The free-to-play segment of the Massively Multiplayer Online genre is nearing maturity - some would call that saturation - and yet inexplicably, you see a constant repetition of the same set of mistakes, poor design patterns and clumsy monetization strategies that have plagued the genre since its very early days with O Game and FarmVille. Here’s a short summary of the most egregious failures and potential strategies for avoiding them.
1) The Energy/Fatigue/Action limit, or asking someone to play your game and then slamming the door in their face:
After a morning of searching I wasn’t able to identify the very first game to use the “energy” bar to limit or punish players for too much free play, but that is immaterial; once this feature was established it became nearly ubiquitous. Clearly designed by the accounting department while the designer was tied to a chair and stuck in the closet, this method of monetization essentially asks you to put in a quarter to keep playing right now or come back later for free, which is a bizarre way of doing business that doesn’t have a real-world analog. This not-quite-transaction attempts to catch you when you are “just getting into the game” and turn that moment into a few pennies. Typically, this is precisely the moment (from the designer’s perspective) that you have the rare chance to actually turn a trial player into a daily player. I’ve come across many games that took the “energy meter” so seriously that I couldn’t even finish the tutorial or introduction itself without running out of juice; what a complete failure to present your game to a fickle audience!
Punishing the player for playing, but not paying, certainly makes sense to the finance department - after all, servers and bandwidth aren’t free, and every second that a player is using your resources, they are costing you money you will not recoup. Yet giving the player an excuse to sign off and not come back for quite a few hours is handing your competitors an opportunity to make this departure permanent. I think the very idea of a limit on how long the player can play is idiotic - they are playing YOUR game, not someone else’s, and isn’t that the point? - and is an attempt to shoehorn the subscription model of MMO back into the F2P market. Players are playing your game precisely because they want to avoid the monthly fee; by attempting to force them to pay for a reasonable amount of daily play, you are turning them into stealth subscribers, and they are not fooled! Slowly turning the crank of the vice by making the energy limit more and more severe for veteran players as they level up just makes the situation worse.
2) Too many currencies:
Most articles about the F2P market distinguish between “soft” currencies (earned in-game only) and “hard” currencies (bought with real money, or earned through very rare or special events) and I will continue that distinction, but the issue here is not hard or soft but too many individual types. It isn’t unusual to find a F2P with four or more currencies, and I have played games with six or seven different types of money and arbitrary rules for converting between soft and hard.
Certainly this is the result of the industry’s continuing mutation of the carnival midway’s tickets and tokens; this is an obvious attempt to confuse the player or obfuscate the monetization strategies to the point that the player will just throw money at the game and hope for the best. That’s not a business plan, that’s just crossing your fingers.
If a player can’t tell what is “real” money and what is just filler, you’ve missed an opportunity to demonstrate to them what they are going to receive if they uncork the Visa card. I don’t go to the grocery store and wave some money at the butcher and hope to get some kind of meat; I ask for pork chops and get pork chops. Asking me to keep track of Energy, Gold, Platinum, Stars, Gems and Ingots without a clear-cut idea of what currency I will need and when is just making it certain that I will log into the game someday soon and ask “what was I saving up for, again, and how the hell do I buy it?”
Clarity of the transaction makes it easier for gamers and designers, and I daresay it makes it easier for accountants, in the long run. Having one soft currency and one hard currency, with rare situations in which you might get some hard currency for free, provides a kind of security and focus that allows the player to feel comfortable with making a purchase, knowing they will get their money’s worth. The very low percentage (2% to 6% in many cases) of paying users for any given game is a sign that the remaining 90%+ are uncertain about the value you are offering and what they would receive in return.
3) Relying too much on the gambling hook:
I have played many F2P games where gambling wasn’t a rare and fun event, but had penetrated into every single area of the game. Certainly gambling is a powerful behavior stimulus as the existence of the multibillion-dollar casino industry can attest, but turning nearly every significant action into a roll of the dice punishes both newbies and veterans.
From a design perspective, once you create a so-called “random” outcome to an event, this opportunity can’t be left up to mere chance; without a Federal Gaming Commission to regulate the “fairness” of your random number generators, you as the designer are certainly going to step in their and tweak the outcome so that the player thinks they are working with the laws of chance, but are instead just hoping for a few morsels from a capricious master. Of course you are ready and willing to tilt the odds in their favor, for a little cash!
Again, this is about the clarity of the transaction. Player expectations should drive these “random” outcomes, not the arbitrary needs of the designer or accountant. As with the energy meter, players have an instinct as to when they are being helped and when they are being played for suckers. If you rely upon the random outcome you’ve got two problems: if you make it clear that the player can improve their odds if they throw a few bucks your way, then you risk alienating the casual player who just wants a few minutes of diversion. Yet if allow truly random outcomes which also include high-level “payouts”, you don’t create a clear advantage for the paying user.
