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分享针对硬核玩家设计免费游戏的经验

发布时间:2013-02-10 08:20:38 Tags:,,,,

作者:Pascal Luban

五年之前,有家想开发免费射击游戏的印度工作室联系了我。我拥有硬核射击游戏开发经验,曾是《细胞分裂2:明日潘朵拉》以及《分裂细胞3:混沌理论》多人模式版本的主关卡设计师,我还设计了UT3-AGEIA Extreme PhysX模组的主要地图CTF-Tornado。免费增值模式似乎仅适用于休闲游戏——至少在我们西方开发者看来是如此,我想知道如何将它们混合在一起。

但当时亚洲已经出现许多免费增值游戏了。我发现有些硬核游戏设计其实也可以同免费模式兼容。不过我的印度客户最后并没有筹集到能够完整开发项目的资金并最终破产(希望这与我的设计水平无关!)。但得益于对免费游戏设计的了解,我在这一过程中获得了许多新发现。尤其是以下三个经验:

*免费模式并不是一种游戏题材,而是一种商业模式,实际上可以运用于多数游戏设计,其中包括硬核作品。

*但多数休闲免费游戏的设计原则并不适用于硬核游戏。免费硬核游戏不可效仿成功的休闲免费游戏设计原则。

*真正的设计区别在于,免费游戏设计应该采用无尽模式,以及持续更新的动态应用属性。

由于Zynga、Playfish等公司在此领域的大获成功,免费游戏开始在西方大为盛行,我知道这种新型经济模式最终会影响我们针对硬核用户设计游戏的方式。

早期的观察者认为免费游戏只是一时热潮,只能影响休闲游戏玩家。有些开发者甚至鄙视这种游戏盈利方式。但他们都错了。免费增值模式正在向传统游戏领域渗透和蔓延。

多数领先的发行商都在认真考虑根据这种新型商业模式调整自己的硬核原创作品。EA旗下的《战地英雄》就是其中一只领头羊;Valve也据此调整了《军团要塞2》;育碧也在致力于开发《幽灵行动》的免费增值版本,动视甚至与腾讯签约向中国市场推出免费增值版本的《使命召唤》。

幽灵行动(from gamasutra)

幽灵行动(from gamasutra)

我撰写此文的目的是与各位分享我针对硬核或主流玩家设计免费增值游戏的心得,以及我所认为的最佳设计原则。

最重要的是理念

游戏理念会生成将对游戏内容以及游戏是否成功产生深度影响的一系列选择要针对一群难以取悦的玩家确定免费游戏理念,开发者有两个要点要牢记在心:

要抢占先机,或者具有创意。关于免费增值游戏的一个残酷事实就在于,如果你首先打入一个特定题材的游戏市场,或者至少是第一款为玩家提供独特体验的游戏,那么你就会更有胜算。与传统游戏模式不同的是,效仿他人的免费游戏都不会太长寿。

这一点很容易解释。免费游戏的设计宗旨就是通过提供丰富而复杂的进程系统,尽量留住玩家,以使他们不断向游戏中投入时间和金钱。当你在游戏中上升到一个很高的等级时,你就会因为从游戏中获得了许多好处而不愿轻易投入其他新游戏的怀抱。在一个特定的平台上,一般都不会同时出现太多成功的免费射击游戏或赛车游戏。

另一个方法就是发挥创意——为玩家提供独一无二的游戏体验。当前多数射击游戏的一个通病就是缺乏创意。我打赌有些即将问世的免费射击游戏将会重塑这一游戏类型,因为这种商业模式会促使主设计师去思考不同的设计方式。Exe Games的《Brick-Force》就属于这种典型,它是第一人称射击游戏,但混合了《Minecraft》式的玩法,支持玩家创建自己的地图。

提供出色的服务。过去的游戏通常都是一次性产品。但现在为了延长游戏热作的生命周期,发行商已经习惯于发布新地图等额外内容,但这种做法仍未摆脱一次性产品的思维。《现代战争4》延续了《现代战争3》,而后者又继承了《现代战争2》。免费增值版本的硬核游戏在此则会更有突破性。

