Improving F2P

 Posted by (Visited 29723 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: , ,
Jan 092012

Are you one of those game developers who think that free-to-play games suck? You think they’re soulless, or that their builders do not understand how to treat a customer? Or why games are sacred and special?

After all, f2P developers are often looked down upon by traditional game developers, particularly indie ones, as not being artistic.

Well, in the spirit of greater understanding on all fronts, I’m here to tell you how to understand these developers.

The thing to understand about the free-to-play market, and its best developers, is that F2P developers treat everything as science. Everything is subject to analysis, and everything is subject to proof, and the business process is about seeking what works. If what works happens to also be an original, innovative, interesting design that meets a checklist set of criteria for being art, well, all the better. But really, it’s about what works.

We have to be honest with ourselves. There is an awful lot of stuff that we have cherished for a long time in the games business which turns out not to work. Sometimes it takes us years to shed the scales from our eyes about the fact that hoary conventions of yore are just that — conventions, mutable and open to change.

A screenshot from the Atari version of Panzer-Jagd.

A screenshot from the Atari version of Panzer-Jagd.

After all, was not the great innovation of World of Warcraft that it “removed the tedious bits”? Many of those tedious bits were “proven mechanisms.” And regardless of whether we feel that some babies went out with the bathwater, there’s a certain part of you that has to go with what worked — and if a few babies going out with the scummy water is the price, then, well, it can be hard to argue against.

There is also the plain fact that it takes a player to play a game. What worked for grognards  who were willing to fix the BASIC errors in Panzer-Jagd on the Atari 8-bit (*sheepishly raises hand*) does not necessarily work for the player who delighted in Doom, which in turn fails the player tossing angry red birds at hapless pigs.

The field moves on because the audience does, and what works moves with it. Having some science in the mix to track, assess, and predict those movements is only common sense.

And the more the audience divorces itself from we who make their entertainment, the more important it is that we be clear-eyed about what their tastes and behaviors actually are. And that, in turn, greatly undermines the value of “experts,” — because we are in many ways, the most likely to be hidebound and unable to see past the blinkered assumptions precisely because we built them up with hard-won experience.

But! And it’s a big but.

Sometimes, though, what works only works within the field of measurement. If it turns out one of those useless mewling babies was going to grow up to be Einstein, we would have been pretty dumb to toss him out when he was a sullen teenager (even if he did get good grades). A lot of things fall outside of the typical field of measurement.

  • Anything that unfolds over a very long period of time. By the time you have true long-term data on a split-test, you’ve essentially chosen a path through inaction.
  • Anything that lies in the realm of emotion is invisible — we can easily see results, but we cannot see, barring a focus group, the whys for a given action. (There are various measurement techniques, such as net promoter score, which try to get at this indirectly).
  • Anything that is a short-term loss for a long-term gain. Many sorts of behaviors players might engage in may pay out when considered as a systemic aggregate, even though regarding them as a funnel may show them to be terrible. One example might be character customization — it’s an extra step that likely costs some users in an F2P funnel, but it may also yield far greater revenue over time due to character customization.
  • Anything that exists outside of the game proper, where it can be hard to tie cause and effect together. Examples include things like community development, the value of strategy websites built by players, etc.

Most critically, measurements are excellent at telling you where to iterate. They are not so good at quantum leaps.

The place where expert opinion still has great value in the F2P world lies in getting out of the hill climbing that pure metrics optimization puts you in.  Metrics help you find local maxima, not the highest point in the possibility space. Making good decisions about what sorts of new features to test, for example, is something that goes better with expert opinions in the mix. There are other areas where it matters as well — a highly visible one today being marketing.

It has been highly interesting to watch the rise of marketing programs in social games. Social game companies (not so much the Asian companies or those with MMO in their DNA) have had their own blind spots in thinking about retention in general, so a lot of the hill-climbing has aimed towards maximizing short-term revenue. This can be easily seen in the near complete lack of brand-building in the social games space. But maximizing short-term revenue, while a perfectly valid business strategy, starts to break down as the cost of developing and deploying a game rises. Gradually, the space finds itself in need of long-term revenue models to offset the rising costs.

As budgets and launch polish bars have risen, classical game development knowledge is moving more to the forefront, at least at larger social game companies, because suddenly the “fail fast” model has a much larger upfront investment than it used to. “Fail fast” and “launch early and often” work best when product is cheap to deploy. The ability to envision a viable larger product is a skill set that mostly comes from experience. And at this point, the social game space has raised its own homegrown experts in that, as well as bringing in many from traditional videogames.

Those game developers who look upon free-to-play and lament the lack of retention, community, branding, narrative, or whatever, would best serve the games and the customers by embracing the science. Doing so does not mean denying their instincts, though they may well learn a bunch along the way, and have some beloved applecarts upset by hard data.

