F2P Summit: The 15 golden rules of free-to-play

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Speaking at the F2P Summit in London this morning, Gamesbrief’s Nicholas Lovell gave an enlightening talk in which he gave the audience his 15 golden rules for free-to-play game design. Lovell is well-placed to advise the delegates at this, the conference’s second year: he advises a number of studios large and small on how to succeed – though he admitted his advice was slightly biased towards mobile because that’s where most of his clients are operating. What follows, though, is not solely of use for those making mobile games, but contains valuable advice for those working elsewhere. The principles are broadly the same, whether on console, PC, Facebook or the App Store.

Make it fun

An obvious open gambit, of course, but in an industry increasingly focused on metrics and player acquisition and retention, it’s key to remember that the ultimate goal for anyone making games – whether free-to-play, subscription-funded or shipped to retail in a box, is fun.

The Starbucks test

This idea comes from Torsten Reil, CEO of NaturalMotion, the UK studio which made its name with the Euphoria physics engine used in Grand Theft Auto IV which has since turned its attention to free-to-play and enjoyed huge success with MyHorse and the Boss Alien-developed CSR Racing. Reil said: “Can you play a game and have a meaningful experience in the time it takes for a barista to make your macchiato?” It’s a quote that took on greater relevance given F2P Summit’s host venue – Rich Mix, in London’s hipster capital Shoreditch – and a point hammered home by slides showing some enormously successful games that are designed to be what keynote speaker Alex Dale of King.com calls “snackable”. From Tiny Tower and MyHorse to Infinity Blade and Temple Run, every game showed was designed to be played in short bursts.

Come for a minute, stay for an hour

Those short bursts, though, should be able to be chained end to end to keep people playing for far longer than intended. While a single game of Bejeweled Blitz lasts for only a minute, the average Facebook session lasts 43 minutes. Lovell recalled one evening where, after putting his children to bed, he found himself with a choice between Legends Of Grimrock, a deep dungeon crawler, and Nimblebit’s Tiny Tower follow-up Pocket Planes. Thinking he didn’t have time for the former, he sat down with the latter. “I played Pocket Planes for two and a half hours.”

Complexity in layers

A slide showing the poster for Pixar movie Toy Story was an odd sight at a videogame conference, but Lovell’s point was that here is a film that can be enjoyed by a family of four, and the parents, six-year-old and ten-year-old will all find something to like. Jetpack Joyride, for instance, is elevated above a mere endless runner by its focus on coin collection; when players tire of getting as far as they can, they can focus on coin collection instead. Even Farmville has layers, Lovell said, referring to player-made spreadsheets with optimised planting strategies to maximise gold and XP acquisition.

Be evergreen

Your game must never end. Free-to-play games are only successful as long as people are playing them; if your game ends, you’re not giving them any reason to stay. Player acquisition is the hardest – and most expensive – part of free-to-play; let your game end, let players leave, and all that money is wasted.

Be generous

“If you want people who spend money in your game to be better than other people,” Lovell said, “there have to be other people in the game for them to be better than.” Limit the content players can access and they’ll drift away, giving little incentive to those who do stick around, and are prepared to pay, to actually do so.

Be free, forever

“Don’t slam down a paywall.” A fair point but Lovell raised eyebrows with his claim that New Star Soccer – which asks players for 69p to continue career mode after just ten matches – “would have done better” had it been completely free. One wonders quite what Simon Read, who two months ago was making £5,000 a day from his game, would make of that.