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The Design of Free-To-Play Games: Part 1

November 22, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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.

Combat Arms

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.

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Jean-Michel Vilain
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You say people have to play a game for a very long time before giving the bucks, or at least that the greater the amount of time spent, the greater the chances they will pay.

But if that's so time consuming, it leaves people with few time to play and buy more games. Thus, is F2P so viable after all? Isn't it reducing the whole game industry revenue, in which case it would cause long term issues?

Pascal Luban
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Don't forget that F2P gaming is drawing millions new players to our industry. As a consequence, overall revenue for our industry should grow. Furthermore, a key point I am advocating is my strong belief that F2P mechanisms will merge with other business models.

Stephen Chin
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Also, consider F2P players spending habits, of those that spend. I believe it was Zynga that had a simpel chart - there were non-spenders, minnows, and whales. Those they considered whales were those that ended up spending over 100 dollars per month.

This is on par with a hardcore gamer buying two games a month. Minnows would be the less hardcore gamer who buys games once every few months or less.

As far as time, well... that depends if the F2P game in question is an MMO which demands a lot of time... or something like CastleVille. Or something in between like Arkham City

E McNeill
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You say that the player's "dearest desire becomes to return to the game to close the open loops".

Do you ever worry that this desire stems more from hardwired anxiety that open loops inspire, rather than the player's enjoyment of creating and closing them? That is, are you sure that players are better off having played such a game, just based on the fact that they continue playing?

Joe Cooper
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The loops things seems strange to me. The whole idea. When I played Farmville I never felt any anxiety and actually got bored with it, but basically I saw it as a "clock game"; when you choose what to plant and perform the planting, you have to think about when you expect to be at the computer again based on your IRL schedule. It's probably one of the easiest and simplest games you can think of, but in those terms it's a legitimate game and works on the same principle as any decision-making oriented game like Civ.

Vin St John
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This article seems like a strange collection of ideas about F2P game design that everybody already thinks they know. I would assert that all of these are already common "knowledge" and that a few of them are bad assumptions about the virtues of free-to-play design.

Dylan Tan
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yeah i do agreed but it also re-affirm some of the things that we know but may not realize the significant of it.

Eamon Logue
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One thing that might also bear mentioning is that the monetisation practices for asymmetric free-to-play games and realtime multiplayer free-to-play games show significant differences that designers should be aware of.

In my experience, players in realtime multiplayer games have a tendency to lean more towards purchasing items to save time in the game and items that give an edge they over other players (should the game have purchasables that allow this) above pure displays of status (though these are also certainly a valid source of revenue).

The obvious point to make here is that realtime multiplayer free-to-play games, when compared to many asymmetric or single player free-to-play games, the measure of success from the player point of view has such a large disparity that the designer absolutely must factor this into the monetisation model that supports the game. The mechanics are difficult to simply translate one-to-one, and I think its important that designers who may be moving from a traditional social game into a realtime multiplayer one are aware of this.

Renato Martellini
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I agree Vin StJohn about the fact that these are the current working ideas for managing F2P games. The fact they exist doesn't mean they are good enough. The simple fact is - that is impossible to keep people playing the same game for a long time. Especially casual player.

I know a few core gamers that played a game for years. People grow old and get busy with many things far from entertainment (work, children, continuous education), that threats for their real life. I'm one of them, and given up trying to play any MMO seriosuly, because of my real life obligations and also because I have many more games that I want to try it.

My wife is a casual player, has started many facebook games including farmville, yoville and castle age. She stopped playing the last two because they have A LOT of these little quests, it is impossible to complete them all. There is also the fact that some missions requires friends help, many of these so called friends just add you to get something back without give in you nothing. So to keep her sanity she just stopped playing. She is still playing farmville, but is starting to get bored. Her farm doesn't hve anymore space for another facy and useless building(that requires swearing resources to your friends - or giving money for Zynga). So its better just do one or two and forget about the rest. She also realized like me that the other Zynga games are just copies of Farmville with another layout, pictures and animations (that IS true), so it's better not bother even know them.

