Lead dev of Frozen Synapse explains how F2P negatively affects game design

Free-to-play business model has taken off in the recent years and that’s only because it has the potential to generate a lot of revenue through in-game micro-transactions.

That also creates a lot of problems and isn’t an efficient way of designing a game, according to Ian Hardingham, lead developer of Frozen Synapse. He believes that it leads to dilution when game designers think about how much fun players should have in a particular section and how much content they should lock away so that it leads to more spending.

Player retention is a term most F2P developers think about when designing a game, the entire business model depends on players getting addicted to the game and spending more to get more value from it. Some games nail this aspect perfectly while others fade away after being relevant for a year or so.

Hardingham does believe F2P is the future and revealed that “every F2P game released on the iPhone grosses $1 million a day.” There’s a reason why so many developers have chosen F2P, and even big ones like Crytek have been really optimistic about that business model.

“I think it’s difficult to design an F2P game without constantly being influenced by the payment model,” he wrote on the Mode7games website.

“When I’m making a game, I only have to worry about whether the game is fun.  And that, honestly, is hard enough – I can spend weeks with a designer’s block; trying desperately to work out what’s missing from a certain mechanic.  I can’t imagine what it would be like having to balance that most crucial element – make the game fun – with several others based on getting my players to pay and pay often.

“The worst aspect to F2P design is the desire for players to play for as long as possible.  We call this “retention” in the business.  Retention doesn’t want you to enjoy the game – it wants you to be addicted to it.  It wants you to play it compulsively.”

This is something that is a major concern for publishers and developers. Retaining players is difficult and a hard thing to achieve because of so many alternatives available on the market. They just could move to something else after playing their game for a short while.

“A bit of retention is a good thing.  I don’t want to sell you a game which you only enjoy for ten minutes,” he wrote. “But when you start prioritising volume of player time over quality of player time, then you start asking yourself all sorts of bad questions: is this section too fun?  Could we make this last longer with the same content?  You start diluting, basically.

“More fundamentally, at every point in an F2P game you’d like to say to the player: you are having some fun now.  If you pay us some money, you can have more fun.  How is that a good thing to design around?  When I’m designing my old-fashioned pay-once game, I’m saying: I’d like you to have the most fun, all of the time.”

Basically what he is trying to say is that, developers should not compromise design and stick to making games fun to play, and implement the payment model after they have created the game. There are ways to implement micro-transactions without negatively affecting design.

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