Over the weekend I read Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games by Nicholas Lovell and Rob Fahey from Games Brief. It’s a quick little ebook that I was able to read sitting around on short airport layovers. The business model of the pamphlet itself is kind of interesting. It’s essentially a cleaned-up, extended collection of some of their blog posts on the topic, with which they’re trying ot hook in more regular readers as well as purchasers of some of their extravagantly priced other material. At $3 though this one is pretty reasonable. You could get the same content trawling through their website, let alone others, but it doesn’t seem like a ripoff to have a polished, extended production in a convenient package.
These are the basic rules they establish:
- Make it fun. This should be obvious, but a lot of F2P designers are clearly not really thinking about making games, let alone fun games, as much as they trying to create the minimum possible engine for extracting the maximal possible cash from a player.
- The Starbucks test. Players should be able to do something engaging and complete within just a couple minutes. Jump in, play, get a rush, get hooked.
- Come for a minute, stay for an hour. Make the core game last just a few minutes—the Starbucks test—but wrap it in longer loops of complexity, challenges, and/or appointments to keep people playing and returning.
- Complexity in layers. Give players of all types something with which to engage: Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, Killers (the Bartle types).
- The importance of never ending. Figure out a game design without finite duration so people can just keep playing endlessly.
- Be generous. Giving people things and not being tight with game rewards will make them like you more, keep coming back, and spend generously in return.
- Be free-to-play forever. Throwing up a paywall is booting players unnecessarily, after you’ve gone to all the trouble to acquire and retain them.
- The no-brainer first dollar. Have an in-app-purchase that people would be crazy to not purchase, some kind of great deal.
- Make it possible to spend $100. Don’t impose an upper bound on how much people can spend. If they want to drop a ton of money, let them!
- Have pizzazz, not polish. You don’t need to nail down every little detail that players won’t notice. You do need to give lots of feedback and rewards—animations, sounds, and so on.
- Kill the tutorial. Don’t waste time before showing players the good stuff and getting into the engrossing action, they’re not going to give you the benefit of the doubt as they might for a paid product.
- I must not fail. Avoid killing off players or otherwise blocking their progress. You want them to always be able to see some way to continue moving forward.
- Sell emotion, not content. Players don’t care how much things cost to make. They care about buying a better experience.
- Experiment and learn. Run principled experimentation, collecting data from well instrumented games, to figure out what’s working and what’s not.
- Game development never ends. Continually tweak and tune.
There is also a small but reasonable glossary, with a small selection of key F2P terms and concepts explained.
I think it’s misleadingly tempting to declare these design rules “obvious.” To me, pretty much all of them make intuitive sense upon being presented. But the opposite are in many cases also intuitive and more traditional. A good example is imposing a paywall, having a player pay for more content. Clearly that’s a viable approach to monetizing a game, and has a long history. But Lovell and Fahey argue quite a bit, I think convincingly so, that this is not actually a Free-to-Play model, it’s just a rehash of demos and shareware of years past.
Many of these also seem hard to achieve, which is fascinating. A leading example is enabling players to spend up to $100/month. Caveat devoting a lot of effort to generating large new content like level packs, that seems really challenging. Even if you’re generating and selling a lot of small content (hats!), how do you get a particular player to keep buying variations? If you’re not selling content, what kind of gameplay and purchases do you need such that they can keep spending money but you’re not just shilling for extra lives or such? It’s actually quite a challenge to think up game designs that meet many of these guidelines, which to me says that there’s probably some thought and value to them.
There’s more explication and rationale in the book, so I encourage those interested in these kinds of things to either pick it up or go trawling through the Games Brief blog for the original source posts.