Free to Play Game Design

As I’m starting to design my first mobile game I’m attempting to grapple with the concept of Free To Play for the first time in my career.  (I’m an artist/designer, so this is a new world for me.) If I’m going to do it, (and from my research it seems at this point like a bad idea not to) I want to do it well, do it ethically, and from a design perspective; do it aesthetically.  In other words, I don’t want to shoehorn a business model on top of an existing game.  From what I’ve read, that always ends in tears.  

I’ve read every article and book on this subject that I could get my hands on, and that has been very helpful.  Especially the debates that always appear in the comments.  (I hope to get a good one here.)  But I haven’t really seen a good exploration of this one topic I’m stuck on.  To make it clear, let me provide an overview of my current plan.  My first project is pretty much a practice run with a very small scope just to get a pipeline established and run myself through the ringer of getting a product to market.  Hopefully I’ll make all my BIG mistakes on this one.  So it’s just a simple tilt-a-marble-through-a-maze game.  There’s about a thousand of them out there.  One thing I wanted to do differently than those I’ve played is to add a bit of a sense of exploration to the metagame.  Most of these games either has a boring tap-a-number level select or a linear path with nodes to tap.  I want to take my metagame map in a more literal direction, actually having continents to explore.  Each content will have a different theme and you’ll be unlocking levels on the map by getting enough points in the previous level.  But since I don’t want it to be linear there will be multiple exits on many of the levels so that the points you earn will be directed toward the next level that is associated with that exit.  

So that’s my teeny tiny innovation, and I’m happy enough with that for this practice game.  So here’s where my dilemma crops up.  I don’t like the idea of a pay wall.  I feel like that’s a little sleazy.  Not a LOT sleazy, because after all, no one’s forcing you to continue playing the game.  It just essentially turns the game into a demo that can be upgraded to a full game.  But if I’m handing out demos I want to be forthcoming with that description.  And that’s not what I want to do.  I want to make a game that the majority of people can play to completion without paying a cent.  I want any In-App-Purchases that happen to be because the player feels like paying for the aesthetic modifications available, or saving time/energy to bypass a tricky part, is worth it to them.  Did you spot the problem yet?

There’s a part of me that loves the idea of players being able to buy progress if they enjoy the game but are not enjoying a particularly challenging (ie frustrating) part of it.  I can imagine myself playing a free game of Mega Man or Castlevania and getting to a part where I’m just frustrated and annoyed, and feeling like I’m going to be missing out on the content AFTER this part, so it’s worth a buck to pass it.  But that seems like Pandora’s Box.  It’s all too easy to design difficulty spikes (or create them accidentally!) that put players in that position artificially.  I think that’s a good basic definition of a pay wall.

Ideally, we designers want to keep the player in the Flow channel...

Where they are not feeling anxiety or boredom.  A FTP pay wall is a difficulty spike that purposely breaks flow, pushing the player into the Anxiety area.  Some percent of players will stop playing due to the unpleasant experience.  Some percent will persevere and struggle and struggle and eventually get by it. (IF there actually IS a way to do so.)  And some percent will pay to get a powerup or workaround that breaks through the difficulty spike allowing them to continue the game.  

Because I want my design to be aesthetically pleasing I don’t want to make difficulty spikes.  But the perennial problem of game design is that every player has different skills so that one player’s perfect flow is another’s too-easy, boring experience, is another’s rage-inducing trauma.  It’s that latter group that troubles me.  It seems to me that IF the pay wall is a difficulty spike, and IF there are some players who are so bad at the game that even the simple stuff is hard for them, then there necessarily will be pay walls in a FTP game that sells any kind of game progression.  

So one way to fix this dilemma is to offer no game progression in the store.  Keep it purely aesthetic.  That does solve the problem but that doesn’t solve MY dilemma completely because the game will still exclude bad players.  Unlike physical sports, we video game designers have the blessed power to bring enjoyment to those who lack the skills that our games demand.  We have difficulty modes, cheats, walkthroughs, and yes, pay-to-win and pay-to-progress.  I make games mostly because I like giving people interesting experiences.  And I don’t want to exclude a bunch if there’s a way not to.  That is my attraction to pay-to-progress.  If an easy mode and walkthroughs aren’t enough, a really abysmally bad player can STILL get to enjoy the experience I’ve designed by just paying to blast through a difficulty spike that I never intended to BE a spike.  

So why not just add the same game progression mechanic but for free?  Because I know that will destroy the Flow for people of average-to-high skill.  It will just be too tempting to reach for that mechanic the moment a little healthy tension is built up.  I’m of the philosophy that a good game experience is a series of tension and release moments, so destroying that process is destroying the design aesthetic I’m striving for.  

So IS there a way to accomplish what I want in an ethical and fun way within a Free to Play framework?  Basically I’m just thinking out loud here.  I didn’t ask for this Free to Play revolution, but I sure want to make sure it doesn’t make me compromise my moral or aesthetic sensibilities. Please let me know what you think!  


Anonymous said…
First thing that comes to mind...
You're way to kind for this.
You can't be as successful as King because you don't want to use the customer like they do.

And frankly I like you like that.
But it does complicate things :P

I don't think you will get much money, if any at all, if you just offer aesthetic purchases.
In a mobile game, at least I couldn't care less about the looks of myself or the world other than what's normally there.
I see mobile games as disposables. I play them and then I'm done with them.

Unlike GW2 where there is a giant community and where you can make other people jealous of your looks :P
There I think looks matter alot more and that's a place where aesthetic purchases can give you quite alot of irl gold if done right.

