The three deadly sins of f2p game design

Working since 2007 in the industry and specifically since 2012 in free-to-play, I think I have identified the three most common mistakes when facing the design of a game that have free-to-play at its core.

I consider free-to-play a fair business model, since companies have to think in a service and not just in a product. This allows a strong relationship with the client (the Player). It is true that someone tries to exploit the system to have the higher benefits in the shorter time (reaching the objective in many cases). But it is also true that the companies that achieve to build durable businesses are those that get loyal and satisfied customers.

Associated with each one of “sins”, I will include questions that in my opinion need to be raised when thinking in create a free-to-play (f2p) videogame.

First sin: Not thinking in how to make money

During the last years I have seen a significant number of companies and developers that approach the f2p model to:

  • Not worry about monetization
  • Follow the trend

It is true that the monetization of a f2p product is the hardest part, and also that this kind of services can have huge commercial success. We must not forget, anyway, that monetization is at the core focus for design, in a free-to-play service. 
The key questions to ask are:

  1. What is the sequence of actions that the players will do more frequently during play session?
    Result: Core Loop Design
  2. Why are my players returning tomorrow to play? Why do they come back in a week? In a month? In six months?
    Result: Retention Loop / Compulsion
  3. How are the resources of the game related? What is the most frustrating part? Would someone pay to ignore it?
    Result: Economy and Monetization Features.


Second Sin: Thinking too much in money

We often fall into the trap of thinking that "players, nowadays, buy anything". I saw this tons of times: people start to deconstruct a successful f2p title and start thinking that that is not a real game. I have seen this with Game of War, to make an example. This can lead to think that its core audience has some kind of "mental problem" and that they might be willing to pay for anything, once the game will be filled by people with the proper acquisition campaigns.

Part of this misunderstanding could be related to the "gamer" background of the majority of current developers, which often do not understand the motivations of new audiences, sometimes very new in terms of behavior and needs.

Free-to-play games have been the first contact with the concept of videogame for a lot of people, something unthinkable few years ago. These new players find fun, and that means value, in elements that our past experience can hardly help to glimpse.
The concept of play, like eating, drinking and other basic needs, is something very instinctive and can empower new abilities. 

  1. What is my audience, and what are their behaviors and needs? Is it possible to interview them?
    Result: Interviews and Insights. Context Competitors / Background / Gender
  2. How is the experience for new users of my competitors?
    Result: Design of the First Time User Experience 
  3. How will my game work with word of mouth?
    Result: Design of Viral Loop


Third Sin: Design for "infinite resources"

Game design is a form of design, and it should not be limited to communication, cognitive sciences, narrative, psychology, and so on. We should analyze the context in which we are working and study the requirements in terms of time, budget, quality, scope, etcetera. This is useful to find the cheapest way to achieve our goals.

For instance, It is easy to think in a "battle pass" for our game: it is the last big trend. The “battle pass” is an effective monetization technique for multiplayer games, since it adds a new layer of incomes without affecting to the balancing of the competitive experience. Anyway do not forget that this feature was developed for a product with tremendous success and a powerful gameplay. If we are in the "soft launch" milestone, for example, we should prove that our core gameplay works for the KPIs we defined. It is probably not necessary invest resources for “battle pass” in this step. We can save time and resources and focus our efforts on most important things.

In general, the questions are:

  1. How much does it cost us to develop everything necessary for the next milestone of our game?
    Result: cost and characteristic table
  2. In our market, how much does it cost to acquire new users?
    Result: acquisition model
  3. What is our next objective? And the following ones?
    Result: roadmap



Free-to-play is one of the most complicated business models to understand and it is expensive to implement effectively. It requires true understanding by the whole team. It is always convenient to start small and, with concrete results, scale the service according to its real audience. Luckily today we can get access to highly experienced professionals without any geographical limitation. The f2p game design is a hard task with visible results, measurable but hardly predictable. Metrics and iteration are key in order to define well the scope of our decisions.

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