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Why spending money on reducing risk cuts down your shots on goal

Gamesbrief's Nicholas Lovell on the perils of F2P

Why spending money on reducing risk cuts down your shots on goal

Attend any free-to-play conference and you'll often be bombarded with talks about success stories - what works and, to simplify, what you need do in your game to reach similar heights.

Who tells you what you shouldn't do, though? What you should avoid? If today's F2P Summit in London was anything to go by, that person would be Gamesbrief's Nicholas Lovell.

In his talk – 'common mistakes and how to fix them' – Lovell drew on the errors both of free-to-play developers in the present day and triple-A behemoths of the past to create a short and snappy guide for developers looking to avoid running into as many potholes as possible.

The main takeaway? Spending more money on games to reduce the risk it will be a flop in reality just decreases the number of shots on goals you have.

Risk and reward

"I think triple-A studios misunderstand risk," said Lovell, claiming he was prepared for such a statement to generate a torrent of abuse.

"Triple-A studios take some of the most crazy large risks I can imagine. The budget for GTA V was $250 million to launch – I think we all knew it was going to be a success, but there aren't that many other people that can afford that risk."

Lovell claimed that such an approach leads to a paradox. Like energy, he claimed, risk can't be created or destroyed – it simply moves from one form to another.

So, by spending money on adding features you think your game needs to have (think "checkbox marketing") to reduce your operational risk, what you're actually doing is ramping up your costs – or, in other words, increasing your financial risk.

"In the world of triple-A, if your game flops, you get fired," added Lovell, claiming that people will all too often add features to a game to try and eliminate operational risk knowing the budget to do so won't come out of their wages.

"Our entire system is designed to ratchet up costs in order to save people jobs," Lovell continued.

"Spending money has now become a willy waving exercise. It wasn't possible to make zero money with triple-A, whereas there's a very real chance that you could put your free-to-play game out there and not make a dime. You need to minimise the costs of getting your product in front of as large a group of people as you can.

"The reality is, the more you spend, the less shots on goal you have."

Money matters

So where should free-to-play developers spend their money?

"Rewarding people for coming back to your game is incredibly important," said Lovell.

"Free to play game design is just like bringing up children – you reward them very frequently, you punish them very rarely. What you need to do is spend money on making people feel rewarded when they do something you want them to."

Often, Lovell added, big budget console or PC games spend money on assets to cover up the duff moments in their titles, or they'll attempt to engage their audience and keep them on board by simply adding extra levels.

Free-to-play developers need to be more creative than this, said Lovell.

"F2P games are a pyramid," he concluded. "At the bottom is the 'core loop' – that's what you think of as the basic game, say one level in Candy Crush. Laid on top, however, is a retention game.

"In Pong, it was 'can I get another score'. Or it can be narrative, or achievement, or in F2P, you can use the passing of real time – appointment mechanics."

It's Lovell view that some developers focus too much on polishing the core, but don't spend time on the layer above – the hook. Conversely, there are some developers that spend too much time courting the very top level of the pyramid, the 'super fan'.

"Do make it possible for people to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in your game," concluded Lovell, "but don't obsess about it."


With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.

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