Akamai-Logo-Faster-Forward-RGB-4 copyThis post is part of a new series called “Game On” brought to you by Akamai Technologies. As game publishers deal with increasingly more complex issues, this series looks at issues as diverse as managing worldwide launches, security, second screen integration and the changing business model of freemium games. Read the whole series here.

Free-to-play games have become the hot new model in monetization. Releasing a game for free with lots of optional micro-transactions to enhance the experience is the new standard for mobile games — and other platforms are slowly adopting the idea as well.

It’s definitely an attractive proposition. Initial installs go up with zero cost to entry, and players that stick with the game can take advantage of a wide variety of different add-on content. But hot as it is, implementing a freemium framework means overcoming a range of challenges and applying some deft design work in order to make the model fit.

Emil Mouhanna, Regional Manager for Gaming at Akamai Technologies, explains that players care about four things when it comes to freemium games: the time it takes to play the game, the skill involved to move forward in it, the amount of money required if they lack either skill or time, and the visible bragging rights for achieving something in the game. Freemium levels the playing field, allowing everyone the equal chance to shine in a game. ”It’s giving gamers an opportunity to apply themselves without spending any money — or to spend some money and potentially have the same kind of layout as somebody who’s really good at the game.” But getting the equation right between challenge and incentive is key. And the freemium model doesn’t just democratize play, but also coaxes players to start playing and keep playing.

DC, Tera and World of Warcraft all made the jump to freemium

DC Universe Online made the leap three years ago. A superhero-based MMO that initially required a monthly subscription, it now uses the freemium model as a way to keep players coming back to the game long after they start. Though it’s initially free, players can buy character skins as well as content expansions that add dozens of hours of gameplay to the base game. Tera, another formerly subscription-based MMO, struggled to find an audience in the U.S. when asking its players for money every month. Even World of Warcraft, the most successful MMO of all time, eventually switched to the free-to-play model. In a world where everyone is asking for your money, you’ve got to make your game easy to get into.

Stellar first-time user experience is essential

But with such a low barrier to entry, the challenge then becomes making a good first impression. What kind of experience are you presenting them with? How are you easing them into taking control of it? The more a player understands, says Mouhanna, the more they’re going to feel like they can master the game — and the less likely they’re going to be frustrated and look elsewhere. One way to hook players, he asserts, is by giving them a clear, comprehensive tutorial on how to do things. “If you pick up Clash of Clans or you play Star Wars Commander, or some of these games that are built on the Command and Conquer style real-time strategy gameplay,” he says, “the tutorial is important to get the ball rolling in the game before it becomes a substantial part of the experience.”

Likewise, developers need to make sure the game can run smoothly on as many devices as possible, maximizing their potential audience. Online connectivity and social features will entice players who want to interact with friends as they play.

Of course, something that can’t be overlooked – and many take for granted — is just making a good, interesting game that people want to play. It sounds simple, but often important questions get overlooked. Mouhanna explains: “Is the game interesting? Does the storyline make sense? Is it not too remedial? Is it not too advanced? I think considering all of this helps to keep a user playing.” Certainly, no developer wants to put something out they’re not proud of, and consumers can definitely tell when a project is phoned in. So keep this front and centre: your new user attach rate will be a result of balancing difficulty, crafting a coherent narrative, and simply making a really good game.

Don’t enrage users with pay-to-play

Even a quality game that attracts high numbers of new users isn’t a guarantee of success with the freemiun model. If the relationship between the game itself and the add-on content isn’t carefully considered, you’ll run into issues. If players feel the game is so hard that they’re forced to spend money to advance, that’s a no-win situation. EA’s Plants Vs. Zombies ran afoul of this when they tied an important difficult-balancing element of their game to microtransactions. A so-called “tower defense” game, players are tasked with preventing a horde of zombies from reaching a home. A row of lawnmowers right in front of the house would activate if a zombie would approach, providing a cushion so the game wasn’t too hard. But in the mobile version of the game, you could only get these lawnmowers back after each successive level if you paid real money for them. Consumers smelled a bad deal and voiced their dissatisfaction, causing EA to back up from this experiment. The lesson? Freemium content should level the playing field or enhance the play experience, not be pay-to-win.

Freemium certainly has its detractors, and there are enough examples of free-to-play done poorly, but when done right, the model at its best, opens a lot of doors. It lets players lacking in skill or time see as much of a game as those with the time and ability to master it. It tears down access barriers to your game, and at the same time, incentivizes players that connect with it and want to play more. It even gives independent developers another avenue to create a game without a big publisher or budget. Free-to-play may not be for every game, but it can spell great opportunity for the right developers when implemented

Sponsored posts are content that has been produced by a company that is either paying for the post or has a business relationship with VentureBeat, and they’re always clearly marked. The content of news stories produced by our editorial team is never influenced by advertisers or sponsors in any way. For more information, contact sales@venturebeat.com.