I’m not sure if this is a proper editorial or a call for help. I suppose there’s no reason that it can’t be both right? Hi, my name is Jason, and I’m a Warframe addict. *pause for greetings and knowing nods to subside*
I wasn’t always like this. I used to live a full, rich video game life; frolicking merrily from game to game in my quest to save all the princesses, return prosperity to all the lands and gather all the loot. I didn’t usually have my whole gaming week planned out in advance or fret about whether or not a particular piece of gear would be available only for the next 24 hours and then gone for who knows how long? It was a care-free world, full of spontaneity and healthy sleep schedules. Little did I know that the shadowy horns of my first real foray into the Free To Play world were looming on the horizon, threatening to set fire to the sanctity of my mind and burn my progress of other games into cinders.
It’s partially my fault really. I actually played Warframe two years ago when it launched in 2013 for Windows. At the time the game needed a lot of work. I played a few rounds with a friend, but felt uninterested in the lack of level variety, textures, ways to engage the enemy. The presentation was also a bit confusing and I didn’t really know why I was collecting certain items or the lore behind most of the world. I wrote it off and didn’t keep up with any updates that were made for about two years.
When I did finally re-enter into the world of Frames that War, I was sitting around with several friends at a LAN party. We had run through our usual list of games and the LANners had died down to about 4 people. We needed a team game that didn’t require 8 players on each team to be fun. We were throwing out all the games we could think of when I off-handedly said that Warframe supports 4 players in a squad. Perhaps someone would enjoy it more than I did. So after the usual hullabaloo of grabbing several gigs of updates from servers that seem to be using the upload speeds of AOL servers circa 1994 (Warframe gets updates directly from the developer instead of just from the Steam servers), we were away.
And I crapped myself. I mean, not literally, mind you. But I crapped myself. There were tons of new Warframes (playable characters with unique abilities), tons of weapons, procedurally generated levels, lots of textures, a completely overhauled combat system that allowed you to bullet jump, cling to walls, flip around like a madman, wall climb, the works. There were new missions and game modes to play, a more focused narrative, explanations for what the hell you were doing, freaking DOGS that you could raise to be your hellish battle companion. It just went on and on. It was clear that the developers had been pretty busy turning an initial yawn-fest into a completely different game. I was hooked.
Lest this turn into an article where I spend the entire time choking on the shaft of Warframe, let’s get to the point. Whatever your personal opinion of Free To Play (F2P) games are, their intended goal is generally the same, and that goal is to keep you playing as much as possible. It’s not the same model as your average game where they just want to get your $60 and then, “We’re done here! Fuck off. Oh, the game doesn’t support those new video drivers? Too bad sucker!” F2P games need to either maintain a constant player base, or to have a model that ensures that new players will always be joining. They have no upfront revenue from a player, so all attempts will be made to jab that needle in and keep feeding you the good stuff as you whittle away the hours.
I hope I’m not coming off as damning of the business model, because that’s not my intended goal. I’m having a lot of fun with the game, and I think as long as someone is enjoying themselves and not hurting anyone else, all systems are go. I promise that I will clean up the skeleton of my dog when I’m good and ready dammit.
So what makes a successful F2P game? I don’t claim to be an expert on this subject, but here’s what seems to work for me. First, the initial idea needs to sound interesting. Warframe offers space ninjas flipping around and using powers to control, immolate, crush, confuse, and electrify your enemies. Check on point one. But that’s just getting someone to install the game and fiddle around with the initial controls and bumble through a few levels. As stated earlier, the game always had space ninjas going for it, but wasn’t able to hold my interest until massive overhauls were done.
I think that check mark #2 would be a clear definition of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. A lot of F2P games (and non-F2P games) drop you into generic soldier X and tell you to go kill people for generic reason Y. Traditional retail single player games have an easy time of this since they can have a 30-minute intro setting up the world and intersperse cutscenes as necessary while you play. While cutscenes can be present in F2P games, there’s more of an expectation of an uninterrupted flow of gameplay, lest the player get bored and move onto more story-intensive pastures. Fortunately, after some updates, Warframe was able to offer just enough background on the characters that you play, the Tenno, without revealing too much and getting you interested in who they might be. You know that they have history, customs and a code by which they live and fight, but enough is shrouded in mystery so that you think, Alright, let’s see where this train takes us.
Check mark #3 would have to be enough variety to keep you wanting to see the next thing around the corner. In the first few hours this would be enemies, level types and game modes. But the artists and level creators can only do so much. At that point, it’s up to the main meat of the game (in this case, the combat system) to have enough new configurations to keep you boggle-eyed until the wee hours. This means that lots of unique character abilities are needed. One character’s abilities can feed off of another character’s abilities to make that perfect combination that gets your team through a tough situation. Lots of weapons and fun ways to employ them are required. Warframe uses a somewhat unique system where melee and gun combat flow seamlessly into one other, often using both methods on the same enemy. Extrapolating these ideas to other games essentially means that the player needs to be given many different ways to engage with the world. If they keep digging, they need to be rewarded with new ways to use the tools that they’ve been given, and to uncover new tools as well. This keeps the excitement rolling and feeds the “Just one more round” method of thinking.
Check mark #4 is, I believe, where a lot of F2P games fail to deliver and why some of them wither on the vine. Check mark #4 is that the game needs to reward players even when they’re not paying any real money. I’ve never developed a F2P game myself, but I imagine that it can be very easy to get greedy with the amount of content that players are forced to purchase with real-world money. The problem is that if you turn your game too much into a “pay to win” game, most of your players are going to get pissed off and find something else to do when they feel that they are not making progress anymore. In our Warframe example, there are very few useful items that cannot be acquired by simply playing the game. There are definitely aesthetic items such as skins that need to be paid for in order to possess, but I find that to be a palatable compromise. Granted, it’s more difficult to gain some of these items in-game than it is to just plunk down some hard cash, but that’s probably to be expected. The developers still need to make money, and if some players are more interested in their appearance than their ability to play the game, then more power to them and their bottomless wallets.
Check mark #5 is probably entirely optional, but I do feel that it’s part of what keeps me coming back to Warframe. #5 should be the sense that things are happening in the game when you’re not playing. Warframe accomplishes this by having “Alerts,” which are missions that last for a set amount of time. They generally have a unique reward for completing them, such as a new skin or a resource that you might be after. In Warframe, there are many different resources that are acquired while playing the game. These resources are used to build new weapons, helmets, characters and so on. Building new items usually takes several hours, but is a process that can be kicked off and progresses whether you’re in the game or not, which contributes to the idea that things are happening in the world while you’re away. It makes you excited to log in and see that your new item is built and ready to be carried into battle. There’s also a way to use real money to “rush” the item, which builds it instantaneously rather than having to wait for it. This keeps the F2P model going strong while also preventing the ADHD generation from throwing a tantrum.
A F2P game done right can really chew up your free time. Just the other day I actually got DEPRESSED about the amount of time that I had been spending on Warframe. I’m partially expecting an intervention any day now. I’m not too worried though because I’ll just call my Warframe-playing friends and together we will destroy the nonbelievers.
Right after this mission…