Focus on Skill in F2P Games

Apple's Editor's choice this week is CastleStorm - Free to Siege, by Zen Studios and it got me thinking about the evolution of the mobile devices we play on today.  the first year on the App Store look vastly different from what we see today.

Naturally you might say, shit evolve, get on with it - and I will. In a minute. 'Cause while the devices we play on, increasingly enable more and more complex games, what should we really focus on when trying to make a game, players actually want to play - want to spend in? As always, I focus on the making of money, and why some more complex games today fail at doing so, because of just that, Complexity.

I would like to focus and discuss game design choices and their effect on the retention and revenue -When wanting to make players spend in your game, hopefully more than once, why should you focus on skill, and not the complexity of the game?

Before I dive in, I want to explain what I mean by the two expressions, Skill and Complexity. 

Skill in this post, is pretty much what you would expect. Mechanical or mental challenges, being it puzzles, button mashing or swipe-for-your-life mechanics.  

Complexity is a bit more tricky. The depth of the game, so to speak. Being it graphically or multiple types of game play, a game can be more or less complex. Vague explanation, but you hopefully get the point.  

Disclaimer: Social Features are not included in this post. Social features has proven to be one of the best retention and revenue factors, why its affect should be not discarded, but this post rather focuses on the actual game play to spawn that potential revenue and retention - I'll be social later. 

Enough excuses! Let me give you a few examples:

Flappy Bird, Subway Surfers, Tiny Wings and Threes are good examples of a F2P experience with very low complexity; the mechanics are fairly limited and the game sticks to one type of game play. Skill is the crucial factor here, and the reason for these games' success. Common for these games is that the mechanics do not change, though some of them introduce another layer, like mission, the player is still afforded to maintain the same type  of play. The game is limited to it. And yeah yeah, I realize Threes is not F2P, but didn't really feel the need to promote the other, and the price of those specific games, won't have an impact on the retention. 

Naturally, it is a balance. While these game have shown to be a more or less successful, a game should have some complexity to engage players that play the game to have an experience an not just display skills. Telling a story and creating ownership is not to be neglected. This is why we see all of Supercell's games high-five'n each other, at the top of the charts. The diversity in the game play, building, defending and attacking is creating a whole experience, but still focusing on the same gameplay just slightly altered. 

Even a game like Candy Crush manages to do this through various success criteria, being it points, nuts, gel, the game forces the player to change tactics and display skills in a different way, adding that needed portion of complexity. Even the recent Owl levels - complexity. If it was merely a match three survival game, I don't believe that game would have seen as much success, being solely focused on skill.

Last, and somewhat least, is the games that presents too much complexity to the player - and CastleStorm - Free to Siege is a great example. The game uses its tutorial to present 3-4 different game modes, and by the time it is done, the player is not completely sure what this game is about. 

I'm playing a Tower Defense, Angry Birds and Golden Axe at the same time, and none of them are very good. Three wrongs definitely don't make a right. There are a rise in the volume of games that does this. These crossbred games that unfortunately wants to do everything at once. I cannot tell if it is the possibilities then devices enable today or just unfortunate game design - but this is probably why the game is floating around in the mid 200s on the top grossing charts in the U.S. and U.K. (Source: AppAnnie)

You cannot simply make a list of top grossing games' best features, and shove them into one game and expect success. Independent of prior titles. Find the intrinsically fun mechanics in your game and focus on skill and simplifying those mechanics. Then you can use the technical possibilities to show the player the complexity of the game, don't ask them to engage in all of it.  

Developers need to keep in mind, the platform and the audience they are creating games for. You need to explorer the premise of which we play mobile games, and focus on that, when the goal is to increase the retention and revenue, especially long-term. 

A very important point to make is that complexity and skill is very bound by time. So don't look at Clash of Clans' level of skill and complexity and go; "If I just make this twice as fast, then I have a game twice as good." No! Wash those dollar signs out of your eyes and sit down - you're missing the point completely. 