I play DA Legends in Facebook for some time, I enjoy playing it. I've even put some money buying equipment. But when they starting forcing directing the gameplay to mutiplayer, it started to get boring and I was feelling betrayed. Also the Zynga-way-of-managing is spreading troughout the entire game, the inifinity little missions are annoying and not interesting at all. I will not start adding hundreds of "facebook friends" just because of a game. I would not even do it if I play WOW really seriosuly.

These "best practices" may work these days, but people will get more bored and bored, and thousands fo clones will born and die from one day to another giving no results. Better start thinking something new.

Brian Lewis
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It is always interesting to see people discuss HOW to make a game F2P (vs P2P). However, what is often overlooked is the value (or lack of) of this decision.

The only true value of F2P vs P2P is the number of people that can acess your game. By removing the barriers to entry, you have made your game more acessible. However, if this does not somehow add to the core value of the game, then this is a bad idea.

One of the key features of many F2P games is social interaction of some sort, be it cooperative, social, or competitive. If this social interaction is a fundemental aspect of the game, then the higher the player base, the more value is obtained from this.

Examples of this could be grouping or matchmaking. If you dont have enough players to make this happen easily and quickly, then this aspect of the game is degraded. However, if players can solo play, or do PvE instead, they can play even when others are not available.

Before you try to design your game as F2P, you should look at how this will affect the actual gameplay, and decide if it really makes sense to do this.

Jonathan Chan
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I think this article clearly demonstrates the current state of F2P gaming. There is a brief moment dedicated to the opinion that entertaining players should and will lead to revenue, but a majority of the article highlights the formula of what have been considered the most lucrative social game designs.

This article is selling F2P short by associating a potentially-virtuous monetization concept of pay-what-you-feel-it's-worth, with the mechanical concepts of social click-task games, such as FarmVille and Smurfs Village.

In truth, I think this style of game is not long for mobile and social gaming. As inexperienced social- and F2P-gamers gain access to newer, balanced mechanics of play, I believe a portion will start to opt out of the click-task tedium. It's not that Click-Task games don't offer players any form of virtualized social-status, or sense of accomplishment; it's that the next wave of games will build on top of these new-gamers' gameplay experiences, offering more complex, involved, and inherently more satisfying gameplay.

The design of the F2P game outlined in this article is only a snapshot of this monetization model, and a rapidly aging one at that.

Louis Png
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I agree, Jonthan, this article seems to be too focused on social gaming rather than just F2P in general.

Social gaming is an important factor in F2P gaming true, but not all games should be focused on that aspect only, as there are many things to consider into design for a "untapped" audience.

(I say untapped, as I assume most F2P have little exposure to gaming).

We can in fact, see many games that focus not on social factors, but purely on game design or prototypes, such as on Miniclip.

Hopefully, the upcoming articles will help emphasis more on design, rather than just potential money-earning methods in F2P.

Brian Holinka
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Battlefield Heroes is launched through the browser but it has a local installation as well.

Victor Dosev
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This is terrible. Everything I read about here is wrong by my standards. This article is well written and in no way is the author stupid. If you want to make games this way - this is a good read. However, for me the methods described here are unethical. Yes, people may consider it fun. But drugs are also perceived as "fun" - from the people who abuse them.

Francisco Javier Espejo Gargallo
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yeah, I guess that many people agrees with you, but remember that the industry needs money from people to survive. If we don't get them addicted to get their money, we have no job. So simple.

In any case, I agree that we have so much responsability and that the industry is facing towards an negativism era once again. (games are drugs, time wastes, etc) We need to find a good balance, and still promote the parts that we think it's safe for the industry and for the consumers to play.

Tony Payne
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In my opinion,there's another important one which the designer shall pay attention to is that how to combine the social game they're working on with the other gameplay already exists.

For the players,especially the F2P players who are always not so patient enough to dig the entertainment,one useful way to catch their's eyes is to provide a acquainted gameplay at the very start.A little game,something interesting,etc.

At least it will help to delay the emerging of boring feeling,right?