What theme park tickets have to show us about the hell of free-to-play
It seems that everyone is moving into free-to-play, or at the very least bolstering their games with microtransactions. The art of getting gamers to part with their money is both intricate and inexact, but the common wisdom is that an ongoing series of small payments is the key to a profitable game. Why charge someone $60 once when you can charge them $2 an infinite amount of times? Jesse Schell is the author of The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, the CEO of Schell Games, and a former Disney Imagineer. He recently spoke at D.I.C.E. about an aspect of free-to-play monetization that is often ignored: The amount people are willing to pay to not worry about paying anything else.
Ride as much as you'd like
“This business of microtransactions is not new. This has been going on a long time,” he said. “It’s interesting to note that the theme park business has gone in the opposite direction. When Disneyland opened, it was the microtransaction model. It was ten cents, thirty-five cents to go on a ride, and you paid every time you rode.” A rival theme park, Magic Mountain, opened in 1971. They changed the model and charged customers one price to get in, and then allowed them to ride whatever they’d like, as many times as they’d like. No more deciding whether or not it was worth paying for each individual ride, or deciding if it was worth your money to ride a second time. You paid once, and it was all you can eat. “People loved it, and Disneyland realized they better change. So in 1980 they changed, and look what their revenues have done since then,” Schell explained. He then showed a slide of the revenue brought into Disney parks. The cost of a ticket to get into a Disney park has climbed steadily since. It turns out people are willing to pay more, and in the case of tickets to an amusement park, much more, in order to feel a sense of freedom. Once that ticket was purchased, you don’t have to worry about paying for another ride. You were free to do whatever they’d like inside the park. “People like this better. It’s weird to think there are situations where they don’t want free to play, where they do want to pay one price up front and then [they] can do whatever [they] want. Because that’s an amazing feeling. That’s the feeling of Utopia. People are willing to sacrifice to get into Utopia,” Schell continued.
The art of not charging
The acts of buying a game and buying a ticket to an amusement park aren’t exactly analogous, but this is a situation that many game developers ignore when they’re working on the monetization strategies for their games. The act of making a purchasing decision is stressful. You have to think about what you’re getting for the money, how much money you’re willing to spend, what your bank account looks like, whether or not your boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse will be upset that you paid more money for a game. Your brain goes though an awful lot of thinking every time you decide to get out your credit card and give someone money in exchange for a good or service. We play games to get away from that feeling, the constant weighing of our options, and games are more likely than ever to continually put us in that situation. It’s becoming more difficult to merely pay our money upfront and then take a deep breath and enjoy ourselves inside the park. You can fall victim to this trap even when you know it's happening. I recently took a vacation with my wife to a sort of man-made lagoon in Florida. You were able to swim with dolpins, snorkel around a man-made reef, or just relax in the sun with a drink. The ticket to get in was rather expensive, but it was all-inclusive. I know how much the ticket was, but I still couldn't get over the fact I could have as many soft pretzels, frozen drinks, and beers as I wanted. These items were worth a dollar or two in the real world, but it's an amazing feeling to be free of having to care, to be able to just hit the buffet, grab a drink, and not get your wallet out. Sure, they got all my money at the front desk, and I understood this, but the situation was infinitely more relaxing than it would have been if I had to pay for each item by itself. I likely wouldn't have gone back for that second piece of cheesecake. As it stands, my brain tricked me into thinking I was indulging, and somehow “winning” over the park. That's what companies are missing when it comes to free-to-play. The human brain doesn't like to make purchasing decisions through the life of a game, and it's very possible we'd be willing to pay more than expected in order to avoid them.