Debating F2P Monetization

One of the things holding back the evolution of F2P gaming in the West is the understandable discomfort that many Western designers feel about the “aggressive” monetization strategies employed by Asian game developers. For the purposes of this post, I’m defining “aggressive” as the sale of items that impact gameplay and/or speed up a player’s progress, in addition to other, less controversial premium features like aesthetic items and account personalization.

To many developers, the idea of designing a game to be anything other than “fun” is heretical (they may also fear the possibility of offending sensitive players.) Consequently, they either ignore the F2P business model or attempt to create games with relatively tame revenue-generating systems; for example, focusing on the sale of items with aesthetic benefit only, or roping off a portion of the game and hoping enough players voluntarily pay for access.

The irony of these fears should not be lost on anyone who was designing games thirty years ago. Classic arcade titles were explicitly designed to eat quarters over brief, regular intervals, and people of all ages still put up with it. By comparison, modern F2P games are positively generous to players!

All this is why, up until the social game explosion, we heard of so few financially-successful F2P games in the West. The social gaming companies get a lot of credit for leveraging Facebook and for rediscovering the market potential of asynchronous gameplay, but they deserve equally as much credit for realizing that people in the West are not culturally predisposed to hating any game with an aggressive monetization model. As with everything in life, context matters.

Understanding the impact of conversion rates and ARPPU

Why is it worthwhile to at least consider the merits of designing a game with a more aggressive monetization model? It all comes down to conversion rates. The average Western F2P game is lucky to convert 5% of active users to paying users. At the low end, you get 1% conversion rates, which is where games like Farmville and Mafia Wars tend to sit. Some very rare games reach 20% or better, but to hit that level you generally need a fair bit of luck, an incredibly powerful brand and/or an intensely loyal niche audience. Bottom line: if you’re only going to convert 5% of your active users to paying users, you want to give those people every opportunity to pay you! Many of them will be delighted to do so if you handle the situation appropriately.

I’ve asked many F2P game developers to share their monthly ARPPU ( “average revenue per paying user”) statistics. Several have obliged in confidence, so I can’t share specific data points, but I can share averages. From my limited research, it seems that a game with a more aggressive monetization model and a loyal, niche userbase can hope to generate $50 per paying user per month, on average. (The term “average” is somewhat misleading — most users might pay $5 a month, while a small percentage of wealthier players might pay hundreds.) Obviously, these dollar figures will vary from game to game, depending on design, but they’re a useful generalization for the purposes of this post.

On the other hand, a F2P game that limits itself to flat subscription revenue and/or non-functional items is generally more likely to fall somewhere between $5 and $10 per paying user per month. You can expect the F2P equivalent of WoW (whatever that is) to do better than this, and you might expect a game that is largely focused on aesthetics to do better as well, but again, this is a useful generalization for most F2P games.

Different customers have different needs

Why is there such a big discrepancy between these types of F2P games? Basically: different customers have different needs. A game with a more diverse array of offerings is going to satisfy more people and earn more cash in the process, especially if it doesn’t arbitrarily cap the amount a loyal customer can pay. Some customers don’t have much spare time and are willing to pay for things that accelerate their progress. Some customers are mainly interested in making themselves or their surroundings more attractive. Some customers want anything that improves their social status. Etc. Customer XYZ might be willing to spend only $1 on aesthetic items, but $100 per month on functional items. Customer ABC may be the opposite. Every person is different.

There are other nuances to this issue. For example, the monetization strategies that convince a newly-active user to become a paying user may differ from the strategies that convince an old paying user to become an active payer once again. For example, imagine a game in which upgrading your avatar is an important (but costly) means of distinguishing yourself from newbs. A player might be willing to pay for the privilege of updating her avatar and distinguishing herself from newbs, but she only needs to do that once. How do you convince her to resume paying you? The answer, as before, comes down to having a diverse array of offerings that appeal to different kinds of players.

HappyFunTime: a fictional case study

To help put this in context, I’ve invented a fictional F2P game called “HappyFunTime”. You can play HappyFunTime forever without paying a dime (in other words, this is not one of those games that restricts most of its content to paying users.) HappyFunTime’s servers accommodate 2,500 active users per month. Each server costs $80 per month and eats approximately $120 in bandwidth per month. These fees consume a fixed percentage of HappyFunTime’s profit for every 2,500 active users, unlike payment processing fees (i.e. Facebook’s 30% rev share on credits) which are only incurred with paying users. There are other costs that scale with active users (for example, community moderation) but those costs don’t scale linearly, so I’m ignoring them for now.

If HappyFunTime combines subscriptions, aesthetic items, functional items, progress accelerators, etc, it can hope to generate $6,250 in revenue per server per month. That’s 125 paying users (5% of 2,500) paying $50 per month on average. Subtract 35% for all costs other than servers/bandwidth, and subtract $200 for server/bandwidth, and you get $3,863 in profit per server per month.

  • This is a niche game, so we’ll assume just 50k active users. That nets us a total monthly profit of $77,260. Not bad for a niche game that converts only 5% of its players to paying customers!
  • Server/bandwidth costs are eating just 3.2% of revenue in this scenario.

Now, for argument’s sake, let’s say that if HappyFunTime incorporates a flat subscription and non-functional items alone, it converts *twice* as many users to paying users. (In reality, I believe it would convert fewer players because it addresses fewer needs, but let’s run with this scenario.) HappyFunTime can now hope to generate $1,875 in revenue per server per month. That’s 250 paying users, paying $7.50 per month on average. Subtract 35% for all costs other than servers/bandwidth, and subtract $200 for server/bandwidth, and you get $1,019 in profit per server per month.

  • 50k active users nets us a total monthly profit of $20,380; approximately 1/4th of the profit in the previous scenario (or just 1/8th the profit with an equivalent conversion rate of 5%.)
  • Server/bandwidth costs are eating 10.7% of revenue in this scenario (or a whopping 21.4% with an equivalent conversion rate of 5%.)

In summary: because so few players actually pay anything for F2P games, the less aggressively you offer opportunities for paying users to support you, the less likely you are to be successful. And while it is possible to imagine a game that accomplishes this without selling functional items, progress accelerators, etc, that’s a hard feat to pull off.

Enough about money, what about ethics?

Some of you may still be thinking, “this still doesn’t seem ethical.” I can only respond to this by sharing how I feel. In my opinion, if the average person can enjoy playing a game for free, forever, without paying a dime, not only is the game’s design “ethical”, it’s practically charitable compared to the arcade games of the past. Or, for that matter, compared to $60 console games (given that I only have a few hours to play any given game, I frequently resent paying $60 for a bunch of content I neither need nor want.)

For that matter, I consider even the more aggressive monetization schemes in F2P games to be *far* preferable to the old TV model. Forcing me to watch 10 minutes of advertising for every 20 minutes of content feels abusive (if not akin to brainwashing.) I much prefer the opt-in monetization systems of F2P games.

Ultimately, ethical questions like this are highly subjective, and I neither expect nor wish to convince anyone of my opinion. This is how I feel about the work that I’m personally doing. Your mileage may vary.

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