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Three techniques for turning narrative-based games free-to-play
Editorial note from Zoya: this guest post is based on emails from Oscar Clark that came out of Gamesbriefers posts. I wasn’t able to include his full answers in the hard paywall and freemium narrative posts, but I really liked them, so with his permission I’ve published them here.
In an email thread for the Gamesbriefers, Mark Sorrell said;
The game that always leaps out as a ‘you can’t do that fremium’ is Skyrim. The joy of Skyrim, the hook, is that sense of complete freedom in a huge, huge world. The fact that you can go anywhere and do anything. That emotion seems to be the exact opposite of what fremium is capable of. Sometimes, paying up-front will allow the player to experience emotions they just wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
Just because Freemium games have been resource management based that doesn’t mean we can’t make narrative-based freemium games. There are massive opportunities to use this amazing business model of which we have yet to dream.
There are lots of different techniques that could be used to monetise a broader range of games in a freemium model. Basically it comes down to understanding what you are selling and what is driving repeat play. For narrative games like Skyrim, the trick is to separate what is the reason to return to the game over time from the elements which drive the plot forward. Only then can we add friction and virtual goods without destroying the context of the story.
1: Episodic content
For some games, it might be important to focus on payments linked to the release of levels or episodes. If so, you could release them over time, allowing users to only unlock them by fulfilling certain conditions. Cogs used a great technique where you had to have a certain number of ‘Gold’ stars to unlock later levels – creating reasons to replay specific levels or to pay to skip the grind. Or with Cause Of Death there was a delay to accessing the new content after completing a story; but you could pay to get this early.
Personally I think the release of episodic content over time is a driver for old players to return especially if there is a published schedule which the developer keeps – and this momentum is worth more as a retention feature. Of course, in Skyrim there are several different significant stories. Each episode could be released over time or set against the current level and ability of the player. This must not be a pay-wall and should feel like a natural part of the progression of the user. For example, you can’t enter the Temple until you can defeat the guardian and he is way too high level for you right now. Take a look at CSR Racing’s use of Tiers and Boss levels to create a sense of narrative.
Having multiple plot lines is really useful as it allows the game to create multiple different rhythms of play – creating a momentum encouraging the repeat return of the player and again making it so there is always something to do and always a reason to benefit from spending money. Again CSR Racing does this very effectively with Ladders, Challenges and Boss Levels.
2. Virtual goods
I’d focus on monetisation through virtual goods which support the play such as health potions or special equipment or experience boosting crystals. Infinity Blade used weapon based experience which meant that once you mastered a weapon you stopped getting bonus experience – giving you reasons to change your equipment. Once they are mastered you have to replace them or you don’t gain EXP quite so fast. Of course I’m using a fantasy example that’s applicable to Skyrim, but we could be talking weapons, engine upgrades, et.
I argue we come back to <em>Skyrim</em> as much for the sheer joy of exploring the world as the plot itself. The process of collecting raw materials, creating your own equipment and potions is therapeutic and enjoyable. What if the weapons and equipment we used in the game decayed each time they were used and we had more reason to spend resources and time repairing them? What if we made specific components less powerful or harder to find?
3. Procedurally generated levels
Obviously we don’t just play for crafting, we all want to explore all those dank caves and assault those nasty bandit camps. These side-missions could be essentially automated perhaps increasing in difficulty, adding time-limits, specific equipment, etc. All of this will allow the player to choose how quickly they want to grind through the game. We can also introduce competitive elements allowing us to compare our performance with that of our friends previous efforts; and gain rewards accordingly.
The narrative is supported with repeatable play mechanisms; even if these are simple side-line minigames like cleaning weapons or tuning your vehicles. If your story can’t be adjusted to support that then I guess it will be difficult to make Freemium – but the I’d argue that’s quite difficult to make commercial anyway.
This is about service – not one-off products. It is possible to release content each week if you plan for it and build the tools. Could everyone make a Freemium Skyrim? No! But it’s definitely achievable and if CSR Racing can get $12 million in its first month I think this is a target worth aiming for.