XCOM Should Have Been Free to Play

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was released to critical acclaim last month and reached a global all-formats chart position of 10th at its highest point. It has since dropped in price to £22.99 less than a month since release.

Perhaps XCOM should have been a free-to-play game from the beginning, and is a game that would lend itself to the free-to-play model without drastic changes to the game’s design. Here are some of the ways in which XCOM could be adapted to use a freemium model:

Speed Up

A key part of XCOM is the research and building of new items, which take time. The ability to speed up actions is one of the key monetisation methods in free to play games. Players have already used resources to pay for the item but must then wait before they can use them. This creates a kind of sunk cost and can tempt the player to spend money to access the item immediately.

Speeding up could also be used when healing any units that have been injured during a mission, making them available for the next mission immediately.

Early Unlock / Buy Resources

Items that need to be researched and built require resources first, if a player does not have these resources they can obtain them during missions. In a freemium model, players could also purchase these resources with real-world money. This is a model used widely amongst other freemium games, such as Galaxy Life and Cityville.


With a customisation option already in the game for your units, a number of those options could be bought for a small amount, while new designs could also be added.

Premium Items

There is a wide range of armour, weaponry, and equipment in XCOM. Premium items could be added to this range that provides a further advantage during missions. These items would be statistically better than other items to encourage players to buy them, though not so over-powered as to create a ‘pay to win’ scenario. Premium, ready-made units could also be bought to include in your squad.

Item/Unit Upgrades

Similar to Premium Items (above), individual items or units could be upgraded or have improvements applied to them in order to provide a further benefit. Upgrades could include additional ammo capacity, improved accuracy, greater field of vision and increased defence.

Revive Units

Your units will die in XCOM. A lot. When a unit is killed in the field they are gone for good so it makes a big impact on the game when a unit doesn’t make it back to base.

Players will likely form emotional attachments to particular units too, and so an option to revive them to make them available for the next mission could prove lucrative.

Up to the week ending 27th October, XCOM:Enemy Unknown has sold 180,000 units on PC. To put that into perspective, CityVille 2 was released last week and has 170,000 daily active users. Of course, not each of those players will have spent any money, maybe only 3-5% of them, but they have the potential to spend.

The advantage of free to play games is that they are exactly that, free to play. I’ve heard a number of people say that they haven’t played XCOM because they don’t know if they’ll like it, and £40 is a lot of money to take a chance on. CityVille 2 has no barrier to entry and so far has been played by 690,000 people in a week, and that number is on the rise.

About Adam

Games designer, Newcastle fan and prolific tea drinker
This entry was posted in Design Discussion, F2P, Social Games, Zynga and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to XCOM Should Have Been Free to Play

  1. gnargle says:

    Congratulations, you have successfully ruined everything about XCOM.
    Free to play is horrible and you should feel horrible for suggesting such an excellent game should go that route.

  2. GetUpKidAK says:

    “Up to the week ending 27th October, XCOM:Enemy Unknown has sold 180,000 units on PC.”

    At retail. Steam sales figures aren’t released and are often several factors greater than PC retail. The game was the top seller on Steam in the weeks leading up to release and for a while after.

    XCOM should *not* have been free-to-play.

  3. Neil Castle says:

    You are so wrong it hurts.

  4. jake says:

    Sure, it might have made firaxis plenty of cash – but it would have alienated legions and legions of fans. I genuinely thought this was a joke when I first read it.

    • Laplace says:

      Why would it alienate anyone ? Firaxis basically took an IP and stripped it from everything that made it unique, turning it into a crappy console boardgame…and people loved it. So this proves people love when you sell them garbage.

  5. optimaximal1 says:

    Is this a serious post?

  6. Dan Stubbs says:

    Just awful. This should be titled ‘How to destroy your game with F2P’. Your hideous vision of XCOM is a crime against game design.

  7. Adam says:

    Oh God I’ve created a monster! This post began as an exercise in applying FTP designs to an existing, non-freemium game.

