Thursday, April 24, 2014

Good Free-to-Play Games (Part I)

In Part I of this article, indie game developer Howard Go expresses his philosophy on making good free-to-play games.

I begin this with a disclaimer: I am an indie game developer who just happens to make a living from making free-to-play games. I am one-half of a team of two. We’ve been making games full time for just over three years now.

Free-to-play games have gotten a lot of bad rep and this is more true as of late, especially as some games ruined what were good games by adding in-app purchases in an update or doing a sequel that suddenly changed the gameplay by going freemium or paymium instead of the solid premium paid game that they once were. And I think my opinions on freemium apply to paymium as well, so I might as well cover both.

This is part one of my view: whether freemium or paymium, if what you get initially is of value and then IAPs are introduced by way of packs or levels or some special premium value (and by this I include unlimited simultaneous multiplayer games and the removal of ads — I actually miss that in many games now), then it is entirely the player’s choice to feel I want more of the same fun and to determine if the packs/additions are worth their cost. They already got their money’s worth for what they paid for if it was initially paid and if they had fun for about an hour with a free game, then they can judge if spending money is fine for another similar hour (like a free taste of a dish to see if you want to buy a pack, snack, or meal). Obviously, I mean a good free-to-play game gave some amount value of value at the onset. My rule of thumb is about an hour of fun. That’s short for a console game, but decent, I believe for a mobile game. I’ve played some awesome paid games on mobile that I finished in an hour or two, and I felt I got my money’s worth (though wanting to play some more because I enjoyed it so much is another thing).

Just to be clear: I’ve spent plenty of money on arcade games, saved up to buy games for the consoles I’ve owned when I was younger, and still continue to spend a bundle on mobile games (paid, freemium, and paymium). And there are a number of games where I spent a lot of money on without thinking or feeling I was cheated. I believed I got my money’s worth. For anyone who spent more than a console game’s worth in the arcade or a mobile game to finish whatever game you were hooked on, you know what I am talking about.

This is part two of my view: whether freemium or paymium, if you need to spend in order to move forward in a game that does not involve packs or levels, but rather the ability to move forward is dependent on some energy level or being equipped with certain tools, weapons, or power ups before you can successfully continue, then it is very close to being poorly done or it is very obviously poorly done. The key, I believe, is in creating enough of an opening so that anyone who plays can continue down the road, playing through the levels without feeling that unless they buy an item, let’s say a gun, that they can only afford via an IAP (meaning grinding won’t work) will get them to move forward. Making a player wait is not a bad thing. Making a player ask friends for help is not a bad thing (for both player and game developer). Mobile games allow for breaks. Being told to wait a few hours before something can happen is fine. But there are limits. Basically, my rule of thumb is that if it will allow me to successfully grind because I persevere or progress because I am good at the game, then the IAPs do not ruin the game. The patient and the skilled can enjoy the game, not just the spender.

Temple Run, Subway Surfers, and Jetpack Joyride are all among my favorite endless (runner/side-scroller) games. They remain fun whether or not you spend. That you spend is entirely your choice and will not affect the fun value of the game in any way. I love that. Disco Zoo is a great game for grinders and for spenders. But some games are so unbalanced that grinding becomes too tedious too soon and the return of investment (in this case, time) is not felt. That’s a bad game right there. Much more so because it makes it clear to the player than only spenders will progress or, even worse, have any resemblance fun.

There are puzzle games that became almost insanely impossible to finish and only get harder and harder. I think the good ones allow the (re-)entry of easy levels enough times to make it fun for the player again. It says, here’s a break so you can enjoy the game again. Which is basically how I see any good RPG game. Easy enemies, followed by a tough boss, followed by easy enemies, almost ad infinitum. It’s what makes it playable.

Bad games, whether premium, freemium, or paymium, don’t respect the balance.

Howard Go is ½ of MochiBits. His current interest in game design involves game balance, retention, and monetization. He taught philosophy for five years then sold out to work in the corporate world for seven years, finally escaping into the world of game development in December 2010.


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