Microtransactions Aren’t Evil - Why Viridi is Free-to-play
Viridi has received considerable mainstream attention, but dour critical response from the games community. One concern leveled against it is its pricing model: Viridi is free, and comes with one pot and about 10 succulents, plus one random free seedling per week. If you like it, you can purchase an additional pot for ~$3-5, or seedlings of your choice for $0.09-0.39 each.
To be honest, we knew there would be some fallout for using a F2P/microtransactions model, especially on Steam, where it’s a relatively new possibility. But we’ve actually been pleased and surprised by the user response. We’ve had far more players than we expected, and the thousands of reviews have been incredibly warm and positive.
My perception is that the games world has specific, strong, deeply-ingrained feelings about F2P that are not shared by the world at large. I’m writing this article because in the process of making Viridi I enjoyed the experience of analyzing those feelings in myself and breaking them down, and because I believe I came out the other side a better creator.
ORIGINAL PRICING MODEL
When we (Zoe Vartanian, Isa Hutchinson, Michael Bell, and myself) began making Viridi, we planned to release it as a conventional, one-time purchase game for a few dollars. Microtransactions made us uncomfortable. Personally, seeing a price tag on items often made me feel like I was being manipulated, or like the magic circle of the game was somehow breached, such that concerns from the real world would intermingle with & corrupt those from the game world. Yes, I understand the aversion. I’m not writing this from a place of remoteness and confusion. I want to explain how I got from there to here.
I’ve long had complicated feelings about charging for my work. As a creator, I want my work to be valued, but I know that there are other ways to value something than just financially. As a human being who needs to eat, I want to make enough money to be stable, but I absolutely don’t want to take someone’s money who regrets giving it to me. I felt terrible when someone bought Eidolon and didn’t enjoy it, and would refund people for almost any complaint. I’m a sort of soft socialist on this stuff. My ideal situation is: everyone gets to experience the work, and then the people who enjoy it and can afford to pay for it do so. The way this manifests in a traditional business model is: guilt makes me price my work low, then give refunds to anyone who is upset about it for any reason. Not great.
GOALS & UNLOCKS
Part of the reason for including a variety of plants was to let the game have more staying power, to let people enjoy it for longer and feel a sense of freshness as time went on. For this reason and others (e.g. we didn’t want to overwhelm the user on their first time in the app), we knew we didn’t want to give the user every plant at the beginning, but instead to deal them out slowly over time. Viridi is a game about time and patience, and we wanted to reflect that in how the app treats the user as well as in how the user treats the app.
Coming from our background in traditional games, we jumped to a model from traditional games: unlocking content as rewards for achieving specific goals. When the user fully matured a certain number of a specific varietal of plant, it would unlock access to a new seedling type, which could then be grown to unlock the next, etc. Whole varieties of plant would be unlocked, at which point the user was free to plant as many of that variety as they wanted, whenever they wanted.
This had a significant effect on the experience of the game. The user had a clear goal: unlock the next plant type. Because of this, user interactions with the app were mostly concerned with how to meet our arbitrary demands. Paying attention to and nurturing your plants wasn’t the goal, but a hurdle the user had to get through to get the next exciting thing. Your current plants were disposable (as you had an infinite number of them), interchangeable (as any of them reaching maturity would unlock the next plant), unimportant. It was the silhouette of the mysterious next unlock that got the focus, not the babies you were supposedly nurturing, caring for.
It was utter bullshit, and not what we wanted to be making with Viridi. Visiting your plants felt productive and necessary, when what we wanted was meditative, soothing, optional, intentional, valuable for what it is. Instead of a refuge from a busy life, it felt like just another chore.
We needed to take out the artificial goals, but they were a functional element. How else could we meter out the seedlings?
F2P AS CREATIVE SAVIOR
Then, the F2P model entered our conversation seriously. We knew Viridi was going to mobile phones, and we knew this was an accepted and technically supported financial model in that space. It gave us a clean design paradigm within which we could have the experience we wanted: at first, users’ access is restricted to a few hand-picked varieties of plant. Then, if the user wants/needs more variety from the app—if Viridi proves itself as valuable in their life but the limited starting experience has grown stale—then the user has the power to introduce that variety slowly over time.
And there were other benefits from the model as well.
In the goals/unlocks paradigm, the seedlings were infinite, and the unlocked item was the variety, not the individual. Thus, the valued thing was not the individual plant, but the whole class of plant. We wanted these plants to be your babies, but that’s not what was being communicated. This was an issue we’d been discussing, but which the unlock paradigm didn’t have a clear answer for. If we instead sold seedlings, we could much more easily do so per individual plant, thus making it literally true that every single one of your plants is valuable and important.
