F2P Game Design: Gameplay vs. Systems vs. Social


  • This post focuses on three primary forms of F2P game design: gameplay, systems, and social.
  • The console and PC world are currently dominated by a “units sold” business with emphasis on gameplay focused design. However, the F2P (free to play) business model requires additional forms of design to be successful.
  • I explain requirements for success within each game design type.

F2P Game Design Types

The prevailing business model on console and PC gaming has been and (for the most part) continues to be a “units sold” business. In this model, consumers pay an initial price and own the game with all features and game progression unlocked. Hence, players are only limited by time spent and challenge.

In this “units sold” model, the primary gameplay design model essentially boils down to fun. Consumers are paying for a fun gameplay and entertainment experience.

The advent of the free to play (F2P) gaming model, however, created a new type of game design type. In fact, it created two new types: systems and social based game design.

Over the past few years, many former PC and console designers have made a lot of progress in better understanding F2P game design. However, I hope for more progress as we still see lots of legacy design thinking.

F2P Game Design Types: Gameplay, Systems, and Social:

The three types of game design can be simply expressed by the key objective designers of each of the design types focus on:

[table id=29 /]

In my experience, a majority of mobile game designers primarily think in terms of a single type of game design. Usually, the old console guys think it’s all about gameplay. The young, data driven analyst types think it’s all about systems  design.

Of course, there are examples of games with strength in multiple types such as Clash Royale which has strong gameplay and systems design. Finally, only a small number of designers think deeply about social game design.

Let’s break down each of the three game design types below.

#1. Gameplay Design

Most of you should already get this. Gameplay refers to the core game mechanic itself and what the player engages in to progress in the game. This design type focuses on “finding the fun” and having fun gameplay serve as the primary retention mechanic.

Runner games like Subway Surfers, card games like Solitaire, or strategy games like Hearthstone serve as good examples of games strong in gameplay design.

The console and PC “units sold” business consists completely of gameplay driven game design. You want to create a fun experience that players want to spend $60 on and play endlessly.

In recent history, many mobile game designers discounted gameplay design in favor of stronger systems or “meta” game design. However, the pendulum has started (at least partially) swinging back to strong gameplay design. This has happened primarily for two reasons: 1. Gameplay is still the strongest retention mechanic in games and 2. the explosion of monetization based on rewarded video ads has made it possible to more easily monetize good retention. Hence, a fun game without a lot of systems design can be offset to some degree by good rewarded video ad integration.

Idle games have led the charge in rewarded video ad integration. We did the same at SEGA for the game we launched with WWE: WWE Tap Mania.

WWE Tap Mania Rewarded Video Ad Integration Examples:

In general, we typically see good rewarded video ad integration contributing about $0.03 – $0.06 in net ARPDAU. Further, a really fun game should be able to hold players for an average retention days (ARD) of over 10. Hence, you can see that we could expect net LTV (lifetime value) of around $0.30 – $0.60 from this source (assuming ARD=10).

Moment-to-moment Experience:

To be successful delivering strong gameplay, a designer must deliver a compelling “moment-to-moment” user experience. Therefore, to some degree, this design type favors the old-school console and PC designers.

I strongly believe we will continue to see new forms of exciting and fun gameplay delivered across all platforms. Success here requires VERY deep understanding of specific game genres you are building a game design in and typically lots of iteration (as opposed to planning).

Platform Optimization:

The other factor to consider here is platform optimization. This has been the bread and butter of Supercell. They have been extremely good at simplifying existing proven gameplay from other platforms to mobile.

As most folks in the game industry know, Clash of Clans was a simplified version of games like Backyard Monsters and Edgeworld on social. Of course, Supercell did a great job of simplifying resources, tightening up the core loop UX, etc. However, the point being that big opportunity remains in delivering platform specific experiences from proven core elements of gameplay on other platforms.

#2. Systems Design

Many people often refer to “systems” design fairly interchangeably with the term “meta-systems” or “meta” design. This type of F2P game design primarily focuses on non core game features that are not directly connected to core loop actions or gameplay.

These systems promote specific behavior primarily with respect to:

  • Monetization
  • Compulsion

Both of these objectives drive LTV. Hence, a system designer largely focuses on designing systems to maximize LTV.


A good system designer needs to know all of the F2P monetization tricks. Many of these were developed out of Asia and the best systems designers keep a very close eye on those markets for new mechanics. Mechanics like gacha, character sharding, VIP, hard currency banks, etc. all came from Asian markets. It’s also no coincidence that, during the early days, Game of War beat Kingdoms of Camelot by emulating mechanics from Chinese games during that time.

Getting better in this area requires study and practice. I have already written about some examples of F2P monetization mechanics here:

However, fair warning that post may be out of date especially as new mechanics continue to emerge.


Compulsion refers to mechanics or flows that encourage different types of behavior.

In Game of War, there are (to simplify) short, medium, and long-term retention hooks specifically designed to try and capture and re-engage players with the game at different points in the player’s gameplay cycle.

The Secret Gift, for example, tries to increase short term retention by incentivizing waiting just a little bit longer to gain a gift: hence, increasing gameplay session length.

The now endlessly copied Clash Royale chest timers were designed for mid-term retention and increasing additional game sessions.

Systems designers also focus on elder game play for longer term retention and monetization such as via guild-vs-guild (GVG) mechanics or features of that nature. World Domination in Modern War was an extremely well designed GVG mechanic that significantly increased monetization and retention in that game.


#3. Social Design

Social designers attempt to motivate social and psychological biases to drive specific in-game behaviors. For example, social designers would try think of what kinds of situations would cause players to drive towards different actions based on emotions:

  • How can I get players to attack one another?
  • How do I get players to hate each other after a battle? Or alternatively, how do I not get players to hate each other after a PVP battle?
  • How can I get a player to invite their friends to the game?
  • How can I get a player to keep coming back to the game?
  • How can I prompt players to write specific types of reviews for my game?
  • etc. etc.

One of the earliest games to really try to push social design was Game of War. The game design in that game can drive so much emotional energy that irrational monetizing behavior is common. For example, stories of players who have spent say a $5K investment in the game who get “zeroed” (their city and army destroyed) and yet could easily spend $10K to get revenge.

The game allowed for emotional status and states not possible in real life: the ability for players in the game who could become famous. What is fame worth?

Many of the tactics in the game drive towards specific outcomes. Throughout the week there are events that incentivize building up troops and over the weekend events that incentivize fighting enemies to drain those troops. When a member of an alliance makes an in app purchase, all of your alliance members will receive a gift increasing social pressure to purchase. Limited time offers are taken to the extreme with even 5 minute flash sales.

Without diving into too much more detail, let me leave it here and say this is the exciting new area of innovation in F2P game design today.


I submit that a deep understanding of all three primary game design types will be necessary to be successful with game design in the emerging competitive mobile gaming market. The days of being able to focus on single areas of game design types are over as I believe the coming successful games will be similar to Clash Royale in combining expertise across multiple game design types. In my opinion, the most innovation and differentiation will be developed in the social game design area which I recommend as an area of future study.





Leave a Reply