为什么?优秀的费增值游戏在设计之初就会考虑后期服务,而不是将其次为一次性产品。这类游戏需要持续更新,《坦克世界》每隔两三个月就会更新地图,交通工具甚至是游戏模式和游戏引擎。这款兴游戏还推出了所谓的“tankopedia”功能,定期更新与游戏相关的信息以及战争背景。如果你是个坦克迷,《坦克世界》对你来说就不单只是一款游戏,它还是你同其他坦克粉丝交流想法的重要平台。

这又会对游戏理念产生什么影响?核心游戏玩法必须能够支持一系列有意义的变化。《英雄联盟》仅提供一种游戏模式以及两个地图,但却有一系列各不相同的英雄角色。

在我参与的免费射击游戏中,我们关注的是玩家的附带装备。原因很简单:在一款现代射击游戏中,你不可以为同一类型的武器引进多种变体,就算你更改了基本性能,手枪也还是手枪。但士兵在战场上却可以使用多种配件和额外辅助道具,因为这些道具比手枪更能影响战术。我们认为这可以产生更丰富的进程系统。

制造挫折感

挫折感正是促使玩家在“免费”游戏中花钱的动力。这个原理很简单:1)让玩家喜欢上游戏;2)通过短期和中期奖励,让玩家从游戏进程中尝到甜头;3)持续制造许多并且冗长的新进程。当他们没有耐心等下去时,他们就会开始掏钱。这一原理有多种变化形式,你只要领悟其中精髓即可。

这听起来很可怕——因为我们真的很难想象,任何游戏玩家,尤其是要求甚高的硬核玩家会中断游戏并掏钱付费。

但事实确实如此。

成功的免费增值游戏就是能够以不让玩家抵触的方式,鼓励他们付费并持续玩游戏。这究竟是为什么呢?

首先,游戏必须慷慨提供真正丰富的玩法深度。如果让玩家感觉游戏过早开口要钱,或者只有玩家掏钱时游戏才肯提供完整功能,那么玩家迟早会离开。除此之外,你还得让玩家一开始就获得许多奖励,并让他们花更大力气去获得一些更高级的奖励。

我在设计《Kartoon》这款免费赛车游戏时就遇到了这种挑战。为了引起玩家的兴奋感,我首先建造了一个可连续快速解琐新功能(游戏邦注:如是新汽车、新零件等)的升级树,然后持续增加玩家获取新功能的难度。

如果玩家过快解琐新功能,我们的新内容很快就会被他们耗尽,他们之后也就没有什么新内容可期待,但如果每次解琐新内容的间隔太久,那就很可能流失用户。因此控制好升级速度正是这类游戏的盈利关键。我该如何开始?

首先,我们决定使用一个能量系统去限制玩家每天可完成的的竞赛次数。但这并不足以计算玩家能够完成的竞赛次数,以及他每次所收获的经验值。我们的游戏系统设计意在基于玩家表现给予奖励,而不是因其勤于玩游戏而奖励。

这正是硬核免费游戏与休闲免费游戏的关键设计区别。休闲游戏会为玩家简单的游戏操作,而非表现水准提供奖励。而我们瞄准的是硬核游戏,所以应该为他们的技能提供奖励。为了计算玩家每场比赛能得到多少经验值,我根据玩家每天的比赛次数,其技能水平所能收获的XP值而确定了三种玩家类型——轻型、中度和重型。然后我就会调整不同的参数,以确保这三类玩家能够以我们确定的速度进行升级。

这里的挑战在于,对所有玩家来说,游戏价值都是一样的。为了解决这个等式,我试验了不同的数值直到获得以下曲线为止。每个点代表特定类型的玩家达到特定等级。例如,重型玩家可能在第四天玩游戏时就能升到第五级。这三个曲线显示了所有类型的玩家一开始升级都很快,之后速度有所减缓,但在两个增量之间并没有耗费太多时间。这个图表是观察所有玩家类型升级曲线的一个重要工具。通过这一方式,我们能够初步了解玩家的受挫环路。

f2p_lubanchart(from gamasutra)

f2p_lubanchart(from gamasutra)

那么,我们该使用哪种技巧创造挫折,它们的效用如何?

