Free-To-Play Games: How They Make Money

Free and profit usually don’t mix, especially when it comes to video games. Yet companies now are letting players game for free and are still seeing their profits rise. Zynga, for instance, is a game studio that focuses on free games on Facebook like FarmVille and is now estimated to be worth between 20 and 25 billion dollars. How do games that cost nothing to play keep their developers in the black? There are three main models used today for these free-to-play games.

Free at first, pay later

This model is actually more like an older model called shareware. Game creators would release a small bit of their games as a sample to entice people to buy the rest. In this current version, players can start a free account and use it up to a certain point. After that, players need a purchased premium account to keep playing. World of Warcraft uses this system now, letting gamers play for free up to character level 20. It’s an effective method, although it’s mainly just a way to lead someone into paying for the full game as opposed to making the game truly free.

Play a little, pay for more

Once players have been hooked by a good game, it’s easy to keep them playing for hours. This method takes advantage of that by giving players a certain amount of play time each day with the chance to buy more at any time. A current free-to-play game using this system is Spiral Knights. Players must use Mist Energy to continue through the dungeons, but they only get so much each day and can only hold so much at one time. By buying Crystal Energy, players can store extra energy to use whenever they want. This way, players never require a membership but are rewarded for paying. This game setup is effective at both truly remaining free and enticing participants to play.

Save some effort, spend some cash

In some games, creating certain items and weapons takes time and effort. This is true in the recently free-to-play Team Fortress 2, where you get extra items by either completing achievements, finding them randomly or crafting dropped items into new ones using recipes. Coveted cosmetic items, like special hats, take a large amount of items to create. Since only a few items drop each time you play, going through this process for all the possible items and a few hats would take hundreds of hours. That’s why the game’s creators have offered an alternative with an in-game store, where most items can each be bought for a small price. Trading the effort and time needed for cash is a very worthy trade for item collectors. On top of this, free players are instantly upgraded to a premium and allowed to get more items when they buy something from the store, rewarding a purchase even further. The cash flow from these small purchases definitely beats the money that would normally come from a one-time purchase of the whole game.

There’s still money in selling video games one at a time, whether in a physical copy or by download. Offering a game for free is definitely a viable alternative now, and we may see even more free games pop up in the future.

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