Valve’s DOTA 2 has an interesting solution to this dilemma - when you get a high-level chest. you have two choices: pay for a key to open the chest, or sell the chest itself on their marketplace. Since the market sets the value for both items, and the high-level chests clearly give a very large and clear advantage over the lesser chests in terms of the revealed items, you have a very clear and open transaction that uses chance and yet gives the player a clear sense of their risk vs. the reward.
4)Turning the game into a constant tap/click-fest, in the name of “juiciness”:
No concept has been more overwrought and overblown than the idea of “juiciness,” the theory that constantly presenting the player with many rapid tactile, audio and visual feedback items will keep their attention focused and adrenaline on on the boil. Certainly, this works to an extent. The grandfather of juicy play, the original Diablo, used a steady stream of mouse clicks and nearly constant jingly, clinking loot drops to drip-feed you tiny rewards in a formula that has been duplicated in many different genres on every platform.
As with any strategy, this has a risk of diminishing returns. Constantly having to tap, tap, tap the world of the game for a dribble of coins/stars/etc. has become such a constant element of the F2P that it is surprising we haven’t seen lawsuits for numb fingertips and RSI. Some designers choose to extend this “juicy” interaction right into the GUI, requiring several taps where one might do and loading everything with particle effects and event sounds. Particularly in the mobile space, where time to interact is limited and players want to make progress every time they play, loading the game up with many mandatory clicks or taps is just numbing and time-wasting filler.
The iOS game Pixel People exhibits both extremes of this trend. While it has a standard (and deeply irritating and boring) mechanic of forcing you to constantly tap your buildings to make them generate gold for you, it also has a very nice set of GUI elements that require just a single interaction to complete, and it segregates those interactions into a very specific “vocabulary” of unique gestures. One interaction is a tap-and-hold, one is a “tear” or swipe from left to right, and one is a drag straight down. By giving each action its own unique gesture, you feel more involved with the interface, without having to be constantly prodded to interact over and over again. If they eliminated the constant-tapping need to keep the buildings “recharged” then the game would have a clear, tactile signature that would leave a strong positive impression on the player.
Mouse-driven PC games also benefit from streamlined, vocabulary-driven interaction and should also work to minimize time wasting. Leaving the player with a numb mouse finger and hours of repetitive events just gives a game a generic, bland feeling.
5) The Non-Quest Quest
Almost every F2P MMO is guilty of this, but many are built around this strategy as a core foundation. Questing in the MMO was lifted from the RPG genre, historically, and therefore it used to have a basis in story and local play environment, as well as (hopefully!) the class and play style of the character receiving the quest. Now, many “quests” in these F2P games are just a list of accomplishments, a mix of tutorial elements and achievements which amount to rewarding the player for just repetitively using the basic mechanics of the game. “Build an armory” the game says; when you do this, the quest becomes “Level up your Armory,” and this continues forever, without these quests ever feeling personal, story-driven or even tied to the setting of the game.
I get it - stories are hard, and expensive to produce, and it is much easier to just use the game systems in this way. Even better, make some of those “quests” impossible to actually complete without the use of hard currency - fantastic, the accountants will love it! I have played MMOs that gave me pseudo-quests like these within the first 15 minutes of playing the game.
Again, this makes sense on paper (and especially the accounting ledger) but it is one of the primary aspects of the F2P template that makes the games feel so incredibly generic and bland. It may save on localization costs but it is a missed opportunity to stand out and hook gamers on the merit of the story and setting you have chosen, rather than just making them feel like they are being walked through a never-ending tutorial.
6) Clip-Art Mania
As with stories, art is expensive; it is perhaps the largest expense of your game project, and certainly the most time-consuming. Yet assembling your game from art with clashing styles and “feel” and clearly not optimizing for different device resolutions is unacceptable. PC F2P games are just as vulnerable to this clip-art look and feel; the Asian MMOs in particular tend to look like they all cribbed their models and faces from the same bin, though this may be a stylized element of the design.
F2P is now competing in the paid MMO space. They used to be seen as separate markets and worlds, but with former subscription-based games turning F2P and the subscription model itself starting to seem like a dinosaur of the industry, player expectations will transfer forward to the point that they will expect the visual fidelity of F2P games to be equivalent to the market’s best work. Free is no longer an excuse for looking like you randomly picked models and sprites from DeviantArt portfolios.
Tablet and mobile-based MMOs are also going to face increasing pressure to adopt a sharper look and feel as the GPU power of those devices increases and screen resolutions approach (and even surpass) HDTV and typical home monitor resolutions. Those crunchy corners around the edges of sprites not optimized for a device’s given resolution or DPI are going to become the hallmark of the shovelware game that gets deleted soon after install.