It has often been said that good games are easy to learn and hard to master. At this years Penny Arcade Expo, Jamie Cheng (CEO of Klei Entertainment, who are the developers for Sugar Rush, Nexon’s first “built for built for North America” free to play title) notes that these principles are even more important for free to play games:
With a free-to-play game, a positive initial experience is crucial. Cheng recently played Jonathan Blow’s Braid, and very early in the game came upon a puzzle that was so frustrating he put the game down. His main motivation for returning and giving it another shot, after which he very much enjoyed it, was that he had already paid for the title.
Free-to-play games don’t have the luxury of player obligation, he says, because they haven’t made a concrete monetary investment. Games that don’t immediately grab players simply won’t be played.
For a similar reason, games need to have depth and complexity beyond their approachable entry point — after all, free-to-play games are only monetized if players keep playing them, as opposed to retail games, which are monetized as soon as the player buys them. “If nobody spends their time, we’re not going to make any money,” Cheng says.
By extension, a social experience is crucial in creating the word-of-mouth marketing that will allow the game to reach a long-term dedicated audience.
“For example, I’ve bought probably 40 additional tracks for Rock Band, as well as the N+ cooperative levels. I bought those not just so I can play by myself, but so I can play with my friends,” he says.
Longevity is also key: “We’re not trying to build a grindfest, we’re trying to build a game that grows and evolves with you,” Cheng explains.
Some social games such as Friends for Sale (a Lightspeed portfolio company) and (Lil) Green Patch take this to such an extent that many new players don’t even realize that they are playing a game, but think of the app as a lightweight communication tool. But over time thanks to smart application of game mechanics, a hardcore player base develops. Traditional and casual game designers should take note.