How Freemium Developers Get You To Pay

Withholding Features

I really, really detest developers that withhold features. It’s not a very common practice, but it instantly drives me up the wall when I see it in a game. For good reason, too: While time compression relies on game mechanics being fun or addicting enough to hold a player’s attention, withholding features relies on that fun being ransomed. It’s a terrible practice that still has proponents in freemium designs.

Feature-withholding is the act of restricting a player’s access to features based on how much money they have paid. You could argue that this includes time compression (since that nominally witholds features, like new skills and items), but the distinction between time compression and feature-withholding is that you can’t get these features by just playing the game. While a lot of games do this to some extent or another, a few outright prevent players from accessing basic quality-of-life features unless they shell out money. Want an in-game bank to store items? Pay money. Want access to all your crafting skills? More money. Actual XP gain? Keep giving us money!

Why It Works

It doesn’t.

No, seriously. Withholding features doesn’t work. On a large scale, at least. It results in an increasingly pissed-off player base that rails against design decisions and rebels against developer rule. It is the worst kind of low-blow freemium nonsense, and it (deservedly) can cripple a game’s profit margins. It is the freemium equivalent of on-disc DLC or restrictive DRM, and players hate it.

The most egregious example of feature-withholding that I can think of is Star Wars: The Old Republic. Free players earn XP at a far slower rate, can’t train all their crafting slots, are forced to get abilities and mounts later, can’t hold as much money, can’t use the bank, can only use a tiny amount of market slots, and countless more arbitrary and upsetting restrictions. Take a look for yourself. This is not how to design a freemium game. It’s a way for you to twist the screws to force people to pay when they don’t want to.

The moral difference between withholding a feature and time compression is that, ultimately, time compression relies on the user’s weakness rather than a built-in problem with the game. Grind is steep, sure, but surmountable. Feature-withholding relies on the game being weak to force the player to pay to make it strong. It is an incredibly awful method of designing, and I detest every game I’ve ever played that has it.

Odds And Ends

Most freemium games have a list of “odds and ends” that contribute to their revenue without being one of the above mechanics. The two that are most common are expansion packs and lockboxes. While both share some elements with feature-withholding, they frame the decision in a way that is a bit more palatable to the end user.

Expansion packs – otherwise known as adventure packs, or dungeon packs, or any number of other titles – shouldn’t need much of an introduction. If you play MMOs, you surely know about them. However, most MMOs have begun the shift toward expansions being free, named updates rather than big boxed sets. To replace this revenue, developers have taken up releasing “miniature” expansion packs that consist of self-contained storylines and abilities.

Lockboxes, on the other hand, are simply a way to make rare drops give the developer cash. Rather than having rare and legendary items drop from normal monsters, lockboxes drop. Characters can spend a dollar or two to buy a key that unlocks the box. The items contained therein are usually (but not always!) significantly better than the items you get via mission and normal drops. Oftentimes they include other freemium items like boosts or cosmetics so that there is an element of gambling to the system to make players return.

Why It Works

Expansion packs work because they aren’t necessary. The main story arc, the missions and professions you wish to do, and all the gear you could ever want are in the game you started playing. Expansion packs may give you more options and customization, but they aren’t required to have fun. Oftentimes developers will even include “demos” for expansion content by allowing limited access to all players.

Lockboxes work because they are powerful. Games like Team Fortress 2 and Star Trek Online have functional lockbox systems because you get fantastic – often normally unobtainable – items out of lockboxes. For example, you can only get strange items and parts in TF2 from a lockbox. While opening a box is always a gamble, most developers weight the system so that players feel like they are getting their money’s worth out of the unlock, even if it is just a small boost and some minor rares.

In both cases, the players that pay are those that are dedicated enough to the game that they dump money to “complete their collection.”

While these are not the only ways that a developer can cajole you into paying, they are certainly the most popular. When done right, they can provide a valid incentive for players to pour money into the system and keep the developer afloat. When done wrong, they hold you for ransom by building addictions and forcing you to pay for them. Now that you know how developers push you into spending your money, you can better pick out the games you truly enjoy. And while there are plenty of unscrupulous and awful freemium designers out there, some developers truly want you to enjoy yourself. They just want some compensation for it.

Do you hate how games are going freemium more often? Did I miss a common design philosophy? Let me know in the comments below!

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4 Comments on How Freemium Developers Get You To Pay


On March 5, 2013 at 10:53 am

Very Informative. Glad I read this article, thank you kind sir!


On March 5, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Very good article, this is one of the few times I dont feel like something else should be added.

What really pisses me off about the withholding features scheme isnt that companies do it, its that many players defend it. Most notably, players that have almost exclusively played p2p MMO’s and have little to no experience with f2p ones. These are the guys that are quickest to say “out of the 100 things to do in this game, you can do these 15 for free so you have novocaine right to complain.”


On March 5, 2013 at 1:35 pm

A very useful article. It’s fine if people decide that they want to pay for something, it is their money after all, but it is far better that they do so as a well informed consumer rather than simply whistling the tune of companies that are in it for profit. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for companies to look for various methods to generate revenue, but the customer certainly should know what is being done so that they can make their own decisions on whether those methods are acceptable to them.


On March 5, 2013 at 4:58 pm

A comparison to the house always winning in casinos is a pretty apt one. People who play F2P games are ultimately marks. Are you a good or a bad mark? And most importantly, even though you are a mark, can you still have an entertaining time with the game?