Designing a Free to Play game doesn’t mean you have to sell your soul

Just because you’re designing a F2P game doesn’t mean you have to hate it

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a game development podcast, and the guest developer said something that caught my interest: “I don’t really like the way [Free to Play] plays out, and I don’t think any developers do, right? They wanna make a game, and having to think about where you’re gonna shoehorn advertisements into, or how you’re going to trick people into playing more based on the amount of ads shown, (…) and I don’t think anyone likes it”. A couple episodes later, another, completely unrelated guest echoed the sentiment.

It’s no surprise to anyone that Free to Play as a model has a stigma attached to it, you don’t need me to tell you that. What bugs me is the notion that F2P games must be the exploitative, whale-fishing behemoths the model is known for, and that because of this notion, there is no enjoyment to be had designing a game for F2P. I might be a bit skewed though, since I enjoy the act of making a game, even if I don’t particularly care for the game itself, but nonetheless I believe that with the right mindset and the right approach, you can make a F2P game that won’t make you feel like a mercenary, and that won’t insult your player’s experience. Note: this article focuses on mobile games, but there is still a lot that can be applied to more traditional games.

First of all, let’s get the obvious out of the way: not every game is suited for every F2P technique. Some games aren’t even suited to be F2P in the first place. Notably, more “traditional” single player games, with a beginning and an end, tend to be a poor fit for F2P, as there is rarely an incentive to return after completing it, and things like advertisements can break immersion. So yes, sometimes it’s better if you just offer a fixed price for your game. It comes with its own benefits as well: a player that had to pay in advance for the game is more likely to stick around and see more of the game through than one that didn’t pay anything, as they have already invested some money in the product.

Secondly, Free to Play has to be decided at the start of the project, and the techniques must be innate to the design. Leaving it for last causes the “shoehorned advertisements” effect that break the experience, and then you’re back to having a game that annoys your players and takes them out of the game. When you apply a F2P philosophy to the game from the beginning, you are able to better judge which mechanics benefit from it and which don’t, and have better odds of ensuring your game is not losing focus or making compromises for the sake of the bottom line.

Thirdly, first impressions matter. A lot. As I said before, a paid customer has more incentive to push through content they might not be enjoying, but a free customer doesn’t have any. Fickle players are part of the nature of Free to Play games, and I don’t mean it as an insult. If the initial experience isn’t top notch, if the game isn’t engaging from the very start, you’re at a high risk of losing your players before they even “get to the good part”. After all, what reason do they have to keep playing a game that isn’t being enjoyable? They could just download another, more fun F2P game instead. So make sure that your game’s first moments are gripping, that the player can get to the action fast, and that they can understand what’s going on even faster, and that they can understand it without long, text-heavy tutorials. That means a lot of playtesting with potential users.

Ok, but how do I make sure I’m making the best use of the tools F2P design provides and not turning off my player with them? I propose analyzing a study case of one of the games that, in my opinion, makes the best use of the 4 most common F2P practices (advertisements, premium advertisements, microtransactions, and time gates). That game is Pac-Man 256, by Namco Bandai.

For those who don’t know, Pac-Man 256 is a mobile game that blends traditional Pac-Man with the endless runner genre. In it, Pac-Man must run up an endless maze, collecting pellets and items while avoiding ghosts and outrun the infamous 256 glitch, which consumes the level from below at a steady pace. That’s the basic premise of the game: run up, collect pellets, die, restart. But around this basic premise there are layers and layers of mechanics.

There are dozens of power-ups in the game, ranging from laser beams and bombs to stealth, but only three of them can spawn in a given run. Which power-ups can be spawned are defined by the player, at the start of the game. These power-ups are fairly optional and don’t really make or break your run, but they’re fun additions on top of the classic large pellet that lets you eat ghosts (which can always spawn).

And that’s where the first retention mechanic of Pac-Man 256 is: you start with a single power-up, and all other power-ups are locked behind a time gate. Once the timer (which runs in real world time rather than in-game time) reaches zero, a new power-up is unlocked, and the timer for the next one starts ticking, always progressively longer than the previous one. You must enter the game to claim the new power-up before the next one starts ticking though, and that’s how the game encourages you to keep coming back. This process cannot be sped up by any means, which is important, because long-time retention is more important than a microtransaction. If someone just bypasses your progression system with a simple purchase, they won’t have a big incentive to stick around much longer, and the burst of income provided by that player is likely less than what you could have obtained over time from the same person. Remember: the idea of retention mechanics is to make playing your game a habit, something the player will eventually go back to not because they need to, but because they are used to it and enjoy your game.

