“Prototype your business model before you ever prototype a game mechanic.”
Game monetization consultant Ethan Levy opened his GDC 2015 talk on better ways to design free-to-play games with a reminder that when it comes to F2P, developers should be as rigorous in their business design as their are about their game design.
So when you're looking at creating a new free-to-play title, Levy recommends the first thing you do -- on like the second or third day of development, before you even touch your development tools -- is sit down and write out a realistic forecast of how your game will fare in the market over the days, months and years following launch. Don't just do one, either.
“The most common thing I’ve seen when someone shares a single forecast with me, is that it’s basically a fantasy,” said Levy. “It tells a story, usually ‘this game is going to be a hit,’ and it’s useless.”
Making a case for multi-case forecasts
Instead, Levy believes you should do four separate forecasts — one for total failure, two for middling levels of profitability, and one for total breakout success. Each should include at least a two-year forecast of what it will cost to operate your game and what you can expect to earn from monetizing it.
Coincidentally, that's also a good opportunity to iron out exactly how you plan to make money operating your game. Stamina boosts? Character unlocks?
“For some of my friends, incentivized video ads have become a huge part of running their business,” said Levy. “If you’re starting a new F2P game now, you should be thinking about if you want to use incentivized video ads and how they’ll fit into your design.”
Forecast for the four different scenarios, then assign probabilities to each one — how like you are to become a breakout success vs. fade away in the shuffle.
“It’s more likely than not your game will be a gigantic failure,” said Levy. “That’s just the numbers of it — hundreds of games are launched every day,” so it behooves free-to-play game developers to be brutally honest about their chances up front to save pain later -- and potentially avoid tanking the studio due to over-expectations.
Doing a game treatment
Developers might also consider charting out a “player’s journey” through their game by examining how its design accommodates players after an hour, a day, a month, a year and so on.
“It’s never too early to start thinking about how you’re going to acquire players, and how you’re going to monetize them,” said Levy. “It is my personal philosophy that these things are intertwined with a game’s design.”
Also, forecast your risks by giving your game a “pre-mortem” and asking: “If this game fails spectacularly, where will it fail and why?”
“It’s not uncommon for me to deliver a report and hear ‘oh yeah, this feature you suggest — we had that, but then we took it out,’” said Levy. Failures are rough, and they can be even rougher if you know the feature you needed was lost during development. By predicting failure points early on, you may be able to zero in on key design tenets and ensure they don't get lost in the shuffle.
Lay down a monetization strategy up-front
“What I suggest goes into a monetization strategy document…is emotions,” said Levy. “It’s my opinion tha player emotion is the key to successful monetization…what do I want the player to feel, and why will that lead them to engage with the game?”
Levy suggests that developers limit themselves at this stage — designing your game to inspire more than a two to three emotions is likely wishful thinking.
“If you say your game is going to do everything, it’s really going to do nothing,” said Levy. “Focus on a small number of emotion choices.”
And despite the suggestion that you do this sort of planning before you even touch a prototyping tool, Levy recommends that you plan out things like a product catalog (“What can your players buy? Content unlocks, consumable boosts?”) for your F2P game really early and then check back in occasionally — otherwise you risk losing focus and succumbing to design bloat.
The consultant recommends free-to-play game makers use whiteboards (or whatever else is convenient) and map out the path of least resistance. “What is the bare minimum a player could do if they’re looking through my game?” asked Levy.
After you build a mockup, Levy suggests you build a prototype with the goal of letting someone simulate a full week of gameplay in an hour or two, then run that rough simulation over and over simulating players of different engagement levels.
This design approach will encourage you to dig deep into your game’s economy (How much content do we need for avid players? How should we price our boosts?) months before you’ve reached a proper testing stage, which can save you a decent amount of late-game tweak time.
“If you do these sorts of activities early on in your game design process, you will avoid a lot of mistakes,” said Levy, who hosts template examples for conducting these design approaches over on his website. “You’ll ensure that your game’s design is integrated with a sustainable business model.”