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The Design of Free-To-Play Games: Part 1

When we talk about free-to-play games, we are not talking of a new genre, but instead of a deep revolution that is affecting most aspects and actors of the game industry: marketing, publishing, hardware manufacturers, and of course, designers and developers. Free-to-play (F2P) is here to stay. That is good news; it is expanding the number of people who play games, it is stimulating the industry after a slow-down, and it gives us the opportunity to create new gaming experiences for players.

A free-to-play game does not require its full content to be created before its release, as most content is created gradually after the game launch. Thus Nexon estimates that a free-to-play can be released with only 50 percent of its final content, and for Playfish, the percentage is as low as 20 percent!

There are other reasons which explain the low initial investment: the technologies used are often simple and inexpensive. Also, because the game is free, players are not as demanding.

Lastly, most users are casual gamers with lower expectations than seasoned gamers. However, the cost of F2P games is likely to rise, especially for those that aim at core gamers. League of Legends offers the same production values as a retail game.

One of the secrets of success of a F2P game is the implementation of a powerful system of statistical analysis. Game data provides clues as to the users’ behavior and preferences.

By using this data and by carefully listening to the players’ remarks, developers can correct the flaws and build upon the strong points of the game. If the high concept of a game is good, the risk of game failure due to a perfectible development is eliminated, a major problem plaguing traditional game development.

But enough of an overview: let’s talk key design issues. One could argue that the design of a social game like FarmVille has little in common with Combat Arms or League of Legends, two F2P games targeting the hardcore crowd. However, no matter what genre, nearly all F2P are following the same specific design rules. Those are the ones I will describe now.

Combat Arms

The Key Design Differences between Traditional and Free-to-Play Games

To begin with, let’s see why designing a F2P game is so different from a game relying on traditional business models.

In a traditional game, the designer’s only concern is to entertain the player, whereas in a F2P game, the focus is both on the player’s entertainment and his monetization. This quote from Jamie Cheng, the founder of Klei Entertainment, best illustrates this difference: “Don’t make people pay for entertainment. Entertain them so that they will pay.”

What are the new design objectives that a game designer working on a F2P game must keep in mind at all times?

Provide immediate satisfaction. The fact that a F2P game is free removes a major obstacle to experiment with a game: the price. However, it creates a new challenge instead: how to persuade a player to continue playing an F2P game when it’s so easy to switch to another if the current one doesn’t prove satisfactory.

When players purchase a game, they bind themselves to it. They have invested money in this game, and will not abandon it a few minutes later if their first impression is disappointing. It’s only several hours later that they will choose to drop the game if they don’t enjoy their experience.

However, if a game is free, this “bonding” doesn’t exist anymore. If the game, which didn’t cost them a dime, doesn’t bring immediate satisfaction, they will abandon it and switch to something else. Therefore, the first design challenge is to provide immediate satisfaction to the players in order to “hook” them.

Design for a (very) long duration of play. In F2P games, the longer someone plays a game, the higher the chances he will purchase items. Designing a game that will keep players active for months is a challenge we are no longer used to. Apart from MMOs and multiplayer games, the design trend during the last few years has been to provide players with intense but brief game experiences. Therefore, we must learn once again to develop long-lasting games. The design objective is to get players to play often, for brief periods of time and for months.

Design for new audiences. While certain F2P games such as MMOs or FPSs belong to known genres, many F2P titles address a broader one, with more women or younger players — and both may not be used to playing traditional video games. Their motivations to play are different, and so are their expectations. “Older” players — i.e folks beyond 30 years old — usually have a family and a busy life. For them, game sessions have to be short. And women will see the game as a support for interpersonal relationships, not a tool to compete. Define your target audience; know its gaming habits and expectations.

The Key Design Principles For a Good F2p Game

Immediate Accessibility

New players are precious. When one has expressed his intention to experiment with your game, you don’t want to lose him for any reason before he is hooked.

The game should be launched as directly as possible. The more steps a player has to follow to launch the game, the higher the chances of losing him. This is one of the reasons why Facebook games are so successful. There’s no need to register, to download or to install any application. To enter the game, the player only has to click a link.

To illustrate the negative impact of any extra steps required from the player, I will take the Unity 3D example. Unity has developed a great plug-in for Facebook.

Its installation is as simple as possible; it is a one-click installation, it is very fast and the user is not bugged with ads. Unity has honed the installation process so carefully because, in the past, 40 percent of players launching a game didn’t complete the installation, CEO David Helgason wrote in 2008.

Of course, this ratio varies, depending on the content. Great applications feature much higher installation rates. The point is that many PC users are simply reluctant to install anything. Now imagine what happens if they are asked to enter their details or download and install an application.

There are exceptions to this rule: Great F2P games like Maple Story or Combat Arms require a full registration and the download of a big client. However, these games were released under favorable circumstances: There was little competition.

There are two sets of solutions to this problem:

– Make the game available on an existing platform such as Facebook, or a portal like Bigpoint. Develop it in Flash or HTML5.
– Develop a game that runs in a web browser. Battlefield Heroes opted for that solution.

