Friday, September 8, 2023

Just Browsing

One thing I rarely cover in any real detail when posting about the many Free To Play titles I enjoy is the monetization that keeps them going. Not that they get any money from me. I am the absolute definition of a leech when it comes to these things. 

Developers must hate me. I've enjoyed many hundreds of hours of absolutely free entertainment at their expense. I don't believe I've ever spent a single penny on a fully F2P title. In almost all cases I've never even been tempted. It hardly ever feels like anything I'd want, let alone need, to do.

Very occasionally I toy with the idea of spending a small amount of money - five or ten dollars perhaps - almost as much to show willing as for any practical purpose. In every case, though, the feeling swiftly passes and I keep my credit card in my wallet.

The thing that really surprises me about all these games is that they can make money using these methods at all. It seems to me that F2P titles are, almost by definition, likely to attract people who either don't have the disposable income to buy higher-quality titles or who are, like me, simply too mean to spend money when they don't have to.

I'm aware there are those individuals we sometimes call "whales" who, either because they literally have more money than they know what to do with or because they have psychological issues that mitigate against self-control, are willing to spend extremely large amounts of money to get what they want, even when most of that money, thanks to the various lockbox and gacha mechanics the games employ, goes to waste.

I'm also aware there are people who budget their expenditure in video games in the same way they budget for eating out or going to the movies; people for whom spending ten or twenty dollars a week on a game they enjoy is a rational and reasonable expense. 

All of this I understand intellectually but emotionally it makes no sense to me. My experience of every F2P game I've found worth playing for any significant amount of time has always been that I get more free stuff given me than I'm able to use and that everything I need to fully enjoy my time is available purely by playing the game. 

When I look at the cash shops in most games, F2P or otherwise, I do wonder occasionally what it is that other people are seeing that I'm not. I played Guild Wars 2 for a decade and one of my constant complaints was that there was pretty much nothing in the cash shop I wanted. It's full of ugly outfits I wouldn't wear on a bet and utilities that offer no real convenience. I am very clearly not the target market for whoever designs these things.

Even when the cash shop is pretty good, which is the case with EverQuest II, I still find it hard to spend much money there. Experience tells me that when I do buy things like the Prestige Homes I never use them, so why bother? I'd have to decorate them and then live in them and I already have two huge homes I can barely keep in order, as it is.

A few years ago there seemed to be something of a convention among F2P titles to make at least some of their money by selling not just convenient shortcuts or fancy clothes but the bare necessities required to play the game at all. Allods Online, an excellent game in many ways and one of the early WoW clones deemed most likely to succeed, famously scuppered its considerable chances by employing a punishing death mechanic that required cash shop items to mitigate.

Allods also played the inconvenience card hard with some of the meagrest inventory allocation I've ever seen. Making players get their wallets out to solve the ever-annoying problem of running out of storage space has been a classic money-spinner for a long time and not just in F2P titles either, but it finally seems to be going out of fashion.

It's been a good while since I've found myself struggling to manage my inventory in a F2P game. The last three titles I've spent a lot of time playing - Chimeraland, Noah's Heart and now Dawnlands - all offer far more storage for free than I'm ever likely to use. Neither do any of them restrict instant travel or put up annoying barriers that need real cash payments to remove.

They don't use lockboxes, either. It's a while since I've seen one of those drop in any game I play. They're still very prevalent in older titles but the newer ones don't seem to bother with them at all.  

The current fashion seems to be for Gacha mechanics that are supposedly tied directly to progression. It's a mechanic that most Western players probably knew little about a few years ago but with which, thanks to global success of titles like Genshin Impact, we're all now quite familiar.

When I first encountered the draw mechanic I found it quite exciting, although never so much so that I wanted to pay for the thrill. Still, making my free rolls, watching the explosive animations and finding out what I'd won kept me happily entertained until the novelty wore off. 

The problem with a system that relies on building teams of characters and powering them up, at least from my point of view, is that I hugely prefer to stick with one set of characters that I know. I strongly dislike swapping characters in a team in and out as though they were weapons - I don't even much like swapping actual weapons ffs.

I am very much a set-and-forget player. I like to put in quite a lot of effort to get my character or team just right and then leave them to get on with their job, preferably for the entire time I play the game from then on. If I want to try another character I would much prefer to roll another character and start over. I'm on board with the old adage that you shouldn't change horses in the middle of a stream.

That makes me a particularly bad bet for making money out of when you rely on gacha mechanics, although as I think I've made clear, I'm a pretty bad bet in most other respects as well. If you want my money as a game developer you're most likely going to need to make me pay for content, which these days seems to be the one thing all developers are happiest to hand out for free.

All of this makes it very hard for me to understand when game games like Dawnlands receive such virulent criticism for employing monetization practices derived from the mobile market, where selling overpriced cosmetics, inconvenience and power have long been considered normal. It always seems to me that even if such practices have been imported to the PC versions of the games, PC gamers ought to be able just to ignore them.

It's something I find very easy to do for reasons other than my personal preferences. For the most part, the promotions are sequestered in separate segments of the UI. If you aren't interested then it's quite simple not to click on the icons. It's like walking through a market; you're not obligated to stop and buy something every time a stallholder catches your eye. You can just walk on.

