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Designing Freemium Titles for Hardcore Gamers

How do you get hardcore gamers interested in your free-to-play game? What is the perfect tension between compelling gameplay and frustration? Designer Pascal Luban explores the lessons he learned since moving to freemium.

December 12, 2012

21 Min Read

Author: by Pascal Luban

How do you get hardcore gamers interested in your free-to-play game? What is the perfect tension between compelling gameplay and frustration? Designer Pascal Luban explores the lessons he learned since moving to freemium.

Once upon a time...

Five years ago, an India-based studio that wanted to develop a freemium shooter contacted me. I had experience working on shooters targeted at core gamers. I was lead level designer on the multiplayer versions of both Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory, and I also designed CTF-Tornado, the leading map of the UT3-AGEIA Extreme PhysX mod. Free-to-play seemed to focus on casual gamers only -- at least that was the perception we had in the West. I wondered how they could mix.

But freemium was already quite developed in Asia at that time. I discovered that some game designs targeted at hardcore gamers are actually quite suitable to freemium gaming. My Indian client could not finance the full development of its project and eventually went bankrupt (not because of my design, I hope!) But thanks to this unexpected understanding of freemium games, I discovered a lot about them in the process. In particular, I learned three lessons:

  • Freemium is not a game genre, but a business model that can actually be applied to most game designs, including hardcore titles.

  • Most design rules of casual freemium titles are not adapted to core-focused games. That's a true paradox. The design of a freemium core-focused game must not mimic the successful design principles of casual freemium titles.

  • The real difference in design is that a freemium game should be designed as an endless and dynamic application, one that is constantly renewed.

When the craze about freemium games started in the West thanks to the successes of Zynga, Playfish and others, I knew that this new economic model would eventually affect the way we design games for our traditional hardcore audience (you can read my feature on the megatrends of game design, published in 2008).

Early observers saw in freemium games a fad that only affected casual gamers. Some developers even scorned this way of monetizing a game. They were wrong. Freemium is creeping into traditional games, and is here to stay.

Most leading publishers are seriously considering adapting some of their core-targeted IPs to this new business model. EA was one of the frontrunners with Battlefield Heroes. Valve has adapted Team Fortress 2 to this model. Ubisoft is working hard on the development of freemium versions for Ghost Recon or Heroes of Might & Magic, and Activision even signed a deal with Tencent for a free-to-play version of Call of Duty for the Chinese market.

My purpose, then, is to share the lessons I have learnt from my experience on designing freemium games for a hardcore or mainstream audience and to describe what I believe are the best practices.

First things first: The concept

A game concept leads to a set of choices that will have a deep impact on the content -- and success -- of a game. That is even truer for our concern here. When defining the concept for a freemium game targeted at demanding gamers, one must bear in mind two key points:

Be first, or be creative. The awful truth about freemium games is that you stand a much better chance of success if you are first in a given genre, or at least, the first to offer a different experience to the player. Unlike what is happening for traditional games, freemium copycats have a hard time prospering.

It is actually quite logical. Freemium games are designed to retain players as long as possible by offering them rich and complex progression trees where you invest time and money. When you have reached a high level in a game, with all the benefits it gives you, you don't want to start a new game. There won't be dozens of successful freemium shooters or car racing games on a given platform.

The alternative is to be creative -- to offer a significantly different game experience to the players. Most current shooters are suffering from a certain lack of creativity. I am ready to bet that some of the upcoming freemium shooters will revamp the genre, because this economic model will lead designers to think differently about their game. Exe Games' Brick-Force could be a good example to follow. This is a first person shooter, but mixed with Minecraft-like gameplay where the player builds his own maps.

Think service. It used to be that games were seen as stand-alone products. Recently, in order to prolong the shelf life of their blockbusters, publishers got into the habit of planning add-ons such as new maps but they remain rooted in the stand-alone logic. Modern Warfare 4 will succeed Modern Warfare 3, which itself succeeded Modern Warfare 2. You get the point. The freemium version of hardcore IPs will go one step further.

Why? Well-thought freemium games are designed as services, not stand-alone products. They have, engraved in their genes, the need to constantly upgrade themselves. World of Tanks upgrades itself every two to three months with new maps, new vehicles, and even new game modes and game engine upgrades. The game also features a so-called "tankopedia" which is regularly updated with game-related info AND historical backgrounds. If you are a tank buff, WoT is not just a game; it is a hub for your passion where you can meet other fans like yourself.

Which consequences will that have on a game concept? The key gameplay features must support a great number of meaningful variations. League of Legends offers a single game mode and only two maps, but it features a dazzling array of heroes that are all significantly different from each other.

