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Being Evergreen – The importance of never ending: Free-to-play Design, rule 5

By on September 5, 2012

Does your game end? If it does, you are going to find making a free-to-play business model challenging.

I used to call this concept “replayability”, but that was misleading. Arcade-style games such as endless runners or Match-3 puzzles have replayability, since they are designed to engender a “just one more go” feeling in the players. But the original free-to-play games on Facebook like Mafia Wars or Farmville have no replayability. I’m not sure I can restart my farm even if I wanted to, and I wouldn’t know where to look to find out.

What both these games (and all successful free-to-play games) share is being evergreen.

An evergreen game never reaches the point where the play can’t carry on if they wanted to. A game that is predominantly driven by narrative or by the experience will always be harder to turn into a successful free-to-play game than a game with innate replayability (like an arcade or social casino game) or with an endless experience (like a simulation or a Mafia Wars style game.)

Simple replayability is not enough on its own, either. You need an element of persistence or social value. If you are trying to monetise your game through virtual goods or virtual currencies, players need to believe that these have value. In a game like Farmville, where your virtual goods might be items that make your farm look prettier, or things that help you level up and make progress through the game faster, the persistence is obvious. Even a consumable good has persistence in that it helped you earn Experience Points towards a higher level, the core objective of the game. In an arcade game, the persistence tends to come in meta-game elements: getting a high score on a social leaderboard; earning a particularly challenging achievement and so on.

The secret is, as always, to put yourself in the mindset of a player. If the player reaches the end of a game and is asked to start again, what elements that they have purchased need to be carried over into the new game to avoid them feeling annoyed with you and the game?

Your choices, in effect:

  • Have a game with a short play cycle and a social, free-to-play metagame for retention and monetisation (e.g. Temple Run, Bejewelled Blitz)
  • Have a game with no end (Cityville, Sims Social)
  • Find a way to make players who are forced to start again carry over certain elements from game to game (e.g. Stronghold Kingdoms)

The solutions for the third option are not yet clear. When we finally crack that, we will have a way to make successful, free-to-play narrative-led games.

I look forward to that day.


The next post in this series will argue that all game designers should be generous in order to be successful

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: thecurveonline.com
  • http://twitter.com/Sikthehedgehog Sik

    Option #4: let your players expand the game for you (e.g. custom maps or something), make it extremely easy to share stuff (social networks come handy here!) and find out a way to monetize it (e.g. by providing a basic set for free and providing more advanced stuff or different graphics set for a fee for players who want to make levels – or you could even just do the usual stuff of selling stuff to those playing levels but make the items work anywhere and not in a specific situation).

    I’m surprised how the idea of player-made stuff in F2P games is so overlooked.

  • http://twitter.com/carlodelallana Carlo Delallana

    Not by Valve and their awesomely awesome game Team Fortress 2

  • Zoya Street

    I think part of the issue when this has been tried (can’t for the life of me remember the specific examples) is that the proportion of players who actually want to spend their time making custom content is quite small, and those who do want to often want more freedom than simply buying some graphics to play with. Personally I think it makes sense for the developers to help players to sell custom items that they have made, and take a cut of their revenue. My guess for why this doesn’t happen more often is that most games don’t make that much of their money from vanity items – the most lucrative IAPs (except for currency packs) are usually gameplay enhancements, and it’s much harder to allow your players to create that while still maintaining a balanced game.

  • Mark Barney

    I was a bit confused by this, which two games are you saying are evergreen?

  • Zoya Street
  • http://twitter.com/Sikthehedgehog Sik

    I mean I’m surprised that this isn’t more like the rule rather than the exception :/