In the goals/unlocks paradigm, the user grew a plant to unlock a variety. With a F2P model, the user would purchase a seedling to grow a plant. The task → goal directionality is reversed. Instead of treating gardening like a job you do for some external reward, it treats it like a thing worth investing in for its own sake. Now, the onerous task is the unlock, and the earned reward is the ability to care for and slowly nurture the plant. The game is making a fundamentally different claim about what is a cost and what is valuable. Before, your time spent on Viridi was a cost, and the thing you got in return was some bullshit digital unlock—not the claim we wanted to make.
Plus, the F2P model would give us the ability to make Viridi free. We wanted people to be able to try the game before spending a cent on it, both to confirm that it literally functions on their device, and to confirm that it’s valuable enough to them that they would want to spend money on it. And we wanted people who couldn’t afford to buy games to be able to make our art part of their lives. Part of what attracts me to games as an artist is that unlike most media, they’re publicly accessible on a massive scale. F2P, done right, means letting everyone play your game for free, then decide on an ongoing basis whether it’s worth money to them, and how much.
DOING IT RIGHT
We had our reservations: we didn’t want to see “whales,” users who spend an exorbitant amount on the game, we didn’t want the game to manipulate or distract users with the financial aspects, and we didn’t want money to be a barrier to entry.
Towards our concern about “whales,” we tried to price things such that there is no reasonable way to spend more money than we feel comfortable taking and get any benefit from it. After a few dollars spent on Viridi, there is a definite drop-off in value. There’s only so much room in your pot. After ~$10-15 buying the few additional pots available and way more plants than can fit in them, there's no reason to spend more, except maybe the occasional dollar for variety.
Towards avoiding manipulation and distraction, we placed the store in a separate world from your pot. There’s no nagging when you’re in your nurturing space, and the app always launches you back to that space. It takes specific intention to go to the in-game nursery, where money can be spent. There’s also no obfuscating in-game currency of the sort many F2P games use to break users’ direct associations between their wallets and what they’re buying. We want the decision to spend money on a plant to be clear, unequivocal, explicit.
Finally, to make sure money was never necessary for a full experience, we included a slow drip of random, free seedlings, at a rate (one per week) that we felt was appropriate to the pace of the game. The goal was to allow a user to fully enjoy all the game has to offer for free, without making the purchases irrelevant, and I believe we achieved that. More than anything, money spent on Viridi is about getting more control over your experience, choosing the specific plants and background you want.
The public reception of Viridi has been incredible and far beyond our expectations. We did not expect to do well on Steam as a mobile-oriented art game, about watching plants grow, with microtransactions. I actually cannot think of a combination of traits that I would expect to worse on Steam. As of writing this, we have 3000+ user reviews, 87% of which are positive. We did not expect to get any attention outside of the world of art games, but we’ve been covered by National Geographic, Fast Company, The Huffington Post, New Scientist, and many other massive mainstream publications. We could not be happier about this.
We did expect to find our audience in the community of people interested in thinking about games critically, as art, since that’s how we approached the project. This is one of the communities where the reception of Viridi seems to be generally negative. In fact, most people who think critically about games seem very much not okay with our financial model (as well as lots of other stuff, which that's okay!), whether they be from the art games crowd or more traditional hardcore gamers.
The problem is basically that microtransactions make these people uncomfortable. Which, I don’t put it that way to belittle it. In a game like Viridi, which is trying to be a soothing safe place, making the user actively uncomfortable is a big deal. It’s a valid response. Including microtransactions has, for these people, actually made the game worse, and that makes me sad.
However, it is fully refreshing that this doesn’t line up with the average user’s response. It’s a surprise, but given that we have the ability to make art that has a positive place in the life of a huge number of people, that’s far more important to us than the few critics and gamers for whom the experience doesn’t work. Moreover, the financial model solves so many problems and serves our creative purposes so well that it just has to be okay that it’s distracting to some people.
It makes me personally sad that some of the people whose opinions I respect the most are the people who are the most actively critical of our work, but it is what it is. My takeaway is that art is subjective. We may have lots of good, fairly 'objective' reasons for why we made the decisions we did, but ultimately Viridi doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Viridi exists in a world where the people who care most about games have learned to mistrust the sorts of games that are based on microtransactions. But I really do think that for the right games, executed correctly, the business model can be wonderful.
We'll be sticking to our guns with the free-to-play model when Viridi comes out on mobile, and I hope that we'll find success there as well.