    The title is deliberately provocative and does not necessarily mean I would do any or all of the things listed in the post. Personally I would never include the option of reviving units, for example, as it would destroy the whole notion of perma-death which makes the game so exciting.

    I wanted to start a discussion on how freemium design methods could be applied to existing games but it seems to have just become another “FTP is evil” thread.

    • optimaximal1 says:

      Surely the problem is rather than talking in a ‘general’ sense, you’ve singled out a specific game, looked at everything that made it ‘different’ to current releases and looked at how they can be stripped out/altered/genericised/monetised to fit a F2P model.

      If each of your points had generally targeted a different game, then maybe any backlash would be different.

      • Ash says:

        He said “This post began as an exercise in applying FTP designs to an existing, non-freemium game,” so that’s what he did. In that case, it makes a lot of sense. It obviously would’ve ruined XCOM, which he’s acknowledged.

        He’s not actually saying it will be done or asking for the blood of your first-born child, it’s just a blog post. Thinking out loud, if you like.

        The idea that, for whatever reason, a game designer is thinking how to monetise a game via it’s design rather than, y’know, thinking about how to design a good game, is what worries me. Even so, it’s not worth getting too excited about..

      • optimaximal1 says:

        @Ash Of course I understand it’s a personal blog. I don’t, however, see any acknowledgement of it ‘possibly ruining XCOM’.

        All I saw was…

        Perhaps XCOM should have been a free-to-play game from the beginning, and is a game that would lend itself to the free-to-play model without drastic changes to the game’s design.

        All mentioned points are drastic change to the games fundamental design.

    • pathofagamer says:

      There are good and bad F2P games, but your vision of a F2P XCOM is lazy, and would actually make the game significantly worse for paying customers, by removing the challenge and risk from the risk/reward equation. It’s the worst kind of ‘add buttons and badges, then pay to win’ kind of design, and yes, you should feel bad.

    • Well, Adam, fair enough. Sometimes your point doesn’t quite come across how you thought it might. But in this case you DID title the piece “XCOM Should Have Been Free to Play” and then list various ways in which one might ruin the appeal of XCOM by adding Free to Play elements, with no critical analysis of these ideas, so… perhaps you should have written a different piece, called ‘How XCOM Might Have Been Tempted To Go Free To Play and Why It Could Have Ruined It.’

    • optimaximal1 says:

      You also don’t necessarily ‘state’ you wouldn’t do these things if you were in charge. Your words simply state…

      Here are some of the ways in which XCOM could be adapted to use a freemium model

      You’re not studying it or (intentionally) generating debate – you’re offering opinion on how you think it should have be done, with the general tone of ‘Firaxis didn’t make enough money, I know how they should have done it’.

      I get this wasn’t intentional, but they key to avoiding shitstorms like this on the internet is to look back before publishing something and thinking ‘will others be able to read my text and understand what I mean’.

      Possibly time for an edit? 🙂

  8. That’s a thought-provoking post. I think you are right that that the game could have been very successful F2P. Will be interesting to see if Firaxis deliver an tablet-first X-com title that is F2P. That is how I would run the experiment

  9. An ingenious, brilliantly considered and thorough detailing of how to completely gut a game. Your ideas are bad and you should feel bad.

  10. Jon Brady says:

    I have thrown up on a grandmother in response to this blog post.
    Freemium design methods are not “applied” to existing games. Good free-to-play design is invoked during a game’s early design stages. Bad free-to-play design involves making a great game and then hanging it, drawing it and quartering it, leaving the bare bones. Exactly as you have described.

    Please don’t do this again, or I’ll have to throw up on Mabel again.

    • Jon,

      there is no doubt that F2P design works much better if you are able to design like that from the beginning. But the exercise of thinking how an existing game could work as F2P is extremely useful. It helps us make better F2P games. It might make HD games think different things that F2P games are very good at (like creating reasons to come back to the game, building emotional resonance and so on) that will improve their game.

