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Dragon Age Legends developer's tips and tricks for free-to-play

Ethan Levy, recently of Quarter Spiral, shares his tips and tricks for building free-to-play games, from smooth monetization to allowing players to peek behind the curtain and try before they buy.
Ethan Levy, formerly developer on Dragon Age Legends, is now a free-to-play consultant. He travels to various game studios, and as he says, gives people who feel uncomfortable with the idea of free-to-play permission to make a game using the model. At GDC China, he gave audiences some tips. One of the biggest problems, he says, is that "quite often the user interface doesn't make it easy for a player who wants to spend money to spend money. They have money in their pocket, they want to spend it, but they have no idea how." This happened on Dragon Age Legends, he says, where others in the EA office told him they liked the game, but weren't sure where the shop was, or how to even pay for things. Bejeweled Blitz, for example, is the free-to-play version of the match three juggernaut. As soon as you complete a game, you see a social leaderboard. So you rank yourself against other players immediately. Click past that, and you see a consumables screen, where you can spend money for boosts. It's very quick, and very straightforward. In Punch Quest on the other hand, you fight, run, punch monsters, and when you complete a round, you see a missions screen, and then click through to a points screen. "This screen is not great," he says. "It has a lot of numbers, a lot of stats, a lot of buttons and a lot going on, and I don't really know what to do, and I don't know where to spend money. I have to click the shop button, then click another button, if I want to spend money or my coins on consumable items." In Bejeweled Blitz you know how many coins you have on the same screen, and there's a button to add them right next to it. In Punch Quest, it's nested in menus, and your coin balance isn't shown to you. "Shopping is marginalized, it's hidden within the game," Levy says. "The people who spend money are the people who play 50 sessions or more," he says, so commitment really matters. "Make sure you can have a long term relationship with players that lasts not only weeks, but months and years," he says, but don't put up frustration gates. "To me the key to monetization is emotion," he says. "You've got to unlock some emotion in a player to get them to spend. Dragonvale does a great job of creating an emotion in its core loop," specifically impatience, to things up, but also exhilaration with rare drops. "It's a very good moment of tension and release," says Levy. Most importantly, spending money has to equal more fun. It should be like this, he says; "Here's this thing. If you buy it, you will have a better time. A lot of times, you spend money and it doesn't fulfill the promise, and it that happens they'll stop playing you game, and start playing another." "Let people know what it will be like if they spend money," he says. Show them how to spend, and the effects of it. CSR Racing, for example, lets players test drive powerful cars they could potentially buy. Mix permanent goods like that, with consumables, and you have a recipe for success. "I think it is prudent for a game to have a mixture of both permanent and consumable goods," he said. "I think not having the right amount of consumable goods can doom a free to play game."

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