Take the player by the hand. There’s no better way to discourage a player than to “drop” her in a game he is not familiar with. Many F2P games guide the player’s first steps by forcing her to discover the basic actions and by limiting the access to advanced functions. This prevents players from getting lost amidst many unknown functions that will force them to make blind choices — having to choose among too many options is a source of anxiety for many casual or non-gamers. Easy access to a game also means easy use of its features.

Limiting the number of actions to take doesn’t make the game less attractive. More, complex actions are still available, but are only gradually revealed. The design objective is to propel the player in a virtuous spiral: 1) I understand what I have to do, 2) I perform the action easily, 3) I succeed in performing the action, 4) I receive a reward, 5) I discover a short term objective and I understand how to reach it. The player must not fail — this is an important condition to motivate her to continue discovering the game.

Two other design features are often found to support this teaching strategy:

– The use of a progress bar that gradually fills up while the player discovers new game functions in the order set by the tutorial. This simple bar makes players aware of the progress they make, which stirs their curiosity and motivates them to discover all the game features.

– Game objectives are put forward. Since one of their primary objectives is to teach the game, the player must always be reminded of their existence. Zynga makes them stand out by displaying them on top of the main screen.

Easy-to-Use and Easy-to-Understand Interface

Many F2P games rely on game mechanics derived from management or strategy games. Those are not simple genres, and feature lot of commands. The interface must not be a turn-off for players, especially casual ones. Here are the key design techniques used to facilitate the control of the game:

– The main controls stand out and are centralized. The player can see what options are available in one glance. However, the main screen must not be cluttered with icons. A click on a menu item opens up a sub-menu but within the main screen. The player never loses touch with the reassuring gaming screen.
– Navigation within the menus tree never go beyond three layers. In CityVille, the menu offering the most options is the construction one, and it is made up of three steps only: 1) the selection of the construction menu in the main screen, 2) the selection of the building type and 3) the selection of a building.
– Explanations for each command are always available, usually through a roll-over or a label.

Play a Little at a Time, But Return For a Long Time

This is called retention, and is a distinctive feature of F2P games: those games are designed to be played little at a time but very often, during several months or even years if possible. Why? There are several reasons:

– To create frustration in the player, and to stimulate him to purchase the items that would let him continue playing the game.
– To motivate the player to log in every day. Advertising is a revenue source for F2Ps, and advertisers are looking for high exposure.
– To fight boredom. F2P games often entail repetitive actions.

Which are the key design mechanisms used to that end?

The open loop. Tadhg Kelly, a brilliant social game consultant, explains that many social games are built around our innate desire to complete tasks, to close loops. Those games are offering the player to complete lots of small tasks: to plant carrots and harvest them, to complete a construction, to gather enough resources to finish off an upgrade, to “hire” enough friends to staff a building, etc.

The player never has enough resources — energy points, gold, lumber, oil, etc. — to complete them. Those are free to acquire, but they need time to build up, so the player, when she logs off her game, knows that she leaves behind uncompleted tasks, open loops.

Her dearest desire becomes to return to the game to close the open loops. And, of course, as soon as a loop is closed, another one is created. It is a never-ending story. Well-designed F2Ps generate endless number of tasks. The result is that the player logs in the game very often, but only plays a few minutes at a time.

A variation of the open loop mechanism can be found in Mobster or Mafia Wars. Let’s use Mobster as our example. The player’s role is to manage the career of a gangster wannabe. From the player’s perspective, the purpose of the game is a classical one: to develop his character, to unlock new equipment and to make it climb in the ranking. The starting point is quite simple: the player may fulfill missions or attack other players to earn money that he uses to buy equipment.

However, equipment generates maintenance costs. The player must therefore invest in properties that will provide regular rental income. In order to earn enough money and pay for lucrative properties, the player must undertake increasingly difficult missions that require more expensive equipment and so on. The player progressively discovers new features: an increasingly wide range of missions, mini-games, more equipment, and the need to form a gang made up of his Facebook friends.

However, the player soon discovers the devilish mechanism set up by developers to make him come back: the equipment generates expenses for maintenance. He needs lots of cash to keep them running. His properties generate revenues to do that but this money attracts other player who will attack in his absence. Of course, equipment whose maintenance cost is not covered cannot be used for protection.

The solution? To acquire even more equipment for better protection, which will generate even more expenses, driving the player to secure revenue, which will attract even more thieves! Thus, the player has develop a character, based on the equipment acquired and the level attained, but which he must permanently defend.

