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"Payers are the most insanely engaged people you can imagine"

Ex-Playdom creative director Eric Todd says free-to-play devs must design games for people who will average 5 hours of playtime a day

While many of the free-to-play sessions at this week's Game Developers Conference will go over the finer points of optimizing games for monetization, Orange Monkey Games founder and former Playdom creative director Eric Todd used his time at a microtalk session today to spell out three key fundamentals that developers need to get right before they concern themselves with any tinkering.

Obviously, a successful free-to-play game absolutely needs people to pay money. And Todd said there's one thing pretty much every free-to-play gamer who winds up paying money has in common.

"As best I can tell, payers are the most insanely engaged people you can imagine," Todd said. "They are freaking crazy about your game. And the bad news is that these are the only people who will pay you money in any significant numbers."

In looking over the performance of games he's worked on, Todd said the strongest correlation for payers was the amount of time they spent playing a game on a daily basis. He emphasized that point by breaking down the numbers for average daily playtime over the first week for one successful game he worked on. Those who never paid to play the game averaged 45 minutes a day. Those who didn't pay in the first week but were considered potential payers down the road played an average of two hours a day. Actual payers in that first week averaged five hours of playtime a day. None of the payers played for less than four hours a day, and the most devoted could spend up to 12 hours playing.

"It means you must support and reward such play, or your game will not monetize well," Todd said. "It absolutely means you must take this level of rabid engagement into consideration when you're designing your game up front. It is absolutely not something you can tack on later."

The leads to the next key fundamental for success: Long-term retention. If someone's playing the game that much, they're going to need new content, new mechanics, and widening social interactions over time if the developer wants to keep them from burning out or getting bored of the game. These fanatical players are hard enough to come by as it is, but every one that leaves the game is taking their long tail of revenue with them.

"It's not at all uncommon for more than 70 percent of the revenue for a player to occur after the first 30 days," Todd noted. "If your game is not designed to keep the lunatic fringe in your game engaged for months--and remember we're talking like five hours a day for most of these people--then you're leaving a lot of money on the table, and quite possibly most of it."

The final key fundamental is that players need to be given good reasons and opportunities to pay, whether it's accelerating progress through a game, tweaking the difficulty, gaining a competitive advantage, or simply expressing themselves with a cosmetic change for their characters. But developers have to be careful here. Todd said it's critical that players feel like the proposed deal is a fair one. If the difficulty of a level ramps up to nigh-impossible unless players spend money, that may help monetization numbers in the short-term, but it could easily backfire by turning fanatical players off and undermining retention in the longer term.

"If you've nailed the first two conditions, this one is pretty easy. What's hard is making players give a shit about your game and providing enough depth so the fanatics can engage as much as they want, and to keep that going over months and years... Your biggest objective is to create fanatical players. If you don't do this, you won't monetize. I guarantee it. Second, you have to retain those people indefinitely, if at all possible. You have to provide them with fair reasons to pay, and you absolutely have to design this into the core of your game upfront."

If developers don't have those fundamental elements in place, optimizations are pointless, Todd said. But if the basics are all in place, the optimizations are pretty easy to take care of.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.