PapayaMobile's Oscar Clark provides a developer's guide to the Zombie (freemium) Apocalypse
First of a two-part special on freemium, and the undead
2011 was a year that changed all the rules. Premium games have been all but extinguished from the All Time Grossing charts and instead we have seen the, perhaps inevitable, domination of an infectious new breed of game: freemium.
This first part of a two part article is intended to help developers to avoid the Zombie Apocalypse and to help you prevent your game studio from becoming the Living Dead.
Lesson 1: Cardio
Okay, your studio may be making a great game, but the market has already changed.
There's no longer any debate about freemium or premium. The market has spoken, and it takes no more than a look at the top grossing charts to prove that. There will, of course, still be those games that will still do better as premium, but they will be fewer in number and generally less profitable.
This is a Darwinian time, and by turning away revenue when the costs of creating and marketing quality games continue to rise, you are risking extinction.
A lot of game designers don't like the current batch of freemium games, and some even challenge the ethics of using psychological techniques in game design. Is this exploitation?
Is this evil?
I don't know of any other industry that looks at the use of psychology to improve products as an act of devilry. Perhaps we have a form of Stockholm syndrome after being repeatedly (and wrongly) beaten up by the morality media police. Perhaps it's the fault of evangelists, like me, using the language of addiction.
We talk about Skinner boxes: psychological tests on rats and pigeons to show how schedules of reinforcement work. We forget that these techniques simply allow us to understand how the brain solves puzzles, and solving puzzles is what makes games fun.
They are not a direct analogy for human behaviour in games. To become truly addictive, the object of your actions (i.e. the food/drug/money) needs to trigger an inherent dependency. In games, we derive pleasure from the action of solving puzzles, not the object of the puzzle itself. We play for entertainment value.
Freemium game designers don't have magic powers and players stop playing when they feel exploited. Get over it and let's just make better games!
Lesson 3: Enjoy the small things
Unlike premium, freemium games rely on large numbers of players coming back time after time in order to make money. This means players need to understand how to play immediately, and have enough content to keep them playing for months.
We need to focus on the small things simple, repeatable mechanics that are easy to pick up and play - but have the scope to be played time and time again.
Bear in mind that tutorials are one of the biggest turn-offs for players, and although a premium player will push through to get to the fun, freemium players will churn. After all, they haven't parted with money and they have no need to get past your tutorial.
Lesson 4: Check the back seats
As we all know; to ignore the past is to be condemned to repeat it. So, for freemium games to advance, we have to learn from what's gone before.
However, it's important to not just copy. Not just because of the risk of copyright infringement, but also because you won't attract the same audience as the game you copy from. Players will often be bored by derivative titles, and can feel cheated if they think they're playing a rip-off game.
This sense of being ripped-off will diminish the trust those players have in you, and therefore their willingness to recommend your game or purchase virtual content.
It is also important when you are creating new versions of games on new devices (e.g. moving from online to mobile) that each device will have a different 'mode of use' which drives the usefulness of its form factor.
For example, a phone's small size makes it easy to use when out and about, even when the user is walking or holding it in one hand. This means that the area available for graphics is restricted, but there are plenty of opportunities for short, absorbing bursts of play.
Compare this with your PC, tablet, or console and you will quickly see how form factors have a profound effect on the way we play with each device.
You have to understand churn and why players leave your game just as well as you understand why they stay.
This means that we have to look beyond the simple snapshot view of data, and instead segment the information we get and figure out the meaningful success factors.
Key to this is the realisation that every product has a life cycle and this is made up of the accumulated life cycles of each player. We need to look at what happens to make players drop out of the game at different stages.
Do they leave during the learning stage? Do they leave after their first purchase? Do they exhaust the game too quickly?
Lesson 6: Bites are infectious
Every developer needs to consider how they can use the inherent virality of social games. Unless your players can see that other players care about this game preferably players that they care about why should they play it themselves?
Unless they can flaunt their success or progress to other players, why should they spend their time in your game? Unless they can show off their individual creativity or skill, why should they spend money on your game?
Socialisation is vital and we ignore it at our peril. We need meaningful social interactions not forced or token actions to build deeper emotional connection with the game.
Social games send a non-demanding packet of emotional data which has meaning specific to the nature of the relationship to the players. It's infectious because it doesn't assume both players have the same level of intensity for this game at the same time and this leaves a footprint in the sand for you each to discover the next time you log in.
Don't confuse social games with multiplayer games. Real-time multiplayer requires an intense commitment to play together right here, right now.
What was that?
I heard movement outside. It seems Ive spent too much time in one place and I'll have to lose the zombie horde before they make a meal out of me.
Dont worry, though, once I've shaken these ghouls I'll be back with more survival tips.
Read part two of Oscar's guide to surviving freemium and the undead here.
For more on PapayaMobile, you can visit the firm's website or follow Oscar on Twitter.