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Free to Play: What about Player Skill?

Why do the Top Grossing games on mobile shy away from gameplay that rewards player skill? A discussion about the use of skill in free-to-play mobile games, and how games like Candy Crush Saga control skill for the benefit of long-term retention.

As posted on my blog on Free to Play design :

Why is it that in the Top Grossing Charts on mobile there are no games with high amounts of player skill? Where are the Marios? The games that tested your abilities right to the last boss? Where are the Call of Duties? Games that allow you to play competitively online for hundreds of hours? Where are the Street Fighters? Games with so much emergence and depth there are books on how to master the complex combos for the game... Mobile renditions of these genres may have found a way to get a decent amount of downloads, but none of them have found a sustained spot on the Top Grossing on mobile. Why?

In order to be successful in free to play, you need to pace a player's progression so that they can play your game for months. For a game to enforce healthy progression for all player types, you need to be able to balance progression with high precision. The more player skill effects the outcome of your game - the harder it will be to pace players properly.

How Candy Crush handles Skill

If Candy Crush was balanced to have less luck and more skill, the game wouldn't be nearly as successful. For one, it would not have broad appeal. Players without the necessary skill levels would drag behind and leave because of the difficulty, while players of high skill would rip through the content easily without spending a dime.


Even with 300+ levels, Candy Crush needs to make sure you don't progress too quickly.

The major reason why Candy Crush Saga is successful is the way that the game paces its content. Candy Crush has a lot of levels, but even with 300+ levels, it still takes you months of engaged play to even dent the map. This slow speed of content consumption is exactly what is required to be successful in mobile free to play. A game that lasts for months (better yet, years) with a healthy pace of content to keep players engaged.  Pacing players drives strong long term retention. Long Term Retention is the most important when evaluating a free-to-play game's success. We have seen this time and time again at Wooga.

So how does King do it? How do they pace the content so well so that players only reach the 100th level after playing for a month? They do this by spiking the difficulty levels. The difficulty of levels is not a steady linear increase like in most classic games. Level 55 is not necessarily easier than level 56, level 100 is not necessarily easier than level 200. In Candy Crush (and all of the games that copied the formula thereafter) there are levels that are meant to be easy, and levels that are meant to be hard. A set of levels are designed as easy to make sure that you have moments when you are loving the game and feeling smart/powerful. However, there are also levels that happen more sporadically which ramp up the difficulty exponentially. These levels are "blocking" levels -- they are there to be extremely difficult. These levels are required to convert players to payers (give them reasons to use all those boosts), reinforce that the game is not a cakewalk, and that level progression should be celebrated, (see twitter...) but mostly so that there are levels which have to be played over and over again before you progress - pacing the content. Florian Steinhoff did a wonderful GDC presentation about this exact balance when he discussed Jelly Splash: . I'd really recommend watching it if you have vault access.

This same problem of player skill comes back to haunt game designers looking to create new genres of F2P games. How do you build these blocking levels that are so important to your pacing & monetization? If a player has a huge influence on the result of the round (whether they progress or not) then balancing for a skilled player versus an unskilled gamer would be impossible. I can beat the new Super Mario Bros. in a few hours, whilst it takes others with less experience years to do the same. How Candy Crush builds these levels is by making the chance of winning, regardless of your skill, low. Like 5 to 10% (sometimes I've heard numbers even lower). But isn't this frustrating? No! Since the game has so watered-down skill (in comparison to other genres), they can balance these levels to make sure that players consistently come close to reaching the goal. Those "near misses" everyone talks about. These keep the player feeling like they can beat the level, they just need to play a few more times or convert. With higher player skill, this becomes much more difficult to achieve.

Super Mario Saga

So let's go with a little bit of an experiment. Let's take a game that has a high amount of skill and try to pace it without resorting to "dumbing down" the mechanics or watering down the level of skill required.


Super Mario is a game everyone loves - lets assume that you could actually get the same level of control and ease of use out of a mobile version of Mario. To play the game, the player progresses along a map, working between worlds which have unique content in each world. It takes months of time for artists, designers and developers to craft each world.

