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Why first impressions matter for Free-to-play (F2P) games especially
by Adam Smith on 03/31/14 08:03:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


How usability affects first impressions.

People spend a short amount of time deciding if they like or dislike something (around 50 milliseconds [1]). This gut reaction is often based on subconscious considerations. We often know if we like or dislike someone soon after meeting them but may not be sure why. It may be their body language, mannerisms or inflection of the voice but something just puts us off them. The same is true for websites and games. Areas such as design and styling can lead to some people having positive or negative feelings towards a game. Some may like steam punk style games; others may not. This is out of the developer’s control. Usability issues can be controlled and affect a players perception of a game.

First impressions are important for all types of media. It is particularly important for games that follow the free-to-play model. The potential player has no commitment at all to the game when they sign up and start playing. If they walk away after 5 minutes then they have not lost anything. If the sign up process is too onerous then they may not even get to the point of trying the game before giving up. With standard games the player already bought the title, so have an incentive to get their money’s worth from the game. With a free-to-play game this incentive does not exist. A lost player is not just a loss but also a cost to the developer. The lost player has infrastructure, bandwidth and acquisition costs. This means that the churn rate (players who give up soon after starting) is a critical area for developer attention.

Upon meeting a new person you would be put off if they:

  • Don’t make eye contact.
  • Did not smile at all.
  • Stood too close to you.

With a new game it is annoying if:

  • You are not engaged and shown to be of interest (eye contact).
  • Not welcomed and shown there is nothing threatening (smiling).
  • You are pushed and prodded to do things you don’t want to do or that make you feel uncomfortable (personal space).

These annoyances can all lead to a player giving up. It is at the beginning, when the player has no history with a game, that it is easiest to walk away and try something else. It is also at the beginning of a relationship that we are most picky. This picky player is deciding if the game is worth their time. Leaving costs them nothing.

It is at this crucial point that they either start becoming a player or they leave and become a lost customer. In free-to-play games the ones who just play for free are also customers. They may not put any money into the games cash shop but they do generate the market and player base that drives the paying players. They talk to their friends, blog, create gameplay videos etc.

Standard games can have slightly more leeway with poor usability at the start compared to free-to-play because the player already has a reason to play – they spent money on the game. A feature of a game can be annoying to a new player but a cherished foible to a veteran. This is not so with free-to-play games. The player does not stay around long enough for the annoyance to become something they get used to and then like.

Making the initial gameplay as smooth and slick as possible increases the chances of attachment. The player is more invested in it and is less likely to leave when they encounter a problem or annoyance. No game can be perfect. Gameplay and monetisation mechanics will create opposing problems the player has to deal with. Their willingness to stick with it and overcome these issues is at the core of keeping players happy and engaged.

First Impressions:

The player’s first interaction with a game will be the website where they sign up:

•  An average visitor to a website will spend less than 1 minute trying to find information [2].This means it should take a new player under one minute to start the signup process. The minute starts on page load and ends when they click signup. The game needs to be sold in this time.

•  Users often leave web pages in 10 – 20 seconds. The one minute rule stated above still applies. Users who are not looking for a specific piece of information will only spend around 10 – 20 seconds to find something interesting before giving up. Users scan through web pages. They will not read all the text – they will often only read around a quarter of the text on a page. This means that the first pages and opening few moments of a game must be clear and engaging. The likelihood of people dropping out decreases the longer they stay [3].

•  The first impression of a site or game happen within around a 20th of a second. It does not matter if the game looks great after 20 minutes. If it looks bad in the first few seconds the player may already have decided it is not for them and give up. This can range from the more aesthetic areas such as a colour scheme to more usability focused areas such as the layout making sense at first glance. People feel comfortable with things they recognise. If the site layout is like others they have used then they know they can use it. Games can look different but have an interaction architecture that is like other similar games [4].

Halo effect:

Another interesting phenomenon is the halo effect. This means that if an initial impression of something is good we carry this feeling through to other areas. The opposite is also true. If the initial impression is bad then users will view the rest of the offering through a lens that is looking for problems. People like to be right. They will continue to be tainted by their initial impression.

If they thought a game was good then they’ll look for positive feedback to strengthen their opinion. If they think a game is bad they’ll look for things that they don’t like to back up their initial impression. This once again is important for free-to-play games. It does not matter if part of your game is better than the competition if the initial experience is worse. Players are likely to prefer the competitors ‘lesser’ offering because the first impression of their game was better. Some free-to-play games that craft this initial experience well are: Blacklight, TF2 and Clash of Clans.