If you ask me, the best way to make F2P games better would to find ways to provide provable metrics on why the things we value add to the bottom line. Community, artistry, narrative, brand, retention, customer sentiment, whatever your particular religion is — find a way to measure cause and effect and demonstrate the business value. For example, provide specific data on how forum dwellers measurably increase your bottom line, and any F2P company will immediately start optimizing for it.

And by the way,this should matter to you even if you aren’t doing F2P right now. After all, if you are not yet working at a free-to-play company, you probably will be soon, precisely because science is better than religion at actually solving problems.

If something is neglected in the F2P world, it is probably because it isn’t easily measurable. Not because the companies hate the traditions of games, but because they are empiricists above and beyond all else.

  20 Responses to “Improving F2P”

  1. When more F2P games figure out that they can exploit operant behavior with their cash store, we will be seeing massive soulless monsters raise their heads. Right now they are flirting with it and are making massive profits. LOTRO comes to mind selling “pick axes” for their treasure hunting event. You basically buy a “chance” win some loot from digging up a treasure mound in game. This reeks of the Eastern model F2P gambling they incorporate into their games.

    is a beta test towards:

    “After all, if you are not yet working at a free-to-play company, you probably will be soon… ” and with that, you drained my soul.

  2. Vindictus is leading the charge with this crap. If you are running a dungeon or raid you can pay $.30 and $.70 respectively to come back to life and keep fighting, just like arcades in the old days. Humans can’t process small numbers like that effectively compared to box prices and subs.

  3. I really like working in the free2play space because of the metrics. Basically for all the reasons you mentioned, Raph. It allows me to challenge the assumptions of a genre with a measurable result.

    Game designers have the unique ability to look at a system holistically and predict the way players will engage with that system. Without a holistic view of the system those mechanics lose their meaning. Mechanics usually cannot be copy pasted into new systems, but that is the design strategy I most often encounter in the f2p space.

    It shifts the purpose of being a designer from making fun experiences to trying to convince the business team that we need to make some tweaks to the mechanic they want to copy paste before it can be successful in our system.

  4. My main problem with spreadsheet-as-game is that it reverses what I believe is the morally correct viewpoint on anything related to money:

    If you do X really well, you will make Y dollars.

    What we get with so many things in business is this idea that making money is the goal:

    If we want to make Y dollars, we need to do X.

    I want the game devs I love to make a ton of cash. That’s cool. When it became clear that Mojang was going to rake it in on Minecraft, I did a little happy dance. Dude needs paid. But if he’d gone into making that game with the 2nd mindset… he wouldn’t have made that game. Nobody would. And now we’ve got CloneCraft games out the CloneShaft.

    Making money isn’t evil. Doing something primarily to make money is evil. Because you won’t eve really do X right if your main goal is bringing home the Y.

    BONUS IRONY: You will discover, soon enough, that the money won’t make you anywhere near as happy as actually doing something really well. I can’t believe that any of the devs involved in spreadsheet games have ever that wonderful moment where you look at what you done did and go, “That’s awesome.”

  5. @Andy Havens
    Might I offer myself as a counter example. I am A) an empiricist and B) have had wonderful moments where I look at what I’ve done say go “That’s awesome.” Folks are welcome to play my games and argue that they are soulless monsters. I’ll take immense solace in the fact that the numbers show that the vast majority of players distinctly think otherwise. 😉

    It is also a blinkered argument that empiricists only care about money. A philosophy of forming theories and them proving/disproving them out through controlled experiments is a tool for reaching a goal, not a goal in and of itself.

    take care

    BTW: Every time someone uses the word ‘blinkered’ in a discussion of game criticism, one must take a drink. It is the only rule I’ve observed that is followed with any regularity.

  6. Isn’t blinkered where you end up after taking a few too many drinks?

    /hey, it was either this or a joke about the blink tag, right?

  7. Social game companies (not so much the Asian companies or those with MMO in their DNA) have had their own blind spots in thinking about retention in general, so a lot of the hill-climbing has aimed towards maximizing short-term revenue. This can be easily seen in the near complete lack of brand-building in the social games space. But maximizing short-term revenue, while a perfectly valid business strategy, starts to break down as the cost of developing and deploying a game rises.

    Sounds familiar. I doubt the value curve has changed much, at least for social games.

    (substantially paraphrased, due to an earlier database error)

  8. It’s possible that some of the things we value simply don’t improve the bottom line. If we truly value them, then so much the worse for the bottom line. If all you care about is the bottom line, I find it unlikely that games are the most profitable sector of the software industry.

    Even more likely–some of the things we value we are unable to numerically measure. Worse, by a diagonalization argument, some of those things are inherently immeasurable–such as the value of being unmeasured.

  9. Consumatopia, keep an eye out for my next post. 🙂

  10. Roll on the focus groups then! The way you said it, it seemed almost as if you felt this was an unrealistic option. I say, bring them on!

