GameDev Protips: A Few Pitalls To Avoid When Creating Free-to-Play Games

Free-to-Play games seem to be everywhere these days, and many of them have a poor reputation in the eyes of many. After all, the sentiment is that these games are made just to get you to spend as much as possible, right? Well, that’s certainly one of the ways to go about monetizing F2P games. However, this is shortsighted, and will just sabotage what could’ve been a much better game game. Here are some tips to avoid making poor monetization systems for your F2P games if you choose to go down that path at some point.

The most important thing to understand is that you need to consider how spending money will feel for the player. It sounds simple enough, but many developers blindly monetize their game and hope that it takes off. Developers should come up with an overarching design philosophy for their pay model and stick to it. Most commonly, this is pretty simple: make it enjoyable to spend money. This sounds obvious, but many F2P games are monetized with greed in mind rather than the players’ enjoyment in mind. When it comes to designing for player enjoyment, the most important part is to make sure that spending money is perceived to be an optional way to enjoy the game.

There are two outcomes that usually arise as a result of developers’ ignorance to how spending feels. The first is that spending money turns out to actually ruin the experience, so players are actively discouraged from spending anything. This is usually the result when a game relies heavily on progression; if you just skip to the end using real money, there’s nothing left and the game will slowly decline and players will quit. Secondly, and most commonly, developers monetize their game in such a way as to make players feel forced to spend money. These are commonly known as Pay-to-Win games. You shouldn’t use freemium systems as a paywall to prevent players from progressing. These games, while making large amounts of revenue off whales, will eventually dry up and die due to players quitting in frustration. Unfortunately, these games appear to be incredibly successful early on in their life cycle so this type of F2P model has propagated and became the standard for many games. They’re simply shortsighted cash-grabs that kill off their playerbase because of greedy monetization.

A successful F2P game will make that spending process something you actively want to engage in, rather than either a detriment to your enjoyment or a toll you have to pay to progress. The process should feel something like buying a new game or a toy; it’s something you’re very happy to pay for, even if you would’ve prefered it to be free, and you enjoy seeing your purchased item every day. These often come up in the forms of expansion packs, cosmetics, or social items that are fun to use for all involved. These purchases don’t result in feelings of regret, and have lasting value that legitimately enhances your play experience.

If your monetization system is fair and enjoyable, word of mouth will ensure that you are successful. As a result of the fair monetization system, you’re likely to have an expanding player base too, as players will want to stick around to see what you can do instead of quitting prematurely. Always keep the players’ enjoyment of the system in the forefront when you’re designing your monetization system, and you’ll be on the right track to making fair, successful F2P games.

Important Takeaways: F2P games are becoming extremely common, but many developers don’t understand how to design their monetization systems. You need to have an overarching design philosophy, and usually this boils down to ensuring that your players enjoy spending money. While that sounds simple, many F2P games today make you feel forced to pay, as in P2W games where you vastly underperform unless you spend money for boosters. Make sure your monetization system feels good to go through, as with buying a new game or a toy; it shouldn’t induce feelings of regret or frustration, but rather feelings of happiness from getting something you will enjoy for a while, or something to enhance an already great experience.

GameDev Thoughts: Designing Engaging Boss Fights In Action Games

Good bosses lead to good games. However, some may too easy to kill, others too challenging, and some are just plain horribly designed. Inevitably some bosses will be and just are better than others, but there are just a few components that separate the type of bosses that cause you to stay up all night, and the bosses that just make you flat out uninstall the game.

Firstly, good bosses make the game truly engaging. Sure you usually only encounter a boss right before you progress to the next level and right after you have done something remarkable, but bosses add another level to the game that makes it interesting. They push you to perform at your very best and they are a testament to all the skills you have learned up to that point. If you absolutely cannot defeat a boss perhaps it is a good idea to go back and polish off your skills. Did you miss an item or have not leveled up to gain a secret ability? Well-designed boss fights tease you — if you work at it a little bit more, maybe next time you’ll finally slay the giant dragon. Well-designed bosses drive the plot forward. Did you forget to talk to someone or something in the game that could show you an unknown path or give you gold to purchase gear at a nearby store? In the end, bosses are an amalgamation of the storyline. If you cannot beat a boss it’s probably because you are not at the skill level you need to be at to continue. Practice will not make perfect in this instance but if you can take down a boss you know you have done something right. And if you cannot, it is probably because you missed something along the way.

Because boss levels are an amalgamation of the storyline, they need to be challenging in a way that pushes the user to give their top performance, while not being so hard that a user feels as though they cannot win. Many bosses can be viewed as damage sponges that can take just as much damage as they can wield. These bosses can feel unrelenting and can make them seem impossible to beat, especially if a player has not leveled up enough, or has taken a relatively fast path through the game. In this case, make it so the user feels as though they can get through at least the majority of their health left before the boss finishes them off. This will make it seem like at least the boss is not too daunting, and teases the play a bit more.

Bosses should be intimidating. This is where your graphics come into play. Really hard to beat bosses are what nightmares are made of and that should read across the screen if it is a mega-boss. Bosses that seem scarier will wow your user and let them know that they will have to work extra hard if they would like to advance. Very intimidating bosses can be tall, full of muscles, covered in acid slime, you name it. This is where your imagination can come into play to truly create an ultra-villain that will be unlike something your player has never seen while keeping them entertained and engaged.

Your bosses can be used to throw off the player’s expectations as well. The longer a player can predict what will come next, the less likely they will feel engaged. The unexpected can come with risks, but it is almost always entertaining. Of course, you do not want to throw too many curve balls at the person playing the game as their needs to be some level of predictability. Play with the evolutions and the of your bosses. Have different bosses work on the different weaknesses of your character. That way, the player will never know what skill they will be working on next so they will be working on all of their core strengths instead of just a couple. Make bosses demand more skill out of the player, with attacks that keep the player on their toes.

Important Takeaways: A great boss fight can transform a mediocre game into a truly memorable one. Boss fights are meant to be fun, yet challenging. If you go too far in either direction, you either have bosses that are too easy to beat, making your game way too boring, or you have a boss that feels too hard to beat, making the game seem like a drag. Boss encounters should be rooted in making the player feel more engaged, experiencing a change of pace, and helping them be more drawn into the game. Remember to make the fights feel as imposing as possible while keeping balance tight. Take heavy note of player skill level as well — balance the game using your intended core target demographic. If your game errs on the hardcore side, be sure to scale the bosses up accordingly.

GameDev Protips: How To Balance For Skill When Developing Multiplayer Games

Skill is a factor often ignored when balancing multiplayer games. Sure, the game might be perfectly balanced from a numbers standpoint, but if a strategy that is three times harder to execute is just as strong as any other strategy, there’s no reason to use it. As a result, developers need to make sure that there are strategies that are stronger when the player is better. This being said, there also needs to be strategies that are strong even in the hands of a weak player, something that player skill doesn’t have a huge effect on. Strategies like these can give new players a “ladder” to climb into higher skill levels. Without them, veterans will run all over new players and cause many of them to quit because they don’t stand a chance. There are ways in which this system can be detrimental. However, the most prominent issue is making these strategies nearly as strong as top-tier strategies.

Whenever your “newbie” strategy is enough to carry you through games, you’ll never learn to adopt another strategy. Even if the top-tier strategy is twice as good, if it’s ten times harder to execute only those top-tier players can use it effectively. If you don’t gradually wean your player off the “newbie” strategy and let them acquire the skills they need to tackle something tougher, two outcomes can occur. The first is that the player never needs to adapt their “newbie” strategy and they get bored because of how easy it is to execute. The second is that the player keeps using that strategy until they hit a brick wall of difficulty where they’re fighting players using the top-tier strategy but they never learned to use it themselves up until that point and will have a difficult time learning it past that point. Both of these outcomes are going to result in players quitting your game preemptively, so they should be avoided.

Essentially, a multiplayer game needs to have a variety of strategies that can cater to every player. There needs to be less skill-intensive strategies that are still strong that players can use as a stepping stone towards higher skill levels, but these strategies need to be invalidated at an early enough point as to not gimp the player’s skill development and enjoyment later. There also has to be incredibly skill-intensive strategies that incentivize this switch once the players are familiarized with the game.

Important Takeaways: Sometimes raw numbers aren’t the only factor in balancing your game; you also need to consider how useful strategies are to players of different skill levels. You need to have strategies that are strong for new players but weak in the hands of a veteran (comparatively), and abilities that are weak for new players but strong in the hands of a veteran. As long as the new players can work their way towards those skill-intensive strategies, you’re doing things right. Problems arise if you never give the player a reason to switch strategies, however. If you don’t get them to switch early on, their skill development will be gimped and they’ll either keep stomping with the beginner strategy and get bored. They might even run into a progression wall when they start fighting people that can use the skill-intensive strategy that they never learned to use in the first place.

GameDev Protips: How To Properly Implement Energy-Based Game Mechanics

While originally being found in social games, energy systems are becoming a core part of many different games and genres today. Most of the time, this type of system is located in free to play games and are used for making the game a part of the players’ schedules. Now, you may be wondering how this system actually works, and how you can best implement it in your own indie games, and that’s what I’m going to explain today.

