Doing free-to-play right: Path of Exiles’ success story

Grinding Gear Games says that the online action RPG title has accumulated over 5M registered players through its ‘ethical’ payment model

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Most users are accustomed to the fact that free-to-play models are abused in games; to the point where its actual design is blocked off by paywalls that tests a player’s temptation to forgo waiting with cash. It’s a shame that these models gets a bad rap, as there are titles that do not abuse this trend but are instead empowered by it.

Such is the case of the action RPG Path of Exile, a PC title that is a throwback to the classic Blizzard title Diablo II. Throughout its lifespan, since its public debut in January 2013, it proves that F2P isn’t about gouging a player’s wallet continuously for his or her entertainment. Instead, it’s about attracting and fostering loyalty.

Created by New Zealand-based startup company Grinding Gear Games, Path of Exile has garnered over 5 million registered players since its open beta release back in early 2013. Lead programmer Jonathan Rogers said in a Polygon report that the company would have made more income if it went for the much-maligned pay-to-win model. “[However], the game is doing very well. We paid off our development costs [and] the company is making enough money to expand.”

Lead developer Chris Wilson added that the company will never want to compromise the game for the sake of a quick buck. He said that persistent monetisation policies usually hide game mechanics that are built around profits. His advice on garnering a fan base with a non-intrusive monetisation approach? Make a really good game that people love to play.

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A previous article we wrote on mobile gaming stats said that companies using the F2P model for games revolve around keeping big spenders (or “whales”) hooked onto their products for as long as humanly possible. Rogers said that the game is profitable because of the goodwill of the players. A small percentage of them can be considered “whales” and are drawn to the cosmetics option in-game.

“They love to show off,” said Rogers, adding, “There comes a point when you play a game a lot that it ceases to be a game and it becomes a hobby, and laying down extra money for a hobby is not so strange. It changes the relationship with the game, makes it more personal.” Said items can go as low as US$1.50 for visual effects from your spells and skills, to a blue scorpion pet that costs US$100. The latter is known to be a popular item, as Wilson said that the company has sold a few hundreds of the pet.

Some developers working in the F2P space, especially those in the mobile gaming industry, do not see it that way and would rather continue the pay-to-win practice. Rogers said that he doesn’t like how consumers accept such a concept. “It’s bad. It influences the game design in a negative way. As soon as you tie your game design to your monetisation, it affects it. If you can buy a boost of experience, how is that separating gameplay and monetisation?”

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The game’s first major expansion, called Sacrifice of the Vaal, will be out on March 5, 2014. The major update will feature new player vs. player content, a new race of magic-wielding enemies, and the ability to charge up new weapon types for dealing massive damage. Right now, the game is showing huge trending traction in Singapore, thanks to a partnership with Southeast Asia games online platform Garena.

Jonathan Toyad

If you want an elaborate answer on who would win in a fight between Ultraman and Godzilla, Jonathan Toyad is your man. A six-year veteran in the game journalism industry, he did words and videos for outlets such as GameSpot, GameAxis, IGN and Stuff.TV. Fears coyotes and scorched earths.

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