A late response to Leffen’s F2P fighting game remarks (+YT VIDEO VERSION)

Leffen, one of the most prominent Super Smash Brothers Melee and Guilty Gear Strive players in the world, published a string of tweets a couple of months ago and they were as follows:

As I’ve been through a couple of releases of fighting games as an active player, I couldn’t help but kind of agree with these statements. I knew that instinctually, but needed some sort of confirmation. Here’s the first graph showing the popularity of some fighting games over time. As we can see, they all have a more or less decent start and they quickly fall off after the release.

Let’s do some quick maths:

Guilty Gear Strive had 30 939 players on the 31st day of May during its release and it was the most players the game has ever had. A month later, on June 28th the game had 11 019 players. It means that the retention rate in this 28-day long span clocked in at R28=35.62%. This is not great, but also not extremely bad. I mean, it wouldn’t be bad if not a design choice that pretty much all fighting games abide by.

People don’t often play fighting games by themselves. There are of course ones who like to practice a single combo for 3 hours daily in the training mode, but they aren’t a huge part of the overall number of buyers, as they are the most hardcore of the hardcore players. This means that people who play fighting games do so pretty much exclusively for the multiplayer capabilities. There are two ways that we can go now – one will disregard multiplayer and the other will provide a steady flow of new players. Of course, the combination of both would be the best, but at least one of these methods works and is proven.

The first one is to make a lengthy and compelling single-player campaign. This way, people will care not only about mixing up their friends but also about characters and their actions. As it’s a gameplay and game design-oriented matter, I won’t be discussing it here, as I lack expertise in this area. However, I mentioned this case, because single-player games are often pretty compelling to play and fighting games often lack a nice story to tell. Maybe Mortal Kombat and Soul Calibur could be counted as games with a worthwhile single-player component, but these stories, let’s be honest, are far from stellar. You could make something captivating and adapt it into a fighting game somehow, I suppose. Of course, there are multiple other single-player modes to explore, like missions, challenges, versus CPU and so on and they should at least be considered at some point in the development cycle, if not just introduced.

I don’t see this becoming the case. Fighting games at their core are all about confronting another person. While it is possible that there is a market for a single-player-oriented fighting game, it is also possible that there’s none. Market research could be done and conducted, but if people still haven’t tried that (or they did and failed), I reckon this wouldn’t be a worthwhile effort.

The second thing is way more interesting and it lies in the realm of my expertise. Namely, Leffen mentioned the free-to-play model as a viable alternative to the current most popular distribution model of fighting games, pay-to-play. There are a couple of enticing characteristics of this proposition and we’ll talk about them now.

Leffen mentions that people are usually more willing to check out, and consequently play free games. This is often true due to microeconomics and psychology. Each good and service in the market aren’t perfectly available. By this, I mean that there are some obstacles when it comes to acquiring said goods. Goods by definition are scarce (things that aren’t scarce, like gravity, aren’t market goods), need to be an object of an exchange (a purchase, for example) and there’s usually some sort of cost that needs to be covered. This, and a bit more, applies to games as well. Let’s say that I’d like to buy a physical copy of Elden Ring for PS5. They are scarce, as in the number of physical copies is limited, they cost an amount of money and I also need to fulfil a couple of other requirements to play the game – I need to have the PS5 and so on. These requirements that keep me from getting and using the product are called entry barriers. The fewer entry barriers there are, the easier it is to obtain the product and use it. In the free-to-play model, we eliminate, at least on the surface level, one of the biggest barriers – the price to pay. Lesser barriers of entry translate to two important things:

  • people, at least in theory, will be more likely to try your game, as it costs them only a bit of time and storage space to give it a shot; this means that the cost of a single conversion, in this case, download of the game, should be significantly lower than in the pay to play model,
  • because of this, if you’re able to continuously conduct user acquisition campaigns and, in a broader sense, ensure that there’s a stream of new players who will join the game, you’re on a good way to build a very healthy community.

