Game Design Industry

Can arena shooters be successful free-to-play games?

How do you capture the opportunity of a well-designed F2P game with the competitive balance of arena shooters? It’s a tricky question to answer, given the history of the genre and its intense skill requirements. While many games have failed to synthesize the magic of the arena shooter with the incredible potential of free-to-play, I’d argue that the answer is still out there, and lies somewhere within a fresh and aggressive approach to content development, clever progression mechanics, and smart economic system design.

Arena shooters have historically taken a very spartan approach to content delivery. In the golden age of shooters, this worked just fine: you bought the game, spent months (or years) learning the ropes, and moved on. Progression wasn’t measured in XP bars or gun unlocks, it was measured in leaderboard placement.

It doesn’t get more classic than this.

This worked for awhile, but at some point (*cough* Call of Duty 4 *cough*) the market changed. Players wanted progression. They wanted bars to fill, stuff to unlock, and toys to chase. The problem, of course, is that progression gates content behind levels that require time to obtain. Joining a multiplayer match at level 1 in a game with progression-driven unlocks provides the very real opportunity to encounter content not yet available to you, which conflicts with the get-in-and-frag approach of traditional arena shooters.

Quake Champions offers a glimpse into a different approach that flies in the face of old-school arena shooter design: character-driven unlocks for soft-currency, with a unique twist. Champions in the current version of the Quake Champions beta are not able to be permanently unlocked with soft currency – they can only be rented one day at a time. This is an interesting strategy, as it embraces the sluggish content cadence of traditional arena shooters and requires the player to make regular soft currency investments in their characters of choice, or purchase them outright. While not a perfect solution to the problem, it embraces the difficult balancing act of adding regular content to an arena shooter.

Not quite your granddaddy’s Quake, but is that such a bad thing?

From my perspective, this is a half-measure, but Quake Champions bears a substantial legacy burden that cannot be avoided. Naturally, this constrains the potential of a reimagined Quake game. Perhaps a better example of a potentially successful F2P arena shooter is the recently released Lawbreakers. Developed by Boss Key Productions and published by Nexon, Lawbreakers was originally announced as a F2P game, but several months before release, the team reversed its stance and opted for a $30 price tag instead.

At the end of the day, this makes sense. Good free-to-play design is hard, and the risk is very, very real for developers without a substantial piggy bank to fall back on. That being said, Lawbreakers feels like an evolution of the traditional arena shooter in many ways, and with a few key changes to the current game, could have heralded a substantial shift in business strategy for the genre as well.

Let’s try a thought experiment on how Lawbreakers could have been designed a bit differently to make it work as a free-to-play arena shooter.

  • FIRST-TIME USER EXPERIENCE (FTUE)

    • All players enter Lawbreakers with nothing unlocked, but enough soft currency to purchase one character
      • The player is given an overview of each character’s abilities, default weapons (more on this in a moment), and playstyle via video or brief gameplay demo
    • There is one additional character that is available to play for free
      • This character changes every week
  • CURRENCIES

    • Soft currency
      • Generated by completing matches, getting kills, playing objectives, etc.
      • All functional items in the game can be unlocked with soft currency
    • Premium currency
      • Earned by spending real money in the game
      • Can be used to purchase Stash Drops, Weapons, Characters, and Boosts
    • Duplicate currency
      • Earned when player receives a duplicate from a Stash Drop (currently exists in-game today)
      • Used to directly purchase skins and bypass RNG
        • This is an interesting tactic, as it guarantees a baseline amount of value from a gacha system, encouraging repeat conversion and overall participation
  • WEAPONS

    • Character abilities are locked in, however, players can unlock new weapons for each character with soft or premium currency
    • This is to create smaller currency sinks that are easier to generate on a more frequent schedule, while also creating ways for players to invest deeper into their favorite characters and experiment with different builds
    • The assumption is that each weapon is balanced, but offers a unique way to play that character
    • With abilities remaining consistent per character, the only variable is the weapon, keeping combat manageable
    • Additional weapons are added to characters on a monthly basis
  • CHARACTERS