How usability can affect first impressions:

Making a good impression often means removing or smoothing out the things that make a bad impression. i.e. making the navigation of the signup process clear and easy to understand. Users will not sit there and think “wow, that was a great signup form”. Good usability is not noticed by the user because it worked as they expected. A free-to-play game does not want users getting annoyed because the sign up form is hard to use. If a user is annoyed before they even see the game then their first impression is likely to suffer.

Basic usability concepts such as: making the navigation clear and simple, giving meaningful and useful titles to links, consistent navigation etc. all help. They remove the bumps in the road that a user may hit as they take the journey from being an interested individual to a signed up player.

Once the player is signed up then it is once again important that the initial gameplay experience is positive. Positive in this connotation does not mean ‘easy’ it means ensuring that no parts of the gameplay experience are confusing or annoying. The player should quickly be able to get a sense of what the game is about, roughly how it works, and from this they can then decide if they think they will like it. The initial experience should be memorable, engaging and fun. TF2 charms the player with their videos, Blacklight makes the player feel like they are doing something useful. The less a tutorial feels like a tutorial the better. Some games manage to make the whole game a pseudo tutorial such as Plants Vs Zombies or Portal 2.

Focusing and testing around the first impressions can identify areas that could be improved to reduce player annoyance. Giving the game a greater chance of getting that all important positive first impression. A free-to-play game can be great but will struggle to gain as many players as it could if the initial experience is weak. The players never stay around long enough to discover how good the game is.

When looking at a game and trying to see or track where players are having problems the first thing that must be understood is that players do not play the game ‘wrong’. They play the game. How they play is moulded by the environment created for them. If they are doing something unexpected or not ‘good’ for their experience there is something in the game design making them do this. The whole concept of user experience and user testing is aimed at finding these issues so that developers can make changes that benefit the player’s experience.

Games change over time and the player’s initial experience also changes with this. If a game has been out for 5 years then the initial experience still needs to be periodically looked at and tested. Waiting for a game to download is a necessary evil. Waiting for 7 individual patches to be downloaded and applied because the game has been out for a while is a very annoying initial experience.

About me: I am a UX consultant at Spotless, a London based usability consultancy.  If you are really nosey here is my Linkedin profile.

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ganesh kotian
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Excellent post......thank you so much for sharing.

Peter Lowe
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Good post, sometimes we forget it's the user's impressions that they base their actions on not reality.

Matthew Skingle
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Great post thank you for writing it.

Allowing the player to feel welcome and comfortable is very vital, but I wonder if players will get bored of this treatment in every f2p game eventually?

Also just like with out thoughts and opinions of people, these can be changed overtime with allowing ourselves to get to know a person more, or just getting used to them and their ways. This I believe can be the same for games. By making sure the content is strong and consistent throughout even if the player was not thrilled by the first expereinces, if somehow by a miracle they have continued to play, overtime you may be able to make them like your game more.

Also all players have their own mind and opinions so some may like your game more than others, if you appeal to a certain player, their opinions, affection for the game and word of mouth (through social media etc) may be an encouragement to others who were scared off by their first expereince with the game, this could be a great way to get them to come back and try again, as we humans often want to be on the same bandwagon as someone else.

Adam Smith
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Thanks for your comments.

That is very true. We certainly do stuff because our friends do. The power of a friends referral is strong and could counterbalance a bad initial experience. More games should have invite a friend mechanics.

John Flush
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You mention the Halo Effect and I wonder if F2P has that for just having the word 'Free' on it - I'm sure it does. You mention this a bit in the first few paragraphs, no investment, no reason to keep investing in it.

"The potential player has no commitment at all to the game when they sign up and start playing"

You mention 'sign-up' a few times and even have a section dedicated to it a bit. That is a cost as well to f2p. And while some have made it easier by using a g+ or facebook account how many don't bother because they are afraid of what the game will push to these services?

As you make F2P I think you have to start even before the game. Sign-up is a killer. Why not let them play a little without sign-up at all, then force them to sign-up them after they have tasted the game? or better, let people play with no sign-up at all? The ones that never sign-up are there for the 'free' anyhow.

Adam Smith
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I totally agree. Often the most annoying hurdle is the very first one - the dreaded signup form where I can't get a username I want or have to come up with a password that has six capital letters, a number and doesn't allow letters Y or O that I then instantly forget but need to use because of course it didn't automatically log me in.

I also feel captchas can be a real annoyance and stop the signup process. If you fail after one or two tries you can just give up (I have personally given up signup forms because of captchas multiple times). There are some interesting alternatives such as this: that I personally think developers should think about.

To me the signup process is an integral part of a F2P game, not something to be slapped on at the end. If that is wrong the whole journey is tainted before it has even begun.