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Paolo's Blog Posts

Mobile f2p 4x starter

One of the most beloved genres of mobile games is 4X. In case you don’t know, the genre was born on PC. 4X means eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. 

I watched this beautiful deconstruction of a popular title these days. Deconstructor of Fun is deconstructing the fun again, I have to say!

It is an expensive genre to develop especially if you are giving it for free, for example using the free-to-play business model, it is better to think well in designing each part scalable and monetizable.

The game loop

In the following diagram, I resume the typical game loop for mobile f2p 4X games and detail the three typical metagame loops associated with:

The economy of these games is generally based on:

  • Resources: usually represented with raw materials such as wood, iron, and so on. The basic building block for everything.
  • Buildings: you need to build to grow your empire, useful to eXploit the land
  • Crafts: the technology you can use to craft
    • Craft rate: the speed of crafting using buildings
    • Craft options: the kind of things you can craft
  • Troops: a consumable used to eXplore and eXpand
  • Heroes: characters that lead the troops, useful to eXplore and eXterminate
    • Hero XP: often represented with shards, useful to level up the heroes
    • Hero gear: useful to power up the heroes
    • Hero Level: the level of the hero

Monetization

“Monetize or die”, says someone. And I cannot agree more with that statement. Remember you are giving a sophisticated piece of software for free. You need to think that a very small part of the audience will pay for that. To do that, you should have a very deep spend depth in your game. Here are some classic methods:

  • Build: the build loop uses resources to build new structures after waiting time
    • Resources can be monetized
    • Time (speed up) can be monetized
    • Builders (building slots) can be monetized. They are often part of the starter pack, the succulent first euro you are supposed to spend into the game. Very valuable.
  • Upgrade: to upgrade your building you use the same things as for building.
    • You can add a layer of ADs for freemium players to watch and speed things up, especially when they have little time remaining.
  • Train: you need troops to attack others, and those are created using time and slots
    • You can monetize the time to speed up
    • You can make the players purchase extra slots. This can be also part of some high-conversion item
  • Level-up Heroes: heroes are key for certain missions and special features, like social features or battle modes
    • You can monetize heroes directly (not recommended), but you can offer them in loot boxes/gachas
    • You can add them in a season pass, some subscription service that unlocks heroes with progress
    • You can sell special gear from them
    • You can have specific shards for hero level-up or get special shards
  • 4X: this is the real goal of the game and permits to have more opportunities to monetize all the rest
    • How many buildings do you have?
      • How many levels can you upgrade them?
    • How many heroes do you have?
      • What are the chances to get those heroes?
    • How many troops do you need to attack?
      • What is the cost in time to get them?
    • And so on…

Conclusion

I hope you liked this brief introduction, my intention is to communicate that you should stay aware of these concepts:

  • The Game Loop: the sequence of features that the Players should engage with over and over in order to progress through the game
  • The Meta Loops: the things that make your players think about your game where they are not playing.
  • The spend depth: every member of the game loop has to be monetized! 

Monetization is not a bad thing, it is what keeps your Players engaged!

New project: UEFN Good Ol’ FRAG

Starting today I want to explore more the world of UEFN. I played a little with the experiences you have available on Fortnite right now and… oh my goodness, they are complete disasters from a level design perspective. What are we feeding our kids??? what?? *dramatic*

So I had this idea: recreate the most beloved maps from classic FRAG multiplayers within Fortnite. I need of course to tweak for 3rd person these maps, but my vision is pretty much this: to recreate classics in Fortnite. Because I want the kids to grow with serious stuff! (and if I can generate some income meanwhile, better)

I started by going on Copilot to look for data:

You are the lead game designer of a new project that involves Fortnite. Using UEFN, the project is to recreate the best maps that belong to classics of frag games (quake, unreal, and so on) in Fortnite. Converting them into modern versions. Make a table with the most enjoyed maps. On one column put the map name, on the second one a map image, third one the game, fourth column put the year and last column put notes on how to give them a modern touch

Prompt for Copilot

And I got a whole spreadsheet with a couple of tweaks:

I added some metadata and screenshots for the maps. So I am ready to start exploring classics!

How to evolve chores

Any video game sets up routines for the Players. Certain genres, like RPG and survival, are based on the concept of grinding. Grinding is making certain things over and over to achieve certain results. Often related to power-progression.

The art of game design in this case is being able to anticipate when certain tasks become a chore and make them evolve into something else. Usually, there are two steps:

  1. First, you make them automate something
  2. Then you give them the possibility to evolve the system so that the player becomes something new.

An interesting example of that is the game V-Rising. You are a vampire building an empire. And you have chores to do, collect things, craft other things, and so on.

The game lets you build special floors that boost that part, so that the game becomes a matter of designing your castle, more than building the next thing to improve your crafts.

The problem with the “Microsoft Game Day Commercial”

I am European, so I don’t know if Microsoft made this commercial for the Super Bowl or what:

Many thoughts come into my mind, though. I can define the message as worrisome at the very least. I don’t believe in ghouls but I can see greed. Still, I tend to always find the good part in everything. Let’s go with the plot analysis

The ad starts with young people worried about their professional future. One of them wants to have a business, another wants a degree, and so on. The message focuses on an invisible enemy (“they say I can’t…”). My expectation for the rest of it was a revenge-based narrative. Something like “They say this, I show them I can do that”.

