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.