Don’t design around a payment model

Don't design around a payment model

I’m often accused of being “anti free-to-play”.  What’s wrong with me?  F2p is clearly the future, every f2p game released on the iPhone grosses $1 million a day, and how else am I going to profit from all the Russian and Chinese teenagers who refuse to pay for things?  Being critical about f2p at an industry event nowadays is like telling people you live in a commune and don’t believe in capitalism.  People just look a bit sorry for you.

The thing is, I’m not against f2p. I’m against designing a game for f2p.

If I tell you that I believe commercial concerns should never be involved in the game design process then you’ll think I’m at best hopelessly naive and at worst lying.  I don’t believe that.  I think that if you want to make a living from designing games then you’ll need an audience and you’ll need to cater to them.  That’s a commercial concern – making something people will like.  I think it’s also best to make something which is different enough to what’s already out there.

To put it simply: when I design a game I want to make something which is instantly exciting to people when they hear about it.  Then I want to make it great.

Those two things really don’t have to interfere with each other.  Most games’ aesthetics and mechanics are basically separate.  Frozen Synapse  is a game about soldiers shooting at each other.  Frozen Synapse is a game in which you calculate angles and distances and lines of sight and try to predict what your opponent is going to do.  Very rarely did I ever have a mechanic idea which was so outrageously conflicting with the aesthetic that it was likely to cause a problem.  And whenever I did, Paul would just sigh and tell me to do it and we’d sort it out later.

I think it’s difficult to design an f2p game without constantly being influenced by the payment model.

When I’m making a game, I only have to worry about whether the game is fun.  And that, honestly, is hard enough – I can spend weeks with a designer’s block; trying desperately to work out what’s missing from a certain mechanic.  I can’t imagine what it would be like having to balance that most crucial element – make the game fun – with several others based on getting my players to pay and pay often.

The worst aspect to f2p design is the desire for players to play for as long as possible.  We call this “retention” in the business.  Retention doesn’t want you to enjoy the game – it wants you to be addicted to it.  It wants you to play it compulsively.

A bit of retention is a good thing.  I don’t want to sell you a game which you only enjoy for ten minutes.  But when you start prioritising volume of player time over quality of player time, then you start asking yourself all sorts of bad questions: is this section too fun?  Could we make this last longer with the same content?  You start diluting, basically.

More fundamentally, at every point in an f2p game you’d like to say to the player: you are having some fun now.  If you pay us some money, you can have more fun.  How is that a good thing to design around?  When I’m designing my old-fashioned pay-once game, I’m saying: I’d like you to have the most fun, all of the time.

So: I’m not against f2p.  I just want you to largely consider your payment model after you’ve made the game.  Maybe you make a great game and f2p fits it better.  That’s great – you didn’t compromise your design.  There are loads of micro-transactions which don’t compromise design – cosmetic additions which are ways for your players to say they love your game; not things you coerced them into paying for.

13 Responses to “Don’t design around a payment model”

  1. George Buckenham:

    I once read a quote which has stuck with me. It goes something like “A play begins the moment you first hear about it, and ends when you stop thinking about it”. When designing a game, you should think about the entire experience, from hearing about the game, to buying it, to playing. Everything ought to be thought about and designed. (How much of the joy people have got from Minecraft is from the game, and how much from the community around it?).

    So designing without thought for your payment model seems dangerous. Hopefully it’ll line up, and it won’t make the experience fail at some point, hopefully it won’t jar. But it’s a gamble, because you’re refusing to design an important part of the experience. So I really disagree with this post. Sure, it’s hard. Why shouldn’t it be.

    On the other hand, don’t design awful money-wringing, no enjoyment, F2P games. Yeah.

  2. Ricky:

    What George says is true on the surface (I really like that quote!)

    But the payment model of ‘pay once at the start (and trust me that it’ll be worth it, because I am worthy of your trust)’ has one huge benefit over F2P – it has minimal impact on the rest of your design.

    The sentiment of this post that I really agree with is ‘it’s hard enough making a worthwhile game as it is, without having to think about how payment mechanics will be woven into the game mechanics’.

    Of course it’s possible to design great F2P games, and if you’re doing that then yes, you need to think very carefully about the payment model as part of the game design. But isn’t it fantastic that we live in a world where both things can co-exist?

  3. George Buckenham:

    Oh, yes, I completely agree with you there, Ricky.

