “if you do a game close to being perfect .. then every payment model works”. This is based on the assumption that the business and distribution is something outside of of Game Design. Especially for web-based games, I think this might be a missed opportunity.

    - I didn’t mention a specific implementation of those aspects. Your idea with the maps sound like one possible example. I agree that in order to make this work in a digital game, one would need to experiment with the specifics of the implementation. They would be probably highlight dependent on the gameplay. My point is that these principles might me valuable to consider when designing a Free to Play game. How can we give players new content every time they pay? How can we introduce elements of surprise and discovery in the payment structure? What if we design a system in such a way that purchased items don’t expire?

  3. Michael

    I think the randomness of the booster packs and chance of getting a special card adds an element of emotion, you bond with your cards and the game. Taking this into a videogame could work to a certain degree.

    Maybe the Mojang guys can pull it off with Scrolls. They will implement a trading aspect, booster packs and cards get “worn out” but don’t expire.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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