Ten triple-A mistakes and how free-to-play developers can avoid them

Ten triple-A mistakes and how free-to-play developers can avoid them
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

October 10th 2013 at 3:39PM

F2P Summit: GamesBrief's Nicholas Lovell explores the differences between freemium games and traditional production

Free-to-play games developers must avoid triple-A thinking if they want to make their games a success.

That was the message of a talk by GamesBrief's Nicholas Lovell during today's F2P Summit in London. Entitled 'From AAA to F2P: 10 Common Mistakes and How To Fix Them', the analyst detailed why traditional procedures are holding back bigger publishers from success in the free-to-play market.

1. They keep the same greenlight process
Triple-A publishers suffer from a long-winded and rigourous greenlighting process before any project that gets off the ground. This can often cost more money than some smaller firms spending on launching free-to-play titles.

Lovell encouraged F2P developers to keep their greenlight process simpler, in order to focus investment on game development.

2. They use checkbox marketing
This is the process of building a game aroun the elements that will best sell it. Is it in a popular genre, like shooters? Does it have good box art? Is there a companion app or paid DLC? Will there be multiplayer? Does it borrow from titles that have been popular recently?

Trying to tick as many boxes as possible ratchets up production costs unncessarily. For example, the cost of triple-A development can increase significantly if they have to spend months making a multiplayer.

Free-to-play developers were advised to avoid this box-ticking. While triple-A games are focused on 'games as a product' and making as much money as possible on Day One, F2P titles can focus on 'games as a service' and the long-term possibilities.

3. They misunderstand risk
Lovell discussed four types of risk: Operational, Financial, Creative and Business Model.

Operational Risk centres around making sure a game is the best possible quality to give it the best chance of winning over more gamers. This can be helped by spending more time on development or investing in QA, which increases Financial Risk.

Creative Risk is about making your game different to other titles, potentially making it niche and limiting the audience, but broader marketing can help - again, increasing Financial Risk.

Business Model Risk is releasing a game with a different monetisation model like free-to-play and risking the possibility that no one will pay for in-game items. Again, this increases the Financial Risk.

"You need to minimise the cost of getting your game in front of a large number of consumers," Lovell urged, stressing that free-to-play firms shouldn't take unnecessary financial risks.

4. A prototype is not a vertical slice
Lovell argued that most triple-A demos or prototypes don't show why the game is fun or good. They show the features that the marketing team will be able to sell: explosions, sexy female characters, multiplayer.

In the free-to-play market, a prototype should be a more representative vertical slice, it should show why the game is fun and why people will play it.

5. Pizzazz not polish
Rather than focusing on impressive art that makes the game look better than rivals - the example given was the ice crystals that form on the face of Dead Space 3's hero - free-to-play developers should instead focus the graphical sheen and polish on making the player feel good when rewarded.

For instance, My Horse sends stars and other symbols floating around the screen every time users accomplish something, even if it is as simple as finishing an appointment mechanic (such as Farmville's timed harvests).

Lovell encouraged developers to reward players both visually and mechanically as often as they could, punish them rarely, and this will compel more users to continue playing or keep coming back.

6. Stop relying on assets
Similarly, he urged freemium developers to spend less time and money on new assets and artwork. The focus should be on the mechanics and the aforementioned prototype, the reasons that players will enjoy games.

"Obviously, I'm not saying art isn't important," he added.

7. Kill the tutorials
If triple-A games are movie events, something players are already invested in emotionally and financially before they start, they can survive a lengthy and laborious opening that takes 45 minutes to set up the premise and mechanics of the game. As with movies, people are unlikely to walk out if the beginning is bad.

Free-to-play games, Lovell claimed, are more like television. Developers only have a brief moment to grab users because none of them are invested in the title when they begin playing.

Lovell advised that studios only have one minute to teach players why they should play their game. And rather than piling this minute with formal tutorials on the games mechanics, it should focus on demonstrating the more enjoyable features that will keep players coming back.

8. You can only iterate if you see the whole thing
Some triple-A studios split their attentions, with teams focusing on different mechanics, modes or levels and by the time it all comes together, it's too late if you realise the game is flawed or less enjoyable than it should be.

F2P developers need to take into account the entire experience, balancing everything to ensure no single change alters the way the game operates or how much users will enjoy it.

9. It's not about monetisation
The businessmen behind some triple-A games may focus on whether or not a game can acquire or monetise customers, but Lovell suggests it is more important to focus on how you retain them.

"You need to keep your consumers, it's all about retenition," he said. "To drive retention, you have to make people love what you do and love your game."

10. The Core Loop is important, the Retention Game is more important
Lovell suggested that free-to-play can be summed up with a pyramid structure.

At the bottom is the Core Loop, the actions that players take to play the game, such as battles in Clash of Clans or puzzles in Candy Crush Saga. It's the core of the game that you focus on when describing your title to someone. This is important for the aforementioned prototyping.

The middle layer is the Retention Game, the mechanics and psychological tricks that keep people playing. For example, Candy Crush Saga's match three puzzles are nothing new, but a map that represents progression, or the ability to earn and send more love to your friends is unique to that title.

Lovell argued that triple-A publishers throw money and assets at the Rentention Game, such as multiplayer, whereas they should focus on the mechanics that encourage players to return to their title.

The top layer of the pyramid is the Super Fan Game, the aspects that appeal to the users who will drop hundreds of pounds on a free-to-play game. While these super fans are encouraging and lucrative, they are not the most important users because they are a minority.

Free-to-play developers are encouraged to not even think about the Super Fan Game because without a strong Core Loop and even stronger Retention Game, your title can't hope to attract them.