Console Games Use “Dark” Design Too

So stop lobbing grenades at F2P

Yes it’s true, so called “free to play” games have to market themselves in real time. That makes some people uncomfortable. It’s like we’re trying to pay for a plane flight while we’re in the air, and as anyone who has flown Ryan Air can tell you, that means selling some things along the way. But you know what? Just like Ryan Air, F2P games are cheap. In fact, F2P games are free (kinda). And unlike Ryan Air, the audience can get off at any time.

Yes, the business model has an impact on content. That’s life. Is it “dark” or “deceptive” in television when they put a commercial at a dramatic moment right when you really want to see what happens next? No, it’s common sense because TV is funded largely by advertising. And if the show sucks or has too many commercials, change the channel.

Many of us working in the trenches in free to play games are tired of being maligned and attacked. We deeply seek to improve the fun and depth in our games so that we can grow and sustain our sector.

The big danger for F2P right now, isn’t “dark design,” it’s lack of innovation. The game industry thrives on new experiences, and if F2P can’t deliver experiences beyond the usual match-3 puzzler, city builder, casino game, or CCG the business will fail to meet it’s artistic AND business potential.

We know that to create durable and beloved brands our audience must get incredible value from their experiences. And not only because it’s smart business, but also because we’re passionate gamers. So we want to entertain players first and foremost— we want the audience to love their experience.

At the same time, developers of games you can download for free need some of their users to spend money along the way. Our livelihoods and our games futures depend on it. Therefore, players download them with a reasonable expectation that the game will make some choices around trying to encourage players to spend some dollar bills. It’s a balance and a new business and we’re still figuring it out.

Having worked at Zynga, I’ve seen how this balance can be difficult to achieve. Still, lots of console games also screw this up. I’ve made many “boxed” products in my career so I know that business too and I’m about to spill the beans.

Here’s where those console game may have “gone dark” and you don’t even know it:

  • The team spent half your time & budget on the first level because that’s what people will play in the free demo and will talk about at launch.
  • Then there is a bunch of filler levels or backtrack quests so you can extend the “hours of gameplay.” Too bad for your audience they already dropped sixty bones.
  • With a tight schedule, the team didn’t see fit to make a decent end sequence to its 30 million dollar app. Hey, it passed cert and who plays games all the way through anyway?
  • And if people do play through, no problem, because DLC will fill the gaping wound that is the game’s ending. Except that’ll end with a cliffhanger too…
  • Why? Because while now the team is busy making a sequel which is basically just a level pack that finally finishes the story. And you think a sad cow is emotionally manipulative?
  • The marketing department “massages reality” all day and night about the game— from the back of the box to the TV commercials to the magazine interviews.
  • Worst of all, the dev team hates the marketing team for sullying the product with these customer manipulations, yet they happily reap the benefits. I don’t want to psychologize such developers, but I understand Jungian therapy is pretty powerful stuff.

Look, imaginary scapegoat console game, I don’t like fighting like this. I dedicated my career to this industry and I know how hard it is to succeed. This industry moves so fast it can leave you reeling. One day you’re Nintendo… the next day you’re Nintendo. Consoles gave me some of my best moments in gaming, like Rez, Metroid Prime, and Bayonetta. Meanwhile the top game in F2P is called “Hay Day” and involves churning milk.

At the end of the day, we all want the same thing: to make great experiences that push the field forward. It’s not easy, and we’re all doing our best. So let’s each hold ourselves to a high standard while cutting one another a bit of slack. After all, there’s something we all have in common: one day we’ll go indie. One day…

With love,


Jordan can be found with his hand in the cookie jar and on twitter.

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