For the freemium shooter I worked on, we focused on the side equipment of the players. The reason was simple: In a contemporary shooter, you can't introduce many variations on the weapons within one category; a handgun remains a handgun even if you alter its basic abilities. But there are a lot of gadgets and external assistance a soldier can use in the field and they can affect its tactics with more variations that a gun. We thought that could lead to much richer progression trees.

Building frustration

Frustration is what drives players to actually spend money in a "free" game. The mechanism is simple: 1) get the players to enjoy the game, 2) give them a taste for game progression through short and medium-term rewards, 3) make new progression rewards increasingly numerous AND long to get. When they cannot wait any longer, they'll start buying. There are variations around this principle, but you get the idea.

That sounds awful -- and it is hard to imagine that any gamer, in particular demanding hardcore gamers -- would break down and buy something.

But they do.

A successful freemium game is designed in such a way that the player will never resent that situation. How is that possible?

First, the game must offer genuine gameplay depth and be generous. If players feel that the game is asking for real money very early on or is offering its full features only to players that have paid, they'll quit. But that's not all; you want the player to get lots of rewards first and make more advanced ones increasingly long to obtain.

I had to face that challenge while working on the design of Kartoon, a freemium racing game currently under development at Kadank. To get players excited, I built a leveling tree that would unlock new features (new vehicles, new parts, etc.) in rapid succession first, then would make it increasingly difficult to get new ones.

If players were to unlock new features too fast, we would run out of new ones very soon, and the player would have nothing new to look forward to; but if we allowed too much time between feature unlocks, we would take the risk of losing players. Thus controlling the leveling pace was key to the monetization strategy. How did I proceed?

First, we decided to use an energy system to limit the number of races a player could complete every day. But it was not enough to estimate how many races a player would run, and how much XP he would get for each race. Our game system was designed to reward the player's performance, not his assiduity in playing the game.

That is a key difference compared to freemium games targeted at casual gamers; those games reward players for simply playing, not for their performance. Since we were targeting gamers, we had to reward skill. In order to estimate how much XP a player would get for every race, I defined three gamer profiles -- light, medium and heavy -- that differed in the number of races they would run every day, and the amount of XP their skill level would yield. Then, I tuned the various parameters in order to make sure that the players belonging to those three categories would level up at the pace we had decided.

The challenge was that game values are the same for all gamers. In order to solve that equation, I experimented with different values until I reached the following curves. Each point denotes when a player for a given profile would reach a given level. For instance, a heavy player would reach Level 5 roughly during his fourth day of game. The three curves show that all profiles level up fast at first, then at a slower rate, but without too much time between two increments. The graph was a key tool to visualize the impact of a parameter modification on the leveling curve of all gamer profiles. This way, we could initiate the frustration loop.

So, which the techniques are used to generate this frustration, and how effective are they?

Limited action. The player is limited in the number of actions he can do. To do more, he needs to wait for some action resource to replenish. This mechanism is heavily used by Zynga but is avoided by nearly all hardcore-focused freemium titles.

Mandatory time. Key actions, like building new units or harvesting resources, take time, sometimes several days. This technique is heavily used by Kabam for its hardcore strategy titles and is used in Ubisoft's The Settlers Online.

Leveling. To unlock new features, the player has to level up by accumulating XP and coins, which take time to earn. World of Tanks is a good example of this strategy but we can find it also in EA's Battlefield Play4Free.

Which technique is best adapted to hardcore gamers? I believe it is the last one. Hardcore gamers tend to play a lot; therefore the first mechanism -- limited action -- would frustrate them right away. Mandatory time is better. It requires the player to launch his game quite often in order to harvest his resources or to initiate a new construction cycle. Frequent, but short, game sessions foster addiction.

This is seen as a good thing, from the point of view of the game publisher, but I still find that mechanism too frustrating because it kicks in too early in the game before you have the time to get "hooked" on it. In my opinion, leveling works better and is easier to tune than the two previous mechanisms.

Could a freemium game work without frustration-generating mechanisms? Probably not. Battlefield Heroes is an interesting case study. Ben Cousins, former general manager of EA's free-to-play Easy studio in Stockholm, reported that initial monetization was quite poor: "metrics showed that free currency earned through play allowed players to maintain multiple valid characters for totally free." Things started to change when the team made it more difficult to access everything, thus generating some form of frustration. EA learned the lesson, and Battlefield Play4Free, which came later, relies heavily on leveling to unlock items and to upgrade the player's soldiers.

Monetizing the game: Should items give an edge?

Selling gameplay-impacting items is a controversial topic among developers. Those are items that will make the player more powerful in the game, and therefore, could give an edge in competition. Shocking? Let's debate this.

