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Four ethical principles we used when making Forever Drive

By on November 15, 2011

This is a guest post by Tak Fung (@mrfungfung) of Supermono games. Their latest free game, Forever Drive, has to date been downloaded over a million times. In this post he shares his reflections on free-to-play game design.

Is free-to-play ethical?

“Free-to-play” games have caused intense reactions in the gaming community, with strong views on whether it is an ethically sound way to design games or whether it is slot machines in disguise. When we designed Forever Drive, we saw the opportunity to experiment with this business model for the first time. More importantly, we took it upon ourselves as a challenge to create a game that was free of any unethical mechanisms. I believe that it is possible to create a great game sitting on the free-to-play business model, but it is certainly not obvious and care must be taken to avoid some pitfalls.
During the design and development of Forever Drive we kept these points in focus to mitigate any obvious “unethical” mechanisms from rising up in the game:

1. Victory cannot be bought

Cannot buy your way to winning
This is an obvious one, and one which has a big impact on the design of the game. It is important to us that you cannot purchase items in a game which will provide a significant gameplay advantage. For example, it would be bad if you could purchase a “more time” bonus so that for each run you’d accumulate a bigger hi-score compared to someone who didn’t buy it.

2. No locked levels

No part of the game is locked away wholesale in the form of DLC
This is more applicable to a Paid game, since you do not want to players to feel that they have bought a game only to be short-changed on content. However, for a Free game, it’s arguable that you could have one big DLC unlock to open up the game (i.e. much like unlocking a demo). For Forever Drive, we wanted everyone to be able to try it and not feel left out, so practically the whole game can be unlocked by playing it over time.

3. No absentee penalties

You do not get punished for not playing the game
One of the more popular mechanisms to entice people to return to games is a “penalty” mechanism if you do not keep returning to the game. As an example the “farm” games exhibit this quite a lot in that crops “die” if you do not come back to “harvest” them. It’s also a good excuse to keep popping up alerts on your phone to remind you to come back to the game. There is no punishment of this sort in Forever Drive as we find it makes for a feedback loop hinged on “preventing negatives” rather than promoting positives.

4. Reward arcade skills

There is a skill element in the game
We strived to produce a game which requires real time arcade skill to play. In this way we avoid the gameplay mechanic of mindless clicking for no real reason – whereby it becomes more like work than play. Any arcade game is intriniscally real time so it is easy to do this with a racing game.

On top of these points, there are many other design challenges that derive from adopting a free-to-play business model, and game designers should take care and indeed, take the challenge to make a great game based around it!

Make better games

The more people that can create a fun, fair and successful game on this model, the quicker more people will set aside the tiresome mechanics as they can see that they are no longer required, or indeed competitive, to the better games that come out. This is the ultimate solution to people complaining about the current crop of “unethical” games.

The only way this cannot happen is if for some reason adopting a free-to-play business model makes it *intrinsically impossible* to design a fun and fair game (there are already many successful games in terms of downloads and revenue). This has yet to be proven and I consider my work such as Forever Drive an effort to disprove this notion. It will be very interesting to see other developers also attempt this and I hope their efforts surpass mine!

About Tak Fung