Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
August 28, 2014
arrowPress Releases
August 28, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event





If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:


 
The Pyramid of Free-to-Play game design
by Nicholas Lovell on 09/19/13 09:51:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.

 

At first it was unknown independent studios that did F2P. Then it was venture-backed businesses. Now it is increasingly AAA studios whose expertise lies in crafting huge console products, not iterative free-to-play games.

I have been consulting on free-to-play game design since 2008. Over that time, platforms have ebbed and flowed. PC downloadable games, browser games, social games, mobile games and tablet games have all had their time in their sun.

In the last 12 months, I have given masterclasses on making money from free-to-play games at three major console publishers and a dozen studios better known for their console work. In my consulting, I see the same issues coming about time and again. F2P game design –and indeed all game design – is a pyramid, but studios coming fresh to it focus on the base without enough awareness of the higher levels. Without which their F2P game is destined to be a failure.

So, I’ve come up with the Pyramid of Free-to-Play Game Design. At the bottom is the Core Loop. In the middle is the Retention Game. At the top is the Superfan Game. To build a successful free-to-play game, you need a strong, symbiotic relationship between the Core Loop and the Retention Game. The Superfan Game is optional, and may not belong in your Minimum Viable Product, but it will help you make more money from your game.

The core loop

The Core Loop is the beating heart of your game. It is what many people think of when you ask them about “the gameplay”. It might be a one-minute play of Bejewelled Blitz. It might be a plant-harvest-plant cycle in a game like Hay Day. It might be a single death match in Team Fortress 2 or clearing a level in Candy Crush Saga.

(Note that I may upset game grammarians here. I liken the simple plant-harvest-plant cycle of a farming game to an entire Deathmatch in an FPS. That is useful for my purposes, when I am trying to split out the in-the-moment gameplay from the long-term gameplay, but there is arguably a smaller gameplay loop in a FPS. What you might call the “shoot someone in the head – get rewarded” loop.)

The Core Loop is the basic thing that the player does over and over again. It is ideal for prototyping. If you show it to someone, they go “OK, I get it, I understand your game.”

Only they don’t. They understand the core of the game, but that is rarely enough to make a successful title. Occasionally, a Core Loop will be so perfect, so fun, so enjoyable that players will keep coming back to it just for the sheer joy of it. That is rare. More often, there is a Retention Game layered on top.

Retention Game

The Retention Game is what keeps players coming back for more. It goes beyond the joy of just one-more-go. It can be incredibly simple, such as the desire to beat your high score in Space Invaders. It can be complex, like the desire to find out what happens next in the narrative structure of Tomb Raider or The Last of Us. Retention Game mechanics include:

  • Scores
  • Levels
  • Simple progression mechanics (like Candy Crush Saga’s map)
  • Levelling up
  • Narrative
  • Achievements
  • Leaderboards and competition

Those can all function within traditional pay-once games as well as free-to-play games. Strategy games like XCom, the Total War series and the Jagged Alliance series all have excellent Retention Games intertwined with the Core Loop but keep players entranced for weeks.

Free-to-play games often have specific retention game mechanics that tend to be tied to the passage of real time, such as multiple intersecting loops of different durations, or appointment mechanics that encourage players to come back at a particular time. These can create elements of anticipation and enjoyment for players and are possible to enforce since most F2P games have some element of server-based game logic. They are also easy to understand how to monetise, by allowing players the opportunity to spend money to bypass the delay. It would be a mistake to think of time delays as predominantly a monetisation technique, though. They are mainly a retention mechanic.

The objective of the Retention Game is to give players good reasons to want to keep playing for days, weeks or months. A good retention game is integrated into the gameplay loop, although it doesn’t have to be. The map in Candy Crush Saga has proven to be a phenomenally successful retention mechanic, and publisher King has demonstrated that by implementing a light layer of progress and narrative over a basic Match-3 game, you can create a winning combination.

The superfan game

In a great presentation at GDC 2012, Kongregate CEO Emily Greer said that all the successful free-to-play games on Kongregate had one thing in common:  “a strongly social and competitive end-game”.

That endgame – that I call the Superfan Game – is where the whales live. It is the place where people have moved beyond casual players who enjoy the core loop. They have moved beyond the retention game that kept them playing for weeks or months. They have started the transition from your service being a game and towards it being a hobby. That is when they start being comfortable spending more money on their enjoyment.

