A certain band of free-to-play developers will be familiar with the following funnel: use metrics rigorously, go out of your way to hunt whales, and eliminate freeloading players to maximise revenue.
There's only one problem with this approach: it's completely wrong. According to Nicholas Lovell, founder of GAMESbrief and author of The Curve: From Freeloaders into Superfans, a successful game needs to cater to both whales and non-paying players.
That's how the monetisation consultant opened his talk at GDC Next in Los Angeles.
"I believe that you should enable your gamers to experience nearly all of your game for free," he said. "Make your game truly free."
Of funnels and pyramids
Lovell's main point on this particular Los Angeles afternoon was that successful games should scrap the traditional idea of a tripartite funnel (acquisition -> retention -> monetisation) and look instead at a three-tier pyramid.
At the base of this pyramid is the game's core loop, which is "the smallest thing that you can do in a game and have a satisfying experience".
Above the core loop is the retention game - positioned precisely in the same spot as it is in the funnel, and that's not by coincidence.
"Retention for me is the single-most important bit," began Lovell. "You can spend a bunch to get customers and dump them into your leaky bucket, and they'll all leak out without you making a cent."
So first you need a solid loop to build the game's retention upon, and then at the very top is the superfan game - also known as where the aforementioned 'whales' live.
The overall point of the pyramid is to cater to superfans and freeloaders alike. In short, "the pyramid is about making a game that appeals to everyone."
Why? Because, "the superfan would not exist without freeloaders," said Lovell, noting that they need less successful players to show off to or compare themselves to.
"A superfan game without freeloaders will not make as much money as it could," Lovell observed.
It seems antithetical that a financially successful game should cater to non-paying players, but the greats are already doing just that.
"Tommy Palm recently said that 70 percent of players who made it to the end of Candy Crush Saga never spent any money [on it]," Lovell noted.
Clearly, Candy Crush Saga isn't lagging behind many in terms of revenue so there might just be something to Lovell's point about letting players enjoy "nearly all of your game" for free.
But should you give into the temptation to cater to high-paying players, be they whales or superfans, at the exclusion of freeloaders?
Absolutely not, but "you need to allow superfans to spend lots of money. Let them spend on things that they truly value."
That's also why Lovell believes it's key to reconceptualise whales as superfans.
Developers shouldn't look to harpoon whales for a quick payday, but instead focus on "allowing those who love what you do to spend lots of money on things they truly value."