Nacho Pintos, Lead Game Designer for King: “Free-to-play games pose a great risk but at the same time they can generate a lot of profit.”

July 30, 2018

When Nacho Pintos burst into the videogame industry eight years ago with Flee, a game that emulates the old Nintendo Game & Watch games, he was fulfilling his childhood dream. After years as a software engineer he took the leap and turned the final project of his post-graduate course in videogames into a title acclaimed by critics and players alike. 

“It was all very indie: two people working full time, six months without leaving the house, self-published… We got a lot of attention from both the national and international press, good reviews, but it was a complete financial disaster. It’s the usual indie way; you end up slapping yourself in the face by not thinking enough about the monetization, the marketing, adding new levels and features…” asserts Pintos. 

Since then he has been working in King’s studios in Barcelona, where he has been involved in games such as Diamond Digger Saga, Papa Pear Saga and Bubble Witch 3 Saga for which he was Lead Game Designer.

This week he has come to the F2P Campus in Vitoria-Gasteiz to share his knowledge with the teams and, on the way, to answer our questions. 

F2P Campus: Why free-to-play?

Nacho Pintos: Casual gamers want a way to entertain themselves in their spare moments. A relaxing minute while they wait for the bus or before going to sleep. Free-to-play games meet that demand and allow you, as a company, to reach the maximum possible audience and therefore be more likely to make the profit needed to keep making games.

Free-to-play, although vilified by a certain part of the industry and the press, is maybe one of the most difficult options in videogames. The level of demand is very high: once you launch the game you have to keep it alive with new content and keep an eye on everything. The minute the casual player doesn’t like something, they leave. 

In this sense free-to-play games are a great risk but at the same time they can generate a bigger return on investment. 

F: In this type of game it’s often difficult to draw the line between what’s free and what isn’t. Depending on where the line is, you can stop making a profit or lose players. What is the key to making a good experience and good monetization go hand in hand?

N: The key is respecting the player and making a really enjoyable game. It’s not 2012 anymore, the market and the audience have matured and they know now what these games are all about. Players have misgivings about certain practices and it’s not a case of anything goes from the outset. For this reason, it’s important to make them understand the value that you’re offering. 

What’s more, if people have fun and start to play every day they’ll end up showing up for all those hours of free entertainment and will end up paying something. It’s not that they’re going to turn into big spenders, but they don’t need to. 

F: Your last project was Bubble Witch 3 Saga, which has been a massive success in terms of audience and ratings. Apart from many hours of work, what would you say is the reason for such an impact?

N: Besides quality, both visual and technical, and allowing it to operate on older devices, we followed a very long analytical process to find out how to develop the bubble shooter genre, with the right level of innovation for them to feel familiar and new at the same time. As far as we know, it’s the only game that lets you discard the current bubble and use it to get a power-up that can be useful later on, which gives a greater strategic depth and reduces the frustration when bubbles appear of a colour that’s no use to you at that time. Also, we eliminated the whole aiming component that’s common in this genre, since you always know exactly what position your bubble is going to land in, thus opening up the genre to players who don’t feel comfortable with aiming mechanisms. 

F: How do you at King incorporate players’ opinions, complaints and suggestions in the development of the game?

N: At King we have an excellent customer service team who are in touch with the teams of each game. Every day we get a report on what players are saying, although they tend to be more complaints about a fault rather than ideas. 

Also, in the months leading up to a launch, we carry out various playtests where we show the game to small groups of objective players to see what they think, what they’re feeling and how they play. It’s the only way to see if the audience really likes the game. 

F: Most of King’s games are puzzles and brainteasers; even so, the narrative component and the lore generated around it is very elaborate. Why do you give it so much importance? 

N: It’s pretty simple: without lore there are no fans. In order to build a community of players, they have to like the imaginary world that you’re giving them. They have to want to live in it, to know the characters…

Having strong franchises, recognizable characters and worlds where fun things happen is a way of standing out in the eyes of a maturing audience. 

Activision and Blizzard (two sister companies of King) are a clear example. You only need to look at the diversity of characters in Overwatch. In casual games it’s more difficult to introduce stories but that doesn’t make it any less important. 

F: Lastly, what advice would you give to people who are starting out in the industry, like the teams of F2P Campus?

N: To never be afraid to make mistakes. Any mistake can be overcome and the important thing is knowing how to recover. Starting is hard in any discipline, but if you’re fuelled by those mistakes you’ll succeed.