This sponsored post is produced by Mark Robinson, the chief operating officer of  deltaDNA.

Already the dominate model for mobile and PC games, free-to-play (F2P) has been something consoles publishers have been slow to embrace. While the idea of a triple-A F2P title might have turned stomachs a few years ago, publishers and developers are quickly coming to terms with the reality that F2P is here to stay. Revenue streams from games like Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans have made it impossible not to integrate the business model in any roadmap discussions.

But do publishers and developers with a long heritage in console game design really have the understanding and skills required to make the transition to F2P?

The thing that publishers and developers often overlook is that F2P needs to be integrated into game design; it’s not just a business model.

Simply throwing in some in-game purchases and giving it away for free won’t deliver overnight success. The approach is much more fundamental than this, and developers need to stop thinking about building a product and understand how to run a service.

At the core of F2P is good gameplay; there is nothing more predictive about how likely someone is to spend money in a F2P game than how long they play. The more “fun” the game is, the more likely people will become engaged, keep playing, and ultimately spend money. Unlike premium products, where a good brand or strong marketing can convince players to buy the game, with F2P the game needs to be fun from the moment players start playing if it is going to have any hope of making a return on the investment.

Despite these challenges the future of F2P on console looks bright. Both the PS4 and Xbox One have the data connectivity required to run effective free-to-play games. As a result there has already been some great games released for these platforms, including Warframe and Blacklight Retribution.

Evidence that this trend looks set to hit the big time may well be found in the release of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto Online. GTA Online isn’t an F2P title as it is only accessible via the main game. However, it features many free-to-play hallmarks, such as a multiplayer world, in-game economy, and microtransactions.

But could GTA Online actually work as a standalone F2P game?

To test the theory, we recently produced a special Benchmark™ report using our proprietary, evidenced-based research methodology to benchmark key aspects of the game design against best practice F2P game design from over 80 titles.

Benchmark focuses on six main F2P categories including monetization, retention, engagement, and virality, assessing 50 key game-design criteria. Unsurprisingly, we found that GTA Online surpassed the best in genre score for retention, game mechanics, engagement, and game overview. However, if the game was released as a standalone F2P title, the report identifies mechanics that it would benefit from improving key mechanics to achieve high levels of monetization and virality.

Based on these data findings, here are five recommendations to improve the F2P potential of GTA Online:

1. Improve the currency structure

Currently, GTA Online has a single currency. This is fine when the game is not relying on this currency as a part of the monetization, but for a true F2P game, you would want to extend this to provide greater flexibility. Adding in a premium currency is generally the way of giving games more flexibility in delivering the F2P mechanic. Making the currency a part of the world so it feels natural is vital in making sure the monetization doesn’t negatively impact the game.

There are a number of ways that people are encouraged to spend money, both in the real and the virtual world. Especially for a game like GTA, it is vital that it feels natural and intuitive. Discounts and bundles are obvious incentives for getting people to part with their money, and rental and test drives are also a good way of letting players get a taste for the high life and incentivizing them to keep grinding or splashing the cash.

These “try before you buy” mechanics are good ways of easing players on the paying path while keeping the barrier low and the incentive high.

2. Introduce a VIP structure to fast-track progress and reward members

There is no game that is more about being king of the hill than GTA, so a full VIP structure is essential. Imagine the retention value of being the only player that can drive around the hills of Los Santos in a purple Ferrari with gold trim.

VIP membership could offer:

  • Rank Point/Job Point boosts
  • Monthly $/Gold allowance
  • A special apartment
  • Access to premium clothes, vehicle paint jobs and vanity items
  • Special members store accessible through the iFruit with daily/weekly member offers

 3. Utilize no-loss gambling

The alternative to a life of hard graft and long hours is gambling. By encouraging this behavior in-game, GTA Online F2P would fulfill its objective of giving players a true feeling of life on the street.

The great thing about F2P is that with mechanics such as magic boxes, players get a no-loss gamble, spend their money, and are guaranteed something cool. There can be no better way of taking the easy route than making sure the odds are stacked.

4. Introduce a trading mechanism to help increase community aspects

Trading in F2P games inevitably encourages a black market, but unlike other F2P games, where there is a clear split between grind currency and premium currency, in GTA Online, F2P should enable this secondary market to exist.

Letting players trade whatever they want will encourage a free-form economy that will favor the adventurous, the ruthless, and the downright corrupt. The mechanic will drive the economy and build player loyalty.

Players will buy and sell from each other, and when using rare items, it’s also possible to use data analytics to monitor the price elasticity of items as players bid for certain things. Items can trade for 100 times their original value in F2P games and can be useful to define pricing as well as delivering value and incentivizing players.

5. Build in reward mechanics for better social sharing

GTA is such a well-known franchise; it pretty much sells itself. However, giving players rewards for inviting other players to join is a well-structured mechanism and can help to double your player base for little or no cost.

Giving players an incentive to invite is key, there would be nothing better than being able to pimp your friends by taking a percentage of the money they spend as their due reward for getting them in to the game in the first place.

The free Benchmark™ report can be downloaded here   

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