Core Players & Energy Mechanics: They Don't Mix
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Going after a fun, quality free-to-play game experience is tricky. Going after the core gaming audience with a free-to-play game is trickier. Now make the game a shooter. See where I'm going? Here's our story...
We published Midnight Star on the App Store a couple of months ago. The game has been well-reviewed, and-- while I'm biased-- it's a ton of fun. We made a lot of noise about the control scheme, which was built specifically for touch and isn't just a better alternative to dual virtual sticks (which are almost universally reviled), it's a satisfying and accurate touch-to-shoot setup where you can truly become better, faster and even elite.
Our ambition was (and is) to make THE shooter on mobile. To tell a great story, to create awesome skill-based gameplay, to compete at a high level on visuals, to provide a bunch of interesting systems to interact with. And we went after free-to-play.
And we botched it.
Specifically, we botched the energy mechanic. And by saying we botched the energy mechanic, I mean we botched it... by using it at all.
Much has been made of energy mechanics in mobile games. Posts have been posted, reviews have been written and books have even been published. They've been used to great effect and to little effect. In our case, they were a sticking point, an experiment and an eventual pivot.
If you look at our retention, purchase and dropoff data, it tells a pretty clear story about players not being cool with being told they can't keep playing the game. We designed the system so that players would have enough of the energy currency to keep rolling for extended periods of time, but what we didn't anticipate was the hoarders. I should have known that one-- I even published a story on digital hoarding back in the day. There is almost nothing in the game to do with that currency than spend it on recharging you weapon/item loadout, but here we are a few months into launch with tons of players having huge balances of that currency and not spending it on energy.
Now, don't get me wrong-- some players do spend it. And they spend a lot on it. But there aren't enough of that type of player to make it a worthwhile F2P system for us. If anything, it's been a negative message to some of our best players.
We started up dialogues with tons of players and the response has been universal-- stop telling me to stop playing your game.
So we're axing it. Today. We just released a giant Midnight Star 1.1 update that introduces TONs of upgrades, new features, guns and all sorts of other silliness. However, the one feature we haven't touted a bunch is the eradication of the energy mechanic in our game. Players can play as much as they like with whatever weapons they like without restriction.
When you think about a core gamer and what (generally) makes them tick, this makes perfect sense. It's easy to look at other games' systems and make design decisions based on comps and examples. It's more difficult to look deep into what you know and have learned about your audience and go a different way. We're shifting to a more ownership-based economy, and we think it's the right decision for our players.
Is it? We'll find out soon.