    I think it’s unlikely I’ll make a game you don’t just up and pay for at the beginning any time soon — it makes the design easier and more flexible, and it requires a lot less coding effort in order to implement and keep running. IAPs are just a whole load of UI design, really.

    But I also see ways it can help the design. If I was making a over-the-Internet multiplayer game I’d think very carefully about charging up-front. There, having more players online makes everyone enjoy their time more.

    And purely cosmetic IAPs — I liked that option once, but I’d be scared it wouldn’t be enough. Players are, for better or worse, accepting of paying money for upgrades or sidegrades these days, and it’s a rare game where people care enough about cosmetic changes.

    But mainly yes, Ricky — nothing’s going away. Business models for everyone!

  4. Lead dev of Frozen Synapse explains how F2P negatively affects game design | Gamechup | Video Game News, Reviews, Features, Guides:

    […] to design an F2P game without constantly being influenced by the payment model,” he wrote on the Mode7games […]

  5. Gogozombie:

    I’m sorry, but how many commercially successful f2p games have you designed? All I see from you is some 30$ game. So how does this make you an expert in f2p game design? I do work on a well-received f2p game. If i designed the game first and then worried about putting happy cosmetic stuff in the cash shop, I would be broke and out of a job. Go design a commercially successful f2p game and then write an article like this.Fucking asshole.

  6. Designing Around F2P:

    […] down, it’s intriguing to read a blog by Frozen Synapse developer Ian Hardingham arguing that designing a F2P game around F2P is a bad idea. I’m here to offer the counterpoint—not only do developers need to think carefully about how […]

  7. Paul:

    I think people are missing the central point of this blog post because they’re being dazzled by its occasional hyperbole.

    Ian’s not arguing that you shouldn’t *consider* your payment model when designing. He’s arguing that you shouldn’t let the precepts of what is perceived to be good free-to-play design constrain your design process. He’s saying don’t design *around* it, but do think *about* it.

    “I just want you to largely consider your payment model after you’ve made the game.”

    Gogozombie, your comment intrigues me. Which game did you work on? I like your passion.

  8. Paul:

    Also Valve have said in public several times that they believe cosmetic-only F2P is viable for core games and are practising what they preach with DOTA2.

  9. This Week's News | Those PeopleThose People:

    […] (lead dev of Frozen Synapse) on how F2P negatively affects game design submitted by TargetS [link] [20 […]

  10. Prinny:

    Just want to kind of temper gogozombie’s idiocy.

    Anyone who has read this far: If not having done something makes you unqualified to evaluate it, we’d have no way of having a legal system.

  11. [Links] Links for the new year « Welcome to Spinksville!:

    […] Ian at Visiting the Village argues that games should not be designed around a payment model, and he’s particularly eyeing up F2P games. […]

  12. DF1:

    Hey, it feels to me like you read these comments. Where can I find a wallpaper list for FS? It would be cool if you posted like, several wallpapers for Markov Geist, and the shape of Markov Geist; gameplay wallpapers would not do on my desktop!

    Hoping for more, darkfigure1

  13. Taylor:

    I have been designing games for 12 years. I’ve worked commercially on both boxed-titles and free to play games.

    I don’t quite identify with what Ian’s saying.

    Design is a process – a very specific process. It’s not about having good ideas (ideas come from everywhere). Design is determining intentions for a game/product/whatever and identifying the constraints that must be worked within. His craft is doing this with precision: both hitting the target and doing so efficiently.

    Constraints come from many angles: Your code team may not have enough time to implement an idea. Your deadline may be 6 months sooner than you’d like it to be. And a common constraint these days is ensuring your product will make money for your employer.

    Free to Play is a more viable business model. Always. (If you chart on a y axis the amount of money users are willing to spend on your product, vs the amount of users who will play your game on the x axis, free to play monetizes all of the players on the curve. Boxed products cut out the top part of the curve that represent players who are willing to spend more than the cost of your product; they cut out the right side of the curve representing users who would be willing to spend money on your product, but not the amount you asked for). If you know that this model is the one you’re going to use, you would behoove yourself to not list it a s a design constraint. A game that thinks about free-to-play after the fact can often be incongruous with the model.

    Creating fun mechanics is indeed a formidable challenge on its own. However, it’s not enough. It never has been. (I can think of many games that had [some] beautiful mechanics but failed on other parts of the design/marketing/monetization model.)

    Anyone going into design needs to understand and embrace that challenge. Ignoring it is disrespectful to your employer, and it gives the rest of us a bad, unprofessional, image.