Another retention mechanic of Pac-Man 256 are daily challenges. The game gives you a simple, generic challenge (eat 3 strawberries, use the laser power-up 5 times, etc.) to complete each day (or rather, each unspecified interval of time). The challenges retain progress through runs, and they aren’t replaced until you complete the current one. That means that the player doesn’t have to worry about losing progress if they die or if they have to stop playing. There is no rush to complete them. And what do these daily challenges unlock? Coins, of course. Coins to spend in the game, which is where the game’s economy comes in.

There are exactly two types of microtransactions in the game: buy a bonus that lets you earn double coins for a period of time, and buy alternative skins for the game. Those skins can also be purchased with coins (2048 of them, which is a considerable amount of playtime for free players, but not unachievable), and the bonus effect also comes with 2048 coins (which you might recognize as exactly the amount needed to buy a skin). Coins can be obtained by collecting them as you run through the game, by completing the aforementioned daily challenges, and by watching a premium advertisement (which grants you 64 coins). These coins can then be spent on continues (if you lose a run, you can restart where you died), incremental upgrades to your power-ups, as well as the alternative skins.

The important thing to highlight here is that the entire economy is secondary to the game itself. You don’t really need new skins, and they’re not even the primary reward of the game. The power-up upgrades are so minimal they’re barely noticeable, and they can be easily maintained with just the coins obtained through normal play. You could argue that paying for continues is “pay to win”, but Namco has an answer for that as well: instead of paying with coins, you’re offered the option of watching a premium ad to continue your run (for those unaware, premium ads are 30 second videos that the player watches to earn some in-game reward). But again, the core game cycle of play, lose, repeat is never broken. None of these things make you feel gimped during playthrough if you don’t pay or if you don’t watch ads. The game respects your option to not want to be involved with F2P mechanics if you don’t want to.

There is one thing the game does, however, to ensure it earns at least some money from their players, and that’s regular ads. Regular ads are by far the most common F2P mechanic, because they’re simple and can be easily dismissed by the player as soon as they appear. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be some thought into implementing it. Pac-Man 256 spaces out the showings to only happen once every few runs, to keep the player from being showered with ads. It also makes it so the ads play before the run starts, rather than at the end. This helps remove the feeling that the advertisement is a punishment, on top of having just lost the game. Putting it at the start has almost the opposite psychological effect, that the advertisement is just an “entry fee” for your next runs. One that costs the player nothing but the few seconds it takes them to close the ad.

All these mechanics work together in a way that is highly effective, while also being very respectful of the player, their time, and their wallet. The most important thing to stress though is why all these things work, because it wasn’t chance and just adding these things to your game won’t guarantee they work on your game. First and foremost, Pac-Man 256 is a fast, simple game that can be played in short bursts and has virtually infinite replay value. That in itself already makes it a good candidate for F2P. Regular advertisements are used sparsely and placed in a way that it doesn’t try to bother the player while they’re already playing the game, but rather get it off the way before the session starts. To ensure player retention, a critical point for any F2P game, Pac-Man 256 uses time gates that cannot be bypassed, but ensures that the first few upgrades are unlocked incredibly fast, giving the player enough tools to play around with customization from the get go. It doesn’t split its currency between paid currency and free currency: coins are coins, and you earn them by playing or by buying them (through watching videos or through actual purchases). It also doesn’t really make a big deal of the things you can spend those coins on: making an upgrade last an extra second is hardly game-changing, and it costs so little that you can easily upgrade your favorite power-ups without ever watching an advert. The continue/retry option at the end of a run is offered both in coins and as a premium ad, giving the player the choice on how it prefers to pay for a retry, or even not retry at all and instead start a new run. The only thing that could be considered prohibitive for a purely free player are skins, given the cost in coins, but even then they’re a purely cosmetic addition to the game, the actual gameplay is left untouched.

The reason Pac-Man 256 succeeds is because its developers were primarily concerned with making a good game. The balance wasn’t compromised to force the players’ hands into watching advertisements, the gameplay wasn’t compromised to fit microtransactions. Knowing from the start that their game would be Free to Play allowed the developers to better scope, measure, and control how to apply F2P practices to their game in a way that felt natural and as unintrusive as possible. It allowed them to craft a game that didn’t have to make compromises to “shoehorn” ads and microtransactions at the end of the development cycle. It allowed them to provide players with a game that is both free to play and not greedy. And it provided evidence that yes, you can develop a Free to Play game without selling your soul or feeling like you’re working on a con job.