Every game is now a service. With pre-orders, DLC, subscriptions, persistent profiles, and premium upgrades, the ability to let players customize their experience has never been more widely available.
Free-to-play games are going to continue to become more popular and games as a service will become commonplace--if not the standard--industry very soon. The team at Proletariat was there at the start, making free-to-play games on the web in the mid-2000s, graduating to Facebook in 2009, and then on to Zynga in 2010, finally ending up founding Proletariat in 2012. Along the way, the team learned a thing or two about designing and building these experiences.
This post covers proven mechanics and successful trends in current and past games. Free-to-play is great for developers and it can be great for players too, it just takes some work. Whether you are a developer hoping to try your hand at free-to-play or a gamer trying to grab a view of the future, please read on.
Disclaimer: All games are different, not all of these rules may apply to your game, company, platform, or product. These are ideas that have worked in the past, but they are not the only way to do free-to-play.
Let Them Pay
The first rule of games as a service is to make it easy for your players to pay and interact with the premium content. This means surfacing the store and premium currency to users, showing the player how fun premium content can be, giving them clear value propositions at strategic times and generally making the purchase experience frictionless and making the player feel awesome. Ideally, the player will come out of the experience feeling great about making a purchase, they should feel superior and high class. Games can provide this feedback by making the player feel special, giving them in narrative encouragement (like CSR Racing), and generally rewarding them for being "premium".
A great example of this is Clash of Clans on iOS. The premium currency is surfaced at the top level of the HUD and it is made clear how you can spend them to get boosts without even opening up the store. After purchasing a boost there is feedback that the boost is working and the player can see their money is well spent.
Give Lasting Value and Instant Gratification
All games are different and free-to-play gamers will pay for different reasons. Some will want to buy new gear, maps, content, or characters to permanently enhance their game, while other players will want to circumvent timers or get more energy to give them a quick burst of fun right now. Both of these strategies have value, and if you can build a game to leverage both, it has options for all manner of player and payer.
For an example of instant gratification, look at the way energy works in most social games. This is a consumable item from which the player does not gain a permanent benefit. These are essential to a long running service-based game because they provide a near unlimited amount of items to purchase without a heavy cost to produce the content. Some players, however, will never purchase these because they feel it is “cheating” or that they have the will power to grind it out.
The other item type is non-consumable. Using the energy example above, this would be an increase to the energy cap. This particular purchase permanently makes the player more powerful. These items are more difficult to create because they often involve making real content or creating new features.
The real secret sauce comes from structuring the game economy so that the player can make non-consumable purchases that they feel good about while having room to scale these purchases up so there is always something more to buy. This is what drives games like Rage of Bahamut, CSR Racing, and the real-money auction house in Diablo 3.
Make it Harder
Keeping players happy is about controlling players’ expectations for the game and the service as it evolves over time. Most users are savvy enough to understand that the game will change and will expect it to always get easier, not harder, for them. MMOs are the classic examples of this: when new content is released, older content is often deprecated, with new items and skills taking the place of the previous, making the player more powerful (take this story for example: WoW Patch 5.2).
Developers never want to be in the position where they need to make something harder. A change like this will almost always result in a negative outcome, be it reduced engagement or community backlash. If designers make the content difficult, it allows them to reduce the difficulty later, and be seen as heroes within the community. This is a double-edged sword in regard to changing prices, since players that paid at the higher price will feel that they were unfairly charged. Always make the content harder than you are comfortable with to start, and be ready to tune it aggressively as soon as it goes live.
Build A Fun Free (or Vanilla) Experience
This sounds like a no-brainer, but it comes up all the time. The game should be fun to play for free or initial purchase price without any additional add-ons. If it is not fun to play without paying, it becomes very hard to get a player invested enough in the game to pay for it. When thinking about the balance between how much you give away for free, consider the player’s overall investment in the game.
For a free game, developers need to build investment from scratch since the player did not pay any money up front. How many times have you bought a $60 game and wanted to stop playing but didn’t until you felt you got your $60 worth? That is investment. Games need to prove their worth to players before you can ask them to pay. Make sure you are providing a worthy experience.
If a player already paid to play the vanilla version of the game, there needs to be value commensurate with the purchase price. If the game does not feel like a good deal to players, it will be a challenge to convince them they should pay more (see the backlash to EA's announcement). Additional content and clear expansions are a good option to show obvious value to a player that is a fan of the vanilla game.
Leverage Limited Time Offers and Sales
This is a heavily-discussed topic, but it cannot be stressed enough: sales and limited-time offers work. Creating deals that feel too good to be true will push more sales, but be careful about how often these come up to a player. If a player always sees the currency on sale, they will start to habitually wait for a sale before purchasing.
A game that does this well is CSR Racing. As you can see in the screenshots below, this is a tempting offer for anyone that is even considering spending money in the game.
Prepare For and Celebrate Holidays
When you build a service, you are building a world. You want players to come back often, and one of the best ways to do that is to have timed events. Much like the real world, players want to see the game change over time. One way to think about this is how our culture treats holidays.
People are always preparing for or celebrating a holiday. It is a common topic of conversation amongst friends, for example, “What are you doing for Memorial Day weekend?” We love planning events with our friends; it is almost as much fun as the actual event. For examples, look at MMOs or Facebook games, but find ways to give your players something to prepare for or celebrate every week.
The writing is on the wall: we will see free-to-play coming to the next generation of consoles and it has already become mainstream on the web, mobile, and tablet. There are ways to do it well and create a loved, lasting service by respecting players and giving them high-quality products for their money. The team at Proletariat is excited to see a new age of free-to-play games on the horizon.
About Proletariat Inc.:
Proletariat is a Boston-based startup founded by five game-industry veterans from Zynga, Harmonix, Turbine, and Insomniac. Proletariat lovingly handcrafts engaging mobile-first experiences, the first being Letter Rush, blending a love of building and playing games with a critical eye towards business and metrics. Like the original revolution, Proletariat rises up to wrest game development from big industry and return it to the people.