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A Conversation with Will Luton on Free-to-Play Games

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Will Luton sits down to discuss the emergence of free-to-play games, their impact on the gaming industry, and advice for game designers who are just starting out. Also, he discusses the big misconception about free-to-play games, his favorite games, and what he thinks the future is for these kinds of experiences.
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Peachpit: Obviously, you've been in the games industry for awhile now. Why do you think that free-to-play games aren't just a fad?

Will Luton: F2P, I believe, is an inevitability of digital distribution. It costs almost zero to deliver a game to a player via the internet, unlike putting discs in boxes, so charging for access makes less sense especially when the market is so competitive.

Peachpit: How do you see the free-to-play concept evolving in the next five years?

Will Luton: I think we'll be building on a lot of the foundations I describe in the book. We're at the point where now we understand a lot of the hows and whys of the model and can use that as a basis for creativity. There's going to be a lot more success stories of small companies making lots of money on new experiences in the model.

Peachpit: Right now in gaming, it seems that most companies are pursuing expensive AAA titles with great graphics and lots of computing power. Do you think free-to-play will replace them or simply stand alongside the AAA model?

Will Luton: Paid games are going to be around for years to come, but they're certainly being eroded by the F2P model. Valve, who are interviewed in the book, have already set their AAA game Team Fortress 2 from paid to free-to-play whilst titles like League of Legends also bring in huge revenues. Console platforms also look ready to embrace the model, so in the next few years I expect free-to-play to become the defacto model for AAA games as the old guard catch up.

Peachpit: How do you create a free-to-play game that doesn't make a gamer feel like he or she is being nickel-and-dimed?

Will Luton: You need to make a good game that a player enjoys firstly; then you need to offer them something that they have an emotional bond with, that they'll want to spend money on. If players don't feel like they're time with the game is valuable or that the in-app purchases aren't worth while, they won't want to spend.

Peachpit: What kinds of games fit the free-to-play model the best?

Will Luton: Anything with a virtual currency already is easy to work with. However, I think most games can use the model, just we haven't work out how yet for some.

Peachpit: What are your favorite free-to-play games?

Will Luton: I'm a big fan of FarmVille still and love anything NimbleBit do, such as Tiny Towers. But I think I've probably played Bejewelled Blitz more than any other title.

Peachpit: What are your favorite video games of all time?

Will Luton: Other than the above, I'm a big fan of the Shenmue series, but there's lots of games I love: Dear Esther, Portal, Ico, Red Dead Redemption, Rez… I could go on. I also play lots of the collectable card game Magic the Gathering.

Peachpit: What is the most important piece of advice would you give to new game designers who want to make a free-to-play game?

Will Luton: Understand what makes the model work, put yourself in the mindset of your player and love what you make.

Peachpit: As a successful game designer and consultant, what made you interested in writing a full-length book?

Will Luton: It had always been an ambition to be published, firstly. However, I felt like there was lots of disparate in bits of information on the F2P model and nobody had gathered it all together and said: “Here's how it works, here's how you use it”. So my aim was to write the book on F2P.

Peachpit: What do you think is the biggest misconception about free-to-play games?

Will Luton: That it's bad for consumers and the only players who pay have been tricked in to it. F2P is about a renegotiation of the deal we offer players; we no longer have to force them to pay to get access to our game. Everyone's welcome to pay, or not, as they wish.

Peachpit: In your book, you describe the Bartle model (Hearts/Socializers, Clubs/Killers, Diamonds/Achievers and Spades/Explorers) and how this kind of system can help define what motivates different players. Which of the four Bartle types do you most closely associate yourself with and why?

Will Luton: I'm an achiever – I like to get clear indications of my progression.

Peachpit: Personally, what do you think are the most interesting things happening in the games industry right now?

Will Luton: I think that the living room is wide open. Consoles are very stagnant and still a niche – some other technology can come in and make gaming on the TV mainstream.

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