Free-to-play tips, from Triple Town's studio head

In this reprint from the September 2012 issue of Game Developer magazine, Spry Fox CEO Dave Edery expounds on the studio's successful F2P Triple Town.
In this reprint from the September 2012 issue of Game Developer magazine, Spry Fox CEO Dave Edery expounds on the studio's success with Triple Town to share some free-to-play wisdom. If you've never made a free-to-play game, you can find dozens of articles describing how to do it "right." Most of those articles harp on the same handful of issues: Make sure you're properly employing analytics and A/B testing, do everything you can to maximize your one-day and seven-day retention, and so on. Those issues are important, but in my limited experience, I've observed a whole set of major errors made by developers (including my company, Spry Fox) that rarely get talked about. So let's talk about them.

Don't assume other games are profitable

Triple Town was Spry Fox's first serious attempt at making a F2P game. We were inspired by the success of Bejeweled Blitz, which had rocketed up the charts on Facebook and was supposedly raking in the dough. Except at the time, it really wasn't raking in the dough! In reality, Bejeweled Blitz had a very low ARPU that was only offset by an enormous population of players that most games could never hope to match. Had we simply bothered to ask any of our friends at PopCap about Bejeweled Blitz, they would have honestly told us the game wasn't performing as well as we believed. But we didn't ask, and so we based our monetization design in large part on faulty assumptions. I wish we were the only studio making this kind of mistake, but I've met plenty of indies who were in process of building games inspired by Game X, where Game X was something popular but not necessarily profitable. Unfortunately, a game's popularity doesn't necessarily correlate to revenue. If, for example, Apple or Google feature a mobile title a couple of times, that's more than enough to give it a sizable audience—but that doesn't mean you can assume the game is profitable!

Don't design yourself into a corner

As of today, Triple Town only has two ways to generate revenue: We sell you turns, and we sell you items that help improve your performance in the game. Some in-game items are only available for cash, and some can be purchased with freely earned currency. Unfortunately for us, it turns out that very few people are willing to spend real money for any of the in-game items in Triple Town. More people are willing to spend money for turns (or unlimited turns in the mobile version of the game), but the percentage of paying users is still lower than we expected. All of that would be okay if we could easily come up with additional things to sell. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the game, we can't. Triple Town, as it stands today, is a single-player game with a very simple economy, limited social interactivity, and no meaningful persistence. Individually, each of these things make Triple Town harder to monetize effectively; together, they make it nearly impossible. We've been working on making the game more social, and we'll soon unveil an update that adds meaningful persistence...but these changes have taken a tremendous amount of time and effort, and their payoff is as-yet unproven. Had we started with a more spacious and fertile design, we wouldn't have hit this wall so quickly.

Don't expect recognition for your restraint.

We are proud of the fact that we chose to limit how many in-game items a player can purchase during a session of Triple Town. We made that decision in part because we wanted it to be clear to everyone that Triple Town was a game of skill, not a game you could pay to win. And certainly there have been some people who have recognized this. Unfortunately, countless others have bashed us for being a mini-Zynga and for nickel-and-diming them. We've unquestionably traded away revenue, but it's unclear what (if anything) we received in return. Most players who hate F2P games still hate what we do in Triple Town. Everyone else seems to be okay with the concept of the in-game store, regardless of whether it has limited items. In fact, plenty of players have asked us to remove the store limits because they find them annoying! In the future, we're going to keep trying to do right by players and keep trying to make games that you can't pay to win. But we won't make the mistake of assuming that we'll be recognized or rewarded for it. Make no mistake: Most people buy things in a game because they really want those things—not because they are interested in rewarding your good behavior as a game designer. The latter is called charity, and hoping for it won't get you very far.

Don't expect miracles

Right now, the mobile F2P game space is brutally competitive. Consider this: Triple Town was featured three separate times by Apple, received tons of positive press, and was generously promoted by our friends at Halfbrick in their mobile games (thanks guys!). And yet Triple Town has never broken into the top 50 free apps on iOS. This isn't the good old days, when simply being new and noteworthy could drive you into the top 20 all by itself. (If it does, it is because you got very, very lucky.) Cross-promoting with other developers won't get you there. Nor will great press. It takes all of that, simultaneously, and more, whether that's paid user acquisition, driving traffic via a web-based version of your game, or any other promotional strategies you employ. Some of your competitors in the F2P space are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars over a very short period of time to push their games to the top of the mobile charts. If you want to see your game at the top of the charts, you need to be prepared to push equally hard, or find markets that aren't quite so competitive.

The list goes on...

There are many other common mistakes that we fortunately avoided with Triple Town, but that I often observe other developers making. For example: not having consumable items as a source of revenue, excessively relying on a single platform (which is a potentially fatal flaw whether you're making paid games or F2P games), emphasizing aesthetic virtual goods instead of functional virtual goods (for more on this, see my recent GDC lecture), and so on. Making a F2P game is difficult! If you've never done it before, there's a very good chance you'll blow your first attempt. Take the time to talk to folks who have bitten the dust before you. Take advantage of the many online resources available to you. And most of all, make sure you've given yourself plenty of time to experiment and to fail gracefully! Even the best of us need that.

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