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On Free to Play and Competitive Games

Something I’ve been thinking a lot about, mostly because of my work on Loadout, is the nature of free to play games and the nature of competitive games (in this case, arena shooters) and how those two natures might be fundamentally at odds with each other. Before I go on too far, full disclosure, it is entirely possible that my own financial livelihood depending on these two things has given me a biased perspective, and I may be guilty of rationalizing failures. I hope not, but there it is.

First off, I’d like to point to the fairly significant list of games which tried to be f2p pvp and failed to remain viable. In the last few years these have been games like Tribes Ascend, Hawken, Super Monday Night CombatNosgoth, and of course Loadout. I am using the steamcharts links here as a proxy for revenue, which while inaccurate in ways and not a perfect correlation nonetheless at least provides some basis of comparison. The common trend-line in the playerbase of all these games is an initial spike, then rapid decline, with minor spikes when updates occur. To be fair, this is also the trend-line in players for most pay-to-play (i.e. “normal”) games. The big difference of course with those is that the money is collected at the time of playing, meaning it doesn’t matter as much that players keep playing for long amounts of time, the developers already have their money. Of course extending that tail end of sales is always nice, and there are ways to prolong that, but the financial viability of the product as a whole is far less dependent on an ongoing player base that continues to monetize.

Compare now the steam charts figures for games like WarframePath of Exile, to say nothing of Valve’s own titles like TF2, CS:GO, and the juggernaut Dota 2, although given their ownership of the marketplace itself, that’s not exactly a fair comparison. All of these have steady (and generally growing) playerbases.

So what do I think the keys are? What do the successful ones do right, and the failures do wrong?

  • Something to offer players at all levels of competition
    • You wouldn’t expect a middle school football team to hold their own against an NFL team. If you want your game to be competitive, there should be something in the game that appeals to players of all skill, and ways to help players bridge any gaps. For us, on Loadout, that bet is PVE (though it remains to be seen how that strategy will pan out).
  • Frequent Updates
    • Players have to feel like the game is alive, whether through content updates, sponsored events, or even a mod community. League of Legends has this down well, as there are constantly new heroes, and constant shuffling of the available free heroes. Crowd-sourcing some content might be a good option for studios that lack that resources to quickly make their own stuff. Valve champions this production model quite well.
  • Reasons to stick around
    • This should be built into the game’s core design, as much as possible. It speaks to the fundamental pacing of the game, and when you expect to award new powers, ability, and content. A lot of this is just retention 101, which seems obvious, but my point is to embed these things into the core of the game. I think it’s a mistake we’ve made attempting to shoe-horn the f2p model into a game that wasn’t really designed for it, and I think if you’re going for that you have to start with that in mind.

I have more thoughts that I might post on this theme later.

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Vague-Blog

Lots on my mind, and nobody I can really talk to about it yet. It’s kind of a lot to assimilate. Maybe I’ll post some thought once details become more clear…

The Best Use Of Time

Something that I struggle with a lot, right now in fact, is the constant worry that I’m not maximizing my time, and that whatever I’m doing has no guarantee of being the most productive thing. For example, should I take the time to write this blog? To what ends? Who do I even expect to read this, aside from myself? Is that time that could better be spent designing and implementing small games in, say, Unity? Are those games worth pursuing, or are they dead ends? If I do complete them, will they ever be seen or played by anyone?

It is of course silly to dwell too much on this, because almost no matter what I’m doing, that time is better spent doing *something* instead of wringing my hands in indecision. That doesn’t stop the incessant buzzing in the back of my mind though. Every second feels valuable, every moment not spent realizing full potential (or at least full leisure) feels like a waste.

I suppose some of that is spillover from the tightly budgeted workload I find myself having to deal with at work, where every wasted hour is viewed with a certain degree of panic. Some of it too is probably indicative of my need for a vacation, which I realized a week or two ago I haven’t done any of in like… this year. To that end, I do have some travels planned coming up, which I look forward to.

I’ve heard before that existential fretting is a sign of your ego resisting change. It is easier, after all, to embrace vague ennui than to face the painful recognition of one’s own lack of agency. Sometimes that embracing looks like fretting over time, or writing vague philosophical bullshit to avoid taking action…. Sometimes it comes down to not having well-defined goals, or metrics for success towards those goals. I should know better, as someone who for a living designs player goals and attempts to provide feedback towards those goals.

So with that in mind, my intentions are:

  • To come up with some basic designs for a pc game
  • To start sketching out concepts – while I am no professional artist, I would like the option of lateral thought in times where I am stuck on the game logic
  • To begin scaffolding the designs in code, picking core concepts and developing them in isolated test-beds
  • Once these pre-production steps are done, to plan out what a final version might look like
  • At some point during this, think of marketing, pulling in other resources…

I worry that this is ambitious for one person to do with scant free time divided between caring for a baby and maintaining a house and a marriage. I am also very unsure how much freedom I even have to pursue this in a way that won’t violate some clause of my employment. Some day I still hope to pursue this full time, but the pragmatist (and responsible father) in me won’t consign my family to the uncertainty of unemployment on a whim, so in the meantime I bide my time and wait for the opportunity to show itself. All I need now is to randomly stumble upon a bag of money…the great american dream of undeserved riches.

Moved the Site

After a lengthy hiatus, and a habitual tendency to not update the site I was paying hosting fees for, I decided to keep the domain and move over to a free wordpress blog. This will be where I collect thoughts about games, industry, politics, life. Whatever strikes my fancy, I suppose.

I’ve gotten out of the habit over the years of writing regularly, except in my capacity as a designer at Edge. I’m hoping to reverse that trend and collect my thoughts on a variety of subjects, both for the practice and also to help reduce my tendency to drive my wife crazy by talking about the same things over and over again with a zeal which she might not always share.

I will probably shy away from the more existential and meandering posts from my previous blogs, in part because I feel like I’ve found a worldview that works out alright for me and I’m not quite so desperate to find my way, and also because I would like to focus my efforts more on issues relevant to my life and my work. Long term, I would like to point this site out (or have those in search of me find it) as a repository on my design processes, thoughts on games, and general design “portfolio”, inasmuch as such a thing even makes sense. Wishful thinking isn’t terribly impressive, though, so the only way to flesh this out is to begin somewhere. So here we are… baby steps.