Everyplay evangelist Oscar Clark discusses whether free-to-play is generating a golden age of game design

Mobile games: golden age idealism or gold rush cynicism?

The last few years have given us a golden age in games design and development with the rise of the first truly mass-market global audience, social media, open digital distribution and an array of devices which are perfect for gameplay. This has unlocked the vast potential of talent in this amazing industry, democratising game development.

However, this has also inevitably led to a gold rush of hopeful idealists as well as cynical opportunist; and for every success story there are hundreds of failures and we continue to search in vain for a guarantee of success. The fact is that there is, of course, no magical snake-oil that can guarantee your success. Worse than that we are still riding the crest of the wave of change and even trying to copy the formula of another game seems just as likely to fail.

The trouble is we are generally bad at understanding change; especially when its still happening. There is no doubt that our audience has changed and as the new generation of mass market gamers play more their needs will continue to evolve. On top of that every aspect of the distribution and retail has also changed not to mention the technology available to create playing experiences. Its hard to regain your balance when you have no firm footing. More than that I believe we spend too much time arguing about the symptoms rather than the underlying causes.

The reality is that there is now essentially an infinite supply of content; by which I mean more content than I could possibly play in my lifetime. There is a simple rule of economics that happens when there is an infinite supply; price falls to zero. Free.

There are two strategies to deal with this, differentiate or in other-words appeal to a targeted niche audience; or find other ways to generate revenue such as selling items inside a game.

The arguments about free-to-play or Premium or Paymium have dominated the industry discussions over the last 3 years. Building games which allow players to continue to pay throughout their experience with your game is a commercially powerful idea. But its one which has been arguable been hijacked by short-termist business thinking which has left many feeling disappointed.

Games aren’t just about virtual currency or revenue. They are entertainment experiences and a medium for delivering emotional value. If we want to make better games we need to stop putting the money first and last and instead to return to the passion which made us want to make games in the first place.

There have been a range of converging innovations, business models and development strategies which have been unlocked by the power of mobile, client server technologies. Ideas which have the power to transform our industry beyond just the monetisation model. A lot of the techniques which have been talked about regarding the use of data, the Minimum Viable Product, Agile development, Data Analytics can be used to get more money of course. However, the can also be used to turn game design into a dialogue with your players.

Think what that means. If we create and sustain playing experiences with players who love the experience we are creating, we have the potential to build a sustainable experiences building up engagement over time. If we stop making games which we fire off and forget, if we make sure players don’t feel exploited we can make more sustainable experiences and more sustainable businesses. We no longer have to spend years in the dark not telling anyone what we are working on, spending millions of dollars before a real player invests their own time and money in our game for their own entertainment hoping we have a massive hit. We can take smaller, more calculated risks which are rewarding because they take our loyal audience with us and where that audience is as much a part of the discovery process as any advertising.

Don’t get me wrong sustaining an audience isn’t easy and there is something which those who only focus on the money side of free-to-play will simply ignore: the Player Lifecycle. Players needs change as they enjoy your game. They first have to Discover the game, then go through a process of Learning about the game. This isn’t just working out how the UI and controls work, we have to learn whether and where the game fits into our lives and what values the game offers if we were to invest in terms of time or money. Only once we have done that can players truly engage and thats the point where sustaining the challenge becomes vital. There is often the assumption that once players are engaged that they always stay that way. Sadly this isn’t true, but knowing that players will Churn helps us plan for it. Allows us to think about how we sustain them longer or otherwise ensure that even when they leave they still tell others that our game was worth playing.

There is a rhythm of play which accompanies this lifecycle from the tentative first steps, to the first minute of play. We have to respond to this dance with design which helps players feel confident rather than stepping on their toes by asking them to register or share on Facebook too early. We have to think why our players will play a second time, a thirds, fourth, why they will play the next next day. Why should they keep playing for the next 8-12 days? Why would they keep playing for 100+ days.

These are design questions which require insight and data to perfect. They require us to focus on the delight and passion of players as much on how well we entice and foreshadow the value of continuing to play.

There is of course a snag. If we care about players continuing to play over time our game we have to either build huge volumes of content or (more efficiently) we build repeatable mechanics which can evolve or continue to delight. Endless future of repetition isn’t a joyful prospect, we tire quickly if we don’t have an achievable goal to pursue. This gives us a sense of purpose and hopefully a way to measure our progression to give us a sense of achievement. Simply repeating the same game will tire and this ignores the fact that players needs adapt over time. We need to be smarter in the way we create the Context of the game whether thats using narrative or some variation on the Saga system models.

More than that we have to think about where our game intersects with the real world. The impact of how its played on different devices, whether you have network connection or not, how people interact through social media, etc. Even the physical space around the game! Take a look at Slamjet Stadium from Alistair Aitcheson, a simple game which comes alive with real world multiplayer with players pushing and shoving each other out of the way when they realise that the iPad doesn’t know who is manipulating which pieces. I think of this as the Negative Space of game design; its not about the game we create but the emergent properties including any ‘Super Fan Game’.

All these techniques lend themselves to monetisation inside the game but focus first on the playing experience. That’s the way to build Lifetime Network Value; and acknowledges the benefits of all players of your game not just those who spend money.

In an article like this I can only touch the surface of what’s possible if we stop thinking about premium or free-to-play and instead focus on the possibilities for great design that are available to us now. Isn’t it time to stop arguing and to start making the generation of games that our grandchildren can get nostalgic about?

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