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Classic Design Lessons: What Free-To-Play Can Learn From Arcades

December 22, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

I worked in the coin-op video game industry for 13 years, as a graphic artist and game designer. I worked on and created several video games, some of them quite successful. (You can find more about these games at my personal website

As my game development career moved forward, I shifted to mobile games, console games and, currently, am in production on a PC free-to-play shooter. I'm in charge of different tasks on this game (game design, production...) and we have just reached the beta testing phase.

The game is a classic F2P shooter, where you can play for free as long as you like, or play and buy some assets to customize your character, buy powerful weapons to better defeat your enemies, create a clan with your friends, customize it, and much more.

During the production and beta testing phase, I found some similarities between coin-op and F2P games regarding how the player approaches the game and how the game approaches the player. This article tries to explain these psychological and game dynamics.

The First Experience

When the player buys a game and plays it for first time, two things can happen:

  • The player enjoys the game, so he will keep playing for a long time, maybe until completing it. That's perfect, as it's been a good investment for the player.
  • The player doesn't enjoy the game. His first experience is not what he thought it would be. He will give it another try -- sure he will, as he spent a lot of money on the game -- and another, and possibly another... until he realizes he has thrown away his money.

In both cases, the publisher has sold the game and gotten business -- good job, to the publisher!

Console game player reaction flow chart.

With coin-op and F2P games, the player's reaction during his first game experience is different. What happens if the player enjoys the game?

  • With coin-op games, he will keep playing and inserting coins for days, weeks or possibly months. Also, be certain that many people will be watching the way he enjoys the game, so when the player finishes playing, new players will give it a try. At the end of the day, the cabinet's coin box will surely be completely full.
  • With F2P, the player will keep playing for free. In some cases -- it's said to be 3 to 5 percent -- he will buy some assets or virtual goods to better enjoy the game. At the end of the month, money is in the publisher or developer's bank account.

This is what happens if player's first experience is positive and enjoys the game. In both cases cash is the result. Good job.

But, what happens if the player does not enjoy the game, or maybe gets confused, or frustrated, and has a bad first game experience?

  • With coin-op games, the player will try the game two or three times before moving aside and waiting for another player to play. If other new players have the same bad experience, people in the arcade will move away from the cabinet, because news spreads like wildfire. At the end of the day, there won't be much money in the cabinet's coin box.
  • With F2P, a bad first experience makes the player immediately quit and search for another game, because there are so many choices out there. If the game cost the player money, he would have given it another try, but because he hasn't spent even a cent, he just quits.

In these two cases, cash is not the result for the publisher or developer. A really bad job.

Arcade game player reaction flow chart.

F2P game player reaction flow chart.

As you can easily understand, if the game costs money, the player will give it more of a chance, so the game has more time available to let the player get used to it and to convince him it's fun. If it doesn't cost any money, the game has to be fun and intuitive at the first try... or die.

That's why, especially with coin-op and F2P games, player's first experience needs to be absolutely great. It can't be confusing, annoying or frustrating. It has to be perfect at all costs, because if not, the player will quit the game -- the most catastrophic result.

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Luis Guimaraes
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Great piece.

Jose Striedinger
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Very interesting article :D

kevin williams
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@Xavi - a very interesting piece (well done), and reflecting much of what we at The Stinger Report state about the need for casual gaming to apply amusement thinking. This is also a factor why we see games like Bejewled and Fruit Ninja make the move into amusement!

I miss GAELCO - a strong company badly led and directed - some of the games stand-up well to the test of time. I am interested to know how it works to license them as F2P games? I had always thought that Namco had acquired the rights?

Jeremy Glazman
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I really like the comparison between F2P and coin-op, that hadn't occurred to me before.

Some issues though:

The comparison between just barely losing a race and getting pwned on a shooter isn't valid at all. In the racing example you are paying for another chance to test your skill, and hopefully you got better; in the shooter example you're simply rewarding the players with the most money. Buying your way to the top is one of the most cited complaints about F2P game design.

As for beta testing, nearly every online F2P game evolves significantly over its lifetime, so the 'beta' phase really never ends. You can certainly taint your reputation by releasing a terrible game prematurely, but as long as your leaky player bucket is constantly being topped off with new players then your first release isn't nearly as important as you make it seem.

Also, your 'crazy idea' of only making the losing player pay to continue in multiplayer coin-op was used in many fighting and racing games well before the year 2000 ;) Many other coin-op games also offered continues for a cheaper price than starting a new game. I haven't seen a similar system in F2P, in fact Spiral Knights does the exact opposite, charging progressively MORE each time you pay to continue after dying!

Kostas Yiatilis
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I think, from what I read, that the crazy idea he was pointing to was the 20cents for a very short game, not that the loser pays.

Thorben Novais Silva Jensen
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I agree with Jeremy on beta testing. What I see is a constant updating, releasing of new fixes, etc. The tendency, at least it seems to me, is that players get used to this and come back later as they know that there probably will be a fix or change in the game anyway (or is it just a hope I have?).

So the line between a beta-test of a fairly advanced state of the game ("all in-game features are clear") and the final release becomes less tense.

Thank you for sharing, Xavi!

Javier Barnes
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Really nice article (BTW nice name too)!

If I can suggest something, I'd like to see another article like this one talking about the other side: what differences do you see between F2P-based games and coin arcades.

kevin williams
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@Javier, we have penned a few features in the past on the subject of the structure of amusement (coin-op) development. Would love to do an updated feature looking at the new perception of public-play game development. Not sure of Gamasutra would want to run it as they seem to have deleted the other amusement pieces we did for them a few years back?

kevin williams
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Gil Salvado
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Great article and very well structured.