*限制操作。让玩家受限于操作次数。让玩家等待操作资源重新填满之后再执行操作。这一机制常见于Zynga游戏,但基本上是硬核免费游戏所回避的做法。

*强制延时。关键动作,例如创建新单位或收获资源,这些都要耗费一定时间,有时甚至是数天时间。Kabam硬核游戏经常使用这一技巧,育碧的《The Settlers Online》也同样同此。

*升级系统。为解琐新功能,玩家需通过积累XP和钱币而升级,这两种东西都需要花时间。《坦克世界》就是这一战略的出色典型,EA的《Battlefield Play4Free》亦是如此。

哪一种技巧更适合硬核游戏玩家?我认为是最后一个。硬核玩家一般会花很多时间玩游戏,因此第一个机制(限制操作)可能马上就会让他们抓狂。强制延时会好一点,但它要求玩家时常登录游戏以便收获资源或者开始新的建设周期。频繁而短暂的游戏会话可令人上瘾。

从游戏发行商角度来看,这似乎是一个不错的选择,但我还是觉得这个机制太令人抓狂了,因为它在玩家尚未被游戏所“着迷”时就急于要钱。在我看来,升级系统会更合适一些,并且也比前面两种机制更容易调整。

如果没有产生受挫感的机制,免费游戏还会可行吗?可能不会。《战地英雄》就是一个有趣的案例。EA免费游戏工作室Easy前总经理Ben Cousins就曾指出,该游戏最初的盈利性很差:“数据显示玩家通过玩游戏所收获的免费货币就足以让他们在完全免费的状态下,保留多个可行的角色。”后来开发团队加大玩家获取内容的难度的,情况开始发生变化,游戏也因而产生了一些挫折感。EA从中汲取了教训,之后发行的《Battlefield Play4Free》就侧重于通过升级解琐道具并且升级玩家的战士。

盈利机制:出售具有优势的道具?

是否该出售会影响玩法的道具一直是开发者争议的话题。这些道具会让玩家在游戏中更强大,因此可能让他们在竞争中占据上风。

在西方发行的早期硬核免费游戏中,开发者投入大量精力确保“阔绰”的玩家不会比其他玩家占据明显优势。其中《战地英雄》和《军团要塞2》表现最为典型。这些游戏中出售的道具基本上是装饰性内容,而EA位于斯德哥尔摩的免费游戏工作室Easy Studio在2011年开始引进“更好”的枪支时,情况开始发生了变化。

该工作室总经理Ben Cousins曾在当时指出,这一举措并没有对游戏及其玩家社区带来消极影响——而游戏收益却大幅上升。与之相似的影响玩法的道具在《Battlefield Play4Free》也很常见,甚至是《军团要塞2》也不乏此类道具。

实际上,我认为影响玩法的道具确实是一个趋势:《Need for Speed World》支持玩家购买升级道具;在《坦克世界》中,玩家可以购买拥有更高装甲渗透率的高级子弹。

毫无疑问,在竞争型游戏中可以提高玩家表现的东西都会很有销量。真正的问题在于,如果避免并没购买这些超能道具的玩家心生不满。成功的硬核免费游戏如何成功做到这一点?

*最重要的技巧是设计一个有赖于玩家技能,而非装备或任何可购买东西的游戏玩法。射击游戏的主要技能是准确性,《英雄联盟》中的成功有赖于团队战术,《坦克世界》则要求玩家清楚如何部署以及如何移动坦克等。

*第二个策略是不要销售那些明显比免费道具更为强大的道具。在这类游戏中,可以让玩家用钱买到最多提升10-20%技能表现的道具,但最好不要超越这一范畴。

*第三个方法是不要根据玩家水平配对,而要根据其持有的道具进行匹配。这正是《坦克世界》平衡游戏的做法,它允许玩家无需通过冗长的游戏进程收获积分和XP就能获得重型坦克。

*最后一个技巧是出售兼具优缺点的道具。例如,在《军团要塞2》中,Direct Hit是一个增加25%的杀伤力和80%更快导弹攻击力的武器,但其损害范围也下降了70%。

那么不影响玩法的道具又如何呢?

