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Free-to-play Design, Rule 2: The Starbucks test

By on August 15, 2012
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F2P-design-rules-thumbDoes your game pass the Starbucks test?

I first heard this question posed by Torsten Reil, CEO of Natural Motion, the developer of MyHorse on iOS which has now had over 11 million downloads and of CSR Racing. Both titles have been a regular feature of the Top Grossing Charts.

Torsten asked “Can you play your game and have a meaningful experience in the time it takes for a barista to make your macchiato?”

This is a critical consideration for any game being designed for a smartphone or tablet. If your free-to-play game is in the browser or on the console, it may be less crucial, but “short loops” remain key for all free-to-play games.

A short loop is an experience that you complete and have fun with in short period of time. Examples include:

Each of these jobs is short, finite and can be completed in the time it takes to wait for a bus, to collect a macchiato or even, in my case with Tiny Tower, to wait for a lift.

Does your free-to-play game have an experience that will draw people back again and again because they think it will only take a short time to achieve something?

The next post in this series will look at play length from the other side: making the game engaging for longer play sessions

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:
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  • Ashar

    This is actually very interesting, thanks for this.

    Real Media Now Ltd

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  • Thanks for sharing wonderful information.

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  • Leo F

    I have Fire Emblem installed to my 3DS. Whenever I feel like killing a minute or two, I break it out and watch the events that have built up (you can only build up a maximum of five, so watching them regularly ensures that you get them more often). It only takes a minute or two and then I can save and put the 3DS away if whatever I was killing time until has happened, or I can keep going and play a level if the thing I’m waiting for starts to look like it’ll be a while. Fire Emblem can be very involved and I’m training my army to be as perfect as possible, max stats in everything. But I play it more often than Fallout 3 (which is the disc currently in my XB360) because with Fallout if you don’t spend at least half an hour, you don’t finish anything. In Super Mario 3D Land, I played it compulsively because each level is short, even though the gameplay as a whole is long and challenging.
    When a person is reading a book, they usually don’t put it away in the middle of a chapter. That’s because your brain doesn’t like having to try and get back to imagining a scene that was interrupted before. Your brain doesn’t like being interrupted in the middle of something. Starting later, you’d prefer to start at the beginning of a chapter since the scene has to get built from that point anyway. Games with short loops recreate this effect by saying “every three minutes is a good ‘stopping point’ if that’s what you want to do… so if somebody walks into the room and says ‘hey can you do X’, you can safely and honestly say ‘yeah just gimme three minutes’ – or say ‘yeah, sure’ and turn off immediately, because you’ll only ever be losing a maximum of three minutes’s worth of progress”.

  • You make a good point. In my consultancy, I obsess over making sure my clients focus on objectives, not features. It’s key to explain *why* you want something.
    Firstly, the f2p rules aim to fit many situations, yet some of them are better suited to certain circumstances. This rule, for example, is much more relevant to a mobile game than a browser game.
    However, I think the principle is broadly true. Here is the principle:
    – we are moving into an era where games are not for the few any more. You want to make them accessible as possible. that means people need to be able to dip in and out of your experience quickly and easily.
    – think the difference between film (AAA games) and television (f2p games). Both can offer deep experiences, but it is much easier to just flip the telly on to see what is on. That’s the emotional feeling you are aiming for: I’ll just pop into this game.
    Once a player is there, with a short loop, you want to keep them there with the next layer of deep involving gameplay. (See

  • Why do you think short loops are so important for free-to-play games? I don’t disagree with your observations but I think that there is more value in teaching the psychology behind this rule rather than just telling people this is how it should be. That’s a sure fire way to stifle innovation.

  • aimee

    Who can tell me a good league of legnds website? It should include the latest league of legends news, and beautiful lol wallpaper. I expect to know the league of legends heroes news.

  • Frank Gilson

    That’s the nature of Magic: The Gathering itself, that a gameplay takes 10-15 minutes…so a physical game of a certain sort has been adapted to other platforms. It’s strength is the awesome original gameplay. As Nick states, not all rules should apply to all games.

  • I’m realising that I should emphasise that not every game will satisfy every rule. Most successful games will satisfy many of these rules and flunk others. The secret is in making sure that you nail the ones that really matter for your game, and understand the others enough that you know that it is OK to disregard them.

  • Magic the Gathering 2013 fails the Starbucks test miserably. It sometimes takes me an average of 10-15 mins of play before i get to anything meaningful.

  •  Martin,

    I am playing Legend of Grimrock on Steam. It is an old-style Dungeon Crawler where you have to hold the map of the level in your head to solve the puzzles.

    I came downstairs from putting the kids to bed last week and thought “I haven’t got the time to play Legends of Grimlock”, sat down on my bed and pulled Pocket Planes out of my pocket.

    I got up two and a half hours later.

    My point is not that games should not have depth, intensity or long play sessions (the average length of Bejewelled Blitz play session is 47 minutes).

    It is that you shouldn’t scare players off by making them fear that it will take them 20 minutes to get back into the zone. Make it easy for them to start playing, at any time.

    Then keep them for hours.

  • I’m not convinced.  I’m sure I read a stat recently that said a lot of mobile/iOS gaming was actually done at home.  For tablet gaming I can imagine this is particularly true.

    Then you look at the success of something like League of Legends where the games are 30mins and it seems fairly clear that this rule, at best, isn’t universal.  As you point out, this could be due to it being a PC/console game, but at the end of the day these are just modes of delivery and thus subject to change over time.  I would buy an iPad to play PC style games if there were enough good ones!