Friday, May 10, 2013

There's good in you yet, F2P games, I can sense it!

Discussing F2P (Free To Play) gaming in many circles goes over aaaalmost as well as talking about STDs.  "I, um, have this friend... yeah... a friend who is working on a F2P game..."

To start with, some blatant wishy washy disclaimer.  Don't get me wrong, although I'm about to defend some F2P practices, I understand many of the counter arguments and share much of the loathing about F2P tactics that feel slimy and predatory.  I don't care for how designers have to be biz guys, I don't want to take advantage of playe... bah, I don't really feel like listing the negative aspects of F2P.  They're "known" by now.

But, you know that old saying about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater?  I'm about to wear that metaphor down to a nub.  There's a surprising amount of babies noodling around in the F2P bathtub, and frankly, there's some I think virtually all developers should at least consider adopting (regardless of their game's pricing model).

So, yes... in this post I ask of you to clear your mind for a few minutes, wipe away preconceptions about motives and skeezy companies, and lets pluck out a couple of these babies... I mean, facets of F2P gaming... and analyze them specifically for their own merits.  Grab a couple of those latex gloves over there if you'd like.



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F2P devs constantly shift and react, they kind of have to.  As a jumping off point I ask broadly, "is there any other segment of games that watches so closely what their players are doing every single day in their game?"  I suppose some could argue classic MMOs maybe, or highly competitive multiplayer games... but even then I'm not sure I agree.  When I talk to F2P developers they are constantly A/B testing, digging through metrics, methodically optimizing their game based on data from just a couple days of observation.  It's pretty obsessive.

Now I ask "is that a bad thing?".  Not inherently IMO.  Again, set aside the negativity for a second about their assumed motives.  You can say they're greedily trying to extract nickels from people, but the truth is *also* that they're trying to keep people playing and experiencing their game.  They're evolving their already shipped games.

Contrast this F2P landscape with development techniques of a couple years ago.  We made a game, shipped it, and unless something was seriously jacked up... we moved on to another project.  Fire and forget.  No take backs.  In so many cases through the industry that process resulted in years of huge team's work literally amounting to nothing because of some bad calls that could quickly be changed with a few variables online.

I think it's pretty awesome that we're at a point where we create games as "living documents" and adjust based on findings.  As a designer that's a powerful tool, and F2P devs are on the forefront of this in many ways.

Let's grab that particular baby from the tub...

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F2P games track player retention ruthlessly.  Sounds pretty evil to some... but, is it?  They track what makes people stop playing their games and what keeps them interested?  I wish far more developers cared to explore what specifically turned people off about their game.

Here's a harsh related truth that I learned the hard way many times, developers often can't judge what they're creating effectively, because they know their intent.  A creator has what is dubbed "the curse of knowledge" in the excellent book 'Made to Stick' (Great read, about how some ideas stick with us while others can't).  The curse is illustrated in one great example.  Think of a simple song like Jingle Bells, and try to get someone to guess what song you're thinking of ONLY by clapping.  It seems simple, but they rarely get what you're trying to communicate, even when you think you're doing an amazing job.  In your head you're humming the song and hearing it; you're 'cursed' with the knowledge of the song and consequently you're a pretty crappy judge of the difficulty of the task.

In Gears of War 2 I plead guilty to prototyping and scripting the 'Leviathan' bossfight.  Many of us played early builds, saw it evolve, and thought it was extremely easy.  Some of us could do it without running, literally casually walking through it and acing it on nightmare difficulty.  But oh man, the playtest data was a very different story.  We adjusted the sequence about 4 times, making it dramatically easier each time... to us anyway.  But post launch, it was still a huge issue for many players... a definite design snag I regret.

Wether it's a moment when loads of players quit your game, or simply data that shows "hey, 70% of players aren't making it to level 2"... it's not the worst thing in the world for designers to think about player retention.   Do me a favor, grab that baby too while we're at it.

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F2P devs care a great deal about Menus and User Interface and the complexities thereof.  I don't have to tell most devs that, on average, UI is a bastard stepchild of many projects.  First draft layouts are very often 'good enough'.  But F2P devs go to extreme lengths to create UI layouts that people can easily navigate.  Complexity is often inherent in their systems, but they have to keep the user flowing through the game as smoothly as possible.  Often they run groups of testers through entirely different versions of UI to find issues.

They care about being able to "pound through a flow" by making sure the buttons that advance you to gameplay are always in the same ballpark locations, they care about button size and accessibility, they care about discoverability and clarity... it's important stuff.

This might not be a huge aspect of your game (I'm beginning to think the single attribute of a smart designer is the ability to make a game not need UI), but in many dev's cases, we could learn from the their findings and techniques.  Quick, grab that baby and towel him off!

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They care about games being social.  Now in many cases the definition of 'social' is a comically loose one, and often it's more about advertising and viral user acquisition... but let's keep those pesky motive fallacies in check for just a bit longer.  Perhaps we can take this baby and salvage it.

It's been a basic truth for many developers that things like online multiplayer or co-op were factors to keep your games from being mere rentals.  But as the age of rentals closes out, its important to also look at the other basic truth, games often really are more fun when your friends are involved.

