The Business and Design of Free-To-Play Games


Finding Fatal Flaws: Lessons from Kongregate – CC09

Here are raw notes from a discussion of lessons learned from Flash games on Kongregate, presented at Casual Connect 2009 by Jim Greer (CEO) and Greg McClanahan of Kongregate.

Kongregate hosts 16,000 Flash games, 1,000 are added monthly. It's oriented towards core gamers and includes achievements, friends list, chat, comments and ratings.

  • 85% of Kongregate gamers are male, majority are teenagers & college kids.
  • 8 million unique users per month

Game plays are not as long-tail as expected:

  • 1st game - 12m plays a month
  • 2nd game - 10m
  • 20th game - 2m
  • 60th game - 1m
  • Top 10% of games - 90% of playtime
  • Top 1% - 50% of playtime

Regular players vs addicts

  • Epic War 3 - deep single player game - 33% converts to regular players (5x plays), 10% converts to addicts (20x plays). Conversion is low because players already finished the game by that time.
  • Dolphic Olympics 2 - Tony Hawk style game - 24% to reg players, 13% converts to addicts - Did well for a single player game. It's not IMMEDIATELY obvious how great/fun the game it is, players need to get good at it first. When put badges into this game, ratings skyrocketed since people were pushed by achievements to try out other areas of the game.
  • Platform  Racing 2 - 38% to regular players, 27% to addicts. Simple platformer mario-style that won user's choice award. Has UGC and long legs.
  • Starfighter: Disputed Galaxy - 32%, 22%
  • Free Rider 2 - 17%, 18% - Once you get over hump of creating levels, it is more likely to convert you.
  • Desktop Tower Defense - 7%, 15% - Have to build lots of towers before getting the value.

When putting in achivements, more often ratings go down. When people really care about your game because they like the achievements, problems (such as with controls) become more obvious. Or people play games they don't like just to get the achievements.

Newgrounds vs Kongregate ratings
In many cases similar, in some cases not. Suggested rationale for difference included.

  • Desktop TD Pro - 3.9 vs 4.4 (NG vs KO) - KO: gameplay is awesome, so it's ok we already saw the game before
  • Protector 3 - 4 vs 4.3 - NG: we've already seen this
  • Post it Draw it - 3.7 vs 4.3 - NG: wtf
  • Epic Battle Fantasy - Parodies of Final Fantasy fights - KO: ripping off FF, and is not so fun
  • Nuclear Eagle - 4.1 vs 3.7 - KO got frustrated by not being able to finish (too hard)
  • Xenotactic - 4.4 vs 3.9 - NG, someone reskinned DTD
  • Thing Thing 4 - 4.4 vs 3.7 - KO about 5,000 people who uploaded stuff to the site (8 m)
  • NG has higher % of people who consider themselves developers. So when they see something technically impressive, they react well.

Flaws in Flash Games

  • Need a mute button
  • Have save files, and pause buttons (users really want all of that)

Build fun first
Lots of new devs think it's like doing a homework; that putting in enough 'good enough' work in each area gets your game to be  fun.

Button Hunt 2 - 3.83 rating, 760k gameplays
Shopping Cart Hero - 4.07 rating, 2.2m plays
Don't Shit Your Pants - 4.01 rating, 835k plays

New devs - The product counts. You are NOT paid by the hour!

Players don't read instructions

  • It is developers responsibility to teach, not the players
  • This is something that friends/family won't critique you on
  • Have a dialogue that pops up when you learn a new mechanic, don't assume that people are going to remember instructions from the title screen
  • Allow flexibility with controls - say use WASD but also use the arrows

Super Energy Apocalypse Recycled - 4.11, 650k gameplays

  • Two thirds of the game is a tutorial. A great way of doing it as opposed to 'We hope you read the instructions on the title screen'

Challenge does not equal frustration

  • It's a virtue to have a good difficulty curve
  • Bad: POD, hidden timer
  • Good: N+, high skill component, reward players on regular basis, then game can be brutally hard

Art games work without much gameplay - Sprout, Anika's Odyssey - Beautiful, bizarre, text-free, remain intuitive and enjoyable

Good strategies need to be the fun ones
Players will play the game to complete the objectives, not to have the most fun

Ether Cannon 3.27, 184k
Ether War: 4.11, 838k


  • Style, aesthetics, relatability are more important than impressive tech
  • 3D graphics do not impress, since players already play console games
  • The final 10% is the most important - Tweaking, and getting reliable feedback from non-friends

6Aug/080 Seeks Contributing Writer is looking for an insightful industry commentator to join our team. covers social games, online games and virtual worlds for industry insiders. For more info on who we are, see the "Who is" section of this site.

Our selected writer will be capable of creating news with analysis, crafting fact-supported feature articles and conducting insightful interviews. The job can be done from your laptop anywhere in the world, but some paid travel (i.e. to cover conferences) may be involved.

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  • Must have passion for business side of the game industry, be professional and articulate and available to post with consistency and meet editorial deadlines.
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Preview: Warrior Epic from Possibility Space

Warrior Epic is a new free to play online RPG being developed by Possibility Space, a company founded by Gage Galinger and Feng Zhu; a pair that share a wealth of experience between them, from Starcraft to Gears of War.

As a free to play game it comes across as competent and quite polished, and it’s just leaving closed beta. Essentially a dungeon crawler, players own a great hall that stores their characters and serves as a meeting place for quests.

There are a number of different warrior classes (and some that must be paid for), but the hook is a sort of metagame wherein players can choose to harness the spirit of one of their fallen warriors as a power for their next warrior. It’s well scoped and well designed to be a free to play RPG, but what’s most interesting is how they plan to handle paid content and digital downloading.

While the usual cosmetic items are part of the plan, Warrior Epic is taking a refreshing stance towards satisfying both free players and paid players – a problem Flagship’s Hellgate London ran into when they offered paid players better gear, bigger inventories and faster travel times.

Brice Lukas, Community Manager for Possibilty Space had this to say about sustaining that balance:

“In Warrior Epic you cannot purchase power or progress. The best gear and items can only be obtained by playing the game. There is also no exchange of earned items with paid items. So anything that a user buys with real cash cannot be obtained with in-game currency.”

One of the things a player can purchase (for a small price) are buff items that will help players get through dungeons and closer to the real loot.

“Each mission in Warrior Epic is designed to be roughly 15 minutes long, and the number of these buffs you can carry is limited, so they will not unbalance the play.”

Last but not least is Possibility Space's distribution model, what the company has dubbed “Download on Demand”. Players register on the site and then download a small .exe file that will stream content from seed servers. The whole system is similar to torrents and is expected to allow the game to be quite portable. Since account information is stored on the seed servers, players can download the same .exe on any computer, which is run from the folder it’s in rather than needing an install.

We’ll have to wait and see if Warrior Epic proves to be a game that lets players download and start playing within minutes, but it’s safe to say that players will appreciate the lack of usual hoops to jump through. The more players get exposed to a free to play game the better, and with an approach like this there is a good chance that a significant amount of players will at least consider getting involved enough to start paying for items and warriors.

“Our intention is to expose a much larger set of people to the fun of online gaming. We want to take all the fun parts of games that hardcore gamers enjoy, and package those up in a product that everybody can experience. The key behind this is to lower the barrier to entry.”

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