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Freemium games - Let's not forget the basics of good game design

Live ops, UX design… sites devote a lot of space to them. Without questioning the benefits of these techniques, let's not forget that they are not what makes a game exciting. Isn't it time to put the gameplay back at the center of the game?

Pascal Luban, Blogger

February 3, 2022

5 Min Read

Live ops, traffic acquisition, UX design… specialized sites devote a lot of space to them. Without questioning the benefits of these techniques, let's not forget that they are not what makes a game exciting. Isn't it time to put the gameplay back at the center of the game?

Free games pose real challenges for their developers: Short-term retention, long-term or even very long-term engagement, the transformation of "free" players, the freeloaders, into players that spend money, continuous acquisition of new players to replace those who drop out of the game. This naturally led developers to put in place the techniques that I quote in the preamble to this article, but some developers have forgotten the bases that build true retention, that which is based on the intrinsic interest of the core gameplay.

I see more and more games that illustrate this situation. Their design is built around these features, whereas the latter should only be designed to support the core gameplay.

This observation essentially applies to free games aimed at casual audiences, but it is not because we are addressing such an audience that we should not offer them quality gameplay and experience. Take Candy Crush Saga, the quintessential casual game. Offering deceptively simple game mechanics, this game meets many criteria for good gameplay: Challenges, diversity of choices, constantly renewed level design, competitive dimension, a meta level design, etc.

And if we look at free games targeting midcore players like Clash of Clans, the demonstration is even more edifying: This game continues to be one of the most profitable freemium games while its core gameplay has not changed in almost eight years! The quality of its onboarding and the live ops it offers contribute to its success but has not built it.

Ask the right questions…

How do you know if your game is affected by this issue? The first technique consists of identifying the share of the game time devoted to resource farming compared to that allocated to the main gameplay. If the latter represents only a small fraction of the playing time, you have fallen into the trap!

A second approach is to identify the main gameplay loop of your game, the one where players spend a lot of time collecting resources, the one that encourages players to grow. Then ask yourself the following question: Is this loop interesting enough on its own to keep players playing your game for months? If the answer is negative, it will be difficult for you to sustain your game.

… and provide good solutions.

If you feel your main gameplay loop is too weak, how do you improve it, or how do you build it if you are still in the concept stage? The answer to such a question deserves long explanations but, to put it simply, here are the main strategies for building your gameplay loops.

Building challenge. It is on this strategy that the vast majority of games are based: The latter offer players to overcome challenges, to demonstrate talents to overcome obstacles, and to achieve a goal. Players derive gratification because the challenge is difficult, but surmountable, and hones their talents.

This strategy can be applied to all audiences, from casual to hardcore, but it requires a level design that must be constantly renewed and offers a controlled progression of its difficulty.

Personalization. This strategy consists of basing the interest of the game on countless customization options that players unlock by collecting resources or indulging in actions that offer no challenge. It is this strategy that is at work in successful games like Cityville or Gardenscape.

Less effective than the previous one, this strategy is essentially suited to a casual audience. It offers a gaming experience without any challenge or competition. It only works in the long term if the customization options are very diversified and regularly enriched with new content.

Narration. The latter applies a well-known adage of many game designers: "The graphics attract the players, the gameplay retains them and the story leads them to finish the game". Narrative mechanics are precisely designed to "keep" their audience. A well-driven narration can give a game an endless lifespan if it is built around episodes. Murder In The Alps or Small Town Murders show that we can skillfully use narration to bring interest to hidden object or match-3 games.

This strategy can be very effective and most importantly, can be applied to many genres targeting diverse audiences. Unfortunately, it is often underrated due to its poor implementation; good scriptwriting is not as easy as it looks.

Competition. Derived from the challenge-building strategy, competition is based only on the confrontation between players. It avoids the trap of a finite number of levels since the clashes take place all the time in the same environments. It generates very strong emotions, the exhilaration of having defeated a human opponent and the bitterness of having lost!

Very effective for developing long-term retention, it is aimed more at midcore and hardcore audiences. Clash of Clans or World of Tanks are two very good examples whose success is undeniable.

My previous publications:

Progression mechanisms: Blessing or curse of modern action-adventure games? FEATURED POST

Ubisoft announces that it will develop free-to-play triple-A games: Has the French publisher gone mad or visionary? FEATURED POST

Pascal Luban

Creative director & game designer, freelance


Picture credit: BradCalkins

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Pascal Luban


Pascal Luban is a freelance creative director and game designer based in France. He has been working in the game industry as a game or level designer since 1995 and has been commissioned by major studios and publishers including Activision, SCEE, Ubisoft and DICE. In particular, he was Lead Level Designer on the 'versus' multiplayer versions of both Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory, he designed CTF-Tornado, a UT3 mod multiplayer map built to showcase the applications of physics to gameplay, he was creative Director on Wanted – Weapons of Fate and lead game designer on Fighters Uncaged, the first combat game for Kinect. His first game for mobile platforms, The One Hope, was published in 2007 by the Irish publishers Gmedia and has received the Best In Gaming award at the 2009 Digital Media Awards of Dublin. Leveraging his design experience on console and PC titles, Pascal is also working on social and Free-to-Play games. He contributed to the game design of Kartoon, a Facebook game currently under development at Kadank, he did a design mission on Treasure Madness, zSlide's successful Free-to-Play game and completed several design missions for French and American clients. Pascal is content director for the video game program at CIFACOM, a French school focusing on the new media industry.

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