Evolve 2012: making money from free-to-play without selling your soul

Free-to-play may have earned itself a repution, in some quarters at least, for being underhand and incompatible with good game design, but nDreams CEO Patrick O’Luanaigh used his talk at Evolve 2012 yesterday to argue that employing the divisive business model needn’t mean selling your creative soul.

“Artists, coders and producers are becoming salesmen in many ways,” he began, drawing attention to the close relationship between opportunities to sell items and the game environment and interface. “It is extremely useful for everyone working on the game to have an understanding of the line in the sand.”

That line, he explained, falls somewhere along the axis of what he terms the “evil scale”, which runs between two extremes: complete exploitation, and a completely free, amazing game. Closer to that latter end, he proposes, is something like Grand Theft Auto III which, despite being filled with “hookers and guns”, was a great game for a good price and was rated approriately. Atari’s infamous E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, however, sailed far too close to the other end of the scale and was an “awful game pushed out to exploit the demand for the film”.

But what can that assessment teach us about striking an effective balance in free-to-play? While O’Luanaigh is quick to stress that he’s not attempting to tell other developers what is right or wrong, merely set out his own parameters for others to take from what they will, games that sit to the right of the scale’s mid-point tend to build long-term communities, while games pitched left of centre are better for making “a quick buck” – a sector he placed Zynga in, suggesting the company placed too much focus on profit over game design.

nDreams' Aurora

To that end, he set out ten rules for making better use of free-to-play, being considerate of the player without being “pansies” about the whole thing.

Allow players to play

Limiting progression is fine, he says, but you must give players other things to do. If they want to spend two hours playing your game, let them. And conversely, you should also allow for quick sessions – being flexible is key.

Update your game regularly

It keeps the game feeling fresh, of course, but can also get you back into the charts and promotional spots.

Give players a reason to come back.

O’Luanaigh gave the example of Trapomatic, a device in nDreams’ game Aurora which will trap bonus content for the player. Spoils can be collected after 24 hours, but, crucially, that content doesn’t wither if you take longer to return.

Don’t follow other people’s rules

Three rules too late, perhaps, but O’Luanaigh stresses it’s worth experimenting with your unique demographics and “not be afraid to swim upstream”.

Analyse data and listen to your players

A no-brainer, but investment in analytics and community managers were some of the best decisions nDreams ever made, O’Luanaigh said.

Make it clear to players what they can buy and why it’s so cool

Restricting content to the game’s store limits the chances your players have to purchase items – why not offer it when they can’t carry out a task that’s been attempted?

Use a levelling system or challenge system with rewards

Another unsurprising pointer, and O’Luanaigh stressed that it’s not necessarily relevant to all games, but such systems can provide players with real impetus to continue playing.

Always assign a large chunk of your development budget to post-launch

If you launch with no money to iterate, you’re gambling a great deal more than if you launch an unfinished version earlier on in the development process and then take advantage of the resultant feedback to improve things.

Your core gameplay must be seriously fun

Difficult to argue against, we’d say.

Don’t cripple your game

Approach the design from the a more positive direction, O’Luanaigh pleads: “Find ways to make your game cooler, don’t make a good game worse and force players to pay to make it better.”

O’Luanaigh’s takeaway was that he believes free-to-play will eventually be the dominant model for all games – even Call Of Duty and Skyrim – but that that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for everything. Telltale’s The Walking Dead, he believes, simply wouldn’t work as a F2P game. But those developers that do embrace free-to-play must commit to the model.

“It’s like dancing in public – it’s not going to work if you’re self-conscious and awkward,” he said. “You have to get your head down and really go for it. And just because a few developers have crossed the line doesn’t mean that all [free-to-play games] are evil. They can be amazingly creative and positive.”

Main image courtesy of Dan Griliopoulos

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