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

By on October 24, 2012

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: