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The Pyramid of Free-to-Play game design

By on October 8, 2013

This post was originally published on Gamasutra

At first it was unknown independent studios that did F2P. Then it was venture-backed businesses. Now it is increasingly AAA studios whose expertise lies in crafting huge console products, not iterative free-to-play games.

I have been consulting on free-to-play game design since 2008. Over that time, platforms have ebbed and flowed. PC downloadable games, browser games, social games, mobile games and tablet games have all had their time in their sun.

In the last 12 months, I have given masterclasses on making money from free-to-play games at three major console publishers and a dozen studios better known for their console work. In my consulting, I see the same issues coming about time and again. F2P game design –and indeed all game design – is a pyramid, but studios coming fresh to it focus on the base without enough awareness of the higher levels. Without which their F2P game is destined to be a failure.

So, I’ve come up with the Pyramid of Free-to-Play Game Design. At the bottom is the Core Loop. In the middle is the Retention Game. At the top is the Superfan Game. To build a successful free-to-play game, you need a strong, symbiotic relationship between the Core Loop and the Retention Game. The Superfan Game is optional, and may not belong in your Minimum Viable Product, but it will help you make more money from your game.

The core loop

The Core Loop is the beating heart of your game. It is what many people think of when you ask them about “the gameplay”. It might be a one-minute play ofBejewelled Blitz. It might be a plant-harvest-plant cycle in a game like Hay Day. It might be a single death match in Team Fortress 2 or clearing a level inCandy Crush Saga.

(Note that I may upset game grammarians here. I liken the simple plant-harvest-plant cycle of a farming game to an entire Deathmatch in an FPS. That is useful for my purposes, when I am trying to split out the in-the-moment gameplay from the long-term gameplay, but there is arguably a smaller gameplay loop in a FPS. What you might call the “shoot someone in the head – get rewarded” loop.)

The Core Loop is the basic thing that the player does over and over again. It is ideal for prototyping. If you show it to someone, they go “OK, I get it, I understand your game.”

Only they don’t. They understand the core of the game, but that is rarely enough to make a successful title. Occasionally, a Core Loop will be so perfect, so fun, so enjoyable that players will keep coming back to it just for the sheer joy of it. That is rare. More often, there is a Retention Game layered on top.

Retention Game

The Retention Game is what keeps players coming back for more. It goes beyond the joy of just one-more-go. It can be incredibly simple, such as the desire to beat your high score in Space Invaders. It can be complex, like the desire to find out what happens next in the narrative structure of Tomb Raideror The Last of Us. Retention Game mechanics include:

  • Scores
  • Levels
  • Simple progression mechanics (like Candy Crush Saga’s map)
  • Levelling up
  • Narrative
  • Achievements
  • Leaderboards and competition

Those can all function within traditional pay-once games as well as free-to-play games. Strategy games like XCom, the Total War series and the Jagged Alliance series all have excellent Retention Games intertwined with the Core Loop but keep players entranced for weeks.

Free-to-play games often have specific retention game mechanics that tend to be tied to the passage of real time, such as multiple intersecting loops of different durations, or appointment mechanics that encourage players to come back at a particular time. These can create elements of anticipation and enjoyment for players and are possible to enforce since most F2P games have some element of server-based game logic. They are also easy to understand how to monetise, by allowing players the opportunity to spend money to bypass the delay. It would be a mistake to think of time delays as predominantly a monetisation technique, though. They are mainly a retention mechanic.

The objective of the Retention Game is to give players good reasons to want to keep playing for days, weeks or months. A good retention game is integrated into the gameplay loop, although it doesn’t have to be. The map in Candy Crush Saga has proven to be a phenomenally successful retention mechanic, and publisher King has demonstrated that by implementing a light layer of progress and narrative over a basic Match-3 game, you can create a winning combination.

The superfan game

In a great presentation at GDC 2012, Kongregate CEO Emily Greer said that all the successful free-to-play games on Kongregate had one thing in common:  “a strongly social and competitive end-game”.

That endgame – that I call the Superfan Game – is where the whales live. It is the place where people have moved beyond casual players who enjoy the core loop. They have moved beyond the retention game that kept them playing for weeks or months. They have started the transition from your service being a game and towards it being a hobby. That is when they start being comfortable spending more money on their enjoyment.

Not all games are suitable for being a Superfan title. I suspect, although I don’t know for certain, that titles like Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride have fewer whales, spending less on average, than games that really do cater for Superfans such as Clash of Clans or World of Tanks.

I don’t believe the you need a Superfan Game in your minimum viable product. Without a Core Loop that interacts well with the Retention Game, you will never reach the Superfan level. Some games have a Superfan Game without ever designing it. Much of the Superfan Game for Eve Online, a subscription MMO, exists outside the game, and developer CCP sees little direct reward from it.

The Superfan Game is something that you need if you expect your game to instil fierce passions in your players. It is where the big spenders who love what you do will live, and it makes sense to offer those people things they truly value in the context of the game. It might include guilds and clans. It might be about leaderboards or clan competition. It might include Player versus Player, whether synchronous or asynchronous. It might include overt displays of status or progression.

But it is not necessary to prove whether you have a game that will work – the Superfan Game is phase 2, not phase 1.

The biggest mistake

The biggest mistake I see AAA developers making is focusing too much on the core loop at the expense of the Retention Game. Polish in free-to-play games is increasingly important, but endlessly polishing the core game is a path of diminishing returns. It is no good making the most perfectly polished gameplay loop if, after someone has put down their phone or tablet or mouse or controller they don’t remember to come back.

One of the most important screens in the entire game is what used to be called the “Game Over” screen. For whatever reason, the player has to come to the end of the gameplay experience. This screen needs to be iterated and polished to show how the core game feeds into the Retention Game and vice versa. You can show retention in many ways – through achievements, through a map, through competitive leaderboards, through upgrade screens – but the one constant is that you have to give players the desire to come back again. Thinking that the core loop is everything, and that the retention game is something that you can fix “after Alpha, once the gameplay is nailed”, is a recipe for disaster.

The hierarchy of Core Loop, Retention Game and Superfan Game is what makes up a successful free-to-play game. The interaction between the Core Loop and the Retention Game is critical. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the primary purpose of your soft launch is to verify, with data, that your assumptions about how the Core Loop and the Retention Game interact.

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: