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Old 01-13-2010, 01:33 PM   #1
cnutt
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Default Game Design Challenge: Free To Play

In our latest challenge, we ask you to come up with a design for a free-to-play game.

EDIT! Results are live...

http://gamecareerguide.com/features/...me_design_.php

Thanks for participating!
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Old 01-13-2010, 02:43 PM   #2
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Maybe it's just me, but the links provided in the article return a 404. Emptied cache and everything, no dice.

Manually searched the article titles, these should work for everyone;

http://www.gamecareerguide.com/indus...esigners__.php

http://www.gamecareerguide.com/indus...s_digital_.php
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Last edited by Retro : 01-13-2010 at 02:58 PM.
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Old 01-13-2010, 03:19 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Retro View Post
Maybe it's just me, but the links provided in the article return a 404. Emptied cache and everything, no dice.

Manually searched the article titles, these should work for everyone;

http://www.gamecareerguide.com/indus...esigners__.php

http://www.gamecareerguide.com/indus...s_digital_.php
Thanks for pointing it out -- there's a bug with the way it handles links to Gamasutra that I forgot. Fixing now.
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Old 01-13-2010, 11:29 PM   #4
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Cnutt,

This is a great design challenge, in my opinion.
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Old 01-15-2010, 12:37 PM   #5
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No discussion yet? Alright, I guess I'll be the one to start, though I doubt anyone will like where it ends.

I've played quite a few F2P games, and the one thought that always seems to percolate is "This isn't a full game." F2P games are usually so obvious in their intent, to separate players from their money, that I can't help but feel like I'm being baited to buy into a scheme.

Two examples spring to mind; NCSoft's Exteel and Gameforge's Ikariam. The first is a mech-based Player-vs-player Action game with RPG elements (namely customization of your mech), while the second is a browser-based MMO-Strategy title.

Exteel suffered from a distinct divide between paying and non-paying players. Free players were regularly seen as more skilled, having spent time learning the game, developing tactics and getting better at the gameplay. Paying players,pejoratively known as 'coiners' (referring to the 'NCCoin" currency NCSoft uses) are seen as less skilled, having paid their way to victory by sheer statistical power. Even a rudimentary skilled 'coiner' can, by virtue of their micro-transactions, dominate entire groups of skilled free players.

Within the Exteel community, free players are regularly seen as 'free points' or 'fodder', and those who actually are able to win without using micro-transaction parts are usually reported for cheating (and since they're non-paying customers, often get banned outright).

Ikariam, on the other hand, is a slow-paced strategy game where players develop their own cities and colonies on a large open world. Paying players gain access to more detailed city reports, and a few resource-management tools, but little else; that's probably one of the reasons I bothered to play it for very long in the first place. Ikariam's micro-transactions come in handy just when you want to grow quickly without waiting, and though the game has some fundamental flaws, at least their F2P setup doesn't allow for a lot of abuse (but I can't imagine it generates much profit either).

Regardless of how cleverly disguised it is, or how much fun people actually have in the interim, the inevitable conclusion of a successful F2P game will always be milking players of their money.

And that's my issue with F2P games, and Zhan Ye's view of game design; it's a cold, methodical way of building a machine to extort as much profit from players as possible without them noticing it's a racket, not a game. The article provided (and written) by CNutt contains so many statements I fundamentally object to that the very thought of working on a F2P design actually makes my stomach turn, especially his comments on how games that people "can admire or respect" are "in big trouble". I don't quite buy into the "Games as Art" movement as much as some, but I still think games can be admired and respected for more than just generating sales.

I'm actually now thinking on Chris Hecker's keynote address from the IGDA Leadership Forum in November. In his address, Hecker asks game developers to ask themselves "What are you trying to say, and why?"

As far as F2P games are concerned, the "why" is indisputably "To make money". While all businesses need to make money, I think if that's the only goal in game development, we'll inevitably see more sequels, rehashes, and clones. Hecker puts it best; "If we continue on our current path, we'll end up in the pop cultural ghetto where comics are. . . An alternative path is where film, books, and music ended up. There's even a low road, toys -- or, as you hear, 'just toys' -- where you cease to have any meaning beyond what you're playing with."

Therefore, I may end up intentionally opting out of this challenge, and would encourage others to think carefully on the nature of the challenge and possibly do the same. I feel the nature of F2P flies in the face of what we as game designers should be trying to do within the medium. If all we're interested in is maximizing profits, then it's much easier to just regurgitate what has proven profitable already; hardly what I would consider creative design.

