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This article I wrote was originally published by Gamasutra.com on 2011-12-22.

Classic Design Lessons: What Free-To-Play Can Learn From Arcades

By Xavi Fradera

I worked on the coin-op videogames industry for 13 years, as a Graphic Artist and Game Designer. I worked on and created several videogames, some of them quite successful (you can find more about these games at my personal website www.xavifradera.com).

As my game development carrier moved forward, I shifted to mobile gaming, console gaming and, currently, on the production of a PC Free2Play shooter game.

I'm in charge of different tasks on this game (game design, production…) and we have just reached the beta testing phase. The game is a classic F2P shooter, where you can play for free as long as you like, or play and buy some assets to customize your character, buy powerful weapons to better defeat your enemies, create a clan with your game mates, customize it and much more features…

During the production and beta testing phase, I found some similarities between coin-op and F2P games regarding how the player approaches the game and how the game approaches the player. This article tries to explain these psychological and game dynamics.

The first experience

When the player buys a game and plays it for first time, two things can happen:

  • The player enjoys the game, so he will keep playing for a long time, maybe until completing it. That's perfect, as it's been a good investment for the player.
  • The player doesn't enjoy the game. Player's first experience is not what he thought it would be. He will give it another try -sure it will, as he has spent much money on the game-, and another, and possibly another… until he realizes he has thrown away his money.

In both cases, the publisher has sold the game and made business. Good job for the publisher.

On coin-op and F2P games player's reaction during his first game experience is different. What happens if the player enjoys the game?

  • On coin-op games, he will keep playing and inserting coins for days, weeks or possibly months. For sure, many people will be watching the way he enjoys the game, so when the player finishes playing, new players will give it a try… At the end of the day the cabinet coin box will surely be completely full.
  • On F2P, the player will keep playing for free. In some cases -it's said a 3% to 5%- he will buy some assets or virtual goods to better enjoy the game. So, at the end of the month money is in the publisher or developer's bank account.

This is what happens if player's first experience is positive and enjoys the game. In both cases cash is the result. Good job.

But, what happens if the player does not enjoy the game, or maybe gets confused, or frustrated, and has a bad first game experience?

  • On coin-op games, the player will try the game two or three times before moving aside and waiting for another player to play. If other new players have the same bad experience, people in the arcade will move away from the cabinet, because news spread like wildfire. At the end of the day, there won't be much money in the cabinet coin box.
  • On F2P, a bad first experience makes the player immediately quit and search for another game, because there's much choice of them on the internet. If the game would have cost some money to the player, he would have given it another try, but because he hasn't spent even a cent, he just quits.

In these two cases, cash is not the result for the publisher or developer. A really bad job.

As you see, if the game costs some money, the player will give more opportunities to it, so the game has more time available to let the player get used to it and to convince him it's fun. If it doesn't cost any money, the game has to be fun and intuitive at the first try... or die.

That's why, especially on coin-op and F2P games, player's first experience needs to be absolutely great. It can't be confusing, annoying or frustrating… it has to be perfect at all costs, because if not, it leads the player to quit the game, the most catastrophic result.

Replayability

On most games you buy in a shop, replayability is not one of the features normally offered. The completely opposite happens on coin-op games, where each level will be played hundreds of times by the same player... mainly starting levels, since they are the ones the player has to master if he wants to progress in the game. These levels have then to be thoroughly designed and be perfect on each centimeter gameplay-wise. The bulk of the production effort has to be focused on them.

Therefore, levels can't have ordinary areas, a wrong collision, a section which is not fun at all or a lost opportunity (a good idea that has finally not been applied), etc. If there's something that can be improved, something that's not fun at all, something wrong or missing… in the end, the player can get bored quickly, or even worst, annoyed, and that will be enough reason to stop playing the game.

A good tip is creating the game prototype on an advanced level, so when the first level is created, all game features are already defined and well polished, so it's easier to make a better design layout.

The same happens with game mechanics. If they are not perfect, they will become annoying for sure, and a strong reason for the player to leave the game too. And remember, on coin-op games, cash does not come at the moment the player buys the game but only after the player has been playing the game for a while.

On F2P games the situation is very similar (specially on shooters). The player plays each level thousands and thousands of times on different game modes. So everything has to be perfect: each centimeter of the levels, each game mechanic, no lost opportunities… because, as we know, that means the player leaving the game and looking for another one on which to spend his money.

Dynamic difficulty

One of the features we added to coin-op games is that game difficulty automatically adjusts to the player's game play level. That way, each player has a personalized challenge that makes the game not-too easy/not-too-difficult, and makes the player enjoy the game fully.

The method was quite simple. We constantly measured player's performance and compared player's data with the data we got ourselves playing on a perfect match. This let us know the player's level after the first 5-10 seconds of game play. We only had to adjust then a few game parameters to match the game to the player's level. During the rest of the game, we kept doing the same, constantly measuring the player's skills and varying the game difficulty slightly up or down depending on his performance.

F2P games -well, in fact not only F2P games, but online competitive games, especially on shooters- do the same on matchmaking. Matchmaking is a program that when a player calls for a game to join in, looks for players with a similar level of experience and adds them into the same match. This way, the game is not-too easy/not-too-difficult for the player, and, as result, they get the best game experience.

Monetization

There is also some similitude between "insert another coin" to continue, which means progress on coin-op games, and "buy a new powerful weapon", on F2P games, just to take vengeance over a player that is beating you all time.

Both are cheap. On coin-op games a credit costs around 1€, and on F2P games you can find assets or virtual goods from 0,50€ to 6€.

When I was working on coin-op games, I always had the idea that "if the credit was cheaper, the player would finally spend more money". It was around the year 2000 when I designed a short coin-op game where each credit would only cost a 0,20€ coin. The game was a western duel cabinet (two screens and two guns), for two simultaneous players. For 20 cents euro, both players would shoot the gun at the same time, one against the other, until one of them died. The surviving player would play the next round for free, and the new player that joined the game would pay the next 20 cents credit (two players per credit). It was a crazy new idea, because movement sensors to detect player's movement were needed and didn't exist yet, also it was a new idea of a short cheap game, plus the high cost of the cabinet... so the project was never made. Now, maybe it could be possible with the "Kinect" technology!

This example is just to illustrate the idea that playing for a small price, less than a euro, could lead people to spend more than the cost of a 3rd generation console game, and that's what is currently happening in all kind of F2P games.

Both are impulsive. Imagine you are playing a racing coin-op game. You are about to cross the goal and get time extended, but you don't have much time to go through, 3… 2… 1… 0!. When game climax is at the max, "Time Up" message appears on screen… -Oh no, If I only had one more second!! Next message that appears is an ushering invitation: "Continue Playing?" and a countdown, 9…8… 7… As fast as you can, you put the hand into your pocket to pick a new coin and insert it before the countdown finishes. That's impulsive.

The same happens on F2P shooting games. Imagine you are fed up that the same player or others do not stop killing you… so you want to take vengeance at any cost. The most sure is that at the end of the battle, you will be enraged and will enter the shop to buy a more powerful weapon, just to kill those annoying enemies.

Both are satisfying to the player: After the coin insertion, which means progress, or after buying this new powerful weapon, which means revenge, the player gets a feeling of satisfaction, as he gets instantly what he wants and needs. And that's good, because playing our game makes the player feel better, and that's really positive to fulfill our desire of keeping the player playing, and, therefore, spending money.

Beta testing

Coin-op and F2P games also have common things on the beta testing phase.

You have to keep in mind above all that, when beta testing a game, almost all game features must be in. If you test a game with missing important features, the result you get will be completely different than if you test the same game feature complete.

An example can better explain what I mean:

-This shooter game is boring -says one-. First 10 minutes are fine, but after a couple of hours playing it becomes repetitive and boring.

Of course it's repetitive and boring! You haven't added yet the XP Weapons Unlocking System, so progression it's not awarded; the Weapons Improvements and weapon's Add-ons feature are not in the game yet, so weapons are not too impressive at the moment; the Awards feature is still missing, so I haven't got any performance feedback at the end of the match; there are still some unpolished features which can confuse or frustrate the player, HUD still doesn't give me all the information I need to have a good game experience, spawn immunity doesn't have any feedback yet, so I don't know about its existence; and so on…

You can't expect something to be fun when you know there are important missing elements. The game you want to test has to be almost complete, and ready to be tweaked if necessary.

Normally on videogames, focus group tests are performed before the game is realeased. It's important to ensure that all in-game features are clear and players understand the gameplay. After beta testing is done, and once you have players' feedback, last tweaks can be done. Then, the game can be considered as finished. If you think it's necessary, you can organize another focus group, just to ensure the game will provide a perfect gameplay.

On coin op games, we beta tested our games by placing a cabinet on a selected arcade for a few weeks. As I said before, you cannot beta test a game which is not almost feature complete, or not polished enough so it can create confusion or frustration. Players in that case, as a response, will stop playing the game and will forget about the cabinet, so nobody will play anymore. In this case, we said the arcade is "burn up". If this happens, the solution is not too difficult: just tweak the game, and look for another arcade where to attempt a new beta test.

On F2P games, beta testing conditions are similar to coin op games, but you have to have into account that now the "arcade" is the entire world, and, in case that you burned up the audience, you could not go and look for another world! Well, you can limit the number of beta testers, but still you have only an opportunity to beta test the game before opening it to the entire world. Keep in mind that if the audience do not like the game (as is said above about "the first experience"), players will leave the game. And for players don't leave, making big changes can be dangerous, because people can react in a bad manner to these changes, just because now it's different of what they are used to, even if changes you've applied have been for good.

The most valuable on a beta test phase is the player's first impression of the game. After the first week of game play, people get used to play your game, and, even without realizing it, they skip or avoid those uncomfortable or unfavorable situations. We said that the player gets "intoxicated" by the game, and, therefore, the results you get after a week get also "intoxicated". Remember, the most valuable is always the first impression.

Conclusion

This article is just some thoughts of my past experiences in the games industry. They were real sensations I had during the "Freak Wars: Torrente Online 2" production, as I was constantly having "dejavu" moments of those splendid days working at Gaelco studio.

This article won't probably cover other similarities between these two game types, and even similarities with other game types I didn't refer to, but that's another story which is open to anybody to throw two cents into!

Special thanks to Abel Bascuñana for his guidance and help given.

 

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