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How to impress new players in free-to-play games

deltaDNA CEO Mark Robinson on the right road to retention

Half of all players never return after a single session of a free-to-play game. This might seem bewildering, however, if you get your first impressions right you can end up with a dedicated and happy player base.

The key is ensuring your players get in, enjoy themselves and are rewarded - FAST. The game should give as much of a taste as possible of what it has to offer, early-on. So, how do you do this?

Making a good first impression in free-to-play

Our team of data specialists at deltaDNA used a sample of 200 games on the deltaDNA game analytics platform to analyze games with both high and low volumes of returning new players. Their findings reveal a number of ways that you can create a truly awesome first-time user experience in your game:

1. Players need to understand what they have to do

You would think this point is a 'no-brainer', but it is surprising how many games out there don't do themselves justice when it comes to explaining themselves! As F2P is an unforgiving territory, it is very important that you have a well-structured tutorial with clear signposting to help new players understand the game mechanics in a fun and engaging way. Warframe (PC/PS4/XB1), by Digital Extremes, is a good example of this as it makes good use of a likable character to lead the player through the early stages of the game. Player controls and hints are also cleverly placed around the environment, to help guide the player in an intuitive way.

2. Players should achieve something early, no matter their skill level

Players enjoy the feeling of success through progression and find it rewarding. This means events, such as leveling up and unlocking new levels, or the earning of achievements and explicit rewards, should occur within the first few minutes of gameplay. Brave Frontier (Android/iOS), by A-Lim / Gumi, leads players through a series of battles, along with a number of explicit rewards, with the aim of easing them into the game. The game also highlights tutorial completion rewards ahead of the gameplay starting, to encourage engagement.

3. Difficulty in the initial stages of the game should be controlled

Most players will not tolerate frustration and disappointment in a F2P game. Because of this, game difficulty should be gradually increased, with early difficulty very low. New players should always win their first mission. CSR Racing (Android/iOS), by NaturalMotion, places players in a safe environment during their initial races by removing the possibility of failure. The first solo race is used to explain the games controls, and it is followed by a competitive race against the AI. However, if the player attempts to shift gears too early when playing against the AI for the first time, the action is paused and a hint is displayed to ensure they understand what to do.

4. Players should experience enough early on to get a good understanding of the gameplay

Don't lock off something that your players will find 'cool' until too far into the game. If there's an exciting bonus game, multiplayer feature, outlandish weapon or new game mechanic introduced, do you really want to wait until 90 per cent of your players have abandoned? CSR Racings sequel, CSR Classics (Android/iOS), is a perfect example of this. Very early in the game, players are led through each stage of the upgrade process and shown what a fully upgraded vehicle will look like. It is executed in an exciting way and gives players something to aspire to.

A game that makes all the right impressions...

Applying all these rules is a deltaDNA favourite - Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft by Blizzard Entertainment. Hearthstone is an addictive, highly accessible card game title, that takes a traditionally niche genre into the mainstream. The success of this title relied heavily on finding the right balance between bringing in new players to the franchise and not alienating World of Warcraft's loyal followers, and they nailed it with their first time user experience.

Hearthstone ticks a lot of the boxes we look for in a first time user experience:

  • An exciting and engaging introduction that includes explicit rewards
  • Good use of signposting
  • A well-structured tutorial that unveils the game complexity over time

Although the tutorial is forced and much longer than we would recommend for most games, it was a wise choice in this case to ensure Hearthstone was accessible to casual gamers because of its complexity.


Grab the attention of your players and they will return to play your game again. Gameplay must be easy to understand, your player rewarded, the difficulty level gradually increased and you must let your players see some of your best features.

Adopting a one-size-fits-all approach towards your players won't work, so utilize analytics tools to understand their behavior, such as deltaDNA's free Dashboards. Once you know your players, invest in some real-time engagement tools to personalize their gaming experience. Keep your players returning and you're on the road to successful game.