Of course, if you do have the willpower to resist completely, you'll miss out on a bunch of freebies. Most of the many events designed to separate you from your savings come with some kind of sweetener to get your attention. Increasingly, I'm finding that they also offer considerable opportunities to indulge while spending only in-game coin, too.

That's obviously intended as a lead-in to spending real money but in-game coin is where I stop. I spent much of the last twelve months doing all kinds of events in Noah's Heart, most of which could have led me on to buying premium currency so I could carry on, except of course I didn't. I just stopped when it wasn't free any more. 

It was noticeable that after a few months most of the free events in that game converted to payment-only, a move that merely highlighted what dull events they were and emphasized what a bad idea it would be to spend money on any of them. At the same time, my stash of unused Gacha cards for summoning Phantoms grew and grew. By the time I drifted away from the game I had more than seven hundred unused pulls. 

One thing all the newer games do is tell you the odds. No-one can claim they didn't know their chances of getting the exact thing they wanted were slim. Dawnlands has a very elegant and detailed breakdown of the exact percentages involved. As is common with these systems, it also tells you just how many times you have to fail before the game takes pity on you and throws you a bone.

Where the game differs from most is that the range of highly desirable items on offer is both very limited and worth having, although I realize the latter is a  matter of taste and opinion. This is probably a function of the age of the game. It's very new. Even so, a cash shop with only two outfits seems extremely restrained. 

Yesterday we got a new Event, the third since launch. The first event, which is still running, involves making a video about the game and publishing it on YouTube although, as I found out a couple of days ago, you get fifty Diamonds just for clicking through to the web page that tells you how it works.

The second event, also still running, features a friendly creature called Carromu who, as the event title tells you, is always hungry. Carromu doesn't like to eat Diamonds (Who does?) so he's happy to swap his for all kinds of stuff you probably already have lying about. He just turns up in your camp one day and sits there, waiting for you to feed him. If there's any way for that event to generate income for the developer I can't see what it is. I think it's just a clean, fun event.

The new event is the game's first try at persuading you to part with some cash. It's a Gacha sale. 

As a survival/crafting game with no PvP or PvE ladder competitions, Dawnlands doesn't really have the kind of structure that supports the gacha mechanics I've seen elsewhere. On the basis of the first event, it looks like the solution is to randomize access to the kinds of things that would otherwise be straightforward premium purchases in the cash shop.

It doesn't really feel like a Gacha mechanic so much as a lockbox with out the box. It even has a fricken key as the Gacha item! You can buy the keys with Diamonds, which are an in-game currency, so I bought one to try it out. Having read the odds, I wasn't expecting much and not much is what I got.

Protected by my psychology as already described, I will not be bankrupting myself trying to win any of the admittedly rather spiffy prizes. Not even the really rather fetching bunny costume, complete with carrot holster and carrots. Nor Dodo, the cute-looking, catlike Follower, who is, apparently, "a great helper when exploring unknown lands"

Those two plus a very fancy piece of furniture are the big ticket items, although I'd be pretty pissed off if I made the required 2% roll and got a glorified garden bench. Someone obviously believes home-makers are a major demographic in the game because the second tier (10% chance.) is all furniture too, as is more than half of the bottom tier (88%. Oh, you figured that out already...)

As with everything in Dawnlands, the whole event is beautifully presented. The game has a consistently delightful aesthetic. It makes browsing the menu a pleasure in itself even when you know you're not going to sit down for the meal.

I might indulge in the occasional snack, all the same but it won't be often with keys costing 80 Diamonds a time. That feels quite steep, even with the 10% discount you get on your first ten puchases. As for paying real money, forget it.

As an indication of the way monetization in the game is headed, though, I find it perfectly acceptable. I'm enjoying just looking at the items and admiring the designs and the images. In real life, I can usually get at least as much satisfaction from window shopping as from buying the stuff. In games I'm equally happy just to look.

God, those devs must really hate players like me...


  1. For me it varies by game type. On my phone or android in general, I lean towards games that I can pay for once and just own. Netflix also now actually comes with a ton of Android games. I haven't dug in enough to see how many are good. Oxenfree at least was nice as far as I got with it, fun little adventure game.

    Location based games I usually end up spending a bit to get going in (my typical spend is $7 or less), and then don' need to spend any more money on once I really understand the systems. You can get a lot done in those games just by walking around your neighborhood, and if that doesn't work putting the game down for an hour to let stuff refresh in your yard usually will. They do often have some Gatcha mechanics, but I'm like you I'd rather just build up a team/ weapon/ whatever that I know and like.

    FtP MMOs are a different beast. If they sell content I will sometimes end up buying a good bit. If I get very heavily invested in a game I might also need to buy inventory space, which annoys me to no end. I will almost never pay for cosmetics unless they come with an expansion or I an sitting on more coins from a stipend than I know what to do with.

    1. I really ought to look into what Netflix is doing with games. There was a bit of a kerfuffle this week about the incursion of "non-endemic" developers into gaming, specifically Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Google. I'm all for it in theory, especially if it means more free games, but so far none of them really seem tohave a clear idea what they're trying to achieve.


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