In a polar opposite of the recent PopCap talk, Teut Weidemann, lead designer of Settlers Online for Ubisoft's Blue Byte studio, says that the key to free-to-play success is to exploit human weakness. Essentially, find those areas in which players can be monetized, and go after that aggressively.
As a caveat, Weidemann said that first and foremost, developers have to make a fun game in order to attract users. Then once those users are there, the mandate is to figure out ways to monetize them, or else the game can't go on. It was an unusually frank discussion of the ways in which human psychology can be exploited in order to make a buck.
Weidemann began by discussing the differences between the single player and MMO game worlds - Settlers Online is an MMO with PvE and PvP, bi-weekly and monthly updates as a retention strategy, plus a free to play business model. "You have complete control of the environment in a single player game, whereas of course in an online game you have not," he said. And you can't just think about fun, he asserts. "You have to think about making a fun game and monetizing it at the same time."
"That's a huge burden and a big change from what we've done before," he said, adding that "we have to bring them in and keep them addicted and make them keep playing. Selling advantages is seen as evil. That's over for free-to-play games."
Monetization has become the most crucial and integral part of game design, says Weidemann; developers have to think about it from the start. "In your game, progress has to be measurable." he says. "The most common thing is player level -- that's something everyone can now grasp," he says. You can monetize this with a speeding-up experience, but you have to make sure that paying players usually can't be identified. If you hide from the players what other players are actually paying for, you can get more money without making players angry."
Some of the kinds of things you can sell, according to Weidemann, are rare achievements, access to later stages earlier, early access to new maps, faster exploration or comfort, and all manner of socialization elements, such as avatar customization, emotes, and larger guild sizes.
Exploiting Human Sin
"We are monetizing all the weakness of people," Weidemann says, turning his talk toward the seven biblical sins, and how these can be turned into hard cash.
Vanity. "I'm the best. That's something they want to have," he says. But players need to be able to see their posing and posturing, which is usually difficult in a strategy game, where seeing what the other player has could be perceived as an advantage. In Settlers Online the game allows players to see their friends, but in a controlled environment. Here, they monetize avatars and guild creation.
Envy. "To make this succeed, the player has to see his neighbor's possessions," says Weidemann, noting that in China it's popular to steal items from other players. "I believe that in the next few years we'll see some game that does this well in the West," he said. "And then everybody will steal, and this will be a lot of fun."
Gluttony. Here, the aim is to get players to consume more. Make consumables (such as healing potions in a traditional MMORPG) available, and then sell them directly. "It's an indirect timesaver," he says. "If you upgrade a building to the next level, it takes time and resources, but you can buy an instant upgrade," he says.
Lust. In Settlers Online, this is measured by instant gratification. Instead of waiting, the player can unlock what they want immediately. "[This kind of player] is easy to monetize," Weidemann says, "because everything instant, that's what he wants." Examples include instantly recruiting troops, instead of having to wait for them.
Anger. "You hate your enemy, that's something we're gonna monetize," he says. This type of player is one of the simplest to exploit, because they will want all the best items right away, in order to defeat other players. Games can sell them this at the onset, and give them paid access to better battle reports, and more experienced units. It should be noted that Settlers Online does not force PvP, which is how weaker players who may not be interested in that can enjoy the game in this sort of environment.
Greed. This includes housing production increases or buffs. "The trader is someone who's sensible for unfairness. So if he wants to be wealthy, he doesn't want to buy [gold] directly," says Weidemann, because then it doesn't feel like an achievement. "Never directly sell gold to the player -- it must be indirect."
Sloth. This is represented by avoidance of work. Players are lazy, he says, so sell comfort. Sell extensions to buildings, and automizations for repair and overproduction handling. "You're saving clicks. That's all you do. And if he pays for that, why not?"
Settle For Nothing Less Than Cash
"Game design is not about game design anymore -- now it's about business," said Blue Byte executive producer Christopher Schmitz. "We do exploit them, but they should not feel like they're treated in a bad way," he added. If they do, then players will dislike the developer.
"If you think you have the same items for this year and next year, you're wrong. You have to change everything like in the Superstore," says Weidemann. He says designers should ask themselves how the major brands in the grocery store sell you new versions of detergent and the like, when it's basically the same stuff. Then use that to your advantage, since the psychology of consumerism is well documented.
As a designer of an online game, you must learn to balance within a chaotic environment when players have more control than ever before. That's difficult because they try to hack your game - Settlers Online had its first hacking attempt within five seconds of Open Beta. On the other hand, Weidemann reminds us, "sometimes players do things you didn't expect, but sometimes you can say 'hey, we didn't know the game could do that.'" And why should you care about this kind of emergent gameplay? Of course, because "you can monetize that."