The Gates Before Freemium: Ace Patrol

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Kevin Ford

June 12th, 2013

I respect the hell out of Sid Meier and what he’s done for the games industry. I’ve been a long time Civilization, Pirates, and Railroad sim fan. Not only am I a fan of Firaxis but as you’d guess, I’m also a champion for the freemium / F2P business model so when I saw Firaxis add freemium combine I was excited to give them a whirl.

To give you a little background about myself, I am a games consultant on the NativeX Games Task Force. My team provides specialized 1:1 consulting to our partners and we help them turn their mobile games into successful businesses. Occasionally I publish freemium game reviews on the NativeX blog, pointing out what they do right and what they could do better.

In this edition, I’m going to take you through Air Patrol (AP) by Firaxis!

Firaxis

What it does right

Game genre and accessibility

Firaxis and Sid Meier arguably make the best strategy video games (to the point where I basically expect it) so it’s no shock that Ace Patrol is another great and fun strategy game. AP is not only great, but it’s also accessible for new and experienced strategy gamers alike. It starts out with limited maneuvers, pilots earn upgrades after battles and the battles increase with difficulty at an easy pace to bring most players along. This seems like a classic, or perhaps even simple list of ingredients to a successful strategy game but the moves and options make battles a little more challenging over time.

Subject matter

World War games make for some of the best subjects matter to be accepted worldwide. Most countries have knowledge of their history and in my experience, if localized, work well in many different countries with varying cultural differences. Most other game subjects need to be localized not only in language but also graphics to match the cultural differences in gaming so having a game with a context that doesn’t require much localization helps to keep costs down.

Upgradable planes and pilots

I have a lot of options in this game. I can select pilots, upgrade and customize my planes, and I can learn new maneuvers as my pilot levels-up. All these options give the player thousands of configurations but at the same time I’m not overwhelmed. I might not fully understand which maneuver best fits my playing style but players learn over time.

Below is one of the in-app purchase (IAP) menus. There are campaigns, special plane skins, and improvements.

In-App-Purchases

Here’s a screenshot of the customization options from the multiplayer menu. It’s difficult to see all the plane options and upgrades because there are several sub-menus.

F2P-Virtual-Goods

Choice in missions

As a player I love choice, so naturally I love the ability to choose the mission of my choice. I can cater the mission to the way I like to play (e.g. defensive or offensive based missions for my defensive or offensive preference in play style) but it also makes me feel like I’m doing something meaningful towards the overall battle.

F2P-Missions

Can’t force quit restart

If something isn’t working out in a game that I’m playing I can usually force quit the game, restart it and retry a level without paying money/virtual currency for retries if the game is monetizing on that mechanic. I screwed up a move in a level I was playing in AP, tried to force quit the game, and returned to find out that the game saves after a completed turn so I was stuck with the game that I had started.

Multiplayer

I love the asynchronous and also synchronous approach. If I don’t have time to play a long session I can let my opponent take their turn and then come back to it later. If I want to play a longer session with a friend we can both sit down and play a full match. There’s even head-to-head on the same device, though I rarely use that functionality.

However, if I want to play a complete session with a stranger then it’s the luck of the draw with whether or not they can play a complete game with me. There’s not much Firaxis could do to prevent that from happening.

What could be improved

Multiplayer

I know I just listed this as something that worked well, but I have some concerns about how it works:

1) I wish I could choose the game type I was playing. I want different plane configurations for the various game objectives, but I don’t know what type of game I’m about to play when selecting my loadouts. I love elements of chance in games but not an element of chance with the objective when I’m setting my planes up.

2) It’s not always clear or obvious what type of game you’re about to play. There’s just a small banner at the bottom with the objective but I’ve played against players who have missed this and thought the game was just death-match or skirmish.

F2P-Objective

3) Randomly generated maps can create unfair disadvantages. As you can see from the screenshot below my enemy’s base is protected by land bases with anti-air artillery. If I fly over them I run the risk of them damaging or shooting down my planes. On the other hand, my base only has one base next to it and has clouds. I can’t target enemies in the clouds so my opponent only needs to get close enough to enter the clouds and he’ll win because I won’t be able to shoot him down in the clouds.

F2P-Objective-2

Business model

I’m prepared for a backlash of F2P hating comments but Firaxis could’ve made more money with a true F2P business model. This is basically a premium/lite game, meaning players need to purchase the majority of the content through IAPs (premium), but players can get a taste/demo for free (lite). It looks like the game is charting ok right now but they’re also getting featured by Apple. We’ll see if the game can hold a steady position. I’m predicting it won’t because players who want the content are likely going buy it but the rest won’t feel compelled to do so, forcing them to stop playing. F2P models can generate much more revenue than premium games because they allow players to become repeat buyers. In order to do so, you really should have a virtual currency. Which brings me to my next point.

No virtual currency

All purchases in game are done through IAPs. Want to purchase the campaign to continue playing? You need to go through Apple’s IAP process which includes entering your password which is a hassle. Want a plane skin? Go back through Apple’s IAP process. Want to heal your pilots? You know the drill. If they had a virtual currency I could buy enough currency to purchase a magnitude of items. I could buy maneuvers, planes, pilots, plane skins, campaigns, weapons, heal and rescue units, and the list can go on and on. There are literally thousands of combinations of virtual items for players to think of. However, making players complete an IAP is a point of friction. Take away the friction or make it happen less often and your players will spend more money.

If they decide to create a virtual currency, they should check out my article on boosting virtual economies.

Gated campaigns

Gating content means players can’t access some portion of the game’s content until they pass through a “gate.” Examples of gates could be registration forms, requiring players to connect to social networks, or in this game purchase the content via IAP. This is also known as a paywall. A paywall is a point in a game where you ask players to purchase something to continue playing, or leave. It’s better to implement a virtual currency system and allow players to earn currency through grinding or IAP to unlock content.

Virtual-Goods-in-a-F2P-Game

Opt not to purchase and lose save

I played through the first 6 missions on my initial play through and when the system prompted me to purchase the British campaign for $0.99 I declined. Then I found out that the game will reset your progress and you have to start over. I understand that there weren’t any more missions for me to play but a warning that all my progress was going to be erased would’ve been nice.

User Interface

The in game UI is a little difficult to press sometimes, but I don’t have a better solution. I think that just comes with the nature of strategy games on touch devices. However, the 2D buttons on the menus could certainly improve. They look fuzzy, and low definition. Menus and the like can look so crisp on a retina display, and most games don’t have problems getting them right.

Good-F2P-UX

Gating before Freemium

Sid Meier has been designing and developing games for decades and he’s not showing any signs of slowing down. However, F2P is fairly new for everyone (experienced and n00bs) and it takes a bit of time to master or refine for studios. It’s easy for developers to look at F2P and say “I could just sell packs of content via IAPs.” It’s a logical step between Premium and full blown freemium, but it’s also not putting your best foot forward. I haven’t seen a knockout F2P title (from a monetization level) from Firaxis, but they certainly haven’t been bad either. They’re learning a thing or two from games like Ace Patrol, and I think one of their future F2P titles is going to do pretty well.

If you’d like to talk more about Ace Patrol or if you would like the NativeX Games Task Force to review your freemium game, send me a note or find me on Twitter.

Kevin Ford

For all resources have them written by Kevin Ford, Marketing Manager

2013-06-12

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