What do I mean by a healthy community? There are two aspects to that – the casual one from the player’s point of view and the professional, dev-oriented one. In the casual sense, a healthy community means that there are always people who will be more or less on the same skill level as you. You’ll have a possibility to learn the game by playing others and your skill level will grow. You will be able to face better players over time, as you will become a stronger competitor. You’ll also become acquainted with the mechanics and playstyles of different people and characters (after all, Leo in Guilty Gear Strive can be played in a couple of ways and he’s just one character). In the professional sense, it means that there are enough players on each skill level to play different people and learn the gameplay. We need to consider retention rates, though. After all, not all people who download your game will stick to playing it. Because of this, you need a stream of new users who will be able to replace the ones who went away and expand the community even more. For this, you need to conduct user acquisition campaigns and you need to keep your players engaged, perhaps by adding new content often or by conducting events. There’s already a fighting game behemoth people in the community are overlooking, but it’s free to play and it’s the biggest fighting game on PC. Brawlhalla.

This is an interesting title, as it’s not a traditional fighting game like Street Fighter or Tekken, for it’s a brawler, a platform fighter in which your objective is to slam your opponent out of the boundaries of the stage. A lot of people don’t think this is a fighting game, but we won’t be gatekeeping anything here – it’s a game, you fight others, so for this video, the market and the industry, it’s a fighting game.

Here’s a graph that is showing how the game has been doing since its beginning. For about a year and a half, it wasn’t big, rarely reaching on average more than a thousand daily active users (that’s DAU) per month, but it popped off in November 2015, surpassing on average 7000 DAU per month and never dropping below that number. This was a result of starting an open beta for which there must’ve been both a big community built and a ton of other marketing activities done to reach such levels. Brawlhalla, despite being on the market for almost 8 years so far, still shows a growing trend and, through multiple interesting business development opportunities the devs took, we’ve seen some great brand collaborations that allowed us to play Lara Croft or Shovel Knight.

Brawlhalla, even though it’s rather limited in its technical aspect, runs well, has a good netcode and isn’t inherently P2W (however I recall the time when everyone played Wu Shang out of necessity, as he was the best character in the game). The game relies on selling permanent access to heroes (there are usually some free heroes in a rotation) and vanity items. And it’s doing better than any other fighting game on PC, at least.

When it comes to more traditional fighting games, there are no significant F2P games at the moment (Fightcade doesn’t count), but we’ll see a big one in the future. Riot Games are working on Project L, a 2D fighting LOL spin-off. Some devs have already confirmed that the game will have some sort of “a viable form of a free-to-play experience”. The devs behind the game used to have a F2P fighting game called Rising Thunder (it folded in 2015) and I believe it is no coincidence that Riot decided to acquire this team to work on their game. I’ve never liked LOL, never been a fan of Riot Games, yet I can’t help but keep my fingers crossed for Project L.

There’s also one more thing that may explain why some companies tend to not try and explore F2P possibilities. They are just adjusted and used to running their products in a specific way. Having, say, Tekken 8 as a F2P title would mean that the dev team behind the game would need to be strongly restructured, new people who know how to earn on such titles would need to be hired and so on. They’d even have to get UI/UX designers who would be better suited to design the interface and menus to optimise retention rates and encourage more spending. This is a move that is very risky and possibly very costly, once you have an established IP and an experienced team. Companies simply don’t want to take such risks or don’t want to do something that is against their DNA. Can we blame them for sticking to what they know best?

In conclusion, Leffen has a fair point regarding the fighting games’ market and there is already a strong case that supports his convictions – Brawlhalla. We’ll see how Project L will fare on the market, as it has the team and backing that can make it work. It’s also not a surprise that some studios don’t want to explore the F2P capabilities, as it would be a risky and disruptive move for them.

I hope that you enjoyed reading (or listening to) this article. My life’s been a wild ride for the last few months and this is the main reason why I haven’t published anything here for a while. Hopefully, I’ll be back to posting. This article was written in February, if my memory serves me correctly, so I’m sorry that it’s not up to date. Still, is a member of FGC I had a need to publish it.

I happen to be looking for a job, so if you’d like to hire me as a marketer for your studio (CET/CEST), feel free to reach out to me via LinkedIn or write me an email – jakub.mamulski@gmail.com. I’m most likely not going to elaborate on what’s been going on with my life, so I can provide more content that is relevant to this blog and my YT channel. Maybe I’ll provide some sort of an update via my LinkedIn newsletter, that’d be more fitting, I suppose. Anyway, have a lovely day, cheers.


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