How do you get hardcore gamers interested in your free-to-play game? What is the perfect tension between compelling gameplay and frustration? Designer Pascal Luban explores the lessons he learned since moving to freemium.
Once upon a time...
Five years ago, an India-based studio that wanted to develop a freemium shooter contacted me. I had experience working on shooters targeted at core gamers. I was lead level designer on the multiplayer versions of both Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory, and I also designed CTF-Tornado, the leading map of the UT3-AGEIA Extreme PhysX mod. Free-to-play seemed to focus on casual gamers only -- at least that was the perception we had in the West. I wondered how they could mix.
But freemium was already quite developed in Asia at that time. I discovered that some game designs targeted at hardcore gamers are actually quite suitable to freemium gaming. My Indian client could not finance the full development of its project and eventually went bankrupt (not because of my design, I hope!) But thanks to this unexpected understanding of freemium games, I discovered a lot about them in the process. In particular, I learned three lessons:
- Freemium is not a game genre, but a business model that can actually be applied to most game designs, including hardcore titles.
- Most design rules of casual freemium titles are not adapted to core-focused games. That's a true paradox. The design of a freemium core-focused game must not mimic the successful design principles of casual freemium titles.
- The real difference in design is that a freemium game should be designed as an endless and dynamic application, one that is constantly renewed.
When the craze about freemium games started in the West thanks to the successes of Zynga, Playfish and others, I knew that this new economic model would eventually affect the way we design games for our traditional hardcore audience (you can read my feature on the megatrends of game design, published in 2008).
Early observers saw in freemium games a fad that only affected casual gamers. Some developers even scorned this way of monetizing a game. They were wrong. Freemium is creeping into traditional games, and is here to stay.
Most leading publishers are seriously considering adapting some of their core-targeted IPs to this new business model. EA was one of the frontrunners with Battlefield Heroes. Valve has adapted Team Fortress 2 to this model. Ubisoft is working hard on the development of freemium versions for Ghost Recon or Heroes of Might & Magic, and Activision even signed a deal with Tencent for a free-to-play version of Call of Duty for the Chinese market.
My purpose, then, is to share the lessons I have learnt from my experience on designing freemium games for a hardcore or mainstream audience and to describe what I believe are the best practices.
First things first: The concept
A game concept leads to a set of choices that will have a deep impact on the content -- and success -- of a game. That is even truer for our concern here. When defining the concept for a freemium game targeted at demanding gamers, one must bear in mind two key points:
Be first, or be creative. The awful truth about freemium games is that you stand a much better chance of success if you are first in a given genre, or at least, the first to offer a different experience to the player. Unlike what is happening for traditional games, freemium copycats have a hard time prospering.
It is actually quite logical. Freemium games are designed to retain players as long as possible by offering them rich and complex progression trees where you invest time and money. When you have reached a high level in a game, with all the benefits it gives you, you don't want to start a new game. There won't be dozens of successful freemium shooters or car racing games on a given platform.
The alternative is to be creative -- to offer a significantly different game experience to the players. Most current shooters are suffering from a certain lack of creativity. I am ready to bet that some of the upcoming freemium shooters will revamp the genre, because this economic model will lead designers to think differently about their game. Exe Games' Brick-Force could be a good example to follow. This is a first person shooter, but mixed with Minecraft-like gameplay where the player builds his own maps.
Think service. It used to be that games were seen as stand-alone products. Recently, in order to prolong the shelf life of their blockbusters, publishers got into the habit of planning add-ons such as new maps but they remain rooted in the stand-alone logic. Modern Warfare 4 will succeed Modern Warfare 3, which itself succeeded Modern Warfare 2. You get the point. The freemium version of hardcore IPs will go one step further.
Why? Well-thought freemium games are designed as services, not stand-alone products. They have, engraved in their genes, the need to constantly upgrade themselves. World of Tanks upgrades itself every two to three months with new maps, new vehicles, and even new game modes and game engine upgrades. The game also features a so-called "tankopedia" which is regularly updated with game-related info AND historical backgrounds. If you are a tank buff, WoT is not just a game; it is a hub for your passion where you can meet other fans like yourself.
Which consequences will that have on a game concept? The key gameplay features must support a great number of meaningful variations. League of Legends offers a single game mode and only two maps, but it features a dazzling array of heroes that are all significantly different from each other.
For the freemium shooter I worked on, we focused on the side equipment of the players. The reason was simple: In a contemporary shooter, you can't introduce many variations on the weapons within one category; a handgun remains a handgun even if you alter its basic abilities. But there are a lot of gadgets and external assistance a soldier can use in the field and they can affect its tactics with more variations that a gun. We thought that could lead to much richer progression trees.