Despite the disclaimer "if you don't like the idea of free to play -- think of this challenge as an opportunity to do it in an ethical and fun way!", the very nature of F2P game design defies ethics and categorically shuns fun (except as a means to seduce players into their scheme). I'll think on the challenge, but the decision to actively participate will likely end up being a moral decision rather than a creative one.

Maybe that's the naive idealist in me, but that's where I stand (which may be why I stand outside the games industry, looking in).
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Last edited by Retro : 01-15-2010 at 08:21 PM. Reason: Added examples, removed some rant-like portions.
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Old 01-16-2010, 06:41 AM   #6
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That's a very interesting and well-thought-out argument you've presented, Retro. And I must agree with you, F2P games are pretty much marketing gimmicks in the way they tend to eventually force players to part with their cash while putting up a facade of being "free". I've played quite a number of MMOs in my time, and I always come to a point where I would give in to the cash shop just so that I could gain that edge against other players.

However, there might be a way to approach this topic in an ethical manner, although it might be a little idealistic or absurd in terms of business. Being a game designer, I myself agree that my work is purely about business. I don't just make games for the sake of making people happy, I make them so that I could make money and pay my bills (well, my office games at least, not my indie ones). However if given the chance, F2P games could also be used for meaningful things while taking from those who can afford it. Instead of blatantly asking for donations from people like how most charitable institutions do, I suggest making a game that would encourage people to help the poor while enjoying a good time.

I'm thinking of designing a Robin Hood-esque MMO: something that takes money from the rich (via cash shops) and gives it to the poor (via charities and various philanthropic institutions). 10% of the purchase price would go to a certain charity every time the player would purchase something. This could lead to a new revolution in game development: Pay for a Cause (PFC). This way, the companies that developed and produced the game would still gain profit, while the players can enjoy a game that's both fun and meaningful. It would also encourage non-gamers to play the game, since it's for a good cause.

Just in case someone says "game companies wouldn't agree to that! that's preposterous", I would say, "not really". Here's why:

A completely developed and shipped PC game would cost around, say, 40 to 50 dollars per copy. An average cash-shop MMO player would spend roughly 20 dollars every two months for a good and balanced cash shop. Assuming that the MMO has been running for a year, each cash-shop player would have paid 200+ dollars for items that will boost their experience, change their appearance and some other stuff that would benefit their gaming experience. I'd say the company would have already broken even in the first seven months, and would only be worrying about server maintenance for the next few. If their MMO's really good (like Lineage 2), they'd have at least three or four years before the game becomes completely defunct.

These metrics are not completely reliable, but it's a start. This challenge is still possible, but again, it depends on the company, not the designers. We're pretty much like the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. We've got great dreams of bringing smiles to our player's faces. However, it's up to the company that will develop and produce our game whether they will opt for an ethical approach for it, or turn it into a cash-cow that will bleed the masses dry.

Thanks, and I look forward to the awesome designs that will come from this challenge!

Last edited by Graedius : 01-16-2010 at 07:04 AM. Reason: TYPOS! Because I'm obsessive-compulsive XD
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Old 01-16-2010, 10:42 AM   #7
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I think a discussion about F2P games is awesome! Right now I'm trying to outline my own thoughts on the matter.

Graedius - that is an epic idea. You could have sale weekends where the charity percentage is bumped up to 30 or 50 percent, and give people a reason to splooge on all the items they've been oogling.
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Old 01-16-2010, 10:52 AM   #8
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Graedius,

I didn't even want to mention MMOs, because they're actually even more infuriating due to the majority utilizing a strictly vertical path for character growth. Exteel does have levels, but they don't quite have the impact they have in an MMO.

When a new player stumbles into an MMO and is surrounded by high level characters in impressive gear, there's a drive to try and reach that same level of 'coolness'. In a F2P MMO, that usually means coughing up cash in addition to the usual task of leveling. Zhan Ye specifically mentions using (I'd say abusing) peer pressure to coax cash from players, and that deep-seated urge to try and fit in can lead players to get sucked in and spend money.