In early core-targeted freemium games published in the Western world, the developers took a great care to make it impossible for "rich" players to outgun the other ones. That was especially noticeable in Battlefield Heroes or Team Fortress 2. Items for sale were essentially cosmetic. But things changed when Easy Studio, EA's free-to-play operation in Stockholm, introduced "better" guns in 2011.

Ben Cousins, then its general manager, stated then that it had no negative impact on the game and its community -- but revenues soared. Similar gameplay-impacting items can now be found in Battlefield Play4Free; even Team Fortress 2 features a few of them.

Actually, I see monetizing gameplay-impacting items as a genuine trend: In Need for Speed World, one can buy power-ups. In World of Tanks, you can buy premium shells that feature better armor penetration.

There is no doubt that anything that could improve a player's performance in a competitive game will sell well. The real issue is how not to upset the players that don't buy such items. How do successful core-targeted freemium games manage that?

  • The foremost technique is to plan a gameplay that essentially rests on players' skills, not equipment or anything that can be acquired. In a shooter, the main skill to develop is accuracy; in League of Legends the success rests on team tactics; in World of Tanks, it is to know where to position your tank and when to move, etc.

  • A second strategy is NOT to sell items that are significantly more powerful than free ones. In those games, money can buy a 10 to 20 percent increase in performances, rarely more.

  • A third approach is not to base matchmaking on the player's level, but on his equipment. That's how World of Tanks manages to create balanced games in spite of the fact a player can buy a heavy tank without going through the long process of earning in-game credits and XP.

  • A last technique is to sell items that offer both advantages and handicaps. For instance, In Team Fortress 2, the Direct Hit is an RPG that inflicts 25 percent more damage and features 80 percent faster missiles, but its damage area is decreased by 70 percent.

What about items with no impact on the gameplay?

Cosmetic items. Those are items that have no impact on the game but allow the player to change the look of his avatar, city, vehicle, etc. Battlefield Heroes, Combat Arms, or Team Fortress 2 largely rely on this type of item. One can buy costumes, weapons, taunts, facial features, decal or tuning items for cars, etc. The choice is often dazzling. These items have absolutely no impact on the player's performance, and this technique has been the choice of early Western attempts at doing a freemium game. Recent core-targeted games are still using that family of items, but they don't rely exclusively on it anymore.

Frustration-alleviating items. These are big -- we find these in nearly all freemium games, but in vastly different forms. The idea is to sell the player items that will temporarily speed up his game progression: It could be XP (for leveling), money earned in game (to buy or repair equipment), or time (to more quickly complete the construction of a building or a unit, research, or the harvesting of a resource).

Miscellaneous items. These don't represent the bulk of revenue, but they are still worth noticing because they show the diversity of ideas that can be implemented to generate revenue. Here are a few examples:

  • Team Fortress 2 sells stamps that allow a player to show his gratitude toward a level designer that has done a map.

  • In Battlefield Heroes, one can rent a dedicated server.

  • In League of Legends, the player must pay with hard currency if she wants to change her in-game name.

Leveling tree: The neverending story

To monetize players, you want them to play for a very long time. You want the game to become part of their daily life. Making a game fun is not enough; there must be something more that will drive them to play "a few more games" every day... for months. Recently, Gameforge's CEO told the media that it makes most of its revenues with players that have launched a game at least 50 times. If you consider that a gamer plays a title once a day, that's about two months.

Scorekeeping and leaderboards are good tools to keep players committed, but they will affect a small percentage of players -- those 10 to 15 percent that are highly competitive. To get more players to play over a long period of time, especially a free game, you need a more powerful mechanism.

A leveling tree is the key feature that will drive the players to play longer. It rewards their progression. It gives them short, medium and long-term objectives. It participates to the renewal of the player's experience by introducing novelties. It greatly expands the game's lifespan by allowing the player to experiment and develop new strategies.

Good leveling trees must meet the following needs:

Offer several parallel item-unlocking trees. You want to offer players more than one leveling tree so she can begin her leveling "journey" by selecting the one most appropriate to her taste. Of course, eventually, you'll want her to progress along all leveling trees.

Build progressive acquisition curves. Make it easy to acquire initial items and then ramp up their cost. Getting the first items must be painless in order to teach the player the game system, but also to give him a taste for rewards. Then, as the player levels up, he will earn more in-game credits thanks to newly acquired items, a strong motivation to level up, but rarer or more potent items should also be increasingly expensive in order to balance the game... and to generate this frustration that will lead to monetization.

Offer a very broad choice of items. The player should have the same feeling as a child exploring a toy store, dazzled by the diversity and wealth of "toys" he wishes he could get. But offering numerous items is not enough; they must also belong to numerous families of items. This will reinforce the perception of the game depth.