      It also enables people to critique the elements of the design while they are still half-formed ideas. The response from some people “hell no, this is evil, we must never even think about it” is the worst kind of reactionary behaviour, because without debate, we can have no progress.

  11. Matt says:

    That’s because the mechanics you’ve described are particularly evil?

    “Players will likely form emotional attachments to particular units too, and so an option to revive them to make them available for the next mission could prove lucrative.”

  12. Delete this page, change your name, and leave the country, and we shall never speak of this horror again.


  13. Yachmenev says:

    Adam: Please don´t use VGChartz for anything. They are estimates at best, and this one is completely off. Statistics showed that the PC version of XCOM had over 70k players for almost the entire first week after it´s release. 180k sold copies is nowhere near the the truth.

  14. Hm, Whilst I see the merit of opening up games like XCOM, and the exercise of applying various “F2P Design Choices” to existing projects, I believe the massive oversight in these particular examples is that a major feature of XCOM is the atmosphere.

    he player is made to feel backed in to a corner and throughout the game is forced to make the “Hard Decisions” (look at dev diaries of XCOM and count the number of times this is mentioned.)
    Where is the hard decision when you can drop some cash and research everything available in 1 instant.

    Why should I feel attached to a soldier when I can buy a readymade godlike man or woman to plow through missions? Should I worry about them getting hurt ? if their “premium” weapons and armour somehow fail them, nevermind! The safety net of the phoenix down is always behind me!

    Now I am familiar with the time vs money argument, and wholeheartedly agree that the player is free to decide what is more important to them, but when the game is so at odds with the idea of skipping ahead I cant find a way to fit them together. I would understand the argument of time constrained players wanting to skip ahead to get to content if the prevalent content in XCOM were something like narrative rather than the gameplay itself. What is the point in paying to race to what is little more than a pat on the back? Not to knock XCOM but I think most people who have played it would agree that the reward comes from the thrill throughout the journey, reveling in the tension. Not from the games final sequences.

    I would suggest looking a little harder at how the games mechanics mesh with the complete experience harder, for example the hospital down time is one area that the “speed up” idea of F2P could be applied without risking overpowering the player and rendering the XCOM experience obsolete. Furthermore the council are a limiting factor on your gameplay, if you like a particular game you have going but the council members are dropping out perhaps you could use IAPs to ensure that a council member does not withdraw for X months

  15. Pingback: 5 reasons why XCom is the perfect F2P game - Games Brief

  16. All the ideas you offer for F2P are what we used to call ‘cheats’ in the old days. If you would use your model throwing money at it would make any error meaningless and would make the game easier. A well done F2P model makes a game more fun if you throw money at it, but not easier. For example vanity items are fun because they look cool.

  17. Bilstar says:

    Jeeeeesus. These ideas are TERRIBLE. I would never have bought the game if these ideas were implented. You’re a games designer!?
    Good help us.

  18. Greg says:

    Dafaq did I just read?!

    As a big fan of UFO I didn’t know if I’ll like the remake so I have downloaded a —Demo— from Steam to find out. So I find this argument of “i don’t want to spend 40$ to see if I’ll like it” a total bullshit.

    Rest is just below any critique. You’re suggesting to ruin entire game to bring some forced monetizing scheme. Monetizing would make all the game feel pointless.

    If Justin Bieber’s “music” sells that doesn’t mean that all bands should abandon their fans and do music exactly like his.

  19. Chris says:

    What an incredibly disgusting suggestion.

  20. Jared Newman says:

    Hey folks, just because you disagree with the author doesn’t mean you have to flame him. To me, this post deftly highlights how XCom would be ruined in a world where everything was free to play. No hate on Adam for pondering this stuff. It’s interesting to think about as more publishers are pulled toward that business model.

  21. Jon Oden says:

    “The advantage of free to play games is that they are exactly that, free to play. I’ve heard a number of people say that they haven’t played XCOM because they don’t know if they’ll like it, and £40 is a lot of money to take a chance on.”