Even subscription-based MMOs know very well how building relationships is key to retaining players.That's why Blizzard is adding a Guild Leveling system in their next expansion; they've slowly been making most of their content accessible by un-guilded players quickly forming groups (known as Pick-up groups or PUGs), and the lack of a social structure to retain players has probably got them worried. After all, even if you're sick of the game, if you have friends who you enjoy being with and 'don't want to let down', you'll keep paying even if it's to use the game as a glorified chat program.

As for your idea of having a charity attached to F2P games, it still doesn't solve the problem of a game being explicitly designed to siphon money from the player, even if some of that money goes towards a worthy cause. From a design standpoint, it still monetizes success, regardless of where the money goes.

Look at the interview with Zhan Ye again; lack of fairness and exploiting peoples' weaknesses are all 'tools' to get money from players. People play a game to have fun and win; if you're constantly being stomped or shown up by players who have paid money, you have one option to have fun and win again; spend money. It doesn't matter where it goes; the game itself is developed to exploit players. It's better than a company taking everything, but from a design standpoint it's not ethical design.

Imagine you purchased a movie, got to the last 20 minutes, and the movie froze and required you to purchase the ending. F2P games inevitably keep real success restricted to players who are willing to shell out cash; even if the cash goes to help charities, that's not an ethical way to publish films OR games.

One other note... a lot of people play games because they offer a form of escapism from lives that aren't exciting, fair, or successful. Using built-in unfairness and monetary-based barriers to milk money from players who are looking to escape just those types of annoyances seems wrong.

Your idea of using charity is a solid idea, and if we have to suffer F2P games, at least that slightly defrays their 'evilness', but from a design standpoint it doesn't change the fact that the game intentionally punishes players who aren't as financially stable or willing to get sucked into a business model that systematically manipulates players in order to turn a profit.

I also wonder if it might be abused, however. Tacking a charity onto an item psychologically allows players to validate their purchase ("Well, it's for a good cause!"). This calls into question whether the company is using the charity to drive profits. Say we have two F2P games, MMOA and MMOB, and both are charging $6 for an item, but MMOB donates $2 of each sale to charity. Because players of MMOB can be suckered in with the "It's for charity!" sales pitch, they are likely to sell more units.

MMOB's charity 'scheme' allows them to sell 5000 units, profiting $20,000, while MMOA sells only 2500 units, for a profit of $15000. That doesn't take into consideration players who look at MMOA and say "Well, they're greedy" and jump ship to MMOB, or players who play both. It also assumes MMOA can generate half the sales of MMOB.

Also, once a player starts to buy items, it's likely they'll continue to do so ("...Give them a taste..."), and there are plenty of ways to get players to do exactly that. The Sims 3 includes a free voucher for 1000 'Simpoints', or roughly $10. However, the game launched with over $50 in micro-transaction item sets, only one of which is priced below 1000 points (and ironically, the set you could buy was pretty much a staple of the series from the second expansion).

There was over $50 worth of crap to buy before the game even went gold, meaning that content was purposely withheld for the purpose of nickel-and-dime'ing players who thought they were purchasing a complete game (as they had in the past).

If you attach a charity to a purchase, it makes it easier for players to validate the purchase and inevitably continue buying items, especially once their credit card information is entered.
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Old 01-16-2010, 11:42 AM   #9
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Retro,

Your problem with the Sims 3 and the hypothetical movie with an ending that is locked is separate from the issue of free to play games. A free-to-play game is by definition free to play without buying any content. As long as access to the game is free, you're not swindling anyone out of their money by having in-game content for sale.

I know I haven't addressed your main point about exploiting player psychology, but you should make sure you're not letting your justified resentment of swindling DLC deals fog your judgment of F2P games.
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Old 01-16-2010, 11:55 AM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by bob View Post
Retro,

Your problem with the Sims 3 and the hypothetical movie with an ending that is locked is separate from the issue of free to play games. A free-to-play game is by definition free to play without buying any content. As long as access to the game is free, you're not swindling anyone out of their money by having in-game content for sale.

I know I haven't addressed your main point about exploiting player psychology, but you should make sure you're not letting your justified resentment of swindling DLC deals fog your judgment of F2P games.
True, and I agree that I was sort of blending the two. Players are paying for their copies of the Sims 3 or the theoretical movie-with-paid-ending, so that's more of an outright scam than the bait-and-switch approach of F2P. A good point, and I'll watch myself as we continue.

I'd remove the comments from my post, but then people wouldn't know what we're talking about. Thanks for the course correction.
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