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Free-to-play tips, from  Triple Town 's studio head
Free-to-play tips, from Triple Town's studio head Exclusive GDMag Exclusive
October 22, 2013 | By Dave Edery

October 22, 2013 | By Dave Edery
More: Social/Online, Business/Marketing, GD Mag Exclusive, GD Mag

In this reprint from the September 2012 issue of Game Developer magazine, Spry Fox CEO Dave Edery expounds on the studio's success with Triple Town to share some free-to-play wisdom.

If you've never made a free-to-play game, you can find dozens of articles describing how to do it "right." Most of those articles harp on the same handful of issues: Make sure you're properly employing analytics and A/B testing, do everything you can to maximize your one-day and seven-day retention, and so on. Those issues are important, but in my limited experience, I've observed a whole set of major errors made by developers (including my company, Spry Fox) that rarely get talked about. So let's talk about them.

Don't assume other games are profitable

Triple Town was Spry Fox's first serious attempt at making a F2P game. We were inspired by the success of Bejeweled Blitz, which had rocketed up the charts on Facebook and was supposedly raking in the dough. Except at the time, it really wasn't raking in the dough! In reality, Bejeweled Blitz had a very low ARPU that was only offset by an enormous population of players that most games could never hope to match. Had we simply bothered to ask any of our friends at PopCap about Bejeweled Blitz, they would have honestly told us the game wasn't performing as well as we believed. But we didn't ask, and so we based our monetization design in large part on faulty assumptions.

I wish we were the only studio making this kind of mistake, but I've met plenty of indies who were in process of building games inspired by Game X, where Game X was something popular but not necessarily profitable. Unfortunately, a game's popularity doesn't necessarily correlate to revenue. If, for example, Apple or Google feature a mobile title a couple of times, that's more than enough to give it a sizable audience—but that doesn't mean you can assume the game is profitable!

Don't design yourself into a corner

As of today, Triple Town only has two ways to generate revenue: We sell you turns, and we sell you items that help improve your performance in the game. Some in-game items are only available for cash, and some can be purchased with freely earned currency. Unfortunately for us, it turns out that very few people are willing to spend real money for any of the in-game items in Triple Town. More people are willing to spend money for turns (or unlimited turns in the mobile version of the game), but the percentage of paying users is still lower than we expected.

All of that would be okay if we could easily come up with additional things to sell. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the game, we can't. Triple Town, as it stands today, is a single-player game with a very simple economy, limited social interactivity, and no meaningful persistence. Individually, each of these things make Triple Town harder to monetize effectively; together, they make it nearly impossible.

We've been working on making the game more social, and we'll soon unveil an update that adds meaningful persistence...but these changes have taken a tremendous amount of time and effort, and their payoff is as-yet unproven. Had we started with a more spacious and fertile design, we wouldn't have hit this wall so quickly.

Don't expect recognition for your restraint.

We are proud of the fact that we chose to limit how many in-game items a player can purchase during a session of Triple Town. We made that decision in part because we wanted it to be clear to everyone that Triple Town was a game of skill, not a game you could pay to win. And certainly there have been some people who have recognized this. Unfortunately, countless others have bashed us for being a mini-Zynga and for nickel-and-diming them.

We've unquestionably traded away revenue, but it's unclear what (if anything) we received in return. Most players who hate F2P games still hate what we do in Triple Town. Everyone else seems to be okay with the concept of the in-game store, regardless of whether it has limited items. In fact, plenty of players have asked us to remove the store limits because they find them annoying!

In the future, we're going to keep trying to do right by players and keep trying to make games that you can't pay to win. But we won't make the mistake of assuming that we'll be recognized or rewarded for it. Make no mistake: Most people buy things in a game because they really want those things—not because they are interested in rewarding your good behavior as a game designer. The latter is called charity, and hoping for it won't get you very far.

Don't expect miracles

Right now, the mobile F2P game space is brutally competitive. Consider this: Triple Town was featured three separate times by Apple, received tons of positive press, and was generously promoted by our friends at Halfbrick in their mobile games (thanks guys!). And yet Triple Town has never broken into the top 50 free apps on iOS.

This isn't the good old days, when simply being new and noteworthy could drive you into the top 20 all by itself. (If it does, it is because you got very, very lucky.) Cross-promoting with other developers won't get you there. Nor will great press. It takes all of that, simultaneously, and more, whether that's paid user acquisition, driving traffic via a web-based version of your game, or any other promotional strategies you employ.

Some of your competitors in the F2P space are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars over a very short period of time to push their games to the top of the mobile charts. If you want to see your game at the top of the charts, you need to be prepared to push equally hard, or find markets that aren't quite so competitive.

The list goes on...

There are many other common mistakes that we fortunately avoided with Triple Town, but that I often observe other developers making. For example: not having consumable items as a source of revenue, excessively relying on a single platform (which is a potentially fatal flaw whether you're making paid games or F2P games), emphasizing aesthetic virtual goods instead of functional virtual goods (for more on this, see my recent GDC lecture), and so on. Making a F2P game is difficult! If you've never done it before, there's a very good chance you'll blow your first attempt. Take the time to talk to folks who have bitten the dust before you. Take advantage of the many online resources available to you. And most of all, make sure you've given yourself plenty of time to experiment and to fail gracefully! Even the best of us need that.

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Aaron San Filippo
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I really appreciate this a lot. It's definitely eye-opening to hear that Bejeweled Blitz wasn't highly successful as far as monetization - it feels like such a well-designed experience. I think a lot of indies in particular need to realize that many of the "friendly monetization" schemes they want to believe will work because game X did it that way - often have no chance of profitability.

