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Free-to-play design, Rule 1: Make it fun

By on August 8, 2012
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F2P-design-rules-thumbThe first rule of free-to-play is make the game fun.

It shouldn’t need to be stated, but it does.

It is entirely possible to make a game that doesn’t focus on the fun and make it a successful free-to-play game. Some of the criticisms levied at the free-to-play industry – that it uses operant conditioning, that its games are nothing more than Skinner boxes, that psychological tricks are not enough to make a game – are tied up with this idea that the games aren’t fun.

Fun is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. As a player, I love Nimblebit’s games Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes. Many people I know believe that these titles, particularly Tiny Tower, barely count as games.

I disagree. There is fun in them. There is fun in Farmville. There is fun in Dragonvale and MyHorse and Temple Run and New Star Soccer.

In the end, though, GAMESbrief is a blog about designing games for ARM: Acquisition, Retention and Monetisation.

I am not going to talk through all the many different definitions of fun, or ways of achieving it a game.

What I am going to say is that you need to make a successful free-to-play game, you need to get players into your game (Acquisition), you need to keep them in the game (Retention), and you need to make them enjoy it enough that they are prepared to spend money on things that they value (Monetisation).

It’s hard to do that without fun. Which is why making your game fun is the first rule.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve:
  • What i find wrong with the social games, mostly focused on Zynga’s games as those are the ones i tried. Last was Ville.. i started out with barely any friends playing it, and i’m not going to pay for it.. but what happens is that i end up being forced to pay to actually progress in any type of meaningful time frame. If i would play without paying i would end up having to play for weeks most likely to be able to do any decent progress. I do understand that some limits would pop up for non payers, but not to literally hit a frigging wall.

  • syr_media

    @a4b8627e4ec36326e3766dbd315c21ea:disqus From my perspective, you are on the right edge. A game has not to be fun all the time. The key is happiness at the end of the day. There can be very frustrating and challenging elements (all the “farming of resources”) in a game. What effectively counts, is the “endorphin rush” if you reach your goal and level up using your farmed resources. It makes you happy (for the sake of the developer hopefully not to long).

  • Gabriel3dmtb

    I think that the fun is just another thing is expressed at higher levels than the satisfaction or a sense of achievement. In fact, the “endorphin rush” we are talking about. This can be induced in sports, chocolate, fun, sex, and rewards.  In the era touchscreens and motion controllers already the sport (exercise) may also appear in the game developer’s toolkit. Only the chocolate… 🙂 
    Any bad application can achieve a huge download, if you can see naked women in it. The reward (success) also reaches the “endorphin rush”.
    Whichever way is chosen, the game can be successful. But it will only be good for the game, you will have the fun factor in it.

  • I fully realise that fun is a subjective word. For me, however, the fun that is derived from repetitive actions (i.e. Farmville) has been sufficiently over-used that they are in danger of no longer being fun OR satisfying.

    I put this rule first to challenge game makers to focus on the fun. All my other rules should fit around the core idea of fun (which I define very widely).

  • Dynamic Sporadic

    I would say there is a difference between “Fun” and “Satisfying”. Dragonvale, Farmville, Tiny Tower et al are Satisfying games. They connect with you on a level of fulfillment that makes you feel like the time invested in them is well spent. They are an excellent way to satisfactorily burn up those 5 minutes on a bus. But they don’t delight and entertain in the same way that others do.

    That said the sentiment, regardless of semantics, is wholly accurate.

  • @Clippo, there is no fun for _you_ but I would go as far as saying that out of the ~200 million people who have played it and the many millions that have returned to it there must be some element of fun to it for them.

  • Cippo

    there’s no fun in farmville at all, while in temple run there’s a lot of friggin fun…