The Bet Free-to-Play Games Make on Their Players
How much we value our time with a game plays a large role in the likelihood we’ll spend money on it
It’s been a month since the launch of Genshin Impact. Like many, I was drawn in by the expansive world, the blatant comparisons to Breath of the Wild, and the idea that maybe this game could redefine what it meant to be free-to-play.
In that short time, I managed to see the majority of what the game had to offer. It was open and inviting, with a bunch of fun character designs, but as I progressed I found myself questioning the time I spent with the game. Was I playing it to have fun, or was I just compelled to start it up day after day? Was I actually getting anything out of the experience?
Ultimately, I decided that while the beginning of the game was interesting and exciting, I was no longer getting anything from it. Genshin Impact rolled the dice on me only to have them come up as snake-eyes. I had seen as much of the game as I was going to, and I had spent no money on it.
This is the bet that every free-to-play game makes with its players. The hope that at some point, if they stick with it long enough, they’ll be compelled to spend some money. If the game is lucky, it’ll land itself a whale — the special person who is completely absorbed into the game, spending ludicrous amounts on it.
But there always comes a moment in these games where the dice are rolled, the wheel is spun, and the player had to ask themselves, “What exactly am I getting out of this experience?”
Going all in
Whenever I start playing a new free-to-play game, I‘m curious to see how far I can get before the issue of money comes up. Sometimes it’s an immediate push by the game, forcing the player to walk through a guide of how to use their in-game currency before being able to continue. Other times, like in the case of Genshin Impact, the mechanics are in place, and the game only mentions it from time to time, trusting the players to make that financial decision on their own.
In either case, the developers want players to spend money. Games are expensive things to produce and maintain, after all. There will always be a point where a game is going to either force or suggest that the player forks over some cash. For this to work out in the game’s favor though, there has to be something of value that it can offer.
In order to showcase the potential value it has for a player, free-to-play games stuff the early game with rare items and premium currency that can be used to check out the shop and get a taste of what’s on offer. Sometimes the game will give the player temporary use of rare characters and items, or show off a bit of what the endgame will look like. These methods work to give players an idea of what they can look forward to should they stick with the game, or what they’ll be missing if they don’t.
The definition of value is a fluid thing, however, and changes from player to player. One person may care more about filling out the roster so they have more variety in play, or only getting all the best gear for their one favorite character. Someone else may only find value in the people they play with, or exploring every nook and cranny of the game on their own. In some cases, a person may be compelled to continue playing the game just to see it through to the end.
Because value is inherently subjective, free-to-play games have multiple ways of getting players to come back. A player that continues to go back to the game is a player that’s more likely to value their time with it.
Stacking the odds
Each day when I logged into Genshin Impact, there was a bonus waiting in my mailbox and a couple of new quests ready for me to tackle. I got goodies just for showing up.
Though the shower of rewards from the early part of the game had begun to dry up, I felt compelled to continue logging in to get the few things the game still offered me. Of course, once I was already logged in, it was an easy transition for me to just keep playing. If I did just a few quests, I would earn a reward. If I ran through a dungeon, I’d get another one. If I kept going, I would be able to earn enough items to upgrade one of my characters. And if I came back the next day, I could get the next set of log-in bonuses. Then the cycle would start again.
Free-to-play games need players to keep coming back, to log-in each day, and become invested in the time they’ve spent. In doing so, they apply more value to the time and effort they’ve already put into the game. If a player values their time, it becomes easier to attach a price point to it and increase the likelihood that they’ll become a paying customer.
In Genshin Impact, the items I needed were only available on certain days of the week. I would have to wait for the right day, login, and attempt to get as many as I could. The game also put a limit on how many attempts I could make at a given time, using an in-game energy system that fills back up slowly — or instantly for just a few dollars worth of premium currency.
This kind of system puts a cap on how much a player can do at any given moment before they need to consider how much their time is worth. This, combined with the fact that there are always more activities than can be experienced for free, can pressure the player to spend money in order to see everything, or fear missing out on something.
Genshin Impact bets that by the time it starts limiting what you can do in a certain day, that you’ll already be invested enough to pay money in order to have the same level of freedom as at the beginning of the game. While this would be a risky bet to pull off after offering a substantial amount of free content, for this game it worked. After just two weeks, Genshin Impact managed to pull in over $120 million, proving that their model is effective.
A person picks up a game because they are interested in it. They want to be entertained, and to feel that they are getting something for the time and money they invest. If a game is fun and continues to fulfill the promises that it makes at the start, then perhaps it’s not unreasonable for the player to spend money to continue that experience.
Still, it’s a tenuous road for a game to walk. At any point, a player can roll those dice again, and reassess what they’re getting out of the game. If they feel they aren’t getting the same value out of it they once did, or if the game is putting too much pressure on them to spend money, they’ll quickly drop it.
Even though I stopped playing Genshin Impact, I still see the value in the time that I spent with it and understand why it has become so popular so quickly. If the game can keep offering things of value to its players, it can keep the odds stacked in its favor, and continue to be a success story that other free-to-play games will want to mimic.