We need to try to make this amount of content last for months in the hands of players as well. So how do we pace players?

First, we can try to ramp up the difficulty on some levels like Candy Crush did. This will prevent players from progressing too quickly and force them to master the game. However, then we would create a retention issue. Most players would drop out because the game is simply too difficult.

So let's add an upgrade system! A player can collect coins from playing, and then you can use coins to improve the character's abilities to pass those levels. For unskilled players - they can grind on previous levels if they need the boost, but now they can progress! 

Games like CSR Racing (Natural Motion) and Deer Hunter (Glu Games) implement upgrade systems very well. Players can upgrade their weapons or car to improve their chances of winning. Blocking levels are directly tied to your upgrade level, and grinding is a core part of the game loop.

However, in our Mario game we start to get some issues. Compared to CSR and Deer Hunter, there is substantially more impact of skill in our game. A player winning a level has a lot more to do with their platforming skill than their upgrade level. We would need to make the upgrades very powerful for players to require them to progress. Without this, blocking levels would not force players to upgrade at all, they'd just demand more skill. So in the end we have no control over the pace of skilled players (they can beat these levels with a few upgrades), and unskilled players are forced to grind a long time to keep pace. No fun.

What else can we do?

High skill games in a PvE single player environment will always struggle with pacing content. Pacing high skill players against hand-crafted level designs require adding a lot of luck or adding high-impact stats. Both methods will water down the impact of skill in a game.

Tying PVP to your progression is one way that high skill games can pace their content.

But not all F2P games water down their skill this way. Games like Hearthstone and Diamond Dash are games of high skill and have performed very well in the Top Grossing charts. These games use Multiplayer PvP to control the player skill. You may be a highly skilled player, but matching you against an equally skilled player and tying the result of this match to your progression allows High Skill games to balance out. So maybe Super Mario Saga won't work, but Super Mario Multiplayer would.

Auto Battle -- for when you only care about the item game, not the battle. 

Games like Brave Frontier, Heroes Charge, and Summoner's War put most of their Skill into the decisions made in the metagame/elder game. The skill from Brave Frontier is not in the battle. Players are asked to mindlessly tap to fight against opponents. In later stages they even have an automated mode when you bore from mindlessly tapping. The skill in Brave Frontier comes from the choices you make as a player outside the battle. Which of your characters you want to upgrade and which ones you consume. How do you optimize the build of each your characters with runes and gear. Making tradeoffs between short term gain and long term gain. 

These types of mechanics certainly take much longer for players to appreciate and master, but these are the mechanics that drive players to play for months and years.

In Summary

So what is your take away?

The impact of player skill is minor on the Top Grossing list of the AppStore.

These games have low skill because of pacing. Pacing players is required to maintain a healthy consumption of your content. Without it, your game will not last long enough for players to monetize. 

Games like Candy Crush water down skill impact with luck to properly pace players.
CSR and Deer Hunter use stats to control skill.
Hearthstone and Diamond Dash use multiplayer and matchmaking to control skill.
Brave Frontier and Heroes Charge shift the impact of skill to meta/progression systems.

But watering down the level of skill in these ways will not last forever. I strongly believe that the mobile marketplace is maturing. The current marketplace is slowly demanding more skill from their games. Players are becoming fed up with re-hashed mechanics from a couple years ago. Players can see through Candy Crush's luck-based mechanics and are not sticking to these types of games like they used to.

You can say two things -

1. I'm going to be that crazy game designer that finds the right balance. I'm going to go out and design a game with high skill that will dominate the marketplace that will shoot up the top grossing.

2. Or I will sit back with most free to play designers and continue to find ways to subtly water down skill based mechanics so that we can keep players in the game long enough to monetize and turn them into dedicated players.

Regardless of what you choose. Finding new ways to smartly add skill to free-to-play games will be the key to opening up new genres on mobile.

As posted on my blog on Free to Play design :

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