How to Make a Hit Free-to-Play Game

How to Make a Hit Free-to-Play Game

Free-to-play online games are capable of attracting a huge audience. No surprise there; after all, they’re free games. How can you mess up a pitch like that?

Alas, it’s not hard. The success of free-to-play games makes for a pretty crowded marketplace. So how can a developer give their project a needed boost?

The team behind Battlestar Galactica Online (BSGO), Bigpoint, has a few ideas. After all, Bigpoint recently pointed out that BSGO recently passed one million registered players within a mere six weeks of going live. Not surprisingly, Bigpoint’s brief statement on its success doesn’t give away all its awesome little secrets, but we can take what’s available and formulate our own hints and tips for free-to-play success.

Free Games = The Right Price: There’s still a place for subscriber-based online games: Not even the free-to-play model will budge World of Warcraft‘s dedicated MMORPG subscriber base for a long time, unless Star Wars: The Old Republic signs up a player or two. But anyone putting together a brand-new project might find it difficult to get players to commit for an initial price, especially with so many free competitors running around the Internet. So however your price your game, really do make it free to play up-front, not simply for a set amount of time: What you charge on the back-end for virtual goods, subscriptions or time-saving power-ups and boosts should be where you make your profit.

Use a Recognizable Property, If Possible: Obviously, if your game is based on a property or band (e.g. TV shows, movies, etc.) that’s well-known and already has a huge fanbase, you’re likelier to attract attention. Of course, that can work against a developer if they fail to do justice to their game’s pedigree. “There is always a risk when you translate a well-known IP into another medium,” Heiko Hubertz, the founder of Bigpoint, told IndustryGamers. “We built what we believed was a recipe for success; a fantastic gaming experience inspired by an iconic show, with the added benefit of being a free-to-play title.” In other words, if you have a big-name property, take the extra time needed to treat it right and build a decent game. A rush job will cheapen the property, irritate the fans, and ultimately hurt the game’s chances for long-term success. Either way, the built-in fan base that comes with a known IP can be a huge boost to game developers’ chances of hitting it big, helping aid with player discovery on platforms (mobile, social, apps, etc.) where oftentimes advertising opportunities are extremely limited.

High Production Values: Free-to-play games still bring to mind the big-eyed farmers and pioneers who populate Zynga’s Facebook games. In fact, the superdeformed characters that define social gaming exist for a very good reason: Any computer is capable of rendering them, and therefore millions can play FarmVille at work. But some free-to-play games, including BSGO, are investing a lot more effort into visuals and going with 3D character models and backgrounds. Such a tactic will admittedly alienate the casual gamers who aren’t interested in upgrading their computers to play something that’s not FarmVille, but few amongst that demographic is ever likely to take an interest in BSGO anyway. Meanwhile, visual perks like high-definition 3D graphics is a big draw for core gamers who might otherwise write off free-to-play games exclusively as social, casual fare.

Allow Players to Have Fun Without Constantly Needing to Pay: Microtransactions are vital to the survival of a free-to-play game: No microtransactions, no money to pay for servers and employees. Nevertheless, nothing is more frustrating than getting into a game and finding countless sneaky ways in which the developers try to bleed money from you. A substantial part of a free-to-play game should let the player roam without being harassed for cash every two minutes–especially in the game’s early hours.

Set Up a Well-Moderated Community: Finally, an online game isn’t much good if its players are no fun to interact with. Moderating a game doesn’t necessarily mean putting guards in place to make sure no-one drops an F-bomb… rather, it’s important to keep a game and its related message boards free from harassment, cheating, and general negativity. The more one feels encouraged to participate in an online community, the more one is likely to log on and contribute. It’s also good to have a place where players can exchange tips, hints, and just say “hi” to one another outside of a game setting.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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