Is it beneficial for word of mouth if your game has some cool social features?  Damn straight.  Is that inherently unscrupulous?  Certainly not to me.  One advantage of the industry right now is that advertising isn't a gating factor anymore... your game can be very successful with zero advertising, if you play your cards right.  This is an important card for a reason.

I know, some games are meant to be a very personal voyage through an experience, but being social is still a very useful tool.  Hand me that baby for a sec will ya?  Awww... he's a big fella.

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They're trying to throttle how fast their games are 'consumed'.  Nefarious?  This is a tricky point that touches game economies, productive realities, and player interest.

The heart of this point is that bottlenecking the player in your game has been the right thing to do since long before F2P emerged.  In the original Gran Turismo circa 1999 you earned licenses, unlocked classes, saved up cash to buy cars, competed in side events to unlock tracks and new modes and paint jobs and new parts and... it goes on and on.  It was amazing, it was the game's framework, it blew everyone's heads clean off their shoulders and redefined racing games.  Those same techniques today, if GT were on mobile, would be raged against as money grabs and shifty eyed greedy designers.

It's hard to think of a genre that doesn't involve some sort of gating to keep their game's longevity up and make sure players "stop to smell the roses" (AKA, see the world you've built).  If you put in a traditional game disc and just flipped through all the content under the guise of entitlement because you bought the game, you would likely burn out your interest very quickly.  Even sports games don't often operate this way anymore.

It's critical to value your game's economy and how fast you allow players to access everything you have to offer.  Honestly, I think the reality is that you simply can't throw this baby out even if you wanted to.  Just stop sneering at it, this baby's bloodline has been around for many generations.

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They want a low or non-existent barrier of entry.  I can respect this.  For so long now I've heard many developers lament the $60 price point of AAA games.  It kept games from being an impulse purchase.  It drove us to the situation consoles are now in IMO, where the top couple games are the only ones making money.  Average consumers only buy a couple games each year, and they pick safe bets.  When a $60 game turns out to be crap, it's a bitter pill, and it throws off the taste to buy a game that tries something unknown.

Maybe the pendulum didn't need to swing all the way to the free side, maybe the $15-$20 Steam market is the sweet spot... but the general concept of removing the barrier of entry so more people try your game doesn't sound crazy to me.

They simply want more people from all walks of life to try their games.  I know even that motive is not one that more eccentric developers strive for, exposure I mean, and I have respect for that approach... but I admit it's not me.  I want to make games that are fun, I want a lot of people to discover them, I want them to see the work and effort that goes into them, I want my work to be experienced.  Of that I'm absolutely guilty.

Baby, thanks.  Careful...

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They're constantly updating their content... for free!  Sure, they do it to keep their user base interested and on "the hook", but really, it's still pretty awesome that they're always engaged in their community with content updates.

The closest thing to this behavior we used to see would be if a game like Unreal Tournament released some free maps online.  But now, it's entirely common for players to get new features dropped into their game at any random week.  When it's not free, this practice is called "paid DLC" and people certainly have issues with that.

I spoke to a developer of a stupidly successful mobile game not long ago.  They mentioned that monthly updates, even small ones, were critical.  They skipped an update one month and it nearly sank their IP... it was that important to their community.  As a developer, yeah, it's daunting that people are now expecting regular free content and improvements, but IMO it's awesome when any game has established a sense of community with their players through frequent content drops.

This is a heavy baby to carry, he's a lot of work to take care of.  I'll leave it up to you if you want to leave him in the tub, I won't tell anyone... ;)

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They constantly try to quantify things.  This can be frustrating.  It's often a poke in the eye to a designer when a spreadsheet monkey challenges your artistic vision.

We don't like people trying to quantify what we consider art.  Understandable.

I've maintained a pragmatic stance on metrics for a while though, and have frequently said, "You are going to get raw statistical data on any game you make.  It will just be in the form of sales figures, reviews, and comments online.  I would prefer to get as much of that information before I ship, when I could still react."

If you play the artistic card of not caring about data, own that and consistently don't care about it.  Don't say metrics are evil and should be ignored, but then rage about poor sales figures or review scores after your release, they're two sides of the same coin.  Care, or don't.

Personally, I found it intensely interesting when I was first exposed to metrics and usability reports from talented test groups.  It fit nicely into the theory of "trust yourself, but verify", I never started designing to that data, but it's great information as to where you should can look for some solutions and issues.  It's an interesting challenge to use metrics and yet not be controlled by them... often you kind of lose your design wiggle room.  It forces you to confront slop.

There we go... one more lovely baby for us.

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In general...

As long as your goal is still to make a great game, and not to simply apply these techniques to shovel-ware garbage in the hopes of winning the mobile gaming lottery, I encourage developers to look at these concepts and pick at least a couple to embrace.  Get out there and use these forces for good.

So there you go.  Grab the other side of this tub and help me carry it outside... we all know there's an assload of seriously nasty residue in the F2P tub that needs to be thrown out.


Thanks for hanging in there, I know that was a long post!

2 comments:

  1. Nice to read. We are constantly trying to keep atWar fresh and fair to non-paying members, yet naturally still trying to gather more paying members too. It is a balance that is hard to reach but what is imperative behind all decisions is a great game that is F2P and not Pay 2 Win

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