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I must not fail: Free-to-play Design Rule 12

By on October 24, 2012
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F2P-design-rules-thumbFree-to-play games are all about success.

That does not mean that players can’t have to use skill (see Free-to-play Design, rule 4: Complexity in layers). It does mean that they get rewarded for just turning up.

This is particularly true for the first twenty minutes. If you want a free-to-play gamer to stick around, they need to feel that they are getting the hang of your game very quickly, You need to build an emotional journey that keeps players learning, and enjoying the process.

One principle of education is that students prosper when the subject matter challenges them right at the edge of their abilities. Games are good at doing this. They have learned how to do so over decades.

What is important is that the player needs to learn *why* they should keep playing. It’s not enough to think that they have paid $40 and will keep playing. More than that, many players, dismayed at the prospect of not being very good at a game, will give up very quickly if it proves to be difficult.

Natural Motion launched a game called Backbreaker. It was an American Football game, where the first level involved trying to score a touchdown by dodging opposing players. After many iterations and tests, Natural Motion hit on the optimal solution: make it impossible not to score a touchdown.

A first time player will always score. They may gain points by avoiding the linebackers, but whatever happens they score.

Think of the emotional journey: players score (which feels good). They realise that they could play the game better. They move further through the game, improving their performance, their score and their enjoyment.

The design of Bejewelled Blitz fits this pattern too. It is impossible to “fail” a game of Bejewelled Blitz: the game ends, for everyone, every time, after 60 seconds. There is no fail state. The emotion is not “I failed”, it’s “that’s a great score. This time, I’m going to get a much better one.” That’s a big difference in how your players feel.

Your objective, in a free-to-play game, is to get players to like you. Don’t set them up to fail.

The next post in this series will look at the big picture: if content is free, what do freemium games sell? You can also get all of the rules, plus tons of additional explanation and information, in Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, available now on Kindle: buy it on,, or your local Amazon store!


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:
  • Tetris was about winning against yourself. When the social pressure of Tetris Multiplayer came along I found it too off-putting.

  • Sik

    I suppose this is also why Tetris was so successful, in the end it’s just a score (and lines) attack to see how long you could last.

    There should be an article with a list of pre-F2P games that would fit perfectly the F2P design rules.

  • Well… winning a game is even more reason to stop playing it than losing, isn’t it. 🙂

    But also thinking of Sik’s point, because there’s “no way to win” that also kind of means there’s no way to “not win”, i.e. lose. There’s no winning or losing, only degrees of success. Temple Run and Triple Town never tell you “you won” or “you lost” just “you were this successful”.

  • That’s an interesting thought. Can you expand on it?

  • Is there also an “I must not win” rule?

  • Make failure fun would be an interesting evolution to this design rule. One amazing example from the world of console games is Burnout from Criterion. The game rewards you for failing as hard as you possibly can without taking anything away from trying to drive as best as you possibly can. Failing gloriously I might add gives players more in-game money to progress.

    It’s part of creating that elusive “flow” state in games, the tension and release. If I don’t fail in a game then my success has no contrast. If I fail too much then its all tension and no release. The problem with failure design is that failure has been stuck in its role as “negative feedback”.

    To make failure fun means incorporating failure into the gameplay experience by creating a mechanic around it. Failure should be a cathartic moment and allow players to release their frustration for not reaching a goal by giving them something to wreck or whatever mechanic we can think of to let players blow off steam! Think of that classic scene from Office Space when people knew they were getting laid off then take that stupid fax machine out beat the living crap out of it. Imagine if CSR gave me the option to spin donuts and ram trash cans as a way to release some of the pressure that built up from losing an intense race (i might need to spend a little coin to get a new paint job but it was worth it!). Let players FAIL in a BLAZE OF GLORY! Give them that “I know i’ve lost this level but i’m going to take you down with me!” moment.

    Failure should not be the end, it should not halt progression. Designed thoughtfully it can become one of the most powerful retention and engagement systems you can put in your game.

  • Sik

    It does – there is no way to win, it’s “keep going as much as possible”, so it falls under a similar situation as Bejeweled Blizz.

  • Does Temple Run follow this rule?

  • Sik

    That’s more wordy than complex, I’d say.

    There are things where not adding a failure condition would be hard though. For example, I was thinking how this could work with a platformer, and even if you remove anything that can kill you, you still need to add something for the challenge which in this case would be platforming… and people without enough skill will eventually get stuck somewhere, and that could still be considered a failure condition, even if not explicitly defined as such by the game. You simply can’t progress. I suppose you could change the gameplay so platforming isn’t the focus either, but then it wouldn’t feel much like a platformer either…

    Maybe that’s a bad example though. In anything that’s based on maps like that it may be better to let players provide their own content and in that case players themselves could make challenges they can beat or look for maps made by other players that they can beat.

  • I note that some people have suggested (via twitter) that this rule would be better if it said “I can fail, but the consequences of failure must make we want to carry on”. I said that was too long to be a simple rule.

  • I think this is a design issue, not a principle issue. In Bejewelled Blitz, you can’t fail (everyone dies at one minute) but you can see the complexity underneath the game. You need to make sure that rule 4: Complexity in layer is clear, so that people who are making through the first experience easily can see the challenges that lie ahead

  • How about the players who leave because the game is too *easy*?
    Or because they’re being eased too slowly into the mechanics that are complex / new enough to be interesting?