The devices we make are increasing exponentially in power, but maybe the games we play don't need to be. So hold off on making that MMO-FPS-JRPG. Just for a little while, or you will be robbin' yourself of a whole lot-a-time and money.


When Difficulty ruins the Revenue

It is safe to say that sometimes, people design games that are too darn difficult. This is, as you well know, often times a combination of two things. The game was designed by people, who are well-familiar with the type of game, they are designing. Furthermore they are rather biased by their past experiences or/and testing the game was not done on a representative target group.

If people cannot progress in your game, they are probably not going to cough up to have fun, and if the game is too difficult to have fun in, the number of DAU will likely decline rather fast. This doesn't apply to all games though. 

This is all good and obvious, but what I want to focus on is actually games that looses revenue because of the opposite; the difficulty being too low. There are several examples of this on the app store, but lets take a recent one and look at what specifically makes that game too easy to revenue.

Dwarven Den from Backflip Studios, is the editor's choice this week, the first week of may 2014, and I'd like to say, right off the bat this is a really good F2P title. Interesting gameplay, worth at least spending a couple of hours on.  

To understand the overall point, the various economies of Dwarven Den needs to be understood. The main mechanic in Dwarven Den is mining blocks. The player has limited moves to mine embodied through energy (red crystals) and uses a portion of energy each time a block is mined. The player faints if energy reaches zero. easy enough. 

Based on the player's progressively improved equipment, a starting energy is provided and crystals can be mined to replenish some of the energy spend, with no maximum limit. Besides the energy, the player can opt to use 'tech', similar to mana, to use abilities that helps the player solve the puzzles, either through guiding towards wanted objectives or clearly the path with bombs, saving the player some energy. Ok ok, you get it. Here comes the Crimes. 

Dwarven Den plays on the very effective life economy, with 3 lives to start with and a 30min downtime on each life. Very standard. Very good. But the problem occurs before the economy is even in play, because most player won't loose a life for a very long time. The game simply gives the player too much energy, through items and pick-ups in-game. 

The game was launched with 100 levels - which granted, is a fair amount - but given that gameplay sessions of each levels not being based on time, but rather actions, like moves in a match three, levels can be fairly long. Let me paint you a F2P picture.

I lost my first life on the 14th level. This was about an hour into the gameplay. An hour might seem long to get through 13 levels, but Dwarven Den offers, the selling of inferior equipment, forging of new, and buying better items for hard currency, which also inhaled some of my time in the game. While 1 hour into the initial session might seem rather ok in terms of monetization, the next lost life came all too late after that. One might argue, had I lost all lives within the next 29:48 minutes after the screenshot above, I might have been willing to pay to proceed, as the player at this point is fairly engaged. but..

I didn't loose another life until the 29th level - where I lost all three lives. Simple calculation, taking progressively larger puzzles into account we are some 3 hours into Dwarven Den by now, a session split in two I might add. 

Now, you might intuitively think that prior experience and my background plays a significant part in my level-to-life-loosing ratio, and surely it does. But going through the first twenty levels again, the challenges presented are not very difficult to overcome. 

Gameplay-vise, Dwarven Den does not do anything wrong. The player is presented with a variety of interesting choices to choose his/her own path, selling, forging and purchasing items to improve the player's chances of success. In addition, the feeling of progression is very well balanced in the game, forging a new pick axe and testing it out, presents intrinsically fun mechanics, repeatedly reengaging the player. 

Unfortunately, looking the monetization and the revenue the game generates, Dwarven Den does not manage to kick the players out of the game, leaving them lusting for more. The implemented timegate fails. Surely Dwarven Den will generate revenue, because it is a good F2P experience. The essential crime committed is that, Dwarven Den simply isn't hard enough, to reach that potential revenue through monetization and difficulty walking hand in hand. 

This is probably the reason why Dwarven Den has yet to break into the top 100 Grossing in the U.S. and UK.

There are many games like this! The important thing to take away from this, is that the design of the monetization, should not only synergize with the mechanic and the gameplay loop, but also make sure that the difficulty is balanced, to match the monetization. Otherwise you are robbing yourself of good revenue.