The limitation of the player’s resources. In order to perform the key actions offered by the game, the player must spend game resources: health, stamina, food, movement points, whatever. Those resources are used to do gratifying actions like harvesting a field, an action that generates revenue. The trick is that they exhaust pretty quickly. They renew naturally, but very slowly. Thus the player will find himself in the frustrating situation of having to wait a while before resuming a gratifying activity. This mechanism is quite common in F2P games. The main exceptions are MMOs and action games.
Reward to players who log in regularly. Pet Society offers a lottery that can be used once a day. In CityVille, the player earns a gift of increasing value if he logs in every 24 hours.
Mandatory tasks. As with popular ’90s toy Tamagotchi, certain F2P games force the player to return to the application in order to complete chores. Thus, in Mafia Wars, the player must check his properties on a daily basis to collect the rent. In Smurfs’ Village, crops will die if not harvested on time. This mechanism may become frustrating for the player, since no one likes constraints, but it fully justifies the sale of items that will automate the chores during a given period of time. The key to success is to give the task a gratifying objective.
New features and special events. F2P games are not static. New features are introduced in order to maintain the player’s interest: new equipment, new missions, and exceptional sales (a F2P boutique is managed like a store with promotions, events, etc.)
Interactions with friends. The success of F2P games relies on their strong viral dimension. The game must encourage the player to draw his friends’ attention by inviting them to join him. But this “virality” has a two-way function. Not only are friends invited to play the game, but it is them who remind the player later and motivate him to continue playing. Thus, with many F2P games, a player is frequently reminded to ask for “virtual” help from his friends and give them a helping hand. As a result, the user no longer plays for his progress but for someone else’s.

Embedding the Player Recruitment in the Design

This is the key issue for any F2P developer. Only five to 10 percent of the registered users make any purchases. If we want to generate revenues, having a large community of players is essential. How can we generate a large number of players?

Develop for a social platform. The most obvious path is to integrate the game in a social platform where you can have easy access to the player’s friends list. Facebook is the one that comes up first, with its 700+ million members and 200 million players, but there are alternatives:

– Dedicated game portals on PC, such as Bigpoint, Gaia, or Playfirst. Their communities are not as large as Facebook’s, but they offer the big advantage of being essentially made up of gamers. Bigpoint already features over 200 million gamers, and the figure is growing. All of them offer partnership deals to external developers.
– Smartphone game social networks. Apple already has its Game Center. Part of the IPhone software suite, Game Center is not really a social platform, but it makes it very easy to tell your friends, whether they are already registered in the Game Center or not, about the game you are playing. Therefore, it is a good tool to “viralize” your game and get news players. There are also third party offerings, such as OpenFeint, Mobage, and Papaya.
– Google+. There is little doubt Google wants to compete head on with Facebook on games. Google can boast a great asset: Gmail and its friends’ list.
– Xbox Live and PSN. Those environments are natural social platforms but they were closed to F2P games… until now. Microsoft and Sony have very recently announced that free-to-play games will appear on their networks. In particular, Microsoft is working hard at integrating Games for Windows, Live Messenger, and the Xbox Live community in one seamless environment.

Integration into a social platform is not the only way to make it. Many F2P are stand-alone browser games. They can be quite successful, as Nexon’s Combat Arms or Riot’s League of Legends, but the road to building a big audience is much, much tougher here.

League of Legends

Innovate! A new game concept is a natural way to create buzz. The varnish of a strong license will get people’s attention, but they are unlikely to tell their friends if the game experience brings nothing new. And there is still a lot of room for new game themes and new gameplay mixes in the realm of F2P.

Design for co-op gameplay. For games with no connection to a social platform, a daring choice is to force the player to invite friends in order to play the game. In others words, there is no one-player game mode. This is the choice made by League of Legends, which offers team-based gameplay. You can always play with strangers but it is way more fun, and effective, to play with pals. Therefore, the game concept gives you a very strong incentive to rally your friends.

Cross-marketing. Another effective way to attract new players is cross-marketing. A user playing game X will see a banner while playing his game suggesting him or her to play game Y. This very effective tool is perfect for companies publishing several titles but what if you have only one? Applications like Applifier allow smaller developers to band together and cross-promote their titles.

Tap into the players’ directories. Another option for stand-alone games is to ask the player to grant you access to his or her Messenger or Yahoo! friends list, and send invitations through email.

Planning for the Metrics

Ben Cousins, who was until recently general manager of Easy Studios, an EA studio focusing on F2Ps — he has since gone to Ngmoco — stated that they learnt to be become a data-driven studio, not just a creative-driven one. User data is very important to the success of a F2P game, because it is the tool that tells the team how to steer the development of their game, and how to renew its content.

Remember that a F2P is rarely launched with its full content. This allows the dev team to develop the content players want to see, and not waste time on content they don’t like. User data can also provide key information on how players are using the game. Here are a few examples of the key learnings one can obtain by analyzing the correct data:

– The moment in the game progression when players tend to “drop out”
– The parameters in the open loop that are the most effective at generating daily visits
– The factors that drive the first purchase
– The average amount of individual purchases
– The impact on revenue of a item price modification
– The revenue generated by the different player profiles. In other words, who is generating the most revenue, the few heavy users of the game, or the numerous casual users?

The type of data to be collected and the tools to exploit them must be defined well before the game is launched. They should not come as an afterthought. Define your needs first. Begin to identify what you want to know about the ways your users are playing the game. This will prevent you from asking for tons of data nobody will use.

As you define the data you need, design the way you want to analyze them: will a chart or a graph be more effective? Do you need averages only or do you need trends? If data are easy to analyze, you’ll do it more often and be more responsive. Keep in mind that data age quickly. Last but not least, data does not replace creative design. Good metrics will point to problems or opportunities, but will not tell you what to do about them!

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