It’s pretty clear that free-to-play games are the way to go if you care about making money from your games. And don’t give me that line about being indie and not caring about the money. On the contrary, being able to make money from the games we love to make, allows us to keep doing what we’re passionate about.
I was having a discussion today about free games with other developers and I thought I would post here some random thoughts and open it up for discussion.Free-to-play (or freemium–even if they aren’t exactly the same, I’m bundling them all under the same category for this discussion), have have a fairly bad reputation, and they’ve been under fire recently from developers. It’s true that a lot of those games have been rather poor from a game design point of view, while raking in loads of money from players who are apparently happy to play them.
It’s important to separate the financial model (free with other ways for players to spend money in-game), and the quality of those early games or the intentions behind them. I am convinced that free games is the future of mass-market games (it’s already pretty much the present, so that’s not much of a stretch).
There’s no doubt that the financial model of game affects its design. Compare arcade games, retail console games, and subscription-based games just as an example. Free-to-play has a huge impact on the design as well.
Free-to-play games are in their infancy. Not only are they a relatively recent happening, but they were also wildly successful, which encouraged a lot of copying and not much innovation. So they’re stuck in a type of design that results in a local maximum of profit, while providing a not very satisfying experience for a lot of players. As game developers, we need to find out how to make great games while using the free-to-play model.
I’ve been going around this quite a bit recently, because I’m in the stages of deciding what my next game is going to be. The reality of the App Store are pushing me towards free-to-play, but I’m not interested in making a Farm/Store/Pet game.
These are my random thoughts on what we can charge for in a free game and how it affects game design:
- Reduce delays. This is very effective, but feels cheap and somewhat manipulative (yes, this is coming from the guy who did Flower Garden… but that was before IAPs and the whole point of the game was the nurturing/waiting part). It also falls in the category of the question I often ask myself: If I remove this from the game, will it be better or worse? The answer is (almost) always “better” by removing those delays.
- In-game currency. This is seems like a better approach as long as there’s no competitive multiplayer. However, it does wreck havoc with the game balance. Either it becomes too easy and not fun for those who paid, or boring and grindy for those who didn’t. Still, especially on mobile, it’s not a totally bad way to go. You’re letting people make a choice how they want their experience.
- Extra content. That seems to be the traditional, developer-approved way to go. PC and console games have been doing that with DLCs for a long time. The main problem is that not many players want that content, the amount of content you can sell is limited, and it often requires a lot of extra effort to generate.
- Extra choices. This includes different characters, clothes, weapons, etc. I see this as the sweet spot between the last two options. What you buy doesn’t completely throw off the game curve, but it’s also not just new levels or missions. Combine that with letting players earn credits to get those choices (by grinding if they want to, but it’s all optional) and it seems like a good way to go. You can also go the way of League of Legends (which I have yet to play!) and you can rotate in that extra content for limited amounts of time, so players get a taste and they have the option of buying them permanently.
- Cheats. By cheats I mean more lives, rewind/replay, invulnerability, etc. It feels like a throwback to the arcade days. Some players will be put off by it (either by the fact it exists, or by the fact that they finished the game too quickly with the help of those cheats), but it can work in the right game. You’d probably want to do something about high scores, like putting players who used those cheats in a different leaderboard.
What are your thoughts on this? What are some other ways that players can pay for in free games and still allows us to make a great game?