装饰性道具。这类道具对游戏并无影响,但支持玩家更改虚拟角色、城市、交通工具等内容的外观。《战地英雄》、《Combat Arms》或《军团要塞2》很依赖这种类型的道具。玩家可以购买服装、武器、面部表情、贴花或汽车零件等。其中提供的选择五花八门。这些道具对玩家表现基本上毫无影响,这一技巧也是早期西方开发者制作免费游戏的选择。最近的硬核游戏仍在使用这一系列道具,但他们不会仅依赖这种手段。

战地英雄(from gamaustra)

战地英雄(from gamaustra)

减缓受挫感的道具。早期所有免费游戏均可见到此类道具,只是形式有所不同。其理念在于向玩家出售可以暂时加快其游戏进程的内容,这可以是用于升级的经验值,在游戏中赢取的钱币(用于购买或维修装备),或者时间(用于加快完成建筑或单位的建设过程、研究或收获某项资源的进程)。

混合道具。这并非游戏的多数收益来源,但仍然值得一提,因为它们体现了游戏进行创收的多样化理念。以下是一些典型:

*《军团要塞2》出售允许玩家向完成了某个地图的关卡设计师致谢的图章。

*在《战地英雄》中,玩家可以租赁一个专用的服务器。

*在《英雄联盟》中,玩家如果想更改自己在游戏中的名称,就必须付费。

永无止尽的升级系统

为了从玩家身上盈利,你得让他们长时间玩游戏。你希望游戏成为他们日常生活的一部分。制作出有趣的游戏还不够,还必须含有一些能够促使他们每天甚至数月都去玩游戏的内容。最近,Gameforge首席执行官告诉媒体,公司多数收益来自那些至少访问游戏50次的玩家。假如一名玩家每天开启游戏一次,那就意味着他连续两个月登录游戏。

积分记录以及积分排行榜是保持玩家投入的出色工具,但它们会影响到一小部分(大约10-15%)极具竞争性的玩家。为了让更多玩家长期投入游戏(尤其是免费游戏),你就需要一个更强大的机制。

升级系统是一个能够促使玩家长期体验游戏的关键功能。它奖励玩家的游戏进程,给予玩家短期、中期和长期目标。它通过引进新内容而更新玩家体验。它通过支持玩家试验和发展新战略而极大延长了游戏生命周期。

优秀的升级系统必须具备以下条件:

提供几个平行的道具解琐系统。你最好为玩家提供多个升级系统,便于他们根据自己的情况选择最合适的一种。当然,你最终还是得让他们的进程与所有升级系统保持一致。

创造进步性的获得曲线。让玩家轻松获得首个道具,之后逐渐加大获取成本。让他们无阻力无障碍获得首个道具,以便令其掌握游戏系统,但也要给予他们一些奖励。然后,随着玩家升级,他们会因新获得的道具赢得更多游戏积分,这就会成为强烈的升级动机,但如果要保持游戏系统平衡,那就要让这种道具更为稀有并且更为昂贵,以便创造这种能够盈利的挫折感。

提供广泛的道具选择。要让玩家在游戏中获得一种好像孩童在探索玩具商店的感觉,让他们在琳琅满目的商店中寻找自己钟爱的玩具。但提供大量道具还不够,还必须提供多种道具分类。这有助于强化游戏深度。

设计与玩法相关的道具。综上所述,这个策略很管用。

道具之间要有明显区别。通过使用大量并且有意义的参数可以实现这一目标。

事先就明确呈现系统。必须让玩家清楚游戏中存在升级系统。必须让他们在游戏早期就知道如果自己升级将得到什么。

多人模式?

多人游戏玩法是硬核游戏一个明显的理想选择。当前获得成功的免费硬核游戏都是围绕稳定的多人模式而设计。但有趣的是,多数此类游戏都强调团队vs团队的玩法。这一点不无道具,侧重死亡模式和个人玩法的多人游戏模式对多数人来说难度太大了。

因此,这些游戏设计侧重于团队合作模式。在《英雄联盟》中,每个团队都是由数名玩家组成,大家在每场战斗开始前都要制定策略,制定周密计划确定如何部署自己的冠军战士,以便在攻击他人的同时最大化基地防御性能。在《坦克世界》中,游戏最初是围绕团队死亡模式而开战,但当地图上布满敌人时,团队就要通过攻击模式而速战速决。

