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Indies have the perpetual problem of lack of resources. Most indies or indie game studios stay afloat not from their games, but from other sources such as contract work. So when indies or indie game studios (from now on I’ll just say indies – both for individuals and studios) go free-to-play, it’s critical to think about how to keep up with player demands for consuming content. Large studios have the advantages of being able to consistently add content to their game, as well as, let’s not forget, market it. So how can a group that does not have these resources compete and keep up?
These are a few lessons I’ve learned through my studio having a free-to-play game, and the challenges that came along with it.
- Design your game around monetization. Ouch, how evil! But hold on a second, this might just be tweaks which you need to make in your game, giving the players an almost identical experience, yet monetizing better. For example, if your game is based on rounds, like some kind of PvP game, consider how long those rounds are. If your average session is two minutes, and your average round is also two minutes, the player is too busy the whole session to spend. Split that round into two rounds of one minute, giving the player a break in the session, and you have time to display an ad, or give the user the possibility and time to spend.
- Stretch your development dollars (or whatever currency fits your fancy). Let’s say for example you are selling swords in your game (in a 3D world in this example). Your artist modelled the sword, textured it, it looks amazing, and you put it up for sale. A few people buy it, and now your artist models and textures another sword. Very resource intensive. Instead, take one of the swords, clone it, reskin it (most likely very quick and easy for your artist) and voila you have two swords for the price of one. Heck, you can reskin it again and again. I would still suggest creating the other sword. But take each unique sword and make, for example, five skins of each. You just went from having two items to ten with minimal additional effort. And hey, this might even allow you to put your prices down (just a little), which players love! More stuff, cheaper!
This can be taken a step further. Create only programmatic changes. For example. You created a sword. It has a power level of 10. Let’s describe that to the player as a 3 star sword. Clone the sword and give the new one a power of 12, and call that a five star sword. Same sword, only quick programmatic tweaks, and you have more items available in your store, again for minimal effort.
- Consumables, consumables, consumables. In order to give the user an infinite maximum spending amount (which you want in your game!), with the ability to spend over and over again, you must have consumables. Players want to run faster? Sure! Give it to them, for one dollar, for today only. Tomorrow they need to buy it again. In real life we buy consumables all the time, no need to shy away from them in games. Consumables can easily end up being your highest revenue source, so think about using them. Again, this doesn’t need to sacrifice any part of the user experience. The player might actually enjoy spending in your game, and is happy to have the perk!
- Subscriptions. I personally love subscriptions. Have the users pay a monthly or
weekly (or however long of a period) subscription fee, and they will be rewarded with some kind of consistent perk, like earning 50% more points every round. Many large f2p games shy away from this. Why? Because they fear that “premium” subscribers will not want to spend any more once they are “premium”, and expect everything to be unlocked for them. The developer in this case is assuming they can make more money by selling these players individual items rather than a subscription. But we’re indies, we can’t produce that much content! But we can produce ONE subscription model. A couple hundred or a few thousand users paying a small monthly fee can give a lifeline to a small studio. It is important however to very clearly communicate with the players what they are getting for the subscription. Indeed, they should not have complete open access to everything, but rather a small set of unique perks – like a welcome gift, a badge and extra points throughout the game. Anything else still needs to be purchased.
- Progressive unlocks. This concept is very simple. You need to unlock the three star sword before you can unlock the 5 star. This may sound somewhat evil-ish, but it actually gives the player a feeling of progress. They will have to work for the three star sword and then a bit more for the five star sword. It will give them a feeling of accomplishment with incremental achievements and successes (unlocking the three star sword) before reaching their ultimate goal (the five star sword).
So there you have it. A few things to keep in mind for indies going free-to-play.