Not all games are suitable for being a Superfan title. I suspect, although I don’t know for certain, that titles like Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride have fewer whales, spending less on average, than games that really do cater for Superfans such as Clash of Clans or World of Tanks.

I don’t believe the you need a Superfan Game in your minimum viable product. Without a Core Loop that interacts well with the Retention Game, you will never reach the Superfan level. Some games have a Superfan Game without ever designing it. Much of the Superfan Game for Eve Online, a subscription MMO, exists outside the game, and developer CCP sees little direct reward from it.

The Superfan Game is something that you need if you expect your game to instil fierce passions in your players. It is where the big spenders who love what you do will live, and it makes sense to offer those people things they truly value in the context of the game. It might include guilds and clans. It might be about leaderboards or clan competition. It might include Player versus Player, whether synchronous or asynchronous. It might include overt displays of status or progression.

But it is not necessary to prove whether you have a game that will work – the Superfan Game is phase 2, not phase 1.

The biggest mistake

The biggest mistake I see AAA developers making is focusing too much on the core loop at the expense of the Retention Game. Polish in free-to-play games is increasingly important, but endlessly polishing the core game is a path of diminishing returns. It is no good making the most perfectly polished gameplay loop if, after someone has put down their phone or tablet or mouse or controller they don’t remember to come back.

One of the most important screens in the entire game is what used to be called the “Game Over” screen. For whatever reason, the player has to come to the end of the gameplay experience. This screen needs to be iterated and polished to show how the core game feeds into the Retention Game and vice versa. You can show retention in many ways – through achievements, through a map, through competitive leaderboards, through upgrade screens – but the one constant is that you have to give players the desire to come back again. Thinking that the core loop is everything, and that the retention game is something that you can fix “after Alpha, once the gameplay is nailed”, is a recipe for disaster.

The hierarchy of Core Loop, Retention Game and Superfan Game is what makes up a successful free-to-play game. The interaction between the Core Loop and the Retention Game is critical. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the primary purpose of your soft launch is to verify, with data, that your assumptions about how the Core Loop and the Retention Game interact.

 

Nicholas Lovell is the director of GAMESbrief and consults on F2P game design. His book, The Curve, will be published by Penguin Portfolio on 3rd October 2013. You can buy an A3 print of The Pyramid and The Funnel from www.gamesbrief.com/store


Related Jobs

Yoh
Yoh — Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
[08.27.14]

Rendering Engineer Job
Yoh
Yoh — Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
[08.27.14]

Multiplayer Designer Job
InnoGames GmbH
InnoGames GmbH — Hamburg, Germany
[08.27.14]

Quest Writer (m/f) for The West
InnoGames GmbH
InnoGames GmbH — Hamburg, Germany
[08.27.14]

Game Designer Tribal Wars (m/f)






Comments


Machine Works
profile image
Right on the money - pun intended.
Usually the " dev process" is :
- let's put all our dev resources in the core gameplay.
- we will stick some IAPs/Currencies/Whatever to monetize etc in someplace.
And that is a recipe for disaster.

Creating an initial, subtle monetisation/retention "pull" is non-trivial and will take
a good amount of effort to create, but it is not sexy.
We still live in in world where the majority of game devs frown upon "monetisation development/design",
after all, they are "game" devs not "monetisation devs".



Andreas, Machineworks

David Ngo
profile image
I wonder if the author would think Hay Day or Dragonvale has a "Super Fan" game, since it doesn't include any competitive mechanics or that many social mechanics. Obviously these games are incredibly successful f2p games with high monetization. I know there are plenty of successful games built on the competitive/social aspect, but wonder how exceptions to the rule like Hay Day are able to buck that trend.

Nicholas Lovell
profile image
I have only played Dragonvale with my four year old, so haven't discovered whether there is a Superfan game or not.

Hay Day is basically a retention game, and does very well at it. I see some elements of Superfan game in the leaderboards for filling your boats, but I suspect that Hay Day needs a bigger audience to generate the same revenues than Clash of Clans does.

I think Hay Day is chock full of social mechanics, just not competitive ones.

I also think that it can be difficult to be sure about a game's Superfan Game until you become a Superfan yourself, and with the best will in the world, there are only so many games I can get there with :-)

Marc-Andre Caron
profile image
Kudos for a nuanced article about F2P! Not every game needs the same meta-game features. It's quite a relief to see this kind of discourse, which is a rare occurrence in these days.


none
 
Comment: