Our game Betty Boop Bop has just launched on iOS and Android as a paid app. My initial approach to the game was to make it a paid app, but we kept feeling pressured to make it free to play. It seems that almost every new game intending to make money is expected to go that route. Many developers and players decry the free to play model as unethical and damaging to a game's quality. I don't necessarily disagree as evidenced by my previous articles on the subject. What is not said enough is that sometimes avoiding the free to play route is not just about maintaining the integrity of the game’s design, but a simple business decision. Many great games have and will flop as free to play games for a very simple reason.
Paid games are a bit like movies, while free to play games are more like TV shows. Movie makers want you to buy a ticket. They would still like you to enjoy the movie so you would recommend it to your friends and hopefully come to see the sequel, but getting your ticket purchase is priority number one. TV shows, on the other hand, are all about hooking you up for the long term. Any TV show that doesn't last past its first year is considered a flop.
A free to play game is trying to sell you a new hobby. A hobby you can carry around in your pocket and keep engaging with it for months if not years. A paid app is more focused on giving you a finite experience. You pay a few dollars, enjoy the game for a few hours and then move on to the next game. With free to play games in order to make money you first have to find a way to retain your players and keep them coming back on a regular basis.
We’re fortunate to have the Betty Boop license for out debut game. The recent announcement about the new upcoming movie from Simon Cowell and Animal Logic reassured us that we made the right choice of brand. It would have been easy to shoehorn the game into a cloned template of one of the current hits: Betty’s Crush Sweets, Betty's Farmer Market, Flappy Betty and maybe even Clash of Betties. Making re-skinned clones is not why I became a game designer and Betty deserves a proper game. I am a huge fan of the character and the Max Fleischer cartoons from the 30's are pure unadulterated genius. Look up Old Man of the Mountain or Minnie the Moocher with Cab Calloway's singing and rotoscoped dancing and tell me I'm wrong. So I knew the game had to have music and dancing.
Betty Boop Bop is inspired by the classics - Osu Tatakae Ouendan, Dance Dance Revolution, Space Channel 5 and so on. A level based rhythm action game where you can beat the game by getting an S rank on all difficulty settings and unlocking all the songs and achievements. It was not inherently designed as a free to play game. Hearing everywhere that free to play is the way to make money I studied the various user retention and monetization techniques used in the currently highest grossing games. Money is nice. It allows you to pay for things like food and shelter and clothing for your kids.
F2Players love to cheat. So let's add some consumable cheat potions to revive from failing a song. Energy limits are a good way to session play time and make sure the player leaves wanting more or coughs, up for energy refills. Added. Alternate costumes for Betty? Easy peasy eggs on easy. Can even slap various palette swaps to increase selection. Bam, money in the bank. Card packs for collecting hundreds of cards that give you various in game bonuses? Naturally. Different price points for card packs based on rarity? Hell yeah. A starter pack with unique cards that can only be purchased for real money? Winner winner, chicken dinner. Utterly pointless experience point system? Make it rain. In game currency to encourage grinding countered with the irresistible coin doubler? Check, check, check, bingo.
Suddenly I had to stop and take a step back. What the hell was I doing? I was like a mom on Toddlers and Tiaras, slathering layers upon layers of ghastly make-up on my naturally adorable little girl, trying to make her look attractive to people who shouldn’t be allowed to leave their home without an ankle monitor.
It didn't matter how much I threw against the wall, none of it stuck. Betty Boop Bop was never going to work as a free to play game for the simple fact that it was a skill based game. If you look at the top grossing free to play games they are all chilled experiences when you tap on things at your leisure. Even in Clash of Clans once you place your units on the ground their suicidal AI takes over. These are games where the player is always in control and can calmly evaluate when is the best time to buy a $120 sword, $1 revival potions or extra moves.
By making BBB free to play I gave the f2players a skill game that was too hard for them and unappealing, while turning off the p2players who would enjoy this type of gameplay if it wasn’t gasping for air under piles of f2p mechanics.
When making any kind of game, but especially f2p, the importance of early analytics can not be overstated. Playing and observing lots of free to play games is a good way to get a broad understanding of what keeps players coming back and what they spend money on, but you will never really know what works for your game without analytics (you will know it doesn’t make money, but not why- exactly why).
We may not live on Twitter or wallow in existential pondering, but we are an indie outfit. We had a slightly bigger team when we were creating the initial artwork and music, but the rest of the time it was me and the programmer trying to contain this beast of a game. Cutting out anything that wasn’t essential without compromising the core of the game was a daunting task.
There was a limit to our time and resources. As a result we realized that it wasn’t practical for us to embark on the long route of tweaking and adapting our free to play game based on analytics feedback. We were relieved to realize that our best course of action was to go pay to play. As a result our game now has zero free to play mechanics. You buy the game, you get 21 songs, 20+ costumes, 4 difficulty settings per song and 200 collectible cards that represent game achievements.
And that’s it.
No in-app purchases, no ads, no energy refills, no consumable cheats, no card packs, no push notifications or app review prompts. Buy it, play it and when you’re done I bid you adieu and hope to see you again when our next game comes out.
That is, if we make enough money for there to be a new game. Someone will dethrone Minecraft from the paid iOS apps one day and Clash of Clans/Candy Crush Saga from the top grossing chart. Those developers will know what they are doing, but will also be very lucky. As in winning-the-lottery-lucky. It’s not something anyone can count on.
I’m perfectly happy making enough money to be able to make the next game.
Another game I can genuinely be proud of.