Design items that matter to the gameplay. As explained earlier, this is very effective.

Clearly differentiate items from each other. This can be achieved thanks to the use of numerous and meaningful parameters.

Make the trees visible upfront. The player must be aware of the leveling trees available to him. He must see very early on in the game what he can get if he levels up.

Multiplayer or bust?

Multiplayer gameplay is a clear winner when designing a game for hardcore gamers. Current successful freemium games targeted at the core are all built around very solid multiplayer modes. However, it is interesting to note that most of them emphasize team-versus-team gameplay. That makes sense. Multiplayer game modes that are focused on deathmatch and individual gameplay are too hardcore for most players.

As a consequence, the design of those games fosters teamwork. In League of Legends, each team is made of few players that have to lay down a strategy before each game and carefully plan how they'll position their champions in order to optimize the defense of their base while attacking their opponent's. In World of Tanks, each tank type is especially suited for certain actions and must be used accordingly. Even Combat Arms, a game initially built around a team deathmatch mode, added an assault mode where a team of players has to advance as far as possible in a map filled with enemy bots.

Now, is it conceivable that a freemium hardcore game has no multiplayer, or at least, is designed as a one-player game with limited multiplayer features? I think so.

Many successful social freemium titles are construction or management games. CityVille is essentially a one-player experience. Its "multiplayer" dimension is a mere support for virality, not gameplay. So, I would not be surprised to witness the publishing of a freemium construction or management game suitable to hardcore or mainstream gamers.

Key differences with freemium social games

Freemium has established its foothold in our industry through social games. Their developers have been very innovative, bringing new concepts and game mechanics. They managed to skyrocket the number of gamers to unprecedented heights -- they literally broaden the user base of our industry. Does that mean that the design of core-targeted games has to slavishly follow their design paradigm? Of course not. Here are three design issues that must not be inspired by social game design.

Tutorials. Social games target casual gamers, or even people that have never played a video game before. Therefore they have to include powerful tutoring features that literally take the player by the hand; they are closely intertwined in the early gameplay. The player, no matter what he does, will never have to ask himself what to do and, even more important, will never face failure. Furthermore, all features are not available in early stages of the game and are progressively unlocked. As a result, early game phases tend to offer poor gameplay.

A game targeted at experienced players does not need such heavy-handed tutorials. Actually, they are a sure way to turn core players off; they are utterly boring, tend to remove all challenges from the game, and some players would probably feel insulted to be treated in such condescending ways. Some form of tutorial is needed, but it should not prevent the player from jumping directly into the full-featured game.

Social features. All casual-focused freemium games make social features an important part of their gameplay. They are indispensable to their success, since only a very small portion of players will make any purchases. You need to have a lot of them playing your game in order to generate a profit. Those games are filled up with opportunities to advertise the game to your friends so they'll become players themselves. Furthermore, casual gamers prefer to play with their own friends rather than strangers. The problem with those features is that they are often intrusive and tend to bend the gameplay in the "wrong way."

A core-targeted freemium game does not need to rest so heavily on social features. It is actually quite interesting to notice that most successful core-targeted freemium games do not use any of these tricks. They do offer internal forums, in-game instant messaging, and clan features, but they don't force the player to socialize if he does not wish to. Word-of-mouth is how core-targeted freemium games recruit new players. It actually works quite well, because hardcore gamers tend to communicate a lot with their friends.

Platforms. Freemium social games have expanded on all platforms, but they are especially prevalent on Facebook. Given their content, it is a great platform. Should hardcore freemium games do the same? There are already a few core-targeted freemium games on Facebook -- Kabam specializes in them -- but most are not present on that platform. They are either stand-alone PC applications (League of Legends, World of Tanks) or they can be accessed through a PC game portal like Gameforge or they are browser-based (eRepublik, The Settlers).

So far, the best practice seems to stay away from Facebook. Core-targeted titles aim at offering the audience the same type of game experience they are used to. Therefore, they are way too heavy to upload to the player's device every time he wants to play, which is part of the Facebook experience. Furthermore, games on that platform have developed a casual-only image that could make it more difficult to market a hardcore game.

However, things might change in the future. We are all on Facebook and there is no reason hardcore games should stay away from it. It's also clear that some developers are targeting the platform; if any break through, things could change rapidly. The real challenge is to design a game experience that will meet both the expectations of core gamers and the technical limitations of that social platform. Zynga, among others, is probably working hard to do just that.

A last few words...

In this feature, I covered the key design issues that any game designer will face when working on a freemium title targeted at hardcore gamers but if you are looking for a simple introduction to the design of freemium games, I encourage you to read my previous feature: The Design of Free-To-Play Games.

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