Whether you’re developing a free-to-play game, or one that will launch with a price tag, the end-goal as professional game designers should always be to create a fun and enjoyable experience.
That being said, the key performance metrics, and how developers gauge success for a freemium game vs a pay-to-play game, are a bit different. Developers of paid-for games will typically focus on the number of copies that are being sold, while the free-to-play game creators look at the number of downloads and how long players stick around.
In terms of freemium games, the more time a player spends playing, the more likely they are to toss a few bucks toward an in-app purchase. These games typically profit from ads and the cash shop. So, the biggest concern should be designing a game that most players don’t abandon completely before they can be enticed to make a purchase.
If you ever find yourself creating a game where the size and faithfulness of your audience determines if it is profitable or a failure, consider the following tips:
Give Them A Taste Of The Gameplay ASAP
A surefire way of convincing a player to delete your game only after a few minutes is by making a dull intro. Gamers these days don’t want to sit through boring tutorials and long explanations about the game’s rules. They want to fire up an app and jump right into the meat and potatoes as fast as possible.
Most would argue that it all starts with the title and loading screens themselves. Put extra effort into making an attractive and intuitive title screen while also doing what you can to keep loading times as short as possible. Even the game’s icon should stand out so players who download several free games at a time are more likely to notice yours each time they flip through for something to play.
Even more important is the first level of the game, and, to a slightly small extent, perhaps the next few as well. As mentioned already, avoid giving players a ton of text bubbles to click through before they can finally perform an action in the game. The sooner they can get a taste of the gameplay, the more likely they are to stick around if they enjoy what they’re playing.
Consider The Average Length of Each Session
If you’re designing a freemium game, then chances are it is going to be for mobile devices. As developers have discovered since the rise in App Store and Android game popularity, people want something they can play in short bursts. This includes people looking to kill a few minutes when waiting for the bus, those that enjoy being entertained while on the porcelain throne, and so on.
This may sound surprising until you realize that a lot of mobile gamers are adults with busy lives and little time to game, not the kids that get out of school at 3PM and have the next six or seven hours free of obligations. From day jobs and family to other responsibilities, the average mobile gamer simply doesn’t have time to play a game whose session requires an hour or more.
Depending on what kind of game you’re making, go for something between a few minutes up to a half hour long. Clash of Clans is a good example because it allows you to just hop in, collect the resources waiting to be harvested, and make an attack or two in under ten or fifteen minutes. Even huge MMOs and MOBAs like World of Warcraft and League of Legends try to reduce the time it takes to accomplish certain tasks.
Pay Attention To The Market
Sometimes, even designing a superb game isn’t enough. Considering just how fiery the battle for “top free games” is on any market, not to mention the countless titles that release on a weekly basis, you wouldn’t be the first developer to craft a game that fails to retain an audience even though it is well-designed.
When this happens, it is often attributable to releasing a game that already has some serious competition. Your new mobile strategy game, for example, has to try and steal players from a game like Clash of Clans and Game of War – Fire Age, whose audiences are quite faithful. Even if you hired a gorgeous swimsuit model like Machine Zone did, you’re still looking at an uphill battle.
Since gamers aren’t likely to ditch a game they’re invested in to play something similar, even if it’s better, avoid this mistake and try to release something unique. This is easier said than done, of course, but if you’re not willing to take a risk as a game designer, you’re in the wrong industry. So, instead of putting out yet another match-3 or Subway Surfers clone, study the market and come up with a game that feels fresh enough to attract players.
Don’t Make It Too Hard At First
As discussed in our trends article “Why We Like Hard Games Again”, there are plenty of gamers these days looking for a difficult gaming experience. From AAA titles like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, to indie hits like Braid and Super Meat Boy, people are loving games that require a lot more effort and skill to complete, but also feel very rewarding.
The average mobile gamer is quite the opposite. They don’t want to boot up a game on their smartphone to suffer five minutes of dying and frustration. If anything, most people play freemium games to kill time in a way that still stimulates the mind, but is also relaxing and entertaining. This is why match-3 and simulation games have become one of the more popular cash-shop genres.
Even if you plan for your game to become harder as players progress, do your best to avoid turning players off early. Players give up fast when the first few levels are hard enough that they aren’t having any fun. This causes gamers to immediately become disinterested. A player that becomes frustrated during the first minutes of your game is very likely to exit out and never check it out again, all because the first impression was unsatisfying.
Make Sure It Never Crashes!
Who hasn’t downloaded a new game only to have it immediately crash and toss them back to their smartphone’s home screen? It’s almost as if the app doesn’t even want you to try it out. And although firing it up a second time may result in a smooth experience, the user might have already found that small occurrence annoying enough to never try opening your app again.
It’s unfortunate to say that finding a bug in a game is no longer surprising. Instead, we’ve come to expect even AAA with large beta testing teams to release with plenty of problems. Assassin’s Creed: Unity or Halo: The Master Chief Collection are good examples. It goes without saying that glitches and bugs can not only lead to players abandoning your game, but also convince them to tell their friends not to check it out at all.
So whether you’re working on a freemium title or any other type of game, do your best to make sure the experience (especially the beginning) is as flawless as possible. Most developers fail to do this because they underestimate the amount of time they’ll need to polish their project. Avoid this grave mistake by bringing in testers to detect problems early on. Also give yourself ample time to focus only on finding and fixing bugs.
Avoid Huge Difficulty Spikes
One of the trends that many free-to-play games have adopted is making the game very easy at first. This guarantees that players will get sucked in and become invested after spending a decent amount of time. That’s when the rise in difficulty comes, forcing players to either wait a lot of time, do a lot of repetitive grinding, or spend money in the cash-shop.
This may sound like a good way to get some revenue via paid items and features, but there is also a risk. There’s a chance that players will become frustrated by their inability to continue at a fun and smooth pace without spending money. And when a player becomes frustrated, more often than not they give up on a game.
They key is to work toward delivering an escalation of difficulty that seems fair to the player. In other words, don’t take your audience for chumps. When they run into a boss that’s impossible to defeat without grinding or cash-shop investments, they know it’s the developer saying “buy something!”
Be Active When It Comes To Updates
If you’re developing a freemium game that depends on social and multiplayer elements, you want your audience to grow bigger and bigger. That means you need to not only draw in new players, but also make sure you retain the old ones as well. As many of the top free-to-play games have shown us, nothing does this better than frequent updates.
Having updates on a regular basis makes the game feel more alive and fresh. On the other hand, infrequent updates will lead to the game feeling stale and boring, resulting in people ditching your game for something else. The top games never go more than three months without an update, and some offer something on a monthly basis.
At the same time, you’ll want to make sure the updates are actually substantial and interesting. Instead of bonus coin events or discounts on cash shop items, offer new features, gameplay modes, and so on. Adding a new way to play might be more work than creating a new costume, but it will keep players around by keeping them entertained and anticipating whatever may come next.