Energy systems should only be used for two purposes, primarily habituation, and secondarily content restriction. In the case of habituation, humans are known to try incredibly hard to maximize efficiency in various areas, but in the case of games, this is multiplied. When there’s a timer that determines when you can do something, a significant amount of players will plan around that timer. If you’ve ever set an alarm in the middle of the night to avoid “wasting” energy in a gacha or other type of mobile game, you are experiencing this yourself. Because of this, timers help your players make the game a part of their daily routine, which causes them to become deeply involved in the game, usually to the point of spending money to further their enjoyment. This is a good way to use the timer system, as there’s nothing inherently malicious about it.

A good example of this system was included in World of Warcraft. Early on in the game’s development, the “resting bonus” that we all know and love was originally an “unrested penalty.” Players hated the system and begged for its removal. Afterwards, without changing the implementation of the system at all, they just changed the name of the modifier and where it showed up to the player, and thus the “unrested penalty” that showed up after you played for too long became known as the “rested bonus” that would show up when you played before that “too long” time mark. The system still penalizes experience earned after playing for too long, but now it behaves similarly to the glass-half-empty or half-full system. Instead of thinking about it as losing experience efficiency for playing too long players may think of it as gaining extra experience for additional play time, which is a much more positive frame.

The next way that energy systems should be used for, content restriction, is a simple but slightly less healthy way of using it. Simply put, using a timer to stop players from progressing is using it for content restriction. A lot of mobile games rely on this as they usually don’t have a huge amount of content in the first place, and they need to stop players from blazing through before they’ve become invested. Obviously using the system like this can cause some frustration, but when done correctly in a way that doesn’t make the player feel obliged to pay up, it works out just fine.

Remember what I just said about making the player feel obliged to pay up? That’s yet another way energy systems are being used, and it should be avoided at all costs. This just isn’t the way to use the system as it’s a short-sighted cash grab and will turn players away that would otherwise become even more invested and likely spend more money if the game had been friendly to them. You see this system in action when a game’s time gates frustrate you to the point of paying just to progress through the game. This type of system is usually found in the various “city-builder” type games that you find everywhere, where you have to wait exceedingly long periods of time in order to finish building something that will let you progress.

Basically, these systems should be aiming to make the game a part of your schedule rather than frustrate you into paying. While nobody enjoys having the energy system, implementing it correctly will significantly mitigate that dissatisfaction and turn it into player investment. If you fail to realize its strengths, you’ll just turn away more potential money than you’ll be gaining from your cash grab.

Important Takeaways: Energy systems in games today are intended to persuade players into making the games a part of their daily schedule. While that is the primary intent, they can also be used to gate content to prevent a player from blazing through the game, but this should only be done if you have other things the player can do in the meantime in such a way that they don’t get frustrated by it. Unfortunately, many game companies today ignore this advice and purposeful make these timers frustrating to extort money from players’ impatience. While this might get some money in the short term, it’ll seriously hinder sales in the long run as you’ll be turning away players that would spend even more money if you were just accommodating to their desire to play instead. Basically, use energy systems to make playing the game a habit and to extend the lifetime of your game and avoid making them frustrating so that you aren’t causing potential dedicated players to quit early on.

GameDev Protips: How To Design Challenging Games That Aren’t Way Too Punishing

Gamers today are familiar with truly “challenging” games such as Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy, and a few “punishing” games such as Fire Emblem Awakening (in some places) and lots of traditional JRPGs (usually referring to their bosses), but what is the distinction between a game being “challenging” and a game being “punishing”? There are tons of hard games besides the aforementioned ones, but lots of them fail to scratch that “itch” that we had for older games that just “seemed” to be harder. Why is that? Here are the answers.

For starters, the primary difference between a game being challenging and a game being punishing is its fairness. If everything in the game obeys the rules, the difficulty will be challenging. After all, the game isn’t cheating; you can find a solution for any problems you’re running into. Punishing games are quite the opposite; they cheat. This isn’t always malicious, such as with warp pipes in Mario, but games that break the rules necessitate memorization, lest the player falls into a trap that shouldn’t be there in the first place. An example of this would be if a boss in Dark Souls instantly killed the player if they weren’t standing on the high ground when it dropped below half health. The player has no way of knowing that would happen without first encountering it, so that event will have to be memorized for the player to proceed. The game is blatantly cheating so the difficulty introduced there is punishing.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, however. In Super Meat Boy, some of the bosses have attacks you couldn’t possibly dodge the first time you fight them without luck. However, because each individual iteration of gameplay is so short, these don’t frustrate like they would if you died after a 20-minute boss fight in the Dark Souls example. The respawn time is practically nonexistent so you can instantly adjust your play to fit the challenge. Also, even otherwise fair games can be perceived as having punishing difficulty if usability is disregarded. If mechanics aren’t properly explained, difficulty spikes exist, or other similar elements that make the game artificially harder, an otherwise fair game can be rendered punishing because the player can’t effectively overcome challenges.

As a general rule of thumb, if you want to determine a game’s position on the challenging versus punishing difficulty scale, you should look at what happens after the player fails. If the player feels as if they could’ve done something better, be that not making a mistake or using a different approach, the game is probably fair but challenging. If the player gets frustrated and blames the game for their failure, the game likely has elements that are out of their control which makes it punishing.

Important Takeaways: It’s important to be able to distinguish a challenging game from a punishing one. Challenging games are those that follow the rules and allow the player to overcome challenges with enough skill. Punishing games will be those that throw curveballs at the player that require memorization to avoid in the future; no amount of skill can prevent those obstacles from stopping the player the first time around. Exceptions to this rule apply if a game’s individual iterations don’t last long enough to cause frustration, as with Super Meat Boy’s bosses and the low respawn time. Similarly, an otherwise fair game can become artificially unfair if the player is forgotten about and thus their ability to complete the game is artificially hindered, such as with mechanics not being explained properly or difficulty spikes being present; it’s not that the game is unfair, it’s just that the player has no way of approaching the problem and knowing what to do before they’re knee-deep in it. As a general rule, if failing causes the player to feel that they could’ve done something better, the game is challenging. If a failure causes the player to blame the game for their mistakes, the game is likely skewed towards being a bit too punishing.

GameDev Protips: Game Design With Mobile In Mind

Mobile devices are a significant proportion of today’s gaming market. Their convenience makes it a first-stop for lots of players who would otherwise not be playing anything on a console. Unfortunately, designing games with mobile in mind requires a different mindset than tradition development because of the added element of touch controls replacing buttons in almost all cases. Here are some things to keep in mind when designing for mobile.

First off, some things simply do not work very well on mobile. FPS games, for one, just don’t have an elegant control scheme that can be used for the normal player. Using multiple inputs at the same time is often a bad idea since mobile devices are usually held with one hand and played with the other (which goes against how FPS games are played two-handed), and emulating control schemes from platforms that use completely different input methods just makes things feel clunky. In most cases, if your game has something like a virtual joystick, it’s doing something wrong. You have to keep these things in mind when you’re thinking about mobile.

Next, you have to consider how your controls will be laid out in terms of screen space. Mobile is one of the few platforms where the input method can actually get between the player and the game, so you have to make sure your buttons don’t put the players’ hands in a place that blocks the screen. This usually means having touchable elements on the outside of the screen and not in the middle, at least not for extended periods of time. Players won’t enjoy playing a game that they can’t see after all.

Lastly, make sure that your games are tested by people with long fingernails as well as people with short fingernails. While it doesn’t sound like a big difference, playing with the flat of your fingers versus playing with the tip of your fingers can change things drastically. Some control schemes are too precise for those playing with their flats, and some also cause too much of the screen to be obscured because they can’t arch their fingers in a way that stops the screen from being blocked, at least not in a comfortable manner.

With that out of the way, what does work for mobile? For one, turn-based games are excellent for mobile; any awkward control schemes don’t matter as much when the player has as much time as they need to execute their actions, and the genre is perfect for the “on the go” nature of playing on mobile. This also plays well with allowing players to quit in the middle of a game and return later, which is important to mobile as well. Games that “restart” when players receive a call or a low battery notification, or when they turn off their phone and turn it back on later, can cause lots of frustration. 

The game should also be playable with one hand, as often times the other hand will be holding the phone, or should involve actions that the two thumbs can handle to accommodate the “texting method” of holding phones. Finally, the control schemes will work out best if it emulates human motions that we’re already used to. Examples include tapping your fingers to a rhythm game or swiping in match-three games. Don’t forget that most most mobile devices have things beyond their screen, such as gyroscopes, that might allow for more elegant control schemes or alternative control scheme choices. Always utilize those if they’re appropriate.

Important Takeaways: Mobile is a large gaming platform today, so knowing how to design for it is important. Don’t try to force genres that don’t work, like FPS, onto mobile, as that’s just asking for a clunky control scheme. Make sure your buttons aren’t laid out in a way that will cause fingers to block important parts of the screen. On a similar note, when your game is being tested, make sure people with long fingernails can also effective use your control scheme as some things that work for fingertips don’t work well with the flats of fingers. With those warnings out of the way, there are a few things in particular that work well on mobile: turn-based games, games with very few simultaneous inputs, and games with control schemes that mimic human motions that we’re already used to. If you can use them, you should also use some of the nifty features that mobile devices have today, like gyroscopes, to improve your control schemes or offer alternatives.