27 Jan 2015

Optimizing the Balance Between Free and Paid Users

by Mario

Free download & play, combined with in-app purchases, has become one of the most widely applied business strategies in mobile games at present. It is crucial that a relatively balanced gaming environment is offered, one where paid users can enjoy certain privileges while free players are also able to progress through the game. If the gap between free and paid users is too huge, and skilled free players are still unable to ever defeat paid players, the free players will find the game too frustrating to continue playing. As free users quit in large numbers, the game would almost certainly be destined to fail.

Two years ago, I used to play a mobile game named Galaxy Online II. It was a strategy game in which you can design your spaceships as you like, and build up your own fleet to raid resource planets or attack other players for loot.

Every fleet is equipped with a Commander, who can provide bonuses to the whole fleet’s attack and defense, while using his unique Commander skill to influence the battle. It is natural and acceptable that paid users have more access to powerful Commanders with better skills, gaining an advantage over free users. Even with a lesser Commander, free players still have a chance to defeat paid users through the use of smarter tactics and better-designed spaceships.

However, what makes the game frustrating is the existence of a super-rare Commander named Nova, exclusively for paid users, whose skill gives him a chance to annihilate a whole fleet, regardless of how the fleet is equipped or how many spaceships it has. The only way to counter Nova’s ability is by using another super-rare Commander, also available exclusively to paid users, to nullify Nova’s ability. As a result, there is nothing free players can do to protect their carefully designed fleets from Nova’s devastation.

Galaxy Online is indeed an excellent game in many aspects, but through its extremely unbalanced Commander system, it is ultimately an unfair game for its free players. As more and more paid players began to choose Nova, numerous free players in my clan chose to quit the game, myself included.

I would like to cite Hearthstone from Blizzard Entertainment as a good example to illustrate the balance between paid and free players. In Hearthstone, all new players will have only basic cards, which are mostly weak. The most common way to get new cards is to buy card packs. Players can earn gold in-game and exchange it for a card pack, or make a purchase to buy a number of packs.

At first, paid players will surely have an advantage over free players by virtue of having a wider choice of powerful cards to play in Ranked Matches. However, free players can also buy card packs with gold earned in-game, or craft powerful cards by collecting Magical Dust. The gap between paid and free players gradually diminishes as time goes by. When paid and free users are almost at the same stage for some time, an expansion pack is released with a whole bunch of new cards, providing another chance for privilege to paid users, and incentive to free ones.

Furthermore, free players can also build a strong deck with relatively cheap cards. For example, the Warlock’s Zoo Deck is one of the most powerful decks in Hearthstone, and its cost is so low that even a new player who has played for about a month can afford it. It’s not uncommon that a skilled player with a Zoo Deck will defeat a careless paid player, whose deck may contain numerous expensive cards.

Last but not least, the Arena system plays a crucial role in Hearthstone as well. In the Arena, players need to choose a class among three random classes. After that, they will be provided with three different random cards, from which they need to choose one. After 30 rounds of choosing one from three cards, the deck is finished, and players will use the deck consisting of 30 random cards to fight other players who also have a random deck. The Arena not only provides an environment where skill (or maybe luck) rules, but also an interesting game mode where players need to be flexible in order to deal with unexpected situations.

Three different channels are offered in Hearthstone for free players to catch up with paid users. As a result, though a number of players have paid money for card packs, free players can still find their place in the game, and it is predictable that with such strategy, free players would remain active for a long time.

The balance between paid users and free ones is quite subtle sometimes. As a game player, it is always easy to discern whether a game is worth playing or not, but from the perspective of a designer, it’s a true challenge to come up with a balanced gaming system where all the players would have their fun in the game. The task is both challenging and interesting, and I think that’s exactly the fun of being a game designer.


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