The Free to Play Game Design Bible

The Free to Play Bible Logo

Designing a successful free to play game can seem like a daunting task to even the most experienced of developers, especially in the ever competitive world of mobile F2P games. However. there are rules, guidelines and models you can adhere to that can help you get the best out of your game and truly get started. We like to call it the Free to Play Bible.

In short, it’s the best place to start if you want to learn how to design and build a great free to play mobile game.  

It’s important to remember that any major free to play project is a collection of highly skilled people each working in unison to create a product designed to feel fun for many months. The complexity of such an exercise means breaking down the Bible, and how you think, into the essential key sections.

As such, every section comes with a set of links, and we’ve rated each link in terms of complexity. That means if you’re just starting out, check out the beginner’s guides before moving on to anything more taxing.

Getting Started in Mobile Game Design

As with the mastering of any new skill or technique, it’s all about practice - but you have to start somewhere. Indeed, a crash course in the basics and terminology often used by game designers is undoubtedly the best place to kick off, given much of what’s covered here forms the foundation of what’s to come. It’s also key to learn from the experiences (both good and bad) of some of the best. Included within are the accounts of eminent designers who detail the tips and tricks they wish they’d known before they started out.
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Creating a Successful Mobile Free to Play Game

What does it take to reach the top grossing charts? This is a question every mobile developer has asked, and very few actually have the answer. There are no silver bullets, no magic formula. Building a game that has wide appeal, pulls in millions of players, but also has the depth to keep players retained for years and monetize them throughout is incredibly difficult. Nevertheless, there are a set of rules for what makes a free to play game work. Read on for our guide on what the baseline is for success as a F2P game.
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The Free to Play Gaming Market

Every year the market changes. What worked before might not work again and what seemed like a blue ocean can all of a sudden become crowded. It’s crucial to take a good look at what others are doing in the market - particularly those enjoying some level of success. Surveying the market to see what’s working and what the most popular trends undoubtedly helps you to position your game for success. Read on for how to find your blue ocean in the market.
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Crafting a Strong Core Loop

The “Core Loop” was a term popularized as free-to-play games became more and more popular, but it's more than just a buzzword tossed around by executives. Your game lives and dies based on the design of your core loop.
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Title Source Complexity
Hooked: Building Habit Forming Products (Video) Fight Mediocrity
The Skinner Box Extra Credits
Basic Game Loop Theory Both Guns Blazing
The Compulsion Loop Explained Game Makers
Avoiding Content Treadmills Deconstructor of Fun
Hooked: Building Habit Forming products Nir Eyal
Get Off the Treadmill! Chelsea Howe
Behavioural Game Design John Hopson
Grinding Sucks: Let’s Fix It Mobile Free to Play
Loops and Arcs Lost Garden

Addictive Core Gameplay Design

Developing and designing games revolves around finding a unique core action - one that, hopefully, people enjoy. Managing to find this fun part of play and then, if possible, enhancing it is key to great game design, and something that’s been deconstruction by some of the best in the industry.
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Creating Habit-Forming Session Design

Successful free to play design revolves around your game’s ability to keep people engaged, encouraging them to come back time and again. As such, session design looks at how you can ease people into your game, before then easing them back out again through timers and energy. How often are your players coming back each day? Are they leaving feeling like they’ve accomplished something, or feeling like they’re missing out? How long can a player play each day before exhausting all the options of your game? Do players always have a reason to come back to your game? Session design is the heartbeat of any free to play game. Ignore at your peril.
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Improving your Game’s Retention

Mastering the art of strong retention is hard to get right - getting wrong is the prime reason why many free to play games fail. In short, having too low of a “tail” - or late day retention - will kill a game. So how do developers build games that can last? What can a developer do to improve their retention?
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Building a Lasting Free to Play Economy

Virtual Economy design and balancing has become one of the most dominant forms of game design over the last decade. Games no longer just need to last weeks, but now need to last years, and as a economy designer it is your responsibility to ensure that the currencies involved in your game are always tight: are always sought after a player. Avoiding inflation and managing sources & sinks are a key job for game designers in free to play. Read on to be able to handle the details.
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How to Design Loot Boxes and Gacha Systems