Instead, the protagonists accept what “they say” and start using a powerful AI to do the things they love. “Write me the code for my open-world game…”. My? Are you sure that game is yours? “Generate storyboard images for the dragon scene in my script…” Did you feed an algorithm that stole hundreds of artist’s works with your script? So lame!

The campaign perpetuates society’s renunciation of the growth of their future, young people. MS is saying that they should renounce their dreams and put them in the hands of the corporation. I know that they want to announce their service, but the cake is a lie. LLMs are very limited right now. The fact that they are trying to convince creative people to give up on their creativity drives me nuts.

I am also worried about the environment, how much energy and water are these services using?

The adjacency of marketing

There are designers and marketers, creative and tricky/boring stuff to do. One thing is always there: both are absolutely necessary for the success of a game. And so, for the success of a company.

A game company is run by business people, but games are made by developers and creative. Sometimes business people are very creative, sometimes developers are very aware of the business of making games.

In 2024, having marketing knowledge will be a boost for professional game designers. If you want to create your games like an artist, you have the opportunity to create your IPs and eventually get rich. But if you, like me, are here to serve other people and businesses you should aim to learn marketing.

Marketing, just like writing and art, is an adjacent space to explore and study. Very important to be aware of it and very few people are. It’s boring as heck, but it’s part of the craft to me.

Starting from UGC

Imagine you want to create a new team to develop video games. Imagine you have a team of veterans and people with less experience. One of the ways to start is Roblox or UEFN (Unreal Editor for Fortnite).

They are walled gardens but allow you not to worry too much about thinking about the game to develop. Roblox has more players than Playstation and Xbox combined. So there is a solid community of players.

When you start a new project by creating a team of people who don’t know each other, it’s a good idea to start doing smaller tests. So why not try these systems that already have their basis? In my opinion, it is an excellent opportunity to start.

Time for the underdogs

I am at Gamesforum, a conference on the marketing of games. Organizers gave me a free ticket and I have to say that is worth every single (and inexistent) penny.

The times are challenging for employees. We are seeing many layoffs, changes imposed by platform holders, and global insecurity. I met colleagues and I noticed that those who work as independent are younger than those who are working as employees. It’s crazy, right?

  • If you are on a successful project, it’s very hard to grow more and more. So the day job is gritty and the pressure is very high.
  • If you are on an unsuccessful project chances that you will be fired are high
  • If you are an underdog, there are lots of opportunities to grow! Many skilled professionals are available. Many known tactics for zero-to-one growth and you can probably create realistic plans.

What does it mean to be an underdog?

There are many acceptations to the term underdog, but to me it means:

  • small scopes, budget, team
  • ideas more focused on USP, both for product and for marketing
  • zero-to-one, still few partners/peers/providers
  • focus on the build, money will be a consequence

Why is it time for the underdogs?

Big players in the market are lost in the age of efficiency. After chasing impossible growth, they are now all-in for profit. They are reviving legacy products, and creating copycats, and they are not building anything new. Being an underdog now means being forced to think of alternatives to production and distribution strategies. It means to dream more and probably better. Who knows, maybe you will be the leader of the future!

Designing Journeys

I am designing the journey of a game for a client these days. It is a fun activity, also when you don’t have all the information you need to complete it. Anyway, it can be struggling, because it is very critical for the entire project.

A journey is the prediction of how the Players should behave in the game. At the same time, a journey imagines what the game offers to the Players, according to each stage they are in. When the journey is extremely detailed, usually you have a game with less freedom. The possibility space leaves fewer choices for the Players. When the journey is just sketched, you may oversee things too much.

General rules for journeys

  • Draft your journeys on a spreadsheet
  • The first column (or one of the first columns) should always be regarding the time
  • There should be some feature to represent the stage of the Players inside of the game. In many games it is level
  • You can briefly describe what the Players should do and the narrative around it given by the game
  • Each step should have its goals
  • Each goal should be reached using at least a single mechanic, or a combination of mechanics (skill atom). The key here is to always teach something. Remember: to have fun is to learn
  • You can define the challenges that the players will find over the journeys
  • Reaching each goal (every line/step of the journey) should unlock something meaningful for the next steps of the journey

It is hard to imagine exactly how the whole game should go. Especially with big games. Journeys are usually iterative, at the project start you have less definition and more questions. You can add those questions in a separate column. It is not necessary to balance at this stage, keep it clean and balance later. The last thing, journeys are very much needed also for simple puzzle games. In that case, we talk of the beat chart more than the journey.

When the junior is your client

When you gain some experience, you happen to work with junior profiles. They are people who need to grow and it takes considerable management and mentoring work. At first, you are inevitably slowed down, but then you see the benefits.

It then happens that you work for clients and your client is the junior. It explains badly, it defines things badly. In that case, you cannot treat him as you would treat a junior in the company, as a subordinate. And that’s great because it helps you understand how to treat people in the best way possible.

I understand a lot of things that I could have handled differently in the past. Considering a subordinate as the expert, which we are forced to do when working with a client, opens the door to many learnings.

Join the Scott Rogers Fundraiser Event

Scott Rogers, game designer, master and author of fantastic books needs some help. We are organizing a FREE online conference to raise funds for him.

You can join the conference here. It’s on Sat, February the 3rd. Event link here.

I will give a speech. From Books to Games: My Freelance Journey as a Self-Taught Game Designer

Years ago I had to create my opportunities in game design because the scene here in Barcelona was hard to navigate, to say the least. Thanks to books like “Level Up!” I managed to create my method of getting there. Tomorrow, I will share this method at the conference.

See you there!