    • Characters are also unlocked with soft or premium currency, and are released on a seasonal (3 month) basis
    • Each character releases with 2 weapons to unlock in addition to their default starting weapon
    • Characters cost significantly more than weapons to unlock
    • To minimize art cost, I would even consider duplicating character models across teams, rather than utilizing the unique character models per team
      • I understand this is a substantial shift in the theme of the game, but I find the characters to be quite hollow currently. Since classes are mirrored anyway, the different affiliations (Law and Breakers) feel like added art work for not much gain. Just my 2 cents. Also trying to be cognizant of the dev team size at Boss Key.
  • STASH DROPS

    • Stash Drops continue to exist (Lawbreakers’s equivalent of Overwatch’s Loot Boxes), and are unlocked by leveling up, much like they are today
    • Stash Drops remain purchasable, albeit with premium currency rather than real-world cash
      • This is important for healthy player perception and to continue using premium currency instead of real-world currency
    • New content is added to Stash Drops monthly to keep players engaged
  • BOOSTS

    • Players who are heavily engaged can opt for soft currency boosts (purchased with premium currency) instead of outright buying characters
    • This is effectively paying down the cost of characters with time spent in-game, and rewards heavy engagement

It’s important to note that when it comes to successfully monetizing competitive F2P games, there cannot be any functional content that is locked behind a paywall. Everything must be earnable, with the sole exception of cosmetic items. All of the above suggestions adhere to that framework. Time versus money is the only equation that is acceptable in this space, and there are two predominant ways to approach it:

  • SOFT CURRENCY BOOSTS

    • The simplest method of monetizing time offers a means to accelerate progress for real-world money. You still have to engage with the game to unlock the content, but those who lack the time to grind out levels have the ability to make up for it with boosts.
    • This strategy is elegant, but is susceptible to the lowest common denominator problem: whatever is the fastest, easiest way to earn soft currency becomes the most desirable path. This makes it difficult to incentivize other activities in-game, as it’s a race to the bottom for players looking to maximize their time investment.
    • One currency for one content type is usually fine, but be wary of inflation over time. Infinite sinks and/or regular content drops are critical for keeping freely earnable soft currency in check.
  • DUAL PRICE POINT ITEMS

    • Offering one item at two different currency price points is a common tactic in the F2P space, which allows players to skip the grind entirely and get straight to the content they want.
    • League of Legends is the most oft-cited model of this strategy, with champions selling for a hard currency (Riot Points, RP) and a soft currency (Influence Points, IP).
    • There are several advantages to dual price point items, the biggest of which being that players can “catch up” to their friends or other players instantly, so long as they’re willing to invest some cash. Additionally, hard currencies aren’t usually susceptible to the same inflation that soft currencies are, aside from developer-initiated currency sales for special events (which I heavily recommend against doing).
    • The most critical downside of the dual price point model is that players can jump to conclusions about the fairness of your game when they see a premium currency price point assigned to your items. Being cautious about presentation and pricing, while ensuring a fair drip-feed of soft currency, is crucial to countering a negative, pay-to-win perspective from players.

In summary, with the above changes in place for Lawbreakers, I believe Boss Key could unlock additional opportunities for both engagement and monetization that work in the arena shooter genre. Bundles, sales, double currency weekends – you name it! The biggest change from the traditional arena shooter mold, however, is the aggressive content cadence and strategy around that cadence. To keep the game fresh, regular content drops are essential, and with varying content sizes to develop (with direct ROI potential), free-to-play becomes a very real possibility for a game like Lawbreakers.

Do you agree or disagree? Have your own thoughts on how Lawbreakers or other arena shooters could go F2P successfully? Leave a comment below and let me know!

Any thoughts?

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