那么,现在设计不含多人模式,或者至少是以单人模式为主,仅含有限多人模式功能的免费硬核游戏,这还会可行吗?我认为可行。

许多成功的社交免费游戏都是建设或资源管理型游戏。《CityVille》本质上是一个单人玩家游戏。它的“多人模式”功能就仅仅是支持病毒传播性,这与玩法无关。所以,我并不认为出现一款适合硬核或主流玩家的免费建设或资源管理游戏有什么奇怪的。

与免费社交游戏的根本区别

免费增值模式已经通过社交游戏在这个行业站稳了脚跟。这类游戏开发者极具创新性,带来了新理念和游戏机制。他们在极短时间内引来了空前规模的玩家——他们实际上扩大了我们行业的用户基础。这是否意味着硬核游戏设计需要迹步迹趋地追随他们的设计范式?当然不是。以下是三个不可取的社交游戏设计问题。

新手教程。社交游戏瞄准的是休闲群体,以及那些从未接触过电子游戏的玩家。因此它们必须包括强大的教程功能,“手把手”地引导他们玩游戏,这些教程与早期玩法紧密融合。无论玩家做了什么,都不会困惑于自己下一步要做什么,最重要的是,他们永远不会遭遇失败。所有功能在游戏早期阶段都不可访问,而是随着进程发展逐步解琐。因此,早期游戏阶段通常只提供少量玩法。

锁定资深玩家的游戏并不需要这种高度控制的新教程。实际上,这种做法也只会让硬核玩家退避三舍,因为它们太无聊了,会消除游戏所有的挑战性,有些玩家可能还会觉得这简直是对自己智商和能力的侮辱。不过某些形式的教程还是可取的,但应该允许玩家直接跳过教程,体验游戏的完整内容。

社交功能。所有休闲免费游戏都会将社交功能作为游戏玩法的重要环节。由于只有少部分玩家会付费,因此社交功能也是这些游戏必不可少的成功因素。你需要大量玩家体验你的游戏,才有可能创造收益。它们含有许多向你的好友推广游戏的机制,意在将你的好友也转化为游戏玩家。更重要的是,休闲玩家更喜欢与自己的好友而非陌生人玩游戏。这些功能的问题就在于,它们通常具有干扰性,并且会以“错误”的方式融入游戏玩法。

而锁定硬核群体的免费游戏则无需如此依赖社交功能。值得注意的是,多数成功的硬核免费游戏根本不使用这些机制。它们会提供内部论坛、游戏内置即时讯息以及部落功能,但并不会强迫玩家采取社交行动。口头传播是硬核免费游戏引进新玩家的方式,它确实很管用,因为硬核玩家喜欢与好友交流。

平台。免费社交游戏已经向所有平台扩散,在Facebook影响尤甚。从内容来看,Facebook是一个很棒的平台。那么硬核免费游戏也应该入驻Facebook吗?Facebook上已经有不少硬核免费游戏(例如Kabam就极为擅长此道),但多数硬核免费游戏并没有在Facebook现身。它们不是单机版的PC客户端(例如《英雄联盟》、《坦克世界》)就是通过GameforgePC游戏门户访问或者基于浏览器的游戏(例如《eRepublik》、《The Settlers》)。

目前来看,最好的策略是远离Facebook。硬核免费游戏的宗旨是为玩家提供原版作品的游戏体验。因此它们在玩家设备上加载时会更为缓慢,这是Facebook游戏体验的部分问题。另外,这个平台上的游戏通常以休闲类型为主,开发者更难以在其中推广硬核游戏。

但未来这一情况有可能得到改观。多数人都已经是Facebook用户,硬核玩家也拥有Facebook帐号。有些开发商已经瞄准这一平台制作硬核游戏,如果可以打破这些障碍,这类游戏将在此茁壮成长。真正的挑战在于如何设计出既符合硬核玩家预期,又能满足该平台技术局限性的游戏体验。Zynga等开发商可能已在致力于解决这一问题。

游戏邦注:原文发表于2012年12月12日,所涉事件及数据以当时为准。(本文为游戏邦/gamerboom.com编译,拒绝任何不保留版权的转载,如需转载请联系:游戏邦

Designing Freemium Titles for Hardcore Gamers

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.(source:gamasutra


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