When we talk about free-to-play games, we are not talking of a new genre, but instead of a deep revolution that is affecting most aspects and actors of the game industry: marketing, publishing, hardware manufacturers, and of course, designers and developers. Free-to-play (F2P) is here to stay. That is good news; it is expanding the number of people who play games, it is stimulating the industry after a slow-down, and it gives us the opportunity to create new gaming experiences for players.
A free-to-play game does not require its full content to be created before its release, as most content is created gradually after the game launch. Thus Nexon estimates that a free-to-play can be released with only 50 percent of its final content, and for Playfish, the percentage is as low as 20 percent!
There are other reasons which explain the low initial investment: the technologies used are often simple and inexpensive. Also, because the game is free, players are not as demanding.
Lastly, most users are casual gamers with lower expectations than seasoned gamers. However, the cost of F2P games is likely to rise, especially for those that aim at core gamers. League of Legends offers the same production values as a retail game.
One of the secrets of success of a F2P game is the implementation of a powerful system of statistical analysis. Game data provides clues as to the users' behavior and preferences.
By using this data and by carefully listening to the players' remarks, developers can correct the flaws and build upon the strong points of the game. If the high concept of a game is good, the risk of game failure due to a perfectible development is eliminated, a major problem plaguing traditional game development.
But enough of an overview: let's talk key design issues. One could argue that the design of a social game like FarmVille has little in common with Combat Arms or League of Legends, two F2P games targeting the hardcore crowd. However, no matter what genre, nearly all F2P are following the same specific design rules. Those are the ones I will describe now.
The Key Design Differences between Traditional and Free-to-Play Games
To begin with, let's see why designing a F2P game is so different from a game relying on traditional business models.
In a traditional game, the designer's only concern is to entertain the player, whereas in a F2P game, the focus is both on the player's entertainment and his monetization. This quote from Jamie Cheng, the founder of Klei Entertainment, best illustrates this difference: "Don't make people pay for entertainment. Entertain them so that they will pay."
What are the new design objectives that a game designer working on a F2P game must keep in mind at all times?
Provide immediate satisfaction. The fact that a F2P game is free removes a major obstacle to experiment with a game: the price. However, it creates a new challenge instead: how to persuade a player to continue playing an F2P game when it's so easy to switch to another if the current one doesn't prove satisfactory.
When players purchase a game, they bind themselves to it. They have invested money in this game, and will not abandon it a few minutes later if their first impression is disappointing. It's only several hours later that they will choose to drop the game if they don't enjoy their experience.
However, if a game is free, this "bonding" doesn't exist anymore. If the game, which didn't cost them a dime, doesn't bring immediate satisfaction, they will abandon it and switch to something else. Therefore, the first design challenge is to provide immediate satisfaction to the players in order to "hook" them.
Design for a (very) long duration of play. In F2P games, the longer someone plays a game, the higher the chances he will purchase items. Designing a game that will keep players active for months is a challenge we are no longer used to. Apart from MMOs and multiplayer games, the design trend during the last few years has been to provide players with intense but brief game experiences. Therefore, we must learn once again to develop long-lasting games. The design objective is to get players to play often, for brief periods of time and for months.
Design for new audiences. While certain F2P games such as MMOs or FPSs belong to known genres, many F2P titles address a broader one, with more women or younger players -- and both may not be used to playing traditional video games. Their motivations to play are different, and so are their expectations. "Older" players -- i.e folks beyond 30 years old -- usually have a family and a busy life. For them, game sessions have to be short. And women will see the game as a support for interpersonal relationships, not a tool to compete. Define your target audience; know its gaming habits and expectations.