The free-to-play sceptics have a point. There are, without doubt, those for whom a free download is seen as a Trojan horse to access the smartphones and wallets in our pockets, whose monetisation approach is such that they design games to make more money out of players than a full-price game ever could. It’s easy to see why many saw EA’s acquisition of PopCap as a bad omen, and news of Plants Vs Zombies 2 being free to play as vindication. It’s easy to imagine how they could have been proven right.
Certainly the free-to-play landscape is littered with case studies of how not to do it. Zynga came for our folding cash through our Facebook walls, with seemingly every action taken by FarmVille-playing friends cluttering up our news feeds. Zynga’s model is based on ‘whales’: the two to three per cent who spend so heavily that they subsidise the millions of free players. And before Facebook’s policy change, FarmVille didn’t have players so much as marketeers, whose every action served to further spread word about its existence.
Zynga is now in decline, and the current darling of F2P Facebook and mobile gaming is King, a UK developer whose Candy Crush Saga recently crossed the 100 million player mark. First impressions are delightful: it’s a match-three puzzler that owes more than a little to PopCap’s Bejeweled, charmingly presented and with several smart design ideas. It’s currently got some 350 levels, laid out on a sprawling map that lets you track friends’ progress as well as your own, but it slams its first paywall down after 35, demanding you secure a ‘ticket’ to the next world from three Facebook friends or pay 69p to progress. Run out of your stock of five lives, and you can either pay 69p for another set, ask Facebook friends to send you one, or wait for each to recharge.
There’s a litany of power-ups available for a nominal fee. There are permanent boosters that don’t so much threaten the game’s balance as cast it off entirely. Want to freeze time in its few against-the-clock levels? The power’s yours for just £17.49. The challenge ramps up to the point that success is more about luck than judgement – a smart move in a corner of the industry where difficulty spikes make for lucrative revenue streams – and there are psychological tricks, too, with the Facebook version of the game placing the Buy button in the same place onscreen as the Continue one and interspersing its unlock screens with invitations to purchase.
Plants Vs Zombies 2 won’t spam your Facebook feed. It will post to your wall if you let it, but PopCap’s new owner has invested heavily in exploring new ways to use the so-called social graph. It might bundle up your day’s activity into a single post, for example, but you’re never asked or forced to pester your friends with invites and requests. Its permanent boosters are minor in nature – one increases your starting sun from 50 to 75 – and fairly priced. The only thing blocking your progress is the limit of your own ability, and you’re given plenty of tools to help you along.
It could have been so different. Key and coin drop rates could have been so miserly as to send you scurrying to the App Store for top-ups. The handful of plants only available through real-money purchase could have been overpowered and limited to three uses, yet there is nothing here to threaten balance. The only potentially game-breaking element is Plant Food. But instead of a premium item, it’s the core mechanic around which the game has been built, its greatest source of innovation and enjoyment, and it’s readily available through normal play. We only hope Plants Vs Zombies 2 succeeds to such an extent that it, too, becomes a free-to-play case study, one that shows that this most controversial
of business models really can benefit players and moneymen at the same time.