Games industry consultant Nicholas Lovell presented 15 rules for how to monetize free-to-play games at the recent F2P Summit. Rather than get into all of them, let's look at the five that I believe merit close analysis. As you look at these, bear in mind that it's way easier to build rules in at the design stage than to introduce them later. Waiting usually changes the game's dynamics and alters players' expectations for the worse. Here are my top five of Lovell's rules, in decreasing order of importance.
- Make your game free throughout. Though rare now, I've seen the odd game where you can play most of it free, then need to pay in order to get beyond a certain point. That's a big turnoff for me, and I suspect for a lot of other players. It's acceptable to have premium paid content (side quests, better weapons, cosmetic improvements, etc.) so long as it's not needed for the main game play. It's a competitive landscape out there, and you'll find it harder to attract players if they have to pay for even part of the game. You'll never convert every player to paying. In fact, most probably won't convert. But the more you have playing, the more you'll have paying.
- Make it easy for players to make their first purchase. This is similar to the classic drug dealer ploy of "first try is free." Once clients know what they're getting, it costs. For a game to be profitable, players have to get used to paying. Buying for the first time is a psychological barrier that has to be overcome, so make it as frictionless as possible. Perhaps an ultra-low special offer: "First-time buy for $1." Zynga, for example, features first-time-buyer bargains and weekend half-price bargains.
- Feed the whales. Allow players to spend $100 in your game. Not every player is a whale (a Las Vegas term for high-spending gamblers), but if someone wants to spend big, don't limit them by installing a low-spend ceiling. However, a little caution is in order. Media tales about five-year-olds buying $1,500 of virtual toys on daddy's smartphone don't reflect well on the games industry!
- Free-to-play games should never end. This rule really ties into the game's design. A big role-playing game will finish sometime. A game such as the Sims Online or a shoot-em-up like Battlefield Heroes will play indefinitely.
- Be generous. Give away rewards and prizes to encourage players to stay in the game, reinforcing the rule about making the first purchase easy. If players have bought stuff with a free gift and get a taste for the extra power it provides, they might be persuaded to pay for it.
Lovell also advises you to experiment, which almost goes without saying. Try changing things around to see whether you get a better conversion rate from free to paid. Don't forget to measure conversions so you can tell whether your experiments are working.