Loot Boxes and Gacha are a very contentious form of game design. Lucrative due to their monetization potential, they’ve allowed the free to play ecosystem to flourish - whether you like them or not. No longer is free to play design pushed solely towards creating timer driven wait fests. Instead, games can rely on the near never-ending chase that players have to gather all the content in a gacha. However, creating a game that uses Gacha effectively is not simple: the best tip anyone can offer is to ensure you know the basics before you start adding it to your game.
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Title Source Complexity
Gacha for Beginners Yevgen Grishenko
Top 5 Mistakes Designing Your Card Collection Elad Drory
How gacha can benefit game developers / MobileFreeToPlay
How to Design a Gacha System Mobile Free to Play
Brawl Stars vs Clash Royale: Designing a Strong Gacha Mobile Free to Play
How Japanese Game Makers Go After Whales Serkan Toto

Designing for Free to Play Monetization

With any free to play game, you must ensure that the core of your gameplay is focussed around a system that players can spend on. One of the largest errors in free to play game design is not necessarily making a bad game, but rather designing a game that doesn’t consider what players will pay for, from the beginning of development. Effective free to play games must allow players to spend throughout their lifetime to ensure they feel powerful for a longer period of time.
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User Experience Design (UI/UX) & Onboarding

It’s important developers consider how players will interact with their product, given it can have a multiplying effect on your retention. In the words of Apple, great user experience “just works”. Ensuring you user test your game with a large number of people is far more valuable than attempting to evaluate it from your own perspective. People’s emotions are a powerful tool in mobile games: understanding how the brain’s natural reward pathways, operant conditioning and social queues can help you create tighter experiences.
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Title Source Complexity
Ways of Playing on Mobile Mobile Free to Play
Designing a Touch Mechanic Mobile Free to Play
Mobile Game Tutorials Mobile Free to Play
Less (Control) is More Mobile Free to Play
3 Stages of making Wireframes Alexander Mescheryakov
The Gamer Motivation Profile Quantic Foundry
Laws of UX Jon Yablonski
The Gamer’s Brain Celia Hodent
A tale of two talent trees Psychology of Video Games
Micro vs Macro Gameplay Game Makers
UX Walkthrough Prototypes Om Tandon
Chemistry of Game Design Dan Cook
Advanced UX Prototyping Om Tandon

(Soft) Launching a Free to Play Mobile Game

Once you’ve built a great game, you need to give it every possible chance of success. In the mobile market you have the ability to softly test your systems to perfection before taking your product to the global stage.  Soft launching can take anywhere from four weeks to nine months and can help to make or break game designs.  Changing your game development hat from designer to marketer can be a daunting task, but necessary for success.
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Making Money with Ads

Advertising revenue is a growing revenue stream on mobile - so much so that the bulk of the revenue generated by some rather noteworthy publishers revenue comes primarily from advertising.  Almost all games can increase their revenue by adding in mobile video ads, as long as it’s done in a fair and subtle way. It’s an approach that allows you to create an additional revenue stream from your free players without directly eating into your IAP or monetization core.
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Mobile Game Marketing and Growth

Almost every successful game on the App Store or Google Play will have performed some form of marketing in order to get to the position it’s in.  Marketing is essential in order to get enough people to download and play your game - if you can lower the cost of marketing while increasing the revenue you generate from each player, you’ll more than likely have a successful product on your hands.
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Mobile Live Operations Best Practices

Live Ops can take a great game and allow it to thrive for decades. Ever since 2012, free to play games have been a dominant, stable source of revenue for all the top grossing charts. Having a just one game high enough in the charts, coupled with a strong Live Ops strategy can deliver stable revenue for a free to play developer for five years or more. However, Live Ops is extremely difficult to get right. It’s all about building up an effective toolset so that product managers can keep a game feeling “fresh” with as minimal effort as possible.
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Title Source Complexity
What are Live Ops? Gamedonia
Lean Live Ops Space Ape
How Dokkan Battle Became #1 Top Grossing Mobile Free to Play
Effective LiveOps Strategies PlayFab
LiveOps Boot Camp Space Ape