    There’s a little button on the right-hand column here (http://store.steampowered.com/app/200510/) that says “DOWNLOAD DEMO”

    If you can’t figure out if you like it from the demo, you probably don’t like it.

  22. David Amador says:

    Blasfemy. 😛
    Anyway, I don’t think this game should be F2P AT ALL!
    If they had gone this path maybe they would make more money, how knows, but do you think they would be able to release another X-Com? Nope.
    This way, with a highly polished game they where able to charge a decent price and I will totally buy the next x-com

  23. well greedy and stupid. And that is the secret of failure. Models of success were not born greedy. Became later. And then sank. I would never pay to have items of a game and if anyone does is because he is not interested in the fun. Buy items be interested in is power. And what fun is that? No more greed.

  24. Pingback: Недельное чтиво: free-to-play XCOM, девочка-Линк и игры, как признак зрелости | Sergey Galyonkin

  25. sandrem says:

    I am very happy that X-COM is not F2P game. Mentioned ideas only will kill the game.

  26. Astery says:

    I’m so glad that you are not in charge of XCOM:EU
    Comparing XCOM to Cityville is a disgrace to XCOM imo. Also, get your sales numbers right.

  27. Kyle Rieger says:

    Adam, time to use some mathematical logic. Now while I personally think titling an article “XCOM should have been free to play” then trying to tell people that you also don’t agree it should be freemium, that’s contradictory that’s not what I am here to discuss. You make comparisons to Cityville 2, mentioning there are already 700,000 users, You also mention only 3-5 percent of them will purchase anything from the game. In order to get the userbase that will pay money that X-Com has (remember people did purchase the game), based solely on your math, Cityville 2 will need to reach 3.6 million users before it has the same amount of users willing to pay. Now, lets be realistic, X-com costs 40 dollars, how many of these users are going to spend 40 dollars on Cityville 2, I’d say maybe, if you are lucky, 1%. So of those 3.6 million users, 36000 are willing to pay 40 dollars in freemium content. So in order to make the same kind of money Cityville 2 needs millions of users, millions. It’s an awful comparison, and if you had done the math at all instead of just pulling out random figures, you’d realize it is a huge barrier to entry in the F2P market.

    • That’s not how the model of F2P works. It enables users to spend a wide variety of price points: single dollars, tens of dollars, hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars.
      (There are many games that go to tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, but those players are very much the exception).
      The secret to a successful F2P game is not volume: it is allowing those players who love what you do to spend lots of money on things they value.

      I don’t disagree that Adam’s maths is wrong, but I do think that your comparison is flawed as well.

  28. Jakob says:

    In this particular case, I do think F2P model IS evil and would ruin the game.

    You can’t just speed up research in a strategy game. The ‘cost’ of the research is an important choice. You might as well let players pay to more pawns farther in a Chess game.

    The customization stuff could apply, sure.

  29. Joshua says:

    Interesting article.

    On the revive part:
    If I can monetize revives, would that not incentives me as a designer to make it easier to die (more deaths = more potential money).
    Which could easily ruin the balace in XCOM or another other game for that matter.

    To counter that balance issue you would offer premium items which would make it even worse for the non paying player.

    So the question becomes is it possible to balance a game for paying and playing users at the same time? (the incentives for you as a game designer at that point are to make the game harder to sell more revives and also more premium items/characters)

    Which would ruin the experience for the non paying player even more, but don’t forget that a paying player is a transition from a non paying player. (they all come in as non paying players at the beginning)

    Would these balance issues not put them of to invest at all?
    How is this normally solved in free 2 play games?

    A general question in regard to Free2Play singleplayer:
    Do traditional singleplayer free to play games even work? (normally you have visit your friends place etc but in a traditional singleplayer game that would not exist)
    Isn’t A big part of why people pay in free2play related to social status and group dynamics?

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