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Being Evergreen – The importance of never ending: Free-to-play Design, rule 5

By on September 5, 2012

F2P-design-rules-thumbDoes your game end? If it does, you are going to find making a free-to-play business model challenging.

I used to call this concept “replayability”, but that was misleading. Arcade-style games such as endless runners or Match-3 puzzles have replayability, since they are designed to engender a “just one more go” feeling in the players. But the original free-to-play games on Facebook like Mafia Wars or Farmville have no replayability. I’m not sure I can restart my farm even if I wanted to, and I wouldn’t know where to look to find out.

What both these games (and all successful free-to-play games) share is being evergreen.

An evergreen game never reaches the point where the play can’t carry on if they wanted to. A game that is predominantly driven by narrative or by the experience will always be harder to turn into a successful free-to-play game than a game with innate replayability (like an arcade or social casino game) or with an endless experience (like a simulation or a Mafia Wars style game.)

Simple replayability is not enough on its own, either. You need an element of persistence or social value. If you are trying to monetise your game through virtual goods or virtual currencies, players need to believe that these have value. In a game like Farmville, where your virtual goods might be items that make your farm look prettier, or things that help you level up and make progress through the game faster, the persistence is obvious. Even a consumable good has persistence in that it helped you earn Experience Points towards a higher level, the core objective of the game. In an arcade game, the persistence tends to come in meta-game elements: getting a high score on a social leaderboard; earning a particularly challenging achievement and so on.

The secret is, as always, to put yourself in the mindset of a player. If the player reaches the end of a game and is asked to start again, what elements that they have purchased need to be carried over into the new game to avoid them feeling annoyed with you and the game?

Your choices, in effect:

  • Have a game with a short play cycle and a social, free-to-play metagame for retention and monetisation (e.g. Temple Run, Bejewelled Blitz)
  • Have a game with no end (Cityville, Sims Social)
  • Find a way to make players who are forced to start again carry over certain elements from game to game (e.g. Stronghold Kingdoms)

The solutions for the third option are not yet clear. When we finally crack that, we will have a way to make successful, free-to-play narrative-led games.

I look forward to that day.

The next post in this series will argue that all game designers should be generous in order to be successful

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: