Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Good Free-to-Play Games (Part II)

In Part I of this article, indie game developer Howard Go expresses his philosophy on making good free-to-play games. In Part II, he discusses addiction and how games can be designed without exploiting consumers.

Here’s a side note on Candy Crush Saga. I hate King for what they did with the trademark thing. And I hate that Candy Crush Saga remains in the top ten grossing after well over a year. But I do respect how they did their game. They have the best "energy system" in place. If you successfully finish a level, you don’t lose the energy/life you spent to play it. You can play again. Candy Crush Saga is a very polished game on almost every level and is one of the most fair games as far as freemium games go (even if I hate how the game has hooked my mother into asking me to send her tickets and hearts even after I told her I deleted it after the trademark crap they did). There are ways to not spend money (or even to not ask friends to enter a new world…A little trivia here: did you know you can move to every new "world" if you get 3 stars in every level in the previous world?). Only those who truly enjoy the game continue playing it with money being spent. And that’s their call. That they spend so much is their choice. And, please, don’t call them whales. Call them what a hotel or restaurant or another business would call a big spender: a VIP. If someone loves wine so much that they think spending a thousand dollars or more on a bottle brings them pleasure, then we may shake our heads in disbelief because of our own worldview, but let’s admit that they have a choice there. A good winemaker may or may not have taken them for a ride, but I think each of us may have a thing that we spend more than normal for because it is, well, our thing.

Which brings me to a need to discuss addiction: I’ve been addicted to many games. I believe I have an addictive personality. I smoked heavily for many years in my life before I could break the habit, I drank a lot of alcohol before (now I drink a lot on special occasions), and I’ve spent shameful hours and money on games. I play a lot of games to research on what works and what doesn’t so you can imagine how tempting it is for me to just spend days playing games. But you know what game ruined my life the most? Not a freemium or paymium game. It was Final Fantasy VII. No game made me play so much that my professional and social life suffered. And it was because it was an incredibly well made game. And the chocobo breeding was ingeniously addictive. If you got into the breeding like I did, you know that after completing the game, the breeding became the game. In an almost shameful way, I have to admit that’s what happened to me. And I still love Final Fantasy VII. How I kept spending more and more hours playing it instead of the hours I originally set aside for it (which, I believe is one difference between a console game and a mobile game, one is basically scheduled/timed gameplay while the other is play when there is time) is my fault. I won’t tell its creators to stop creating awesome and addictive games. That would basically mean a request to please don’t make any game with engaging characters or story lines or gameplay.

A game should try to get people involved and, well, hooked on the gameplay, the story, and/or the characters. The question is, is it done in such a way that only spenders can reasonably and successfully move forward. And, I believe, a good number of freemium and paymium games did right for their players. While the others cause frustration instead of fun for all non-spenders or, even worse, for all small-time spenders. That’s where the bad rep essentially comes from. One game in recent memory that I soon deleted because I felt I couldn’t grind successfully was Robocop. And I do some amount of real currency spending before I grind, to make things easier. I spent 20 dollars each on Zombiewood and Dead Trigger 2 and never felt a pang of regret. These are games that essentially should follow the same grinding principles as Robocop. But Robocop just felt off for me. It was like I had to spend more and more real money and grinding would not yield results. It felt, here’s that word: greedy. This is, of course, a subjective matter. Value is in the eye of the beholder, after all.

I end this with a claim: though indie game developers can succeed with paid games and many of the people my business partner and I admire in the indie game field are people who stick to paid games, we both believe doing free-to-play right has a better chance at long term success than doing a great paid game. And, at the end of the day, we want to make games, games that people will enjoy. And this means two things: we do it right for the people who download our games and we do it right for us so it can be what we do professionally day in and day out.

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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