I can't speak for everyone of course... But I can't see why someone would want to purchase aesthetics for their mobile game.
Maybe if it is continously updated with more content, but that costs alot for the creator.

But I do think that an explorable marble-tilting-game sounds quite interesting and pretty unique.
It would feel a bit weird if the only goal you had would be to get to the exit though, then there's not much of a reason to explore even if you can.
Perhaps make it into a platformer like Mario, but in a marble-tilting style.
You could have a currency that you collect to get more lives and a currency you collect to progress.
The currency that makes you progress should probably be out of the pay-system, but the lives and the gain-life-currency could be influenced by the pay-system in different ways.
Pay for boosters that give more currency for each unit you pick up, pay for more lives, etc.
But a difficulty spike can ruin that whole thing so gotta be careful.

You may not need all progression currency to clear the "story mode", but to unlock everything, you'd need to find it all.

Could include RPG elements like speedboosts, which can be bought for the life currency if you don't want to buy lives with it. Speedboosters, jump boosters, protection from possible enemies and stuffs.
And then you can buy that currency with irl cash to make it easier for yourself to clear the game and to skip "farming".

I think that seems reasonably fair and ethical.
It would be pretty unique as well.
And whatever you make, please release it for android :)
Good thoughts, Anon. I think you're probably right that a social interaction is a necessary element to compelling people to buy aesthetic upgrades.

Most of your design ideas are the direction I'm going. Your going to be collecting gems scattered around the levels, and gems are the currency for buying both aesthetic and mechanic enhancements. I've got 4 powerups planned. Speed, slow, invincible and magic attack.

We're building it in the new Unreal 4 engine, so it will definitely be on Droids.
Joseph Skyrim said…
Just a thought, maybe you can make the difficulty spike traversable by getting "friends" to assist you (say 3 to help you pass a level). Catch is after they "assist" they then have to progress x levels themselves before being able to assist again.

This will encourage more people to at least get the "demo" version (and possibly encourage them to continue).

Not sure how the friend thing would work on a mobile app (thinking face book games here) but I think it should still be doable.

Your initial thought is pay to win but if it's a single player game anyway with no way to show off to others... *shrug*
Ugh. Yeah... the last thing I want to do is try to manipulate the player into bothering their friends. Though I know this is a common technique used in mobile games. I guess it wouldn't bother me if there was a way to detect friends who already have the game as well I'd be fine with it...
Anonymous said…
You could have a recruitment bonus. If you recruit people, perhaps by letting them type in the name of a referrer, you get some currency to buy some stuff for and they get some bonus for being referred, encouraging them to type in the referrer.

Then instead of being a necessity, it's an encouragement to invite friends.

Personally I hate when a game tells me that I need to convince friends to join for me to be able to continue at all.
Quite frankly, nobody is up for it ever, so all it does is destroying the game.

But when it's an encouragement and optional, then it's not bad at all and people can do it if they feel that they really want that semi-pervy aesthetic upgrade from the cash shop or that speed booster that would be oh so juicy.

In short:
Recruit friends yay.
Force people to recruit friends nay.
Leen said…
I disagree with Anon. People definitely pay for aesthetic upgrades in mobile games.

I personally detest, in this order,

* paywalls
* ads
* time-gating
* friend-spamming (worst)

Apps wants to make money, and that is okay. The ones that I find myself spending the most micro-money on, are the ones that I CAN play without paying, but that I feel deserve the money (i.e. ads are okay as long as they're not super intrusive and don't interrupt game play) and I get my money's worth.

If I were you, I'd add a little hero who (theoretically) explores the map. Players have a chance to find virtual items through beating (and/or repeating) the puzzles.These items are purely cosmetic and upgrade the look of the hero. Create a second way that makes it easier to obtain these items, but without selling them outright.

Alternatively, let players build a castle instead of their own hero (like in Civilization). Or a spaceship or a temple or whatever else fits in with the theme of your game.

Basically, get people started on collecting something by giving them freebies, then watch while they try to finish off their collection which gets harder and harder, while the micro-payment option looks cheaper and cheaper to them.

(If it was a multiplayer game, paid avatar pictures would work too.)
We're totally on the same page, Leen. I feel the same way about those things in that order. I plan to have 3 aesthetic upgrades to your marble that can be mixed and matched. You can change your marble to various types such as ruby, bowling ball, hamster in a ball, etc. You can change your trail, which is just a trail of effects that land behind you while you roll, so things like a rainbow trail, sparkles, slime trail, etc. And you can get various 'hats'. Things like a halo, top hat, and even crazy things like a dancing circus bear, juggling clown, etc. All of these would be available for the gems you collect. And you can always buy gems for real money.
Leen said…
I hadn't even thought of upgrading the marble - that's awesome. Suddenly I want to play it. Good job. :P
Leen said…
Hey Josh, just in case you haven't see this - they've put it into words better than I did, but I agree with this.
Yeah, that's a good video. Written by my friend James Portnow. He's a smart cookie.
Merus said…
This is maybe a little late, but I had some thoughts on the pay-to-skip dilemma. You want players to be able to finish the game without paying - but it's worth remembering that for many players, that's also a goal, and if it's a goal, you can acknowledge it.

So what about something like the Super Guides in Nintendo games, where you can pay to skip a level, but if you do, you lose access to a cosmetic bonus that's only for people who played 'hardcore'. Players who are frustrated hopefully won't care, but players who are feeling gentle resistance won't want to pop the cherry once they realise the game's watching them - and it sends a clear signal about your intentions with the RMT skip.

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