    If the MMO had dedicate focus groups for each game then we (the players) would be much better off. And I don’t mean the talking head self-representing “community” reps that usually go on such panels. I mean go straight to the marketing people and get them to look up their old-school text books on how to choose and run proper focus groups. Random selection.

    If we can do it for beer, we can do it for MMO’s!

  11. In a broader sense, you can observe many of the same dynamics in any field where art meets commerce.

    The results are not always soulless evil. When Stephen Sondheim was in rehersals with the musical “A Little Night Music”, the producers approached him to add another song to the second act, something a little more tuneful and “commercial” than Sondheim’s usual challenging score.

    Sondheim complied (reports vary whether he did it gracefully or resentfully) and knocked out a new tune in two days. That song was “Send in the Clowns”. And while I know people who loathe the song, it’s the perfect musical summation of the essence of Chekov and a stalwart standard.

    You can successfully negotiate with the money people and the stats people without selling your soul (entirely) to the devil. But if you can speak their language, you better your odds of making good art on their dime.

    And… bottom line effects are not always obvious. Big movie studios make small pictures with little box office potential, just to have Oscar fodder. Oscar doesn’t come with a cash payout, but he can bring the studio status and press, and those are marketable commodities.

  12. Enjoyed this piece. One note, though– I’m a scientist who studies emotion and “squishier” outcomes in games (working in the game industry, not academia). There’s definitely a science of investigating emotion, and the industry is using it (f2p included!)

  13. Yes, of course there is! I know console devs and larger publishers have used it for a while. That said, most of the cutting edge stuff I have seen is quantitative, but not yet fully generalizable, as it relies still on very small sample sizes of subjects. I haven’t seen stats on how generalizable or statistically significant the results are yet…? I would love to see pointers to material if there’s any out there. I also don’t know of any specific case studies for it with F2P, and would love to hear more.

  14. I can’t speak too much about the work I’m doing, but there’s lots in the Psychology literature about techniques that measure emotion in useful ways (both physiological and self-report). And specifically within games, too! The Flow literature is turning into a place where good multi-modal measurement is starting to emerge, for example. The giant references list on my diss should point you to some interesting stuff:

  15. There’s a great interview with Brian Eno where he’s asked, basically, how he came to be involved with so many of the top albums of the 70s (sorry; tried to find link). He said that he had always been really interested in the work coming out of the experimental music scene, where creators were working to create a product that they saw as artistic (read classic game design here). But that he was also fascinated by pop music, with its focus on *what works* (metrics-based design). He said he found his success by trying to fuse both models, creating a product that worked for him in the experimental sense, but also hit the marks required for a successful pop tune.

    Seems like a pretty decent formula.

  16. Isn’t the majority of the criticism being written in the comments here mainly generated by the Zynga’s of the world? Clearly it is only about revenue there, and maximizing psyhological weaknesses/compulsion to create compulsive playing and spending behavior.

    However I see no reason why F2P cannot successfully be applied to creative (traditional) games, with compulsion generated still coming from the gameplay. The spending can come from desire for further enjoyment/expansion of the experience (intrinsic), rather than psychological strong-arming and extrinsic pressure.

    In addition, the beauty of new models such as F2P is that it is one step closer toward allowing players to pay for games they way they want to. If a gamer only wants single-player, why should they have to pay the full $60? For the multi-player as well?

    F2P is one way to price a product differently, with more flexibility, similar to buying a new car with options where you have the choice to add them or not based on your tastes (and budget).

    And using metrics to understand player behavior and spending habits is not necessairly evil, but it is smart. HOWEVER, and maybe this is what you’re saying overall Raph, metrics (or pure data-driven design) should not REPLACE creativity and left-brain game design. But it can help guide it, and potentially help us when we’re faced with subjective decisions that often have no “right” answer.

    In short, I believe we can make great games (from a traditional, creative sense), AND monetize them with micro-transactions or otherwise, by utilizing metrics as a tool, but not a replacement for what we do as designers.

  17. As a note on the NPS (net promoter score) – god, I hope no-one is using it as a measurement for emotion. It is relevant from a word-of-mouth / recommendation measure, but it is a long way from emotion.

    There is a scalable emotion measurement system I’ve seen (it uses webcams and facial analysis software, so you could evaluate several hundred people at once in their own home) but I’m not sure if it is being used in the gaming field.

  18. You only have to look at eastern MMO’s like Perfect World to see how F2P becomes P2W (Pay to Win). Seriously, they are taking thousands of dollars from some players for digital invulnerability and fashion. When Faso/Corp
    America gets wind of this kind of cash flow, it’s game over.

  19. […] dimension that should be part of the design right from the start that is measuring results (see Improving F2P). This is helpful when you have maximal agility in making new releases including some support […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.