Why console game design and free-to-play don’t mix – and what needs to change

Clash Of Clans

From just a distant drum beat ten years ago to a deafening crescendo today; there’s no denying the popularity of free-to-play games right now. Although some hardcore players tend to dismiss free-to-play as a fad or cynical business model, the huge financial success of games like Clash of Clans, Candy Crush and Real Racing 3 has made this movement increasingly difficult to ignore.

As a result, Sony and Microsoft are now embracing a free-to-play future, with the release of titles like LittleBigPlanet, Planetside 2 and War Thunder. However, do publishers and developers with a long heritage in console game design really have the understanding and skills required to make the transition to free-to-play?

The thing that publishers and developers often overlook is that free-to-play is a type of game and not just simply a business model. Therefore simply creating a game, throwing in some in-app purchases and giving it away for free won’t equal free-to-play success. The approach is much more fundamental than this and developers need to stop thinking about building a product and start to better understand how to run a service.

At the core of free-to-play is good gameplay, there is nothing more predictive about how likely someone is to spend money in a free-to-play game than how long they play. Unlike premium products where a good brand or strong marketing can convince players to buy the game, with free-to-play the game needs to be fun from the moment players start playing if it is going to have any hope of making a return on the investment. This drives a service mentality; keeping the customers happy is key and as we all know from playing Diner Dash your players require constant care and attention.

Tekken Revolution is one console game series that went free-to-play recently, with mixed success.

Take a look at any triple-A game where you pay £40 up front and compare it to a similar free-to-play game and the differences are striking. The way the game invites players in, makes sure the game is explained and the effort to make sure the game is fun is very different from a full price game. Most console games simply never get played to completion – not a problem for developers and publishers when the money has already been spent, but in the free-to-play world where engagement is so vital, losing players is a major problem.

Free-to-play also favours different types of games, ones that can be extended and added to and evolve with the playerbase. Games with a defined story, for example, are less suitable and work better as episodic games sold in chunks of gameplay compared to the fully open ended nature of free-to-play. One reason why free-to-play works online, on mobile and on social networks, is because it’s relatively easy for publishers and developers to integrate analytics and use that data to make informed real-time game design changes to keep players engaged and increase retention.

This responsive, personalised approach is central to the success of games like Candy Crush Saga, which generates a staggering $850,000 in revenue every single day, from mobile alone. It’s no surprise to find young companies like Supercell and Wooga trailblazing in free-to-play right now – they have come fresh to free-to-play without a legacy in old-world console development.

With free-to-play on console you’ve got a unique set of challenges to overcome, from Sony and Microsoft’s lengthy certification processes through to much more complex games where changes need to be made carefully so the game is not unbalanced.  As a result, some of the initial free-to-play console games that we’ve been working with have come up short, offering a poor tutorial and on boarding process, and a monetisation structure that is much closer to a used car salesman than an enjoyable experience that puts the control in players’ hands.]

The key to creating successful free-to-play games for consoles won’t come from re-hashing old games, but from developing games which are designed to be free-to-play from their inception, like World of Tanks and League of Legends.

Sony and Microsoft need to be respectful of the free-to-play genre and deliver the ecosystem that will allow these games to flourish, which means allowing games to evolve on their system through constant updates and changes. This needs to be combined with developers adopting an ongoing analytics-driven ‘test and learn’ cycle to create personalised and engaging experiences – but how long it takes for the penny to drop remains to be seen.

Chris Wright is CEO and co-founder of GamesAnalytics. His company, plus many others, will be speaking at next week’s F2P Summitthere are more details on the event through the link.