Why Spend $500,000 on a Free Game?

The $185,000 Toy

In November 2019, Hake Auctions in York sold an ancient artifact for $185,850. That artifact? A plastic action figure of Boba Fett, standing just 3.75 inches tall.

The prototype Boba Fett is one of the rarest and most desired toys in any star wars collection. When its missile launching rocket pack was deemed a choking hazard, the toy’s creator removed the feature. Since then the legend of the unreleased prototype captivated collectors and commanded ever-increasing prices at auction.

Naturally, this toy will never be played with.

Games are becoming Hobbies

Many people are staggered when they hear about people spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on virtual goods within a free mobile game.  They assume there must be black magic at work, evil addiction loops that trick people into mindlessly draining their savings accounts. Why else would anyone do something so irrational?

Meanwhile, at least one person thought that Boba Fett was worth $185,850. An unopened copy of the 1985 Super Mario Bros. title sold for $100,000. Even old stamps can go for over $1 million dollars, and none of these purchases represent their buyer’s total investment in the hobby.

The reason is simple: Some games are actually designed as hobbies. AAA games cost ~$60 and entertain you for ~30 hours… But a hobby expands to fill your available time and budget. 

Hobbies are what people choose to do with their free time and money. Whatever they have that isn’t going into savings or basic cost of living, they invest into what they’re passionate about.

Let’s look at a hobby through the lens of F2P gaming: Classic Cars.

The F2P player in the Classic Car hobby tends to watch shows about classic cars in their free time. They read free online articles too. They learn about classic cars, what makes them special, and argue with other hobbyists about which cars are the best.

Smaller spenders will buy scale models of classic cars, subscriptions to the best magazines, and maybe go to local car shows when they can.

Medium spenders might own a single low-end classic car and take it to local shows. They might also travel long distances to the best conventions every year.

Whales and Super-Whales are the reason they go to those conventions. These are the people that are displaying the true wonders of the hobby, the multi-million dollar cars that were once owned by a historical figure. All the lower spend players gather around and admire their collection (validating their purchase).

Suddenly F2P gaming makes a lot more sense. It’s not about some weird addiction loop, it’s about designing a compelling hobby that players will want to pour their available time and money into – because it’s what they love.

Designing a Hobby

A hobby game, sometimes called a ‘lifestyle game’ or ‘live service’, has several key ingredients:

1. Keep Players Engaged for Months or Years

There must always be more to do, learn, discover, and talk about. You can’t ever feel like you’ve “finished” the hobby. Many live service games regularly release new content or special events to keep things interesting for their players. If players want to spend 2+ hours in your game each day for 5 years, you need to have stuff for them to do. There’s a reason so many of the top free to play games actually came out years ago: they’re designed like enduring hobbies.

2. Encourage Players to Connect to a Community

Hobbyists and enthusiasts generally like talking to others that share their passions. However, only a few actively seek out these connections. The rise of Guilds in F2P games came about because developers realized that players in Guilds were playing and spending more than players disconnected from a community. Creating great social features is key to the success of many games. Fellow hobbyists validate your accomplishments and investment in the hobby, and that sense of community is powerful when done well.

3. Offer a Great Experience across all Spending Levels

If a player only has $5 to spend, can they enjoy your game? The answer should be yes. What if a player wants to spend $500,000? Does your game have $500,000 worth of items they’d want to buy? The answer doesn’t have to be yes, that’s up to you, but it’s certainly something to consider. It’s easy to just support one or the other, but you should look for ways to support both.

Games Don’t Have to Be Hobbies

Games can succeed in a million different ways. Indie devs are often best served by not making hobby games, as market-leading hobby games often work hard to retain their existing players (meaning those players are more reluctant to check out new titles in the genre). Many exceptional games are meant to be disposable. Some of my favorite games, such as Portal, have minimal replay value. They’re just wonderful experiences.

That’s great. This article isn’t saying every game should be a hobby. It’s just here to explain the core question: Why does anyone spend $500,000 on a free game?

The answer is simple. It’s not just a game. It’s their favorite hobby. $500,000 is a pretty cheap price to be a king in your favorite community.

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