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Sell emotion, not content: Free-to-play Design Rule 13

By on October 31, 2012
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F2P-design-rules-thumbSelling content is what content creators do, right?

Not any more.

Now that digital distribution has made it incredibly cheap to share content on the web, consumers are increasingly refusing to pay for it. (Recent research suggests, for example, that 49% of people think it appropriate to download music for free and 40% can’t remember when they last bought a CD).

This means that a developer making a game has to change the way they view their business. Instead of spending $2 million building a virtual world and charging people for access to it, they have to spend $2 million building a virtual world, give it away to build an audience, and find other things to sell in it.

Those things are unlikely to be expensive to make. They are most likely to be an entry in a database or a few days of art/programmer time. They might be selling:

  • Self expression (costumes, avatars, animations)
  • Progress (trading time for money, instant gratification)
  • Power (better weapons, better equipment)
  • Status (the ability to show off to others, whether aesthetically or within game mechanics)
  • Relationships (gifts, co-operative benefits)
  • And much more

These aren’t mutually exclusive elements. The point is that no gamer thinks about how much something cost to build when considering whether to buy it or how much to pay. They are considering how much it is worth to them. Whether they will enjoy it. How it will make them feel.

In the world of free-to-play, you are competing with tens of thousands of games that are totally free to play. In that world, you aren’t charging for content; you are charging for emotion.

The next post will look at game development itself, and how to survive in a challenging environment.

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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  • This entry might need a bit more though Nicholas as you are covering a subject matter (Emotion) that is still a very difficult thing to grasp with no concrete examples of how one would actually design for emotional engagement.

    There are many examples of games that have all the items in your bullet points that have failed to engage players. So what is it that really triggers an emotional response from players? How does one execute on “selling emotion”?

    Deep emotional engagement is a 2 way street. It’s a combination of how a game makes me feel and what I feel for the game. Let’s take Tiny Tower as an example. The game covers all the bullet points but what takes it over the top are the Bitizens. They have dream jobs and guess what, the player has dream jobs they would like to have in the real world too! The player starts to care about placing the right people in the right jobs because ultimately that’s what they want for themselves. Players may spend money trying to add more floors so that they can place these digital people where they would “love” to be. It’s not a requirement but having this kind of personality is what humanizes the game. It’s totally irrational behavior because I could easily keep on playing and not really give a crap…but I do and that’s the magic of the game!

    Go for depth and specificity when designing for emotion, there are a plethora of human emotions out there ripe for the picking.