I'll admit that I've been critical of Triple Town's monetization before. I feel that the ability to buy upgrades that extend your game, is a form of "pay to win" - though that term is a bit non-specific. I can also appreciate that David and Dan take this stuff really seriously, and I really respect that they're trying to drive forward this business model in a way that's both profitable, and fair to players.

Daniel Cook
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A little more info on David's "Don't expect recognition for restraint"...

In Triple Town:
- There are items to be purchased with coins.
- Those coins can be earned in game
- The coins can be purchased in bulk with money and coins can also be earned.

So far, on brief inspection, this is a typical F2P game. However, there are a couple of key features put in place to limit abuse:
- Coins are common: A typical player will earn enough coins to buy most of the useful items in the store during a game. If you play regularly at a certain level of competence, you'll earn more than enough coins to buy what you need.
- Caps on item purchases: These ensure that a paying player can never get more benefit than a free player. A paying player cannot for example buy 300 crystals and artificially dominate the game. Nor for that matter are they rewarded for being a whale.
- Triple Town is a highly skill-based game. The purchases in the store have little impact on your ability to score well.

Here's the kicker to all this. The in-game store isn't actually the main monetization method for Triple Town. Triple Town is essentially a free trial like shareware has been doing for a couple decades. Most people buy a single purchase called "Unlimited turns" and spend coins earned in game on the store. The 'evil f2p store' is really just an in-game store like you might find in my very traditional earlier game Tyrian (from 1995)

The reactions were as David described. F2P haters took one look, made a ton of assumptions and started complaining. The *players* didn't care one way or another. This held up despite many experiments.

This situation shows one of the huge issues with most current criticism (and analysis) of F2P games. Individuals, especially those who have not played the game, have almost zero insight into the spending patterns of the larger population for any single game. You need data and a lot of deep digging into a specific game to understand what is happening.

Critics react to surface details and individual biases. They produce immense noise but rarely yield data, predictive models or actionable tools. Developers need to look at statistically meaningful real world player behavior and tune their game from there. Apply patterns based of hearsay and emotional fervor at your own risk.

take care,

Aaron San Filippo
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This is really cool, and I'm glad you detailed it!
The crazy thing is - I've invested quite a lot of time into the game - and I bought the "unlimited turns" with no qualms at all - more of what I want! It had no effect on the gameplay other than how often I could play.

But even as an avid player, I never bought any of the other store items, and to be honest never really realized that these limits were there. I wonder if these constraints you've put on the items are obvious to anyone unless they actually start buying the items and exploring the limits of how far the IAP can take you?

I think for guys like me, my dislike of "functional IAP" isn't so much from the idea that a paying "whale" would be able to beat a non-paying player - it's more about the fact that whether I spend money or not has an influence on the gameplay at all. I don't think it's unethical or "extortion" or anything like that (although in a competitive multiplayer environment I can see that point of view) - rather it introduces a wildcard element to the gameplay and makes cash transactions feel like a part of the core gameplay. It's less pure and elegant - and maybe this helps explain why many game designers are the last group of folks resistant to F2P as a model.

In any case; I guess the most important thing is that your players are happy with it, and that we as a community keep working towards methods that enhance the overall experience.

Jay Jennings
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"features put in place to limit abuse"

Abuse? It's a single-player game. If Bob wants to throw money at you in order for him to be more successful, why would you limit his enjoyment in that way?

The people who get their enjoyment from "beating the game" hardcore, can still do that.


David Edery
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Thanks Aaron! In general, our opinion is that the best F2P games are not pay-to-win. Games like League of Legends (and Realm of the Mad God, which we co-developed prior to its sale to Kabam) are good examples of how you can make a fun and very profitable game without resorting to such tactics. Unfortunately, many games -- particularly the single player variety -- are extremely difficult to make profitable without some amount of P2W (I'm sure someone will figure out how to do it, but I'm just not sure how.) This is one of the reasons that we've stopped making single player F2P titles; all the F2P stuff we're working on is multiplayer, whereas our only single player game, Road Not Taken, will be a pay-up-front experience. (I refuse to call it a "premium" experience because that somehow implies that an incredibly polished and robust game like League of Legends is not "premium.")

Mark Morrison
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good stuff!

Alexandre stroukoff
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Nice article ! I love triple town :)

Aaron Oostdijk
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Agree very much with your first point.

We got very lucky with our apple feature. Gold Diggers was New & Noteworthy for a week, and that somehow did lead to a very large user base. Even though we were competing with Plants vs. Zombies 2 (which we suspect is having a similar situation to Blitz)

And even though we have a large amount of users, our ARPU isn't something to write home about.

Brian Bartram
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Pardon my naivete, but what's the issue with "pay to win" in a game that is entirely single player? If it doesn't affect competition, what's the harm with players spending money to get past a point that's more difficult than their ability? Not trolling, honestly want to know the rationale.

Daniel Cook
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When there is a score, there's competition. Many players of this class of game don't care about competing with others, but for those that do that whiff of buying advantage invalidates the competition and renders their accomplishments less meaningful in their mind.

There's another side of this where people are protecting their way of life. F2P games are new and different and don't match the way some players have used games in the past. In a zero-sum view of the world, the success of a F2P titles take resources away from the eventual creation of the next boxed retail title. The result is any hit of deviation from "pure" game development is treated as a betrayal or evidence of being an enemy. "Pay to win" is thus not overly meaningful in itself, but instead acts as a rallying cry to preserve the old ways.