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Have pizzazz, not polish: Free-to-play Design Rule 10

By on October 10, 2012
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AAA developers have a habit of looking at free-to-play games and saying “The graphics look rubbish on that. Just wait until a proper game maker has a go. We’ll show them what a proper game looks like.”

Then they make a game and it falls flat on its face.

F2P-design-rules-thumbThat’s because AAA developers focus on polish, not pizzazz. They target the rational brains of their players, not their emotional hearts. They are putting their development effort in the wrong place.

One AAA studio I know once had a programmer spend an entire year simulating the motion of the planets and stars in the sky so that any astronomers playing would be able to tell what time of year it was by the alignment of the heavenly bodies in the night sky above the game world.

The only problem was that, to solve a different problem, a different design team removed the ability to look up in the game, which meant that the only way to see the sky was to search out puddles and look for the sky reflected in the still water.

The game still shipped with this feature in place.

Take, in contrast, these screenshots from My Horse by Natural Motion. To a AAA developer, the image looks terrible. The eight buttons look as if they have barely been touched by an artist, let alone one trained in the disciplines of AAA development. But the emotional feedback from pressing all eight of those green buttons, watching rewards shoot up to your XP and cash bars, the trailing stars, the ker-ching and the applause: that’s pizzazz

(It’s hard to show this unless you play the game. Download My Horse and try it out for yourself. It’s free.)

Pizzazz rewards the player at an emotional level. It says “well done. You’ve got something right”. A good free-to-play designer looks for things that they want the player to do, and makes sure that there are rewarded – practically, emotionally, visually, aurally. It’s not about lens flare or high poly counts or nice reflective menus.

In My Horse, the Care and Work screens are an appointment mechanic, designed to make players come regularly. Rather than wasting effort on the visual look of the screen, Natural Motion put all its effort into the rewards a player gets for completing the appointment. Which is the core objective of the feature, and feeds directly into retention in the GAMESbrief free-to-play spreadsheet.

Pizzazz is not about looking pretty (well, OK, it is). It is not about making the game’s graphic designer think he or she is cool. It’s about rewarding players for doing the things that matter to them and to you. It is about building an emotional connection.

Leave at least a week at the end of your development for adding pizzazz. It will totally be worth it.

The next post in this series will continue with advice on building an emotional connection with players, by looking at how your game should start.

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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  • It’s funny, I’ve played that game for hours with my kids and not had this issue. It may be because I play with them (they are very young) so I can guide them away from getting excited about these figures.

    The challenge for F2P is how do you make it possible for those who want to spend lots of money to do so without drawing money out of those who can’t afford it.

    The GAMESbriefers have focused on the concept of buyer’s remorse. If the next morning the spender feels good about their purchase, you’ve got it right; if they feel bad, something should change.

  • Slackenerny

    Using ‘My Horse’ as an example of good design concerns me, as they are one of the perpetrators of the ‘trick kids into spending lots of money’. A lot of the most appealing in-game content can only be purchased with gems, which is the rare resource in this game. Without buying them using real cash, the only way to acquire them by levelling up (you get one per level). Levelling up happens once every few days playing the game daily. Some of more appealing content to children costs 600+ gems. The exchange rate on a bulk purchase of gems is 5c per gem. This makes content like a new horse cost $60. The actual real-money cost is only shown at the last minute by the App Store, and is not visible in-game. Imagine how many parents have found a $100+ CC charge due to this game.

    I understand micro-transactions for F2P games, but $50+ in-app purchase to acquire standard content (new skin, new model) is just exploitative. There is nothing micro about it.

  • One developer, formerly from a AAA background, reckons that the last third of the development should be focused on pizzazz:
    1/3 pre-production, 1/3 production, 1/3 polish and pizzazz.
    Makes sense to me.

  • Mark Bonasoro

    Thanks for bringing up this terminology Nicholas. I was always trying to find the right word to explain this sort of user feedback with my co-workers in the past.

    Was there any reading material refering to this particular besides yours that refers to this particular case of user feedback?

    I am rather surprised I have only seen this terminology this year and the last. This is such an old concept used a lot back in the 90’s when arcade’s use to dominate on pizzazz as part of the engagement in their games, with lots of loud noises and big messages telling you are doing well.

  • I agree, it can be hard to make the transition from AAA Console to Mobile. MunkyFun is formed by AAA devs who have made this transition. The focus of this screen also, was to be clear and easy to use for a player on the iphone.

  • I love this argument.Thank you for refining it further

  • Good point on the developer/publisher confusion.

    I do think that the horse matters. My point is that on this page, which is a psychologically crucial appointment mechanic, MyHorse puts its effort into rewarding the players for doing what the dev/pub wants them to do, not just for looking at the screen. Too many AAA devs would make the screen look high quality, but neglect to reward the player for doing what is good for the business model.

  • My Horse was developed by MunkyFun, Natural Motion is the publisher. It’s odd that you don’t show the high quality, realistic looking horse on the front screen as a contrast to this.

  • I’m not quite sure if the issue is polish vs. pizzaz or if i’m even interpreting your argument correctly. The astronomy game/app example you used is not an issue of pizzaz vs. polish, it’s putting effort and emphasis on the wrong thing.

    In the case of My Horse they can get away with functionality since you never really spend a huge amount of time engaging with that appointment system. The game’s polish lies in your interaction with the beautifully rendered horse. If it wasn’t for that polish this would have been just another pet sim, probably set in an isometric environment.

    Polish, to me, is about going beyond making something functional. Its that extra bevel that Apple adds to the aluminum band around the iPhone 5. That extra step that allows you to stamp an identity on the product experience that sets you apart. To me polish is craftsmanship and I believe that even in F2P games that craftsmanship is still a necessary effort so long as it is being allocated to the parts of the experience that matter.

  • It’s funny how much AAA developers hate this rule, and yet, as you say, it is just another form of Player Feedback.

  • This was one of the first things I noticed when I played Draw Something – flying stars and glitter etc all over the place. It takes time to animate and could be annoying but it’s amazing what a sense of achievement it brings, especially when it says “DRAWSOME!” (possibly word of the decade!). I think it’s what people in the traditional game industry would call “Player Feedback” but taken to another level, another physiological degree. Always take the opportunioty to make the player feel better about themselves and they will like your game more and keep coming back.