GDC 2012 logo
Like it or not, free-to-play is rapidly coming to dominate every corner of the gaming industry. While that's good on the surface, it also blurs the line between business and design, and it creates a lot of tension for both consumers and developers who are increasingly faced with the challenges inherent in separating monetary decisions from gameplay decisions.

One of the more interesting GDC 2012 round-tables featured Sony Online Entertainment executive producer Dave Georgeson, NCSoft publishing director Steve Levy, Perfect World VP John Young, GamersFirst monetization director Joe Willmon, and Digi-Capital Limited managing director Tim Merel, all of whom convened for a mind-meld on successfully migrating subscription games to F2P.

As you would expect, the panel was heavy on business-speak, but it also featured plenty of insight into the pricing phenomenon that has become the rule rather than the exception.

Perfect World logo
The panel kicked off with the following question: What kind of content changes have to happen for a F2P re-purposing?

John Young responded first. It's not so much about content changes, he said, as it is about getting into the mindset of players who no longer have that initial $50 investment. They're not purchasing a box, so they may not be inclined to give your game several hours to prove itself or understand your conventions or "train themselves up to where the fun is." F2P games have to be engaging much earlier, and then they can ramp them up to the complexity and content later.

Georgeson said he prefers to avoid selling content. "I want the players to play together at all times. What I prefer to do is restrict features. When you first get into the game, you feel like the entire world is open to you, but there are things that you can't do. Lots and lots of games sell the content, but we're trying very hard to not have to do that."

Features like the Beastlord class, mercenaries, and the dungeon-maker (all recently added in EverQuest II's Age of Discovery expansion) are all gripping and exciting to play, Georgeson said, but they're not necessarily crucial at the beginning of the game. "If you do or don't have that feature, you're not segregated from playing with your friends. Someday you'll want that Beastlord, though, and it's there and ready for you to purchase," he said.

SOE logo
Levy concurred and emphasized allowing players to experience the entire game. "You can only monetize those who are fully engaged. You sell convenience items, features, but you're not selling the content, it's there from day one."

Willmon also agreed, and he went on to explain how GamersFirst changed Fallen Earth's resource node spawns to randomly give out metal and other components after the free-to-play conversion. Under the old sub model, each node gave the same resources, which led to spawn-camping and less of a need to interact with other players.

Merel emphasized getting potential customers over the hump with that first sale, which is particularly important with both new gamers and old gamers who remain opposed to the free-to-play model. He cited studies that show how once a player crosses that first-purchase threshold, they're much more likely to continue spending because "they've gotten used to the idea."

Georgeson concurred, saying that "as soon as you get somebody to buy something once, the seal is broken. And that game is where the real magic is in this space. And after they've bought something, they stay. And when they stay, they spend. Our job is still to entertain, though. We're still bards; we run out there and dance, sing, and make people have a good time, and if we don't do that, we don't make a dime."

"We're shareware companies now," he continued. "That's what we are. When it boils right down to it, we don't charge anything up front; all the payments are completely voluntary and after the fact. If we don't entertain them, we don't make a dime. We just have better collection mechanisms."

NCsoft logo
From there, the panel moved into the inevitable "pay-to-win" question, and each participant went to great lengths to explain how his particular company doesn't engage in pay-to-win practices. Young theorized that pay-to-win is a cultural phenomenon, and he said that in China, an unadorned player who runs afoul of a fully geared player in PvP can expect to be about one-third less powerful. And the players accept this as part of the game. If you tried to do that in America, Young said, "you'd be slaughtered by your players. Here, it's accelerants, convenience, and flair. That's what works in the West.

Merel shared an anecdote from Bigpoint's Heiko Hubertz, who initially experienced difficulty relating to American gamers since he came from a German market that puts a high premium on complexity. "German gamers like to think a lot, whereas American gamers like explosions," Merel said.

"Chinese players are willing to grind it out and work for it," Young agreed. "American players won't put up with that."

"American players need a context or a story or a reason to go in[to a dungeon]," Levy interjected, before going on to say that the only real context is loot and rewards. "In an MMO, the reason is the loot. The reason is that I'm getting something cool."

"That is what MMOs have devolved into," Georgeson laughed.

GamersFirst logo
The discussion then moved toward the different methods of implementing free-to-play, and the panel agreed that the movement is still in its infancy despite its enormous financial success. "We don't have the sophistication for it yet," Georgeson said, alluding to the fact that most companies are still experimenting with F2P in order to find the delicate balance between making a fun game and making a profitable product.

"Most of us are still busy making the games and doing the stuff that we learned how to do 20 years ago," he said. "The new focus on business models is something that will take time to understand and perfect."

"I wish we'd developed all of these as F2P from the beginning," Levy said. "If we could go back and develop City of Heroes as F2P seven years ago, it would be a totally different game." It also would have avoided many of the costly challenges inherent in the game's recent business model conversion.

"We're all learning, right, we're all testing how this works," he continued. And that's why NCsoft took a totally different approach with its next F2P conversion. Lineage II, unlike CoH, lacks VIP or subscription options of any kind and instead opts to sell convenience items and cosmetic gear to everyone. "In a year," Levy says, "we'll look and see which model performed better. We simply don't know yet because we haven't collected enough data."

"Your players already know what they want, though, and they've been doing it for years," Georgeson cautioned. "And they universally hate change. They've spent so much time learning how to play [that] they don't want to have to relearn that stuff again; it irritates the crap out of them, and it's totally understandable. So the first thing you have to do is try to understand how this is going to be good for them. What they need to understand is that this is a win all the way around. This is not just a win for us," Georgeson explained. "From a player perspective, I don't know why anybody resists free-to-play. I just don't get it. From a player perspective, you don't pay a dime if you don't like it. The onus of proof is entirely on the developer."

"We have to make our games different though, for free-to-play, because the way we used to make them doesn't work," he finished. Unfortunately the panel moved on to another topic before Georgeson could elaborate as to why the old way doesn't work. The panel also glossed over some of the more obvious reasons why players are resistant to F2P (it's often more economical to have a flat fee that delivers everything in the game than it is to buy features piecemeal, for example).

GDC 2012 - F2P migration panel
The group also touched on the huge amount of work necessary to convert games to F2P. This isn't simply development work or the building out of an online store; it also includes internal education of both devs and executives as to why the new model makes sense. It's ultimately worth the effort, though, because as Young said, the F2P revenues are higher across the board than subscription revenues. "There's this perception that F2P sales could end tomorrow. It doesn't happen. It's predictable. And it aligns the priorities of the development team to the players."

Young mentioned Perfect World's recent involvement in Blacklight Retribution as an example of straddling that line between monetization and gameplay. PWE had no experience making first-person shooters, and Zombie Studios had no experience building out a game's business model. As a result, PWE coached the developers into turning their skills tree into a time-based progression unlock, which was a "fairly radical change to the systems but was for the good of the game."

"[F2P] has improved our whole methodology, and it's because we have to think about it differently," Georgeson agreed. "We're getting away from the expansion model because it doesn't make sense to dump content that is devoured in three weeks and you have nothing for the rest of the year. You would have never done [frequent content updates] before F2P because the focus was on the big content drop."

"You still have to have a good game, though," he said. "Switching to F2P can make a big difference, but it's not going to polish a turd."

Massively sent four resolute reporters to San Francisco to bring you back the biggest MMO news from this year's GDC, the largest pro-only gaming industry con in the world! From games like The Secret World to PlanetSide 2, we're on the case, so stay tuned for all the highlights from the show!

This article was originally published on Massively.