How Free-to-Play Saved Gaming
That how it always used to end.
One stray missile or ill-judged jump and the blue ninja would get you or your base would explode into a hundred little dots. Death was etched into the DNA of video games from its very inception. Death is the sharp pair of incisors of the artform, brutal weapons designed for a single way of life, but like all those Game Over screens, we don’t necessarily need all that flesh rending mouth-machinery in the modern world.
This is not a blog moaning about death in video games. Death is fine, it is a dramatic coda to desperate struggle, the sharp pain that makes the victory all that much sweeter.
This is a blog about the other way, the nasty way; the evil, insidious way. The way in which you don’t actually kill or punish the player at all.
It’s really, really weird, isn’t it?
Free-to-play - A different design ideology
So for the purposes of this paragraph I’m going to assume most of you know what free-to-play really means and that much of the energy in a free game is actually to get you to pay. And it is worse than AIDS.
At least that’s what the boys in the comments tell you.
But free-to-play games had to do some really clever things. First off they had to realise that something very different happens in a players head when they haven’t given you any money, especially in the opening, getting to know you phase of the game.
- If the game is free to try, there is no commitment of any kind by the player - no financial commitment and only a small amount of time.
- Smashing the player’s face into a wall of missiles quickly leaves a bad taste in the mouth and the player soon buggers off to try the next game in the hope that it won’t be quite so unfair and badly designed.
- Swap in even 69p’s worth of financial commitment and the player’s brain doesn’t want to feel like it’s been zapped, so offers a bit more time to the game until it learns to press the JUMP button at the right moment to get past that wall of missiles.
This crudely illustrated pattern can be seen in everything from 10p arcade games to £40 AAA belters. Paying money means commitment and that gives the game a big advantage in securing your time and loyalty over a completely free, and therefore instantly disposable experience.
Zoom out a little bit and a look at f-t-p game design illustrates that free games need to give a lot and be very, very careful about taking anything away.
This led to free games settling into some rather interesting new grooves. Instead of being about the acquisition of enough skill and knowledge to overcome challenge (a la typical core games) free games asked for repeated, small amounts of disposable time to overcome a different type of challenge. Skill-based blockers evaporated, and suddenly killing the player by such a mechanism and stopping them progressing became unnecessary and even damaging to the game.
Free games became ongoing tasks that were satisfying to see completed but that, perhaps, were not fun in the same, more visceral way, that traditional games were. (This is something that still baffles a lot of older game designers - “How can people possibly enjoy a different kind of fun to MEEEEE???”)
Where did it all go wrong?
Now, I’m not claiming that free-to-play games invented death-free or punishment-free gaming. But I think they did do a tremendous amount to turn them into the all-consuming forces of nature that we see today.
And yes, those Facebook games of which we daren’t speak lest they spam our timelines with a million spammy updates can take a fair amount of credit for this.
But things did go wrongs with free-to-play. A whole gameplay ideology somehow became subsumed by a single business model. Freemium became a dirty word and was only associate with the cynical Timeshare Salesman feel of those Facebook games. Everything was a drive to screw money out of the player at every turn or force a insane amount of grinding. The games ceased being an interesting diversion and became an exercise in handing over your cash or trying to find ever cleverer ways to min-max without handing over your hard earned.
But all this furore about whale-gouging and ARPU and Lifetime Values, completely obfuscated the Important Game Design stuff that was going on. People in their millions were playing games that DIDN’T EVER PUNISH THEM.
- No death.
- No fail.
- No start again.
- No repetition.
The old fashioned game designers started to quiver as their brains all but snapped in two. Without death there was no drama, without drama there could be no excitement. No excitement, no gameplay.
The answer was obvious.
Those millions of people were simply wrong. They weren’t actually enjoying the games. not properly. Not like us. They were simply the victims of cruel, exploitative psychological tricks.
PHEW, EH LADS?
Where can it all go right?
As Facebook gaming passed its peak, mobile gaming went through its own roof and become the Most Important Thing In Gaming. With iOS and later Android as a major game platform, came lots of different types of game creators, many of whom understood that free-to-play was a massive variety of business models and commercial approaches.
Suddenly, you could find free-to-play games that invited you to pay, but did so in a calm, rational manner. The games got a bit more rounded too. Instead of identikit gardening sims, you could find lovely arcade experiences like we all used to play.
And these games they did let you play for free, but they also set new, longer term goals that existed beyond that single session. Where classic arcade games would kill you, keep your 10p and forget you were ever there, Temple Run and PunchQuest saved your achievements, they gave you long term goals spread across all the gaming nibbles you cared to take.
When you die in Temple Run, all those tokens you’ve collected are still collected. Same with PunchQuest, same with NimbleQuest; heck even Clash of Clans lets you keep you whole settlement no mater how many times it’s razed to the ground. The game is over, but you’ve still managed to do something permanent. Even the most calamitous game session, interrupted by your mum who wants to talk about the washing up, will leave you further along than when you started.
An the better you are, the greater the progress.
Success stopped being a binary state - got to next level - didn’t get to next level, start this level again. Success became analogue. A tiered reward structure that brought skill back into the mix.
Those old fashioned game designers, they’d like these sort of games; but they’re too busy squeaking and hissing on the forums and comments threads to really notice. And nobody gets any followers by saying nice things about free-to-play, and right now that’s the only High Score table that really matters.
Meanwhile, on the consoles, even the very best AAA games are still killing you, stopping you dead and refusing to give up their treasure until you are jolly well good enough to earn the right, and press the right buttons IN EXACTLY THE RIGHT FUCKING ORDER!
Here’s where I really piss you all off.
The Last of Us. Those goddamn stealth sections where you still have to knock off every clicker and find the exit before you can proceed. Taking down eleven is not enough, you have to do all twelve (or however many… you take my meaning).
The Last of Us is, frankly, astonishingly good. Those quiet, patient, conversational sections where you wander through the ruins of the city and simply experience the game world are magnificently evocative. It really is breathtaking stuff.
But it still wants to kill you, and if you can’t press the right buttons in the right order not even Naughty Dog’s legendary adaptable-difficulty is going to let you get past. This is the very best that traditional gaming has to offer us and it is still happy to simply block your progress and turn you away.
There must be some way we can bridge this gap. That we can take the low-friction analogue victory of the best free-to-play games and use them in cleverer, smarter ways even in traditional linear narrative adventures.
Do you really need to kill the player? Well, if you’re going to write something as good as The Last of Us then okay, I’ll allow that. But perhaps you don’t need to default to killing or blocking the player; don’t need to punish them by making them do the same thing over and over again until they press all the right buttons in the right fucking order.
Or perhaps you don’t need to design a game full of guns. That’s also a thought.
Free-to-play is better than most people think. There are good designers who understand how new ideas and classic gaming can co-exist. These are people focussing on creating great gameplay, not new and excruciating ways to gouge your wallet dry. More importantly there are creative lessons and opportunities.
Our challenge as designers is to become better and to move the art form forward, not leave it rooted in the past. We need to bring these ideas together and create something new.
Videogames aren’t fundamentally about physical dexterity and brilliant reflexes and memorising sequences and patterns. They just became that way because that was all we could do in the early days. Now we can do so much more. Failure can now be a design decision, not a pre-loaded fundamental.
Free-to-play figured out some amazing ways to create some really cool new types of games without that punishment. Maybe it’s time to listen so some of those lessons.