I have never finished a single game of Dota Underlords.
I really wanted to. See, when Dota Autochess became popular, I kind of missed the fun because I felt it to be too time-consuming, so when Valve announced a stand-alone mobile version of it, I was a bit thrilled.
So I started my first session, cautious but hopeful that I’ll finally get to find out what all the fuss was about. At first, I didn’t understand any of the things going on, but I decided to give it a chance and play some more… and more… and fifteen minutes later I started to realize with horror that my first game is still going, and I have no idea when it ends, and my break is ending, and I have another meeting, and since it’s an online game I can’t really pause it, and I closed it and never came back that day. I tried a few more times later, but with the same result.
Let’s talk about history.
When I was starting my career in game development, most games seemed to be very monolithic, either having no separators like levels or locations whatsoever or trying as hard as possible to hook you up on the story and drag you through the game in one go. What is even more important, the levels were usually unpredictably long, so you would often find yourself in a situation where you would like to play a bit more, but not an hour or two the next level would take. So you had to either leave unsatisfied at the beginning of the level, or leave frustrated and unfulfilled in the middle, or leave tired at the end of the level.
By that time I started to realize I don’t really have as much time for games as I — or the games themselves — would like to. I was reading reviews of the new FPS’ angry with the fact that there was no 20, 40, 80, 100 hours of content like there used to be while struggling to understand where I would find 100 hours of free time to spend them in the same single-player game.
That was the time when I often bought new games and rarely finished them.
Then I stumbled into a really different game.
Far Cry 3 was a revelation of sorts to me. It featured the not yet infamous tower climbing mechanic, an open world, and outposts scattered along the map. It was not the first game to do all that, but to me, it was the first game where those elements clicked together to create something more than the sum of its parts: an effective single player session-based game.
The game gave you small digestible objectives, which gave you a sense of fulfillment and, which is very important, had more or less constant — or at least predictable — duration.
So if I had a lot of time, I could climb a tower, unlock a new part of the map and explore it; if I had less time, I could storm outposts in the unlocked portions of the map.
Every outpost was a simple puzzle consisting of similar elements:
- scout the area
- find the outpost’s special features intended by a level designer, be it a caged tiger or explosive barrels
- study the patrol routes
- carefully eliminate the enemies (or go guns-blazing) and lift your flag.
The beauty of it all was that after ticking the last checkbox, I could decide for myself if I want to play a bit more and go to the next outpost (or some even shorter task), or if that’s enough for today and I can log off with clear mind.
At this time, Ubisoft games recreate that great structure with varying success, in my opinion. They tend to gravitate towards some incredible gigantism, where those session-based pieces are so thickly spread through locations so large that it becomes too much and their similarities start to be really evident — not even talking about their experiments with leveling system, where you could easily destroy a level 10 militia spearman and struggle to scratch the same militia spearman of level 20.
Nevertheless, I think that if you are a f2p developer, you should pay close attention to Ubisoft games as pioneers of translating session-based ideas to “big” single-player games.
The idea of always giving the player something to do but also giving them control over how much time they want to spend in-game at any given moment is incredibly important for mobile games. Even now, a lot of game designers don’t really think about constructing games with varying session lengths; but in great mobile games, like Supercell’s Clash Royale, they do just that.
So think about your game: if the player only has 5 minutes, can they spend them in your game and leave with a sense of fulfillment? If yes, can they stay longer?