Designing a Long-term Game

One of the weird things about designing a "free to play" game is that you have to build something with unlimited potential. And that's a tricky thing to do.

Casino games have an interesting built-in appeal. Folks have been playing poker, slots, and blackjack for not just a few weeks, or months, or even years - but more like decades, and in some cases even centuries. The mechanics of these games don't get old - because the ones that didn't work as well and did get old died. These are the ones that survived.

Let's take poker. Why is it such a durable game? There are a handful of fairly straightforward reasons:

  1. It's a combination of skill and luck, but in the long-term, skill beats luck. In any given hand, luck plays a vital role. You can draw lousy cards that you just can't do anything with, while your opponent can draw pocket Aces, which is powerful even if nothing else is on the board. But the game isn't about a single hand. It's about a combination of hands over time. Over the longer term, players who know how to read their opponents, who understand the odds, and who make the best strategic calls win. You don't see a lot of lucky n00bs at high ranking competitive poker games.
  2. You play against other people. If all poker was was a single player game against an AI, it'd quickly get boring. But poker isn't about that. It's about bluffing. It's about reading other people. And those things become endlessly fascinating, because people are endlessly fascinating. Real multiplayer, where you're interacting with real people, and making decisions where you're trying to get into their head & figure out what they're doing - that kind of experience is basically limitless, as long as the core mechanics allow for you to try to anticipate what they're doing, bluff them, and make interesting strategic decisions.

There are tons of other reasons people play poker, and many other reasons that it remains a very durable game. But I think that what people forget when they try to make a successful F2P game is that you need your game to be this durable at its core. If it's not, people will grow tired of it. If it's purely about mastery, then you get to a point where nothing surprising can happen. Sure, in Halo, I can sometimes beat a highly ranked player on pure dumb luck, but that's one in a thousand times. I'm not a twitch player to that degree, and never will be, and eventually, the game gets exclusionary very quickly.

Second, unless you have potential for limitless repeatability (with variation), eventually folks get tired of your game & quit. And if you lose players, then your game over the long term isn't going to be sustainable. This is why most F2P games wax and wane. Why many companies still rely on a huge spike of users at the beginning and a long tail.

For us, we're trying to design a game with the replayability, variability, luck/skill balance, and person-to-person interaction (including bluffing) that poker has. More, the core game narratively mimics one-on-one combat, which can be applied in so many ways that it never gets old. Thigns that are more specific - like "Build the tallest tower" are only interesting until you've built a really tall tower. It's not ingrained into the human psyche. But "fight to survive" is something that's deeply wired into your brain. It never gets old, because if you got bored of fighting to survive, you wouldn't.

So we're trying to start with a very small game. Something that's easily understood, and appealing, even in its early stages. But part of the process is understanding that small isn't the end goal. The end goal is to build a game that can be interesting not just for hours, or days, but for years.

It's a daunting challenge. And while I think we're on the right track, there's no guarantee that we actually are. But that's what we're striving for. And I think the strange thing is that a lot of games that are shooting for this market aren't even trying to accomplish those things.

My hypothesis is that if we can hit the luck/skill/multiplayer